As a boy in Dayton, Ohio, and continuing after his unstable, divorced mother moved the family to Malibu so she could (only after arriving) announce that she was marrying a doctor she had met in a clinic that offered Seventies quackery to people with unexplained allergies, Rob Lowe thought of himself as an awkward theater nerd. When it came to flirting with girls, “I had no game whatsoever,” he recalls in his sagacious autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. Evidence accumulated to the contrary; for his 14th birthday, for instance, a girl he didn’t know particularly well offered him a birthday cake — and sex. (On the beach. It was lovely, he says.) He was barely 19 when Nastassia Kinski, one of his co-stars on The Hotel New Hampshire (1984) and generally acknowledged to be one of the world’s great beauties, openly propositioned him, and he didn’t quite grasp what was happening. She shot him a look that said, “Helloooo? Do I need to spell it out?” he writes.
But something changed in him when he played the freewheeling, sax-playing, shades-wearing, drinks-drinking cad, Billy, in one of the signature teen films of its era, St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). The director Joel Schumacher wasn’t sold on Lowe for the role, which the actor won only after showing up for an audition with a six-pack of Corona and swigging liberally as he pitched himself. Lowe enjoyed playing the roguish charmer so much that he started to play him in real life. In the famous June 1985 New York magazine profile of him and his co-stars Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson whose headline introduced the sobriquet “the Brat Pack,” Lowe (who was then 21) and Co. were holding court at the Hard Rock Cafe in Los Angeles. Passing beauties circled the movie stars hungrily, desperate for a nod of attention and an invitation to sit down. Being Rob Lowe in his prime was unlike living at the candy store; lollipops don’t simply jump into your shopping basket.
Lowe began to use MTV as his personal Home Shopping Network, selecting girls from videos and calling up the network to obtain their digits. But he too was an object that was being shopped for; what seemed to be a fortuitous meeting with Princess Stephanie of Monaco turned out to have been elaborately planned by her, a detail he didn’t discover until he found a magazine with him on its cover in her home. It turned out that she had kept it on her nightstand for six months. At their first dinner date, she wound up sitting on his lap. He later learned that while they were flirting, she had taken a break to order servants to evict her then-boyfriend and all traces of him from her quarters so she could invite Lowe back to them. Throughout their affair, her father, Prince Rainier, refused to acknowledge Lowe’s existence, but at a charity event Lowe said hello to Rainier and the three men he was standing with (Cary Grant, Robert Wagner, and Gregory Peck). As the young man was walking away, he heard Wagner say, “Ya know, guys, I think that kid’s banged every one of our daughters.” Lowe had indeed gotten to know Grant by dating his daughter, Jennifer, and the three of them had even watched one of Lowe’s earliest screen efforts together, with Cary Grant complimenting him on his performance and comparing him to the young Warren Beatty.
But by Lowe’s mid 20s, the bacchanalia was getting old. He bottomed out on an infamous trip to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988, where he made a sex tape with a 16-year-old girl. He says he did not know she was underage; they had met at a club that had a very strict carding policy. In the book he has very little to say about the whole incident, assuming we all remember the delirious coverage at the time.
In short, Lowe lived the life that young men think they want, and it nearly destroyed him. He realizes that the way he spent his youth doesn’t inspire much sympathy: “Nobody’s going to do a pity party or have a telethon for all those suffering 18-year-old movie stars, you know?” he said recently on the Today show as he celebrated 30 years of sobriety. Yet nonstop cosseting creates its own dangers.
The night his mother phoned to tell him his grandfather had had a massive heart attack, his girlfriend had just dumped him after catching him with another woman. His instinct was to chug some tequila and go to bed, but catching a glimpse of his wasted self in the mirror, he thought, “I’m so hammered I can barely stand. The girl I love has just left me, because I can’t keep my word and I have no integrity. My grandfather is dying, my mother is in crisis . . . and I am cowering and hiding.” He begged his girlfriend to take him back, then married her. Today he and Sheryl Berkoff, a makeup artist, have been married for nearly 30 years and raised two young men together. (The sons live to troll Dad on Instagram.)
Lowe managed to find stability and satisfaction for the first time in his life when he got off the hedonic treadmill, and he reached his highest level of fulfillment as an artist when he co-starred with Martin Sheen, the father of his childhood friend Emilio Estevez, on The West Wing, although (this is the one discordant note in the entire book) he quit the show after four years in a huff about his salary. Variety reported at the time that he was getting $75,000 a week, not including residuals, which seems like not-bad pay for doing work you find satisfying and meaningful. Today Lowe stars on Fox’s 9-1-1: Lone Star.
The example of Beatty, to whom Cary Grant once compared him, made Lowe uneasy rather than proud. He says he was long haunted by the final moments of Shampoo, the 1975 film in which Beatty plays a swaggering Beverly Hills hairdresser who has his pick of the ladies. The emptiness and alienation Beatty’s character feels at the end of that film was a distant warning to Lowe that he failed to heed for too long, although he was fortunate to have been only 26 when he finally got sober. Lowe discovered through experience what cognitive scientists have found in recent decades: that we are extraordinarily bad at predicting what will make us happy. He thought he loved what he calls “the scene,” but actually he was wildly uncomfortable among strangers and drank heavily to cover for it. The parade of girls that marched through his bedroom left him equally hollow. What’s the point of sharing your bed with someone you wouldn’t want to share a sandwich with if you were sober? As he tells other guys: If you find yourself dating your best friend, marry her.