A spin doctor, a Hollywood player and a Harvard don: meet the fabulous Emanuel Boys

Tim Walker tells the story-book tale of how three Jewish boys from the 'Chicago hood' climbed to the top of America's political, entertainment and academic ladders

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The Independent US

Dr Ezekiel "Zeke" Emanuel holds a Master's from Oxford, an MD from Harvard, and a PhD in political philosophy – also from Harvard. He's a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he heads the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy; a fellow at non-profit research institute The Hastings Center; an oncologist; a bioethicist; and an expert in end-of-life care, who writes frequently for the New York Times.

And yet, remarkably, Ezekiel, 55, has a lower profile than his two younger brothers. That's because they are the Mayor of Chicago, 53-year-old Rahm Emanuel; and Ari Emanuel, 51, the co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor, Hollywood's biggest talent agency.

Before taking charge of the brothers' hometown, Rahm was a three-term congressman, adviser to President Bill Clinton and Barack Obama's first White House Chief of Staff; he's also said to have been the model for the character of Josh Lyman in The West Wing. Ari, too, has been immortalised on-screen: as Ari Gold, Entourage's ball-busting super-agent. The real Ari's clients include Martin Scorsese, Michael Douglas, Oprah Winfrey and Aaron Sorkin, writer of The West Wing.

There are celebrated families of doctors, politicians and entertainment professionals, but it's almost unheard-of for siblings to rise to such prominence in three such varied fields. Now, in an attempt to explain how the lightning was bottled, Ezekiel has written a memoir of their childhood. The Brothers Emanuel is being published by Random House in March, and is serialised in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. An accompanying portrait by Annie Leibowitz shows how similar the brothers are in appearance; the extract reveals just how alike they are in temperament, and how their upbringing in Chicago might have contributed to their success.

Their mother Marsha was a civil rights activist who frequently took her sons on marches. Their father Benjamin was a paediatrician and sometime associate of the Jewish paramilitary group Irgun, who in 1959 moved from Israel to Chicago, where he threw himself into issues of public health, such as free treatment for poverty-stricken immigrants. He quit the American Medical Association because he disagreed with its stance on universal healthcare. According to Ezekiel's book, Benjamin used to teach his sons to assert themselves on the chess board. "Remember what Napoleon said: 'Offence is the best defence'," he told the boys during family games, which, Ezekiel writes, "reinforced our natural tendency to be aggressive in whatever we… do."

The children were so noisy that, at one point, the family was asked to move out of its second-floor apartment, because they were disturbing the neighbours below. Benjamin and Marsha were forced to find a first-floor flat instead. The brothers would often spend summer days unattended at a Chicago Beach, Ezekiel recalls, where Ari And Rahm tanned so quickly that they were mistaken for African-Americans.

"Certain people – mostly white males between the ages of 10 and 15 – made it their business to enforce the unwritten whites-only rule. When they called my brothers niggers and tried to bully us off the beach, we – naturally – refused to move. Instead, one of us would answer, 'You can't make me leave.'" The confrontations frequently descended into violence. "We were city kids, not anti-war activists," Ezekiel writes, attributing the boys' bull-headed nature to their parents, who would tell them: "You can't run away. If you do, then you'll be more scared the next time."

Later, as Bill Clinton's political director and then as the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign committee, Rahm would develop a reputation as a political bruiser. Nicknamed "Rahmbo", his intimidation tactics included sending a dead fish to a colleague with whom he'd fallen out, and flashing his partially amputated middle-finger, which had been severed by a meat-slicer when he worked at a fast-food restaurant during high school. According to his older brother, hands are the family's "Achilles' heel". Ari once almost lost two fingertips as he and Rahm grappled for a can of mixed nuts in the family car. Benjamin drove to the hospital, where he patched up his youngest son's sliced fingers himself.

They may have had toughness ingrained, but that didn't stop Marsha signing her sons up for introductory ballet classes. Even ballet, though, became an excuse for aggression. "Once, Ari chased a boy down the sidewalk and beat him until he cried for mercy after he asked if we had remembered to bring our tutus," Ezekiel writes. Rahm took to dance more readily than his brothers.

Yet it was Ari who eventually embraced the arts. He co-founded the Beverly Hills-based Endeavor Agency in 1995, and oversaw its merger with the vast William Morris Agency 14 years later. He, too, has a hardball reputation. In 2006, he demanded Mel Gibson be blacklisted by Hollywood after the actor delivered a drunken, anti-Semitic rant to police officers that was captured on tape. Violently inclined from an early age, Ezekiel writes that as a toddler, with a pacifier in his mouth, Ari once greeted a friend of their mother's with the offer: "Onna fight?"

Ari struggled with dyslexia, and, Ezekiel recalls "Eventually he began to fear that his inability to read was caused by a character defect or a basic lack of intelligence... He did not share these feelings openly. In fact, he buried them so deeply that they came out only in bursts of aggression or anger." Ari's dyslexia also led to a taste for lavish lunches. To annoy their father, the youngest brother would always order the most expensive dish at any restaurant. "He had trouble reading menus, and he found it easier just to look for the higher prices…."

A long-time advocate for universal healthcare, Ezekiel was a special adviser to Obama's administration during the passage of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010, as Rahm fought to push the legislation through Congress. Ari once held a $2,300-a-plate (£1,450) fundraising dinner for Obama, and collaborated with Ezekiel on the script for Patient 2344, a TV hospital drama set in the future, which was picked up by HBO, though it never made it to the screen.

The spin doctor: Rahm Emanuel, 53

The Mayor of Chicago is a former aide to Bill Clinton, three-term Democrat congressman and Chief of Staff in the Obama White House. Known to his enemies as 'Rahmbo', he is famed for his rough-and-tumble political tactics. As a boy, his talents included ballet dancing, for which he was offered a scholarship to the prestigious Joffrey School.

The Hollywood player: Ari Emanuel, 51

The co-CEO of Hollywood's biggest talent stable, William Morris Endeavor, was the inspiration for the character of loud-mouthed super-agent Ari Gold in 'Entourage'. Diagnosed with hyperactivity as a child, Ari, writes his brother, 'was always awake by 5am. Jittery and anxious… he would prowl around the house looking for something to occupy his mind'.

The Harvard don: Ezekiel Emanuel, 55

'Zeke' is a passionate supporter of universal healthcare, and an expert in end-of-life care who vigorously opposes legalised euthanasia. He also says he's never owned a television.