According to his older brother Ezekiel, the author of the new book Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family, Ari Emanuel was a dyslexic who struggled in school and later in life had trouble reading “book proposals or scripts for plays and movies” — an interesting thing for an older brother to note about one of the most successful Hollywood agents of all time. In high school, Ari, whose sexy career inspired eight seasons of the HBO show Entourage, enjoyed the “streaking fad” too much, according to the eldest. “Whatever the reason,” Ezekiel writes about the youngest of the family, “exposing oneself was the thing to do.”
He’s no less ready to embarrass his other brother, Rahm, middle child, political hitman, former White House chief of staff, and current, controversial mayor of Chicago: Ezekiel spends a dozen or so pages documenting Rahm’s teenage obsession with ballet, which, Ezekiel reports, Rahm was “ridiculed” for, especially when Rahm was spotted “in tights.” (Thanks for bringing it up again, older brother!) Though all three boys received formal ballet training, Ari and Zeke dropped out after learning the first through fifth positions, while Rahm continued to dance for another six years.)
But that’s not so surprising in a book in which Ezekiel (known as Zeke), who formally trained as a bioethicist, approaches his family as a scientific subject while draping his siblings in the epic drama of family myth — while avoiding any insider dirt or insights into the halls of power in Washington or the WME boardroom. Instead — and possibly just as juicily — he offers detailed psychological portraits of his siblings that explain how the men came into power today and why they continue get away with behaving in their trademark obnoxious, abrasive, and at times, endearingly outrageous manner. “Little boys have always been fascinated by fighting and they seem almost biologically driven to act out elaborate mock battles complete with imaginary wounds and melodramatic deaths,” writes the doctor.
This insight applies to the modus operandi of the Emanuel adults today, with the mega-deal a substitue for combat. Political and business foes vanquished, the wolf always at the door, the incessant struggle to obtain and maintain power. The main difference is that the brothers now have a national stage for their melodramas, with real lives, money, and values at risk. (Classic recent example: Ari Emanuel writing a letter to NBC to complain that Brian Williams’ questions were too hard — after the interview had aired.) And it’s here that we find the red meat the readers came for, the older brother’s revenge: a meticulous accounting of all his younger siblings’ flaws, not to mention a sense of the aggressive horseplay and hints of bullying tendencies among the siblings. As a teenager, Rahm was once almost late for a ballet class because he had tied “Ari up and left him in the closet.” Meanwhile, even as a child, Ari was “perfectly suited for a business where relationships matter more than anything else,” Ezekiel writes.
The gold standard for the contemporary political literary memoir is Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father — a sometimes fictionalized account of the president’s life that nonetheless manages to ring true. While Obama often comes off as a Waspy Evelyn Waugh without a sense of humor, Ezekiel’s literary ancestors are Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, and the Emanuel family itself seems to emerge from the pages of a Roth novel, the kind of neighborhood family a young Nathan Zuckerman would observe closely in both Newark and Chicago. Close family members escaped the Holocaust only to be scarred by violence in what was then British-controlled Palestine. (The brothers’ uncle was killed in fighting between the Arabs and British in the 1930s.)
Ezekiel gives us a seat at the kitchen table that raised the three agile, arrogant, and ambitious minds who have reached the heights of power on both coasts and the nation’s heartland. At one such dinner-table discussion in 1966, their mother, Marsha, clashed with their grandfather, known as “Big Bang-ah,” a nickname derived from his habit of slamming his “big sausage hand” down on the table. Within these anecdotes, we find the origins of the style for which these brothers are now known: the expletives, threats of violence, bullying, stubbornness, uncompromising drive, and commitment to Democratic Party politics.
In this instance, the argument at dinner was over a Senate candidate: Marsha wanted to vote for an anti-war Republican in the upcoming ‘66 election, a Rockefeller-like moderate named Charles Percy. Percy opposed the war in Vietnam, which was just becoming unpopular. The Democratic candidate for Senate and incumbent was a war supporter, who’d adopted the position most Johnson and Kennedy Democrats had at that time. Percy, though, would tap into the early anti-war energy — energy that would later fuel the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, the man Marsha and the boys would support in 1968 for president.
Marsha informed the grandfather she was going to support Percy. The grandfather responded: “If you are going to vote for that man… then get out of my fucking house!” Marsha did, slamming the door on the way out. Later, at the polling booth, she pulled the lever for all Democratic candidates — except for her Senate choice, Percy. Nine-year-old Ezekiel, with her and his two brothers in the polling booth, noticed.
“Mom,” he screamed, “you can’t vote for Percy!”
Marsha’s response? She slapped him and pulled the lever for the Republican, defying the grandfather and son’s wishes. “You could speak with intense passion, even insult your opponent, and no one took it too seriously or personally,” writes Emanuel about his family’s way of conflict resolution. “Just nodding and smiling when someone expressed views was the ultimate insult.” He explained: “It was easier to punch or hug or kiss someone than to struggle to elucidate and articulate the nuances of our private feelings and emotions.” And, it turns out, Marsha proved to have good moral and political instincts in taking a stand against the Vietnam War early: Percy upset his Democratic opponent by a large margin.
Earlier, though, the birth of super agent Ari proved to be the second great trauma of Ezekiel’s life. (Rahm’s birth was the first.) The two boys were kept from the hospital, feeling an “uneasiness” because of their father and mother’s “prolonged absence … We had never been separated with them for so long,” writes Ezekiel. Baby Ari was in a struggle for survival — the “umblilical cord wrapped around the baby’s neck.” Thirty-two hours later, out came “Ariel — Hebrew for ‘Lion of God’ — finally arriving on the morning of March 29, squalling and healthy.” The fate of the WME dealmaker was already set: Any future negotiations were going to be even more painful. Upon hearing the news of baby Ari’s birth, a boy, Emanuel proclaimed, “Just what I ordered!”
Their mother comes off as impassioned and quirky, a civil rights pioneer who took the three boys to see Dr. Martin Luther King’s protest march in Chicago, which was greeted with extreme violence from the white crowds. Like King, she was a self-professed pacifist; she also forbade her children to have toy guns and had them avoid drinking “fresh milk” because she feared it was contaminated by “the radioactive strontium 90 in fallout from atomic bomb tests.” Their father, Ben, was a hardworking pediatrician who “valued the individuality of even the smallest child.” The extended family of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins pop out every few pages, and contrary to the popular perception of the brothers as bullies, Emanuel claims it was he and his brothers who always defended the underdog and “fought the bullies.”
For play, the boys wrestled daily with their father, a war hero who fought for Israel’s independence. “One by one we would attack him from behind,” writes Emanuel. “The wildness occasionally resulted in a gouged eye, a bloody scratch, or a twisted ear.” The father, Emanuel writes, “knew that we needed ways to discharge enormous amounts of emotional and physical energy. Controlled mayhem did the trick…” He describes this parenting style as “jazz parenting”: finding harmony in the loud, unpredictable, and screaming demands of family life. “Better to set a few parameters and go with the flow,” he writes.
These political shout fests and living room brawls were countered by “generous amounts of affection” from his father, according to Emanuel. The author’s physician background comes in handy: “In time, medical science would discover that both affection and exercise raise the levels of certain hormones — the ones that make us feel relaxed, content, and secure — and aide the development of a healthy mind and body. The positive effects have been seen in studies following babies well into adulthood.”
This is typical of the kind of riff Emanuel uses to explain the various character traits in the boys, describing both the flaws and positive attributes. We observe the children riding the waves of their parents’ lives, preparing them for their own high-profile adulthoods. Ben and Marsha are compassionate risk-takers: Ben spent his early years as a young man fighting for the Zionist cause in Israel and studying in medical school; he got run out of Cincinnati during his training for dating a black girl and then for flirting with the girlfriend of a mobster. (She was his patient for a nose job.)
Finally, like a young Augie March, the struggling father finds his stride in Chicago, building up one of the most successful medical practices in the city, eventually garnering national media attention for his stand against lead paint in the city’s slums. “I am an American, Chicago born —” wrote Saul Bellow. “Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.” A man’s character is his fate, as Augie tells us, “and in the end there isn’t anyway to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving of the knuckles.”
Marsha was a civil rights activist arrested multiple times and is the true strength of the family, by Ezekiel’s account. It’s Marsha who saves her husband the use of his hand after he mangles it on a family vacation, telling him to deal with the pain rather than have hick doctors in the Rockies amputate it. Marsha also becomes “fully devoted to raising us boys,” Emanuel writes. “In exchange she assumed almost full authority of domestic affairs.”
It’s not until a third through the book that we get to the author’s own birth date, and, more importantly, place. Ezekiel was born in another Israel, while his brother Rahm was conceived in spitting distance of the spiritual homeland of Jerusalem, but the family returned to Illinois for the middle child’s birth. This connection to Israel would only grow stronger as they returned multiple times over the years, even living there during the Six Day War in 1967.
The childhood in Chicago was bloody too, in a domestic sense. “We were no pacifists,” writes Ezekiel. The boys roamed the streets, looking for enemies and threats, getting into scrapes and fights. The biggest danger, however, was usually from themselves: Rahm banged his hand once because he was to eager to hear “dirty jokes” and got his hand slammed in an oak door as he rushed to follow his older brother, “two fingers crushed, spurting blood.” As a manager at Arby’s, Rahm would later “cut his finger off.” Ari sliced the two tips of his finger on a can of nuts one year, “blood sputing on all three of us,” recalled Ezekiel.
The teenage years were equally wild at times — the “streaking fad” Ari was involved in meant the cops were called to the Emanuel home at least once. Rahm’s “use of swear words began in earnest when he was twelve or thirteen.” They were, however, decidedly square, avoiding marijuana, LSD, mushrooms, and booze — sort of. (Or they didn’t tell their older brother about it.) During college, Emanuel confides, he was troubled to learn he was sometimes seen as “loud, aggressive, and obnoxious.”
As they became adults, the men took divergent paths. Ezekiel hated college at first but ended up at Oxford, going on to pursue his medical studies. Ari, the “best-looking,” had “an adventuresome single life” before working for a talent agent in New York named Robert Lantz. He was married in 1996. Rahm, meanwhile, attended Sarah Lawrence, the liberal arts college just outside of New York City, and went on to work his way up the Democratic Party machine, earning tours in the Clinton and Obama White House before becoming mayor of Chicago. Toward the end of the book, Ezekiel answers the cutesy question of what Marsha put in their cereal. The answer may be a lot of ego and love; a dash of good, clean, violent fun; and the fluke of natural talent. They were also given plenty of good advice, including this piece of wisdom from their father: “When you have a choice, you do the right thing. Every time. Even if it makes you uncomfortable.” It does seem like all three Emanuel brothers believe they’ve taken that advice to heart.
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