If I find any time for reading these days, I seem to be drawn to celebrity biographies. I enjoy sating my appetite for gossip and glamour with a longer version of someone’s life story than you get in the glossy mags; without wading through offensive paparazzi photos and pictures of 3 week postnatal women with flat bellies. I also like the way that biographies set the celebrity’s life in a global context. At the height of their fame, many actors, singers, sports people and the like are offered unique opportunities to work alongside those in power – be it politicians, or big business – and their insights can be quite different from more general media coverage of events. Biographies can be alarmingly self indulgent or pretty darn fascinating, but either way they are refreshingly free of ‘shocking cellulite’ photos and often show the downsides of fame and fortune, which should be appreciated. What’s more, in my life where books are sometimes dealt with in 10 minute power reading sessions, biographies are less demanding than novels on one’s ability to remember the plotline.
Rob Lowe’s autobiography Stories I only tell my friends is a lively and enlightening read. Lowe is revealing without being salacious, sharing tales of presidents, princesses and prima donnas with gratitude and humility. He takes parenting tips from Bill Clinton and hides out in a love nest with Princess Stephanie. His Hollywood connections and intersections are boundless, from growing up down the road from the Sheen (or Estevez) boys to auditioning for early roles alongside Tom Cruise and Patrick Swayze. It is the movie star life by numbers, replete with alcoholism and public downfalls alongside some stellar performances in hugely successful productions.
The book follows a narrative arc of which any screenwriter would be proud. It opens with a random snapshot of Lowe’s friendship with John F Kennedy Jnr, simultaneously establishing a connection with celebrity and politics, showing us Lowe at one of his peaks and reminding us of his award winning performance in the critically and commercially successful The West Wing. But long before all this, as the movie subtitle might say, we need to learn about a young boy in a damaged Ohio family who is only just working out where he wants his life to go. The book will eventually come full circle to a focus on family and the lessons learned from the Kennedy connection.
Lowe works hard to show us his commitment to politics and to his craft, and much of the book is a catalogue of behind-the-scenes insights into the machinations of America’s power mongers. But the reader would surely be disappointed if not also given a little glimpse into the bedroom. The girls in Lowe’s life were many and varied, and plenty went on to become household names. Though he doesn’t give too many lurid details, we do meet the likes of Demi Moore, Sarah Jessica Parker and Melissa Gilbert as Lowe is making his way in the movie business. One of the books’s best scenes is Lowe’s attempts at a cordial conversation with Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Robert Wagner and Prince Rainier, randomly grouped together at an awards ceremony. As he walks away from the awkward small talk he overhears Wagner say “Ya know, guys, I think that kid’s banged every one of our daughters.”
And, yes, the notorious underage-girl-on-video debacle is there, and he is not proud of it. However, when shown in the context of the excess and hubris of 1980s Hollywood it seems fairly insignificant. Indeed, the book reveals the genuine difficulties of being thrust into the spotlight at a young age, being hailed the ‘next big thing’ and having thousands of girls (and boys) screaming for blood at every public appearance. Lowe himself acknowledges this as a ‘first world problem’, however it does leave the reader feeling he can’t be held entirely responsible for the naïve cockiness that might get a young man into trouble. The Beib would do well to take note.
These days, however, Lowe is a father of two who’s been relatively happily married for 20 years – quite something for the environment in which he and his make-up artist wife met and built a life together. By the book’s close we see a relaxed and mature Lowe, savvy about the roles he chooses, turning to production and directing as so many actors do when the gloss of fame has tarnished, and finding his bliss in family life and the pursuits he never had time for, like learning to surf. Lowe has scribed the book of the film of his life, with perfect attention to narrative devices: he builds tension, gives us cliff hangers, twists in the tale and a flawed hero.
It is impossible to view an autobiography as the ‘truth’ of someone’s life, but rather one version of the truth according to them. As someone gives us their side of their life story, it leaves the door wide open for bias and special effects – be it a Hollywood memoir, or one’s own impression of childhood – and no doubt there are others in Lowe’s life who might see things differently. Like your Facebook photo or your online dating profile, an autobiography gives you licence to show only your best side! But, Lowe does take the chance to reveal some personal lows. He is appreciative that, unlike some of his lost friends and peers, he managed to find light at the end of his darkest tunnels.
Stories I only tell my friends had me fascinated and repulsed all at once. It highlights the hypocrisy, waste and self-aggrandisement of the movie and television businesses as much as the art and innovation. It is also, as we Australians like to say, ‘very American’ and Lowe is unapologetic about his love of the US political system and the majesty and importance of the Hollywood film machine. But through his personal stories, and as a newly adopted ‘friend’, I was left moved and inspired. Heaven forbid, I even felt I could relate to some of his experiences, despite the lack of American presidents and European princesses in my own social circle.