“John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches” is a compelling and frustrating read about a person who couldn’t keep his own stories straight and therefore left everyone around him with incomplete information. With no input from biological relatives (they refused interviews) and the often-conflicting accounts of the people around him most (because it would be inaccurate to say “people who knew him best”), “Inches” is a document of a man whose humanity struggled and failed to keep up with his dick.
But Holmes doesn’t come across (because of the coke, he could hardly come at all) as a cipher; he wanted his public to know certain things about him, but those things were mostly lies. In one anecdote, Holmes brags to his manager, Bill Amerson, about the times Holmes would jet off to England to service a wealthy lady, who after each tryst would add a diamond to Holmes’ ring. Amerson had to remind Holmes that it was Amerson who’d invented that story as a publicity stunt, and Holmes just liked the fictional version of his life better.
The book doesn’t spell it out, but there seems to be a strong connection between the lies and the drugs and, more apparent, the drugs and the crime. Holmes’ descent into drug oblivion was just as meteoric as his rise to “porn chic” stardom, and it takes a good deal of sociopathic behavior to reconcile low self esteem with the drug intake necessary to blot it out.
The people along for Holmes’ ride, particularly two mistresses and two wives, each remember him with degrees of fondness that decrease in inverse proportion to how long they knew him.
His first wife, Sharon, betrays no passion for Holmes at all (they both agreed to keep their 19-year marriage a secret while it was happening) other than when she broke up with him (“it was the first time I ever said ‘Fuck You,'” she said).
Dawn Schiller began a relationship with Holmes when she was a 15-year-old tenant in the Glendale apartment complex he managed with Sharon. The couple befriended Schiller and, after Holmes and she became romantically involved – more or less wth Sharon’s consent – Schiller saw the worst of Holmes drug-addled, often violent, behavior. She escaped from him while he was on the run from police in Florida.
Julia St. Vincent was a porn producer and drug buddy whose relationship with Holmes was concurrent with his affair with Schiller. St. Vincent comes across as the toughest of Holmes’ women, less accepting of his behavior but just as compromised by drugs. Ultimately she was sympathetic to Holmes, perhaps because she knew the porn lifestyle.
Finishing off the quartet is Laurie Holmes who, as Misty Dawn, met Holmes on the set of his first porn movie back from his Wonderland-related travails. Their half-decade together begins hopefully, with Holmes (mostly) off drugs and seeming to make an earnest attempt at rebuilding his life. He falls short. Laurie and Holmes were married in Las Vegas after he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, and Laurie more than anyone keeps Holmes’ legacy alive.
Put another way, the more involved in the porn industry his partners were, the better they remembered him.
“Inches” is an excellent companion piece to Cass Paley’s and Rodger Jacobs’1998 documentary “Wadd: The Life And Times of John Holmes.” Paley is an adult film director who made “Wadd” with funds provided by Russ Hampshire, founder of VCA Pictures, one of Porn’s Golden Age powerhouse studios (now a subsidiary of Hustler).
“Inches” and “Wadd” complement each other. Since the documentary is one of the sources of the book, a viewer could watch the movie and switch to the book for extra color commentary, or vice versa, watching the movie to add faces to the text.
My jury was out on Holmes until I watched “Wadd.” I’d read the book first and thought, without seeing Holmes in an interview, that I would probably like him if I met him. The movie changed my mind. There was a smugness about Holmes that didn’t take into account the fact that his interviewers had working bullshit detectors (a pornstar buffoonery captured very well in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Holmes-lite movie “Boogie Nights”).
It is so obvious that Holmes is lying without charm in “Wadd”‘s interview footage that it’s hard to believe anyone would fall for it during his lifetime. But many did (notable exception: “Aunt Peg”‘s Juliet Anderson). It was a different time.
Another thing about the book and movie that caught my attention: Holmes’ life with his first wife Sharon is mostly sexless. In her interviews she presents as downright prudish, which might have been an extreme reaction to the person she was married to.
And both the book and movie deal briefly with the rift between Bill Amerson’s family and Laurie Holmes, but don’t explain the causes of the bad blood. It is Amerson’s children who give the brightest account of Holmes the man; as their godfather, Holmes took on the role of surrogate father when theirs fought his own battle with drugs.
VCX (not to be confused with VCA), a venerable porn studio that has had a resurgence as a repackager of classic porn movies and producer of new ones (such as Michael Ninn’s “Nymphetamine“) has most of the “Johnny Wadd” movies and this year re-released the original along with an excellent interview with “Wadd” creator and director Bob Chinn.
Chinn remarks that Holmes was a scammer from the get-go. This is an instructive interview because Chinn out of everyone seems to keep Holmes in perspective as a dick with an even bigger one.
Adam & Eve has also released the final movie in the Wadd series, 1985’s “The Return of Johnny Wadd.” Reviews have not been kind, but the final film in the series is a must-have for Holmes completists (I’m sure there are some – I’d be a Kami Andrews completist if I kept pornography in my home) and as a document of where Holmes was just before his final swan dive.
Holmes is iconic in American and porn culture for many of the same reasons rock stars are: unchecked fame and ego, low self esteem and an addictive personality, a personal magnetism and, beneath it all, a gift that destroyed him in the end.