Jim Cullen, Review of Rob Lowe's "Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography" (Henry Holt, 2011)





[Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003), among other books. The first installment of his project "Sensing History: Hollywood Actors as Historians" is slated for publication as a Kindle Single this summer with the title "President Hanks." Cullen blogs at American History Now.]

Rob Lowe is Forrest Gump with a brain.

Lowe's new memoir, the cleverly titled Stories I Only Tell My Friends, pretty much does what you expect a book of this kind to do: drop lots of names. You read it to hear about people like Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, and various other members of the "Brat Pack" (so dubbed in a 1985 New York magazine profile) who briefly dominated Hollywood in the early 1980s. And you do indeed get stories about youthful excess, backstage romances, and the like. And since Lowe was a star of the hit NBC series The West Wing, you know at the outset that he's going to end up a Friend of Bill and visit President Clinton at the White House.  If you're a big Rob Lowe fan, this will be sufficient to buy the book. 

What's really surprising, though, are how many other brushes with fame Lowe has had in his lifetime, in contexts that are totally unexpected. Like the amusing story where Cary Grant gives him soap on a rope. Or the one involving a failed audition by Janet Jackson. Or his adolescent visit to a San Fernando Valley chop shop, where he witnessed the shooting of Star Wars scenes involving the Millennium Falcon and Death Star (George Lucas & Co. needed lots of cheap space). Long before he he had achieved any fame himself, Lowe found himself tugging on George McGovern's coat in the 1972 presidential campaign. 

Other stories are more grave. Lowe had a well-publicized romance with Princess Stephanie of Monaco, but less well known is the assassination of the security man who escorted him to and from the palace. Lowe had a brief but intense acquaintanceship with John F. Kennedy, Jr. on the eve of his death. And he also had a chilling intersection with the terrorists involved in 9/11. Even for a celebrity who you would expect to meet lots of people, the volume and variety of his contacts are uncanny.

Such anecdotes aside, the narrative core of Stories I Only Tell For My Friends amounts to Memoirs of a Former Next Big Thing. Perhaps ironically, the most vivid part of the book is Lowe's childhood; he does a nice job of evoking the confusion and hurt of a child in a broken family in Dayton, Ohio, and his mother and brothers' relocation to California in an age when cheap New Age thinking only seemed to feed his mother's neuroses. His longtime playboy status notwithstanding, Lowe does a persuasive job of portraying himself as a clueless adolescent, and offers these evocative reflections on the first time he was engulfed by a posse of shrieking fans:

 

"On the one hand, how cool is it to be mobbed by a bunch of girls my age? It's any guy's dream, right? And it is part and parcel of being a star. But on the other hand, the whole experience feels a little shitty. And feeling shitty about something that's meant to be exciting makes me feel worse. The girls' reactions seems almost programmed, like they were both the performers and the audience in a teen-angst drama that had nothing to do with me. It certainly wasn't about what a good actor I was. And if I was such a hottie to them, why didn't I have the same effect on those who knew me well at school? And so the first wisps of an idea appear on the horizons of my consciousness. And the idea is this: If you really knew me, you wouldn't like me nearly as much."

 

About halfway through, the book loses some of its narrative momentum. Lowe spends far too much time on his debut movie, The Outsiders, though the glimpse into director Francis Ford Coppola's working style is intriguing. The sad truth is that on the whole, Lowe did not really live up to the enormous hype he generated, surely one factor in his descent into addiction and the notorious "sex tape" controversy that damaged his image. The great irony of his career is that his movie star looks notwithstanding, Lowe has enjoyed his greatest successes as a supporting player -- particularly in the Austin Powers movies and in The West Wing -- and it's to his credit that he recognized this and deployed his skills where they proved useful.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends is an entertaining read by a reflective man who has tried hard to make sense of his varied experiences. One finishes the book believing in Lowe's core decency, and that his default setting is to assume that you are his friend until you demonstrate otherwise. In a celebrity memoir genre where sympathy can often wear thin amid tedious detail and unwittingly damaging self-revelation, Lowe ends up looking pretty good.


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