"You don't want to hear about me, do you?"
"You want to hear about my father, don't you?"
It seems strange. Phil Thorek is sitting in his offices in Thorek Hospital. He's a widely respected surgeon. He has speaking engagements across the country. He's working on a book about public speaking. His father, Max Thorek, passed away more than 30 years ago and, still, we're talking about him. No matter what he accomplishes, Phil Thorek is still sitting in the massive shadow of his father Max.
Max Thorek was probably the most famous surgeon ever to wield a scalpel in this city. He founded the American Theatrical Hospital, which later became the American Hospital and now is Thorek Hospital on Irving Park. He founded the International College of Surgeons. His autobiography, A Surgeon's World, published in the 40s, is the story of a medical pioneer. Max wrote about dragging people from the infamous 1903 fire at the Iroquois Theatre--602 dead. He wrote about Buffalo Bill, Sarah Bernhardt, the Marx Brothers, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, and Harry Houdini--each of them his patient.
"I used to sit on Harry Houdini's knee and call him Uncle Harry and he would teach me prestidigitation," recalled Phil Thorek. "I have a picture of Harry Houdini digging the first shovel of dirt here at the hospital."
There are lots of pictures here in Phil Thorek's office. There's Max with Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Todd. There's Max with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's physician. There's Max laughing and joking with Pope Pius XII. There's Clarence Darrow. Max isn't in that picture; he took it. Max Thorek was an avid amateur photographer and even wrote a book on the subject, Creative Camera Art. One of the photographs on the wall of Phil Thorek's office is a still life of rows of needles, pins, glass, and tacks. All of these items were removed from the stomach of a carnival performer known as "the human ostrich."
"That damned ostrich used to perform here for the nurses after he got well," chuckled Phil Thorek. "Look at these pictures. Dad was probably the greatest amateur photographer in the world. When it comes to a multifaceted individual, that was Dad."
Max Thorek was born in Poland and grew up in Budapest. He was something of a linguist according to Phil, who claims that Max spoke eight languages impeccably. When Max came to America from Hungary in the 1890s, he thought that if he joined the band at the University of Chicago the school would pay for his education.
"Dad was a very good violinist," recalled Phil Thorek. "But they don't have violinists in bands. They had an opening for a drummer. He told them he was an excellent drummer even though he had never held a drumstick in his life. Even so, he went home and practiced and annoyed the people and he got the job as a drummer. While he was in medical school, he played with a Gypsy orchestra. He wasn't a Gypsy, but he grew a big mustache so he could play with them. He played in the violin section of the Chicago Businessmen's Orchestra. Once he got out of medical school he opened up an office on the west side of Chicago. After he'd been in business for a while, he went to the head of the musicians' union, Jimmy Petrillo, and he told him, 'You guys have been so good to me. Let me take care of your broken-down old musicians.' That's how he got started with show people."
Phil Thorek recalls his father as a humanitarian who never turned anybody away from his door, regardless of race, creed, or color. "This man was brought up during the pogroms in Poland. He knew anti-Semitism. He knew prejudice. He didn't understand racism. There was no bigotry in him."
Young Phil Thorek grew up with his mom, Fanny, and his father Max in an apartment above a poolroom on the west side. Later they moved to a place at Douglas Boulevard and Kedzie. As a child, Phil Thorek wanted to become an actor. He recalls singing "In My Harem" during amateur night at Glickman's Palace, a Yiddish theater on Blue Island Avenue, and appearing in a Lake View High School production of Robin Hood. But no matter how he excelled in theater, Phil Thorek's future had been mapped out for him from the beginning.
"He loved when I performed, but he knew damn well I was going into medicine," Phil Thorek said. "One time I was with a bunch of kids at Temple Sholom and I was chasing a bunch of kids and I got two fingers caught in a door and they were smashed. I ran home with these two fingers hanging off. I'll never forget Dad's words as he saw my two fingers with the bones sticking out. He said, 'Some surgeon you're gonna be with three fingers. A hell of a surgeon you're gonna be.' I was in eighth grade and he knew that I was going to be a surgeon."
If it sounds as if world-famous surgeon Max Thorek was somewhat headstrong, Phil Thorek confirms that suspicion. He was "overpowering," according to Phil. "Don't misunderstand me. He was a hell of a guy. But his word was law.
"It was always his way," said Phil Thorek. "He'd eat at six; we'd eat at six. He was very trying at times, but he was fun to be with. Dad and Mother ran the house. We respected them. Dad and I got into some terrible verbal brawls, but the respect was there.
"Dad used to say that he was born with a mop in his mouth and I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I didn't have to work like he did. I could bum around. I used to tell him that my challenge was greater than his. I could drink, I could gamble, and Dad would take care of me. I didn't have the challenge of poverty."
Phil Thorek is the fourth generation of Thoreks in medicine. The tradition dies with him. His daughter had no interest in becoming a doctor. But he says that doesn't really bother him because of what medicine has become.
"I lived in the halcyon days of medicine. So did my father," Thorek said. "When my dad lived, medicine was an art. It was a science. I know some doctors these days whose primary reason for being in medicine is business. Well, medicine isn't a business. To Dad, it was an art. He had beautiful handwriting. He drew beautifully. Medicine is a form of art whether you're doing plastic work or making a nice incision.
"Dad was terribly disappointed by what he saw coming in medicine. In Dad's day, people trusted the doctor. If there was a death, it was God's will. Dad used to go out in the middle of the night with a little black bag to make calls. Now the emergency room is the family physician. The medicine that my dad knew and that I know is about the relationship between doctor and patient. If I told you you needed to have something removed, you believed me. If you could pay, you paid. If you couldn't, I'd have a cup of coffee and a bagel at your house and you'd send me a chicken or something. We all made a fine living. When Dad walked into the room, God walked into the room. Now you're a serpent."
Max Thorek worked up to the very last days of his life. His wife Fanny died just before her 103rd birthday. Phil, who's 85, is following their tradition, still working with patients and helping to run the hospital in his father's image.
"The only word Dad knew was now," said Phil Thorek. "There was no tomorrow, no yesterday, just now. He didn't slow down. He didn't know how. He devised operations. He devised instruments. He's a hell of a shadow to live in, a hell of a guy to keep up with....I miss him tremendously."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.