On the cover of his memoir, Rob Lowe, pictured in a black-and-white head shot worthy of Vogue, shields his eyes with his hands, as though he’s staring into a golden Pacific sunset. His hair is thick and dark, his nose perfectly straight, his jaw chiseled and covered with stubble that’s mostly pepper, but with a perfectly judged dash of salt.
I looked down at his book’s title, “Stories I Only Tell My Friends,” and recalled the scandal that occurred after a videotape of Lowe having sex with two girls (one of them underage) surfaced. So I thought, right, stories of sun, surf and sex in Malibu. What else could someone so good-looking and successful write about?
I soon realized I was wrong, wrong, wrong. He only briefly discusses the incident (a “mess,” a “doozy” of a problem), assuming (no doubt correctly) that nearly everyone knows the details. He does recall losing his virginity at 14 as a girlfriend’s birthday present to him and acknowledges that by a certain point in his life, he seldom went without sex for more than 30 hours. But otherwise most of the stories he only tells his friends in this appealing and attitude-free autobiography are shot through with pain, anxiety and unhappiness.
Lowe spent his early years far from Malibu, in Dayton, Ohio. On a humid afternoon when he was 5, his mother told him she was divorcing his father, ending an unhappy marriage in which “claw hammers were thrown” and “lipstick was found in places it shouldn’t be.” Long after that day, Lowe writes, “anything painful surrounding my parents’ breakup I sealed off and buried, left unexplored and undisturbed, like nuclear waste.”
Trauma and abandonment can create a young actor’s perfect storm, and Lowe stepped right into his, whirling off to an early acting audition that played like a scene from “Gypsy.” In Columbus, he met producer John Kenley. “He appears to be wearing whiteface and red lipstick like Cesar Romero as the Joker from ‘Batman,’ ” Lowe writes. “He looks anywhere from 80 to 180 years old.” On the way home, a woman told Lowe that during winter months in Florida, John Kenley became Joan Kenley.
Lowe eventually did get to Malibu, when his mother, after divorce No. 2, packed him and his brothers into a car and struck out for California’s cleaner air. Lowe’s life there as a young teenager was often bizarre. One classmate, thinking he was doing cocaine, snorted rat poison and died instantly. Another friend lost control of a 10-speed, impaled his head on a eucalyptus tree and bled to death. “The ranks of the Lost Boys of Malibu,” Lowe writes, “grew at a steady rate.”
When Lowe sought escape from these nightmares by acting in plays, classmates shunned him as “an acting fag.” He had the good luck to fall in with neighbors Sean and Chris Penn, Emilio Estevez and brother Charlie Sheen as they (mostly) steadied their lives by ardently learning the actors’ craft and trade. After appearing in some ABC after-school specials, Lowe copped his first movie role in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders.”
He recalls being on location in Tulsa and putting in 14-hour days that became “a euphoric and toxic mix of excitement, boredom, anonymity, recognizability, and loneliness.” Coppola’s weekly food-and-wine festivals and the “frenzied, available” local girls soothed Lowe’s nerves.
Officially a movie star after “The Outsiders,” Lowe worked a lot in films and played a lot more in bars, clubs and bedrooms. Fans broke into his house to steal his underwear. He even ended up in bed with Michael J. Fox at 4:30 one morning, but it wasn’t what you might think. By age 25, he felt he was “way past warranty.” Finally, one night in 1990, when he was “so hammered [he could] barely stand,” he decided to check into an Arizona rehab facility.
The years since recovery have brought Lowe marriage, two sons and a four-season run on the hit TV series “The West Wing,” followed by three more TV series and a film — “I Melt With You” — to be released this year. Looking back at his life, he sounds wise, mature and content. “Nothing in life is unfair,” he writes. “It is just life. To the extent that I had any inner turmoil, I had only myself to blame.”
Lowe’s writing lacks a distinctive voice, but his attitude is so straightforward and vulnerable that many readers, appreciating his cautionary tale, might want to shake his hand. That possibility may answer a question I asked when his book crossed my desk: Why did Lowe, just 47, pen a memoir? Considering his frequent, enthusiastic involvement with liberal political causes, which he mentions throughout the book, I wondered if he was planting clues. As the former star of a TV series set in a fictional Washington, is he thinking of working in a real Washington? Idle speculation, I admit. Yet actors less good-looking — and less self-reflective — have made that transition.
Gerald Bartell is an arts and travel writer in Manhattan.
STORIES I ONLY TELL MY FRIENDS
By Rob Lowe
Henry Holt. 308 pp. $26.