Memoirs by performers are the cotton candy of autobiography—insubstantial, undemanding, and alluring, but when you’re done you can’t remember why you wasted the calories getting yourself nothing but sticky.
We read such books mostly because we’re eager for gossip, but we usually find we’ve gone looking in the wrong place. Most actors are narcissists by definition, and narcissists are uniquely bad at telling stories that involve their own peccadillos or focus on other people. And they are usually distressingly generic, the obvious end result of having probably been written by someone other than the celebrity whose name is on the jacket.
And then, shocker of all shockers, there is Rob Lowe.
For reasons I cannot quite fathom, I found myself downloading Lowe’s 2011 memoir Stories I Only Tell My Friends onto my Kindle for subway reading—maybe because it’s the first such book to be published by a relative contemporary of mine. Lowe is best known as a pretty boy who came to fame as one of the hot young Brat Packers of the 1980s, before making a notorious sex tape at the end of the decade which trashed his reputation. Lately he has become a reliable go-to guy for television, in series self-serious (The West Wing), soapy (Brothers & Sisters), and comedic (Parks and Recreation).
At 48, Lowe is neither a legend nor a has-been, but a working actor of midlevel celebrity—a near-star who never quite made it to the top and was saved from self-destruction by an iron-willed drive for self-preservation. He set himself apart from Hollywood before it killed him, and part of the wonder of Stories I Only Tell My Friends is Lowe’s realization that California hedonism was trying to kill him long before he even stepped before a camera.
The truly stunning achievement in Stories I Only Tell My Friends is Lowe’s portrait of moving from suburban Dayton, Ohio, to down-at-the-heels Malibu with his fragile mother and younger brother after his parents divorced in the late 1960s. The evocation of this beach community, not yet the exclusive province of the rich, is so crisp you can smell the salt air.
Malibu kids are isolated, solitary by nature, and when among their peers they form small, extremely tight cliques. The surfers. The burn-outs. The brains. The nerds. There are also those who seem like ghosts, not belonging to anyone or any clique. The Lost Boys of Malibu. And indeed, their tragic narrative of freak accidents and death will play itself out throughout my teen years.
Kids perished at an alarming rate from surfing mishaps and guns mis-firing and snorting cocaine that turned out to be rat poison. They had been left entirely to their own devices at a time when their parents were busying themselves with the 1970s obsession with trying on new personas and behavioral affects like clothing in a changing room.
In short order, Rob gets a job on a failed sitcom. He keeps stumbling into Hollywood old and new—he is invited by his friend Jennifer to watch TV with her dad, who turns out to be Cary Grant. Someone takes him to a special-effects warehouse, and he watches a key scene filmed for Star Wars a year before anyone heard of it. When he becomes a matinee idol, he also becomes the consort of Princess Stephanie of Monaco, who is royalty at least as much because her mother was Grace Kelly as because her father was the titular head of a casino with a town attached to it.
The best story in Lowe’s book is about his big break, when he is cast in a lead role in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie version of the classic teen-angst novel, The Outsiders—along with, as it would turn out, most of the notable actors of his generation. They all decamp to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Coppola spends months playing mind games with them—the actors who are playing the working-class kids stay in dumps while those playing the rich kids stay in fancy hotels. He makes them do tai chi. He makes them play tackle football against each other on a cement surface. He films and films and films, and when Lowe finally sees the end result, he finds that most of his part has been cut. Coppola didn’t bother to tell him.
He becomes a box-office draw and he parties hard. He finds the love of his life, a makeup artist named Sheryl Berkoff, cheats on her, loses her. Then: “I make the call. It’s May 10, 1990.” He goes into rehab. He does not become a Lost Boy of Malibu as did his childhood friend Charlie Sheen and so many others. Lowe, who has been sober for 22 years now, marries Sheryl; they have two sons and are together two decades later. As it is without much drama, the last few chapters are the least interesting parts of Stories I Only Tell My Friends. Still, Rob Lowe’s extraordinarily surprising book is not only a showbiz autobiography of real distinction, but a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of the unfettered life—for the world-famous and utterly obscure alike.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.