Tinseltown, Meet Rust Belt

Esquire writer Scott Raab takes on Hollywood as only a native Clevelander can. We talked to him about his new book and found out why Sean Penn and Bill Murray are the celebrities most likely to fit in here.

Esquire writer Scott Raab has covered Cleveland quite a bit in the national magazine’s pages. Here are links to a few of our favorites:

It’s Kucinich Time!, Nov. 1, 2007 http://www.esquire.com/features/kucinich1107?click=main_sr   

The Cleveland Indians are For Real This Time, Sept. 18, 2007 http://www.esquire.com/features/esquire-100/indians1007?click=main_sr  

Fat Guy From Cleveland Walks into a Bar, March 31, 1999 http://www.esquire.com/features/drew-carey-0499?click=main_s r

Scott Raab is 56, a little pudgy, a loud-voiced quick talker, the exuberant boy he used to be one moment, a ranting man the next.

The Mayfield High and Cleveland State grad is our city’s voice in national-magazine racks, a writer forEsquire since 1997,GQ before that.

He doesn’t justhappen to be from Cleveland, doesn’t just drop an occasional burned-river reference. Clevelandness runs deep through his chip-on-shoulder prose and attitude toward famous profile subjects.

“To the extent I am grounded, it helps keep me grounded,” he says over lunch with me and his son, Judah. He’s in town to promoteReal Hollywood Stories, his new collection of 20 celebrity profiles.

“I’m a Clevelander. ... I’m not wowed by your money, I’m not wowed by your beauty, I’m not wowed by your fame,” Raab says, describing his approach to writing about Hollywood’s biggest names. “Let’s drop any pretense of top-down, and let’s try to have a real human


So in 1994, when basketball star Dennis Rodman would meet him only at a tattoo parlor — “I wanted to hang out, share his pain, ask him about Madonna” — Raab not only went along, he went under the needle and got Chief Wahoo inked into his forearm.

Raab took Drew Carey to a Los Angeles bowling alley, betting a dollar a pin. To test Carey’s hometown loyalty, Raab baited him with a single name: John Elway. Carey snarled hatefully that he still won’t perform in Denver out of revenge for the Broncos’ 1987 playoff comeback that kept the Browns from the Super Bowl.

“It was just a couple of fat guys from Cleveland, sitting around, still mourning a loss,” Raab recalls.

Real Hollywood Storiesis filled with Raab’s judgments of the celebs he’s interviewed, from harsh to admiring. Who in the book would thrive in Cleveland, I ask him, and who wouldn’t last a week here?

“I think Robert Downey Jr. would have a really hard time bullshitting,” Raab says. “And I love Robert Downey Jr. He wouldn’t have a hard time meeting women, [but] he’d have a hard time fast-talking [Clevelanders].” Sheryl Crow wouldn’t cut it either. “I’m not saying they’re not real, but they’re kind of hothouse flowers. They’re used to a level of coddling that doesn’t necessarily allow them to bring the funk in anything except the most rarified atmosphere.”

Raab vouches for Sean Penn and Bill Murray as prospective Clevelanders. “They’ve made an effort, even as they’ve gained fame and fortune, to stay in touch with people who aren’t in show business,” Raab says, and “to continue acting like regular human beings with a place in the world that doesn’t have anything to do with fame and fortune.”

Even in sympathetic profiles, Raab holds his subjects to high standards. He chastised Carey for using the phrase “key demos” (as in, men 18 to 49), calling it “fancy talk for a West Side standup.”

Yet Raab, too, is two decades removed from Cleveland. When the waitress comes over, holding the check, and asks if “we can take care of this,” Raab thinks the house is picking up the tab because they know us. I explain the waitress wants us to pay so she can go home. Has he lost some Clevelandness? Raab gives a proud expat’s answer.

“One of the things that bothers me about Cleveland — I want to put it in terms of LeBron’s Yankees cap. Had Larry Bird worn a New York Yankees cap to Fenway Park early in his career for the opener of a playoff series, it would have had profound and immediate repercussions on his career.

“Only in a town that has internalized the worst of its own self-image, only in a town that has no pride left, only in a town that is so needy for affirmation ... would people say, ‘Oh, please, King LeBron, please! Stay here and win one for us!’

“I’ve lost that. I’ve lost any sense that I’m a loser. I’ve lost any sense that because something is Cleveland, it’s inferior.”

“He asked me to throw my LeBron jersey away,” says Judah, 9.

“And he did,” Raab says proudly.
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