Being 18 and a freshly minted movie star, only a few years away from Dayton, Ohio, was a mixed bag. On one hand my life’s goal was coming into focus, but I was having to navigate some fast-moving waters in Hollywood.
And, like any male 18-year-old, the most pressing developmental issues I had to face was sex and romance, and how they fitted into my life.
I had my first crush in the first grade but got talked out of it by my friends who thought the girl was not up to their seven-year-old standards.
By the time I was 15 I had struggled through the challenge of my peers thinking I was a “theatre fag” because I wanted to be an actor and finally found my first serious girlfriend.
As my career began to really take off, that relationship began to end, a casualty of immaturity, jealousy and the first blush of fame. By the time my other friends were out of the house for the first time, I was on locations making movies or pounding the pavement in Hollywood, building my career in earnest. And like all young men, it was during those years that I explored all I could about love, relationships, sex and the connections between the three. Of all the “personal discovery” journeys I’ve been on, this one was clearly the most fun.
Helping matters greatly was the timeline: It was pre-AIDS and before the lessons of recreational drug use taught us that cocaine was not an appropriate status symbol. It was also in the time before everyone had a mobile phone with a camera attached, before the internet and Facebook and a culture where everyone simply has to post every photo of every party they attend.
Although there was the National Enquirer and Star (then a true tabloid and not a celeb-photo book), there was no TMZ or Radar, no Perez Hilton or any of today’s myriad of pay-for-play gossip sites. There were no armies of paparazzi staked out in my beloved Malibu or on Rodeo Drive or at LAX or any of the cool restaurants or clubs. There were no Stars Are Just Like Us!/Baby Bump Watch! banal and reductive celeb editorialisations in the “straight” media.
It wouldn’t have been tolerated, either by the public or on the streets at the clubs or restaurants. But then again, the cover boys of that era were Beatty, Newman and Redford. Instead of couples from Dancing with the Stars, we had Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston. It was a totally different era in terms of what we valued. The net effect was this: We were more innocent and trusting, and there was actually some privacy and decorum, but with plenty of room to get wild, if the opportunity arose.
It was also before the two events that irreparably damaged one of the great bastions of the sexual revolution, the Playboy Mansion. Internet porn killed the business model and reality TV killed the Bunnies. With the possible exception of becoming a Laker Girl (today also devoid of its status), back then, if you were a gorgeous, marginally talented young woman, becoming a Bunny was one of your only shots at fame. Not anymore. Today, if you’re willing to eat bugs or throw a chair at your best friend or mother, you can star in a reality TV series.
The Playboy Mansion of the early-to-mid Eighties was a thing to behold. Sure, even as a 19-year-old, I knew it was on a slide from its heyday. But to have been there in the Seventies when Hef was young, the Pill was new and James Caan lived there would have been too much to handle. I barely survived my first-time visit as it was!
An invitation to come to the mansion for movie night was a tough ticket to get. You couldn’t buy your way in; you couldn’t use connections or a publicist or any Hollywood lever pulling. Invitations came directly from Hugh Hefner, and he cast his parties very carefully in those days. In his magazine, the Playboy interview was the most insightful, dangerous, prestigious and coveted profile in all media, so there was a patina of intellectual exclusiveness almost as strong as the sexual undercurrent associated with Hef’s gatherings. The crowd could vary from screenwriting geniuses like Robert Towne and Buck Henry to star athletes like Magic Johnson. It goes without saying that you would also see the absolute top tier of beautiful and usually available women that LA had to offer. That they were comprised of the top lookers of a wide range of American cities effectively made them among the most stunning groups of women in the country.
I had just finished The Outsiders when I got a call from “Mr Hefner’s” office inviting me to a Super Bowl party.
I was specifically told that I could not bring a guest and I was required (for reasons I never understood) to provide my driver’s licence number and a description of the car I would be driving.
I was the envy of all my pals. My friends from my schooldays in Malibu always enjoyed the collateral of my new life in the movies, but the Playboy Mansion! Are you kidding me?! We had visions of God-only-knows-what streaming through our heads. Of course they were bummed that they couldn’t come with me.“I will go it alone,” I said solemnly. On game day I arrived at the mansion’s massive gates on Charing Cross Road in Holmby Hills, an even more exclusive area than Beverly Hills, if you can imagine.
Sitting in my first car, a white Mazda 626, I waited to be let in. After a moment, I heard a voice. “Can I help you?” I rolled down my window and looked around; no one was there. Very strange.
“Hello! Can I help you?” it said again, and I realised it was coming from inside of a giant granite rock. Looking closer, I discovered a speaker chiselled into its face.
“Oh, hi. I’m Rob Lowe. I’m here for the Super Bowl party,” I said, trying to seem nonchalant. The gates swung open.
I drove up the long, winding driveway to a large house that looked like Wayne Manor from Batman. The motor court was filled with Porsches, Mercedes and a lime-green Ferrari.
I hadn’t set foot inside and already I was feeling “less than”. This wasn’t a new sensation for me, because until I got famous, I hadn’t had a great romantic career. I always loved girls, even in grade school. That did me no favours with the guys, who thought girls were lame, or with the girls, who clearly thought I was some moony-eyed dweeb. Then in middle school I had the misfortune of having the dream of being an actor, which, again, the guys hated and gave me no juice with the girls, who were only interested in the volleyball players and surfers.
By the time high school rolled around, like any kid of that age, my sexual self-image was cast. I was not in the cool set, and no “it” girl would give me the time of day; I wasn’t an abject loser – I had a few girls who liked me fine – but I was clearly never going to play in the big leagues, like many of the guys strutting around the high school quad.
I’ve heard that fame doesn’t change you so much as it changes the people around you. It was certainly true for me. Stepping out of my little Mazda at the Playboy Mansion, I was only a year and a half beyond not being a part of the cool parties and being totally ignored by 90 per cent of the girls I thought were attractive.
Yet here I was, invited into the inner sanctum of Hugh Hefner, one of the 20th century’s arbiters of cool as well as the undisputed king ladies’ man. The career .190 hitter was getting his first start in the bigs.
A butler held the heavy, gothic-style door open as I entered the large stone-floored foyer. Tudor wood-panelled walls and a staircase to my left. A bustling bar right in front of me, where maybe 20 or so people mingled. There was no one to greet me; I knew no one and didn’t recognise any of the folks chatting and drinking. If there were cool celebs around, like Mick Jagger or Jack Nicholson, I certainly didn’t see them. I scanned the foyer for someone to talk to. The crowd was older than I was, most by about at least a decade, some by three or four.
“Where are the Bunnies?” I thought. I was surrounded by men who looked like either doctors or rock star managers.
I made my way to the bar and ordered my traditional starter, a Corona with lime. Like any good alcoholic in the making, I downed it. Sipping was a talent I neither possessed nor admired. “I’ll have another,” I said, and the barman, who had probably seen a number of my kind, never batted an eye. Slowly, I felt the edge being taken off and I began to relax, the booze giving me both comfort and confidence. “Where are the Bunnies?!”
I noticed people coming in and out of a darkened archway to the right. I made my way over and saw that it led to a screening room. The only light came from its Cineplex-sized screen, which was showing the opening coin toss of the game. It was enough light to glimpse the crowd; sitting on rows of couches I saw mostly middle-aged guys, a few familiar older television actors and their dates, none of whom appeared to be Bunnies.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Glad you could make it.” It was Hugh Hefner. In silk pyjamas. What if Babe Ruth wore nothing but pinstripes all the time? What if Kobe Bryant never took off his Lakers jersey or Bruce Springsteen still wore his “Born in the USA” headband? Imagine meeting Tiger Woods in his Sunday red and black or seeing Robert Downey Jr in his Iron Man suit at lunch in the Polo Lounge. It’s one thing to meet a celebrity; it’s something else to meet them in their most iconic form in everyday life. You almost believe it’s some sort of send-up.
But Hef in PJs at midday in the middle of a party seemed totally organic. I managed a few words, thanking him for the invitation.
“Well, make yourself at home. Have a good time,” he said, heading back to the screening room holding his beloved can of Coke. There were no empty seats in the theatre to watch the game, so I decided to explore.
The mansion’s grounds were lush and vast, with pathways leading to topiaries, past manicured lawns and through koi ponds and cages with monkeys shrieking. Eventually I heard the sounds of the Super Bowl coming from a small dollhouse-like cottage nestled among towering stone pines. The door was ajar. From inside came the sounds of girls giggling and talking.
“Hello! Hello!” I called, peeking in. “Does anyone know the score?” It was the mother lode. There must have been five or six Playboy centrefolds splayed about the cozy den, wearing very provocative and skimpy outfits.
“Oh, hiiii!” they cooed, and I knew at once that they’d clearly seen and liked The Outsiders.
“I don’t mean to interrupt.”
“Come in here!” one of them demanded, pointing to a chaise longue she was lying on.
“Yeah, stay with us! We’re so bored,” said another.
I felt like I had wandered into a fantastic secret world where no men existed but me and the entire female race was comprised of doe-eyed, well-endowed beauties who seemed to really need company. It was a long way from the quad at Santa Monica High School, with not a surfer or volleyball stud to be found. I guess these gals would have to make do with me.
I felt like a pharaoh or, I suppose, a junior Hugh Hefner. The girls poured me drinks, laughed, flirted, ran their fingers through my hair and generally seemed to be having as much fun toying with me as they possibly could. In an added bonus, they were sophisticated sports fans.
“I bet they don’t beat the spread,” said the blonde.
Soon enough, one of my adolescent fantasies was realised when one of the Playmates dragged me into her guest room.
When I finally staggered out of the little Hansel and Gretel cottage in the pines, I was both elated and disoriented. Could this possibly be what it was like all the time up here? Had this even really happened? I made myself presentable and made my way back to the party.
The game was long over as I headed back to the main house. The sun had set, and in the moonlight the vibe had shifted considerably. Now girls were everywhere and the middle-aged doctors and music-biz honchos chatted them up in dimly lit corners. An Academy Award–winning writer held court on the patio.
I found myself talking to a well-put-together man in his late forties.
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I do all the work up here,” he replied.
“Do you build or just manage the property?” I asked.
He laughed. “No, no. I do all the work up here. For Playboy,” he said, as if I should get his meaning. He stared at me like I was a moron.
“I’m a surgeon,” he said finally.
“Oh, you’re a… plastic surgeon?”
“Exactly,” he said, making a small toasting motion. “Also do all Michael’s work.”
“Aaaaah,” I said sagely, knowing of only one Michael synonymous with plastic surgery. “Yes, I’ve seen your efforts.”
“Here’s my card. If you need anything.” He smiled, heading off to a very large-breasted woman nearby, probably for some sort of inspection or warranty check.
My Hansel-and-Gretel-house Playmate and I had made a plan to rendezvous for a Jacuzzi in the famous “Grotto”. I had heard so much about, so I began to make my way across the giant back yard to the pool. To my infinite happiness, yet another bar was set up on the lawn. With the evening drawing to a close, I shifted to my main drink, a vodka tonic. (In those days I paid an inordinate amount of attention to finding the perfect level of artificially induced “happy feelings”. I used them like a suit of armour. And let’s face it, like most guys my age, I loved a free bar.) Drink in hand, I explored the pool area.
I had heard stories that the Grotto had underwater tunnels, Jacuzzis and secret chambers. This sounded so cool to me and not unlike a scaled-down version of the backyard pool at Martin Sheen’s house. (Sans Playmates, obviously!) Like Indiana Jones, I noted the large waterfall, which is always a dead giveaway of a secret chamber behind it. Sure enough, as I walked around the faux cliff face it cascaded over, I discovered a discreet stone passageway.
I peeked inside.
I discovered a steaming, humid, dimly lit cavern that looked like something out of The Land of the Lost. One large body of water surrounded by other walled-off Jacuzzis shimmered behind the back face of the waterfall, which kept the little cave totally blocked from any vantage point on the property. Sometimes the steam grew so thick that it was hard to see more than a yard ahead.
My new friend had told me to go into the dressing rooms and change, and eventually I found one of the numbered rooms and did so. I didn’t have the guts (or any other piece of anatomy I may have needed) to go au naturel. I waded into the bathtub-temperature water in my boxers.
Hidden speakers played an obscure cut from Emotional Rescue by the Stones. I looked around for my Playmate friend, but she was clearly running late. After some moments contemplating the uniqueness of my surroundings, I began to hear gentle splashing coming from the other side of the Grotto. The steam prevented me from being able to see anything as I made my way toward the sound.
I began to see the outline of a girl silhouetted in the shadows and the reflections coming off the water.
“Hi there! Who is that? Come closer so I can see you,” she said. (It was not the voice of my Hansel-and-Gretel Playmate.)
Being no idiot, I did as I was told. She was standing, facing me, leaning on her elbows on the other side of the wall that divided the pool I was in from the tiny Jacuzzi she was in. The added heat made it almost impossible to see through the rising steam. Even though I was right in front of her, it took me a moment to see that she was naked.
“Hi,” I managed to say.
“Hi back,” she said, and winked at me. Oh jeez. I didn’t know what the correct move was. There was still no sign of the girl I was supposed to meet. “Have I seen you before?” she asked.
“No, this is my first time at the mansion.”
“Are you an actor or something?”
“I am. I’m just getting started. I’m in the movie, The Outsiders.”
“Oooooooaaaaaaggggmpph,” she grunted, making a pained expression.
“Yes, I was a little disappointed in the film myself,”
I said. “A lot of my stuff is on the cutting room floor.”
“Aw, that’s too bad. You seem so nice,” she replied.
As I tried to figure out the connection between my being “nice” and being cut from the film, she grunted again.
“Aaaaaggggh!” Her head lolled to the side and I wondered if perhaps she was having a medical episode.
I looked around for my tardy date or maybe an emergency technician in case she slipped below the bubbling water, but she made a fast recovery. “I think acting is hard. People think it’s fun and easy, but it’s not. Not from what I can see,” she said. Her smile was sweet and kind. I tried to focus on her face and not her breasts.
“So… do… you get up here often?” I asked.
“I live here.”
“Wow, what’s that like?” I asked.
“Sorta like being in a sorority. I think.”
“I can see that,” I said, enjoying my casual conversation with a naked Bunny in the grotto.
“I like it. It’s fun. I… aaaooooh! Mmmmmaaaah!” she suddenly exclaimed as her big blue eyes rolled up in her head And then I saw it.
The steam shifted slightly to reveal a tree-trunk-sized ebony arm wrapped around her waist from behind. She began to moan. “Oooooh! Yeaaaauuuooow!” Peering closer, I recognised the man behind her as a legendary Hall of Fame football star. I locked eyes with him, embarrassed.
“Hey, man,” he rumbled with a tiny nod and without a care in the world. I nodded politely back.
“Um, well, nice meeting you!” I said to the girl.
“You too!” she said, sweet as pie.
“And you as well… sir,” I said, backing away quickly but with as much dignity as possible.
“Uuuuuuurrrgh!” she said, enveloped in the mist.
Later, driving home in my car, I attempted to make sense of my night at the mansion. Replaying images that would stay with me for years, I realised I had been stood up in the Grotto and I’d never found out who won the Super Bowl. Should’ve asked the dude in the Jacuzzi.
Taken from Love Life by Rob Lowe – out now
This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it’s published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand.