I am a keen consumer of gossip magazines, the trashier and more lurid the better, but I don't usually bother with celebrity memoirs. Too many of them fall into over-familiar categories: "I Rose, I Flamed Out, Now I'm Back"; "Dropping Names Nobody Remembers"; or the most worthless of them all, "So-and-So's Guide to Losing Weight/Getting Ahead/Boosting Self-Esteem/Toning Your Ass."
Rare is the tell-all that tells you anything you actually want to know.
Too often, the celebrity is engaged in image-burnishing. More often, the celebrity ego consumes unending shovelfuls of external validation -- and produces too little of the introspection or humility necessary to an honest account of one's life.
So when I began playing the audio version of Rob Lowe's recently published autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends over my car speakers, I wasn't expecting much. I was driving from Washington, D.C. up to Canada where my family spends most of every summer. The ride takes some nine hours, and I was on my own. I'd already finished another more politically minded audio book. Now, overcome by mid-afternoon sleepiness and facing many more hours changeless road before me, I pulled over for coffee, gas, and -- what-the-hell -- chapter one of Lowe.
I'd bought Lowe's book based on a weird chance encounter with the actor some months before. My eldest daughter had been cast in a pilot episode of a reality show produced by Lowe about ambitious young people in Washington, D.C.
The casting represented a very mixed blessing from a parental point of view, reality television not being the future we envisioned for our daughter. My husband and I thought it prudent to spend an evening watching the shooting of one of the pilot scenes, to see what our daughter might be getting herself into.
The shooting took place at Cafe Milano, a restaurant popular with visitors to D.C. In fact, that night the restaurant was thronged with tourists. They all recognized Lowe. Many approached to ask for a photograph or autograph. Lowe repeatedly stopped whatever he was doing or broke off from whomever he was speaking with to grip, smile and pose. He was unfailingly polite, genuinely good-humored. He seemed to take his role as the public Rob Lowe very seriously and professionally: Let other celebrity "bad boys" trash hotel rooms or tell their fans to eff off. Not him.
And as much as I could glean of the private Rob Lowe, from just a few short conversations, it was that he took ideas and politics seriously as well. That meant, from a D.C. perspective, he was not inclined to go off on a self-righteous, celebrity rant -- Academy Awards style, "I am famous, therefore any view I hold is smart and the correct one." Instead he asked intelligent, curious questions about current inside-the-Beltway issues or how Washington really worked -- and then listened intently to the answer.
Now, as I eased back into the highway traffic, with Lowe's smooth voice embarking upon his life story, my sole interest in the book remained based on my brief brush with his celebrity. I'd listen to a few chapters until I got to the border and he began to recount his rehab experiences and...
Instead I was completely hooked: Lowe has written not a celebrity autobiography of the usual kind, but an autobiography of a generation. Late Boomers/Early Generation Xers, call it what you will -- it is my generation, and this was the first time I'd heard a contemporary give an honest, entertaining and eyewitness account to the times we lived through.
Of course Lowe is more than a contemporary: for better or worse, he became iconic of our generation at every step. First, as the break-out Brat Packer who embodied the so-who-the-hell-are-we-anyway-post-Boomer-teenager-without-a-cause. Then he famously went on to turn the 80s-boom, cocaine-infused fictional world of Bright Lights, Big City into his own personal reality show. When he finally spun out of that, he -- not Bill Clinton -- launched the era of politics without pants, by being caught on the then-new medium of videotape romping naked in a hotel with young women on the eve of the 1988 Democratic convention.
Lowe discovered rehab about the same time as his other red-nosed, sniffling cohorts, in the early 1990s. From there, and now sober, he rediscovered the joy and satisfaction of marriage and children -- a joy and satisfaction, as we who grew up in the family-busting 1970s remember, were led to believe couldn't exist. (And Lowe in particular had good reason not to believe it: his parents divorced when he was four; his mother -- who seems to have suffered from undiagnosed manic depression -- then drove her young boys west to Malibu, under the sway of a quack "doctor" -- whom she eventually married -- and who was typical of the other quacks of his time, insisting environmental toxins were to blame for her mental illness. Lowe's descriptions of her assorted "treatments" make for painful reading/listening.) Lowe would go on to renew his all-star acting status as Sam Seaborn, the presidential speechwriter in the acclaimed West Wing series -- and later discover that he could play a brilliant comic straightman when his good friend, Mike Myers, cast him as "No. 2" opposite Myer's Dr. Evil character in the Austin Powers movies. Currently he stars in three hit television series, Brothers and Sisters, Parks and Recreation, and Californication -- each one different, and each one capturing its own aspect of the zeitgeist.
Yet , as Lowe's memoir reveals, even when he was not being officially iconic he was having his own Zelig brushes with fame and history: from the time, as a young boy in Dayton, Ohio, he snuck under a barricade to meet George McGovern; to when he discovered that the stepfather of one of his high school girlfriends was Cary Grant (he answered the door); to growing up down the street from Martin Sheen, with whom he had a father-son relationship alongside the Sheen boys, Charlie and Emilio; to having his first major audition before Frances Ford Coppola; to a hilarious summer fling with Princess Stephanie of Monaco; to having one of the last phone conversations with John F. Kennedy Jr., just before the latter left to pilot his wife, sister-in-law and himself on the doomed flight that ended in the Atlantic; to hanging out with Bill Clinton at the White House; to learning that he was on the dry-run flight of American Airlines Flight 77 eleven days before terrorists crashed the same flight (and crew) into the Pentagon on 9/11 (Lowe found this out in 2005 after the U.S. Attorney General's office informed him that he'd been deposed in the trial of Zacarias Massaoui).
In the hands of any other celebrity, such anecdotes could be checked off with name-dropping numbness -- and usually are. Lowe obviously has the storyteller's gift (and it's no wonder that buddy Mike Myers urged him to write this book). It's like having drinks with a really entertaining person: the hours pass and you realize you are still sitting there, howling at their stories. Such as this one -- one of my favorites in the book about Hollywood. Lowe is still a young actor, who has broken out somewhat but not yet in the big way he eventually will. He's up for a starring role in a movie called Class, and has arrived in Chicago for his last screen test for the part:
"My competition is an actor who is one of those guys who gets white-hot overnight and is in the mix on a number of big films. He has everyone in Hollywood talking, and I just hope he doesn't get this one. His name is Raphael Sbarge. We will go head to head in the ballroom of the Chicago Sheraton tomorrow at 9:30 sharp.
But there is a catch.
My agents want me to fly home to work out some details in my deal before I screen-test, so I go to the production office and ask the secretary to book my flight back to L.A.
'Hey! Hey!' a giant bald man is yelling at me through an open door of an office. 'Get the fuck in here, kid,' he says waving.
I realize this is Martin Ransohoff, the producer of the movie and a big-time player with hits like Silver Streak ... He is the embodiment of old-school Hollywood, from the days before bloodless MBAs and comic-book nerds took the place of the men with big vision and bigger appetites, men who understood and appreciated the lost art of the Grand Gesture. Yeah, sure, Marty might let his nut sack dangle out of his robe as he rakes a meeting outside by his pool, but at least he takes his meetings outside by his pool!
'What the fuck do you think you're doing, kid?'
'Um, my agents say I should come home while...' I manage to get out before being cut-off.
'Fuck your agents!'
"Your agents are going to agent you right out of this fucking movie. Close the door and sit down.'
I do as I'm told.
Ransohoff has what looks to be about fifteen strands of hair on his otherwise totally bald head. These strands are swirled together on his crown, but now he is so agitated that he is pulling at the tuft, jerking it straight out in a jabbing motion, revealing it to be at least two and a half feet long.
'Your agents are idiots. Let me tell you how this goes. Tomorrow morning at nine thirty, unless a fucking 747 hits you on the head, you are going to get this part.'
This is news to me; I thought I was in a real horse race and that the screen test was a huge deal. 'But what about the screen test? What about Raphael Sbarge?'
'Fuck Raphael Sbarge. There is only one way in this entire fucking universe that fucking Raphael Sbarge will ever play this part. And that is if you are so fucking stupid that you blow it all at the very last second by flying back to L.A. 'cause your ignorant asshole agents can't close your deal over a lousy couple of grand a week! You gonna give this part to Raphael Sbarge over a couple of grand a week?'
'I didn't think so! You are a smart kid. I'll see you tomorrow. Now get out of my fucking office.'
It was sound advice. I got the part, as he promised, and I don't even remember the screen test."
In my favorite political anecdote, Lowe tells this story about visiting the actual West Wing (during the Clinton administration), now as a full-fledged star in his Sam Seaborn role. Washingtonians will appreciate how even those at the height of world power can get a little star-struck by, even envious of, their Hollywood counterparts:
"...[W]e have taken a break from shooting to receive a special West Wing tour. We enter through the door at the top of the driveway, just past 'Pebble Beach,' where the TV reporters do their live shots. It looks no different from the door I enter at Warner Bros. We pass through hallways that are much smaller and much less crowded than those on our show. And not one person in the building is walking and talking as fast as we do. (I'm told that when staffers catch themselves doing this today in the Obama administration, they high-five and say, 'We just "West Winged."'
So I find myself standing with Aaron [Sorkin] in an extraordinarily well-appointed office, as Sorkin is pitched potential new story lines.
'You know what you should do, lemme tell you what you should do, you oughtta write a story about how these young kids come here to serve and then just get shit-boxed by the press when they don't expect it,' says the forty-second president of the United States, leaning against the "Resolute" desk. 'I mean some of 'em just have no clue about how tough it can get.'
It is by now a terrific cliché to say that President Clinton is the most charismatic man you will ever meet, but it doesn't make it any less true. He is warm, funny, down-to-earth, interested in people of all stripes, and can speak chapter and verse on the minutiae of policy as well as any character Aaron Sorkin ever dreamed of. He could probably have been a television staff writer as well, had things played out differently."
Lowe is then called out of the Oval office by a marine in full dress.
"The national security advisor would like to see you in his office,' he whispers, with import.
Before I know it, I'm hustled out of the Oval.
'Why don't you come by and watch my State of the Union here ins the East Room,' offers the president.
'Thank you, sir. That would be amazing,' I answer as I'm shown the door.
Sandy Berger, the national security advisor, is standing in his giant corner office, waiting for me. And he doesn't look happy.
'Why is there no national security advisor on The West Wing?' growls Berger.
'Um. Well, sir, I don't really know. I'm sure at some point there will be one," I manage, hoping this guy can't have me audited.
'I'm just kiddin' ya,' he says, breaking into a wide smile. 'I love the show. We all watch it around here. Everyone says, "I'm Leo, I'm C.J., I'm Sam" and it pisses me off 'cause I'm nobody!' We talk for a while as if we are killing time on the golf course instead of eating up clock on a business day in the world's most important office complex."
And yet it's not just the stories that make Stories I Only Tell My Friends the remarkable memoir it turns out to be. In a rare turn, Lowe has managed to recount his ups and downs with candor, humor, humility and real insight -- and without the familiar vices of malice, self-pity or self-excuse. Long after the book had run out (on my return trip, just past Scranton. Thanks RL-- you don't think you could have eked it out a little further? Say all the way to Breezewood?), I found myself chewing over Lowe's reflections on fame, failure and the peculiar traits and vices of our shared generation. These reflections humanize the celebrity and, in the end, celebrate the human.
Who would have thought Lowe would have ended up as happy and successful in his middle age as he purports to be? Certainly not Lowe. As Lowe writes in his conclusion:
"My plane is descending into Los Angeles, bringing me back again to the city I wanted so badly to conquer as a child, arriving with my mother in our old Volvo. Los Angeles looks huge from the air, particularly in the setting sun's magic hour. I can't even comprehend how many close-ups I've shot, standing in that incredible amber light. I see the Hollywood sign now and it, too, is bathed in an almost purple hue. I've looked at the emblem of so many people's dreams so many times that I often don't even notice it. But today I do and I realize: It still means something to me. And I'm glad."
This blog is cross-posted at FrumForum.