John Holmes single-schlongedly embodied the American narrative of success, downfall, and redemption in its porn context, which means something different from any other context. And his story as told in a new book by Jennifer Sugar and Jill Nelson, John Holmes, a Life Measured in Inches, unfolds that story as comprehensibly as possible.
I say “as possible” because Holmes seemed pathologically incapable of telling the same story to everyone. And it wasn’t just bullshit and bravado – he would add and drop entire skill sets depending on the group he was with. Even though he worked under his own name, Holmes’ best friends didn’t know who he was. It wasn’t until his death in 1988, for example, that most of the porn community found out that Holmes had been married for the entirety of his adult career.
Not only that, but prior to the drugs, that marriage to Sharon Holmes had been sexless but happy.
If any single figure in the adult industry past or present deserves a book, it is John Holmes. Then Larry Flynt. Maybe Nina Hartley, but is a story really interesting if someone just keeps getting better?
Holmes’ success roughly parallels the so-called Golden Age of Porn, in which the money was piled as high as the cocaine and “porno chic,” a term that arose from the fame of Deep Throat, made legitimate celebrities of performers long before anyone bothered creating a Jenna Jameson Crossover Star of the Year Award. Holmes was a boner-fide star.
And he was complex. While his wife of 19 years, Sharon, said Holmes could hardly boil water and wouldn’t approach the kitchen, friends in the adult industry remember Holmes cooking feasts (director Roy Karch, who was the production manager for 1979’s Dracula Sucks, starring Holmes, Jamie Gillis, Serena, and Paul Thomas, told me that one late night during the weeklong shoot he walked into the kitchen of the Palmdale-area castle to find Holmes, cooking stew for 50 people for the next day.)
Not only that, but Holmes was also a cop magnet. Years before his use of drugs sidelined his career and landed him at the scene of 1981’s Wonderland Murders, Holmes was an informant for the L.A.P.D.’s anti-porn unit, escaping jail time by providing info on other porn sets.
But drugs were Holmes’ downfall, inasmuch as it was he who chose to take them. According to the book, this casual Scotch drinker and pot smoker devolved quickly into a basehead, stealing from fellow performers, ripping off luggage from the airport, and breaking into cars to steal for his habit.
All the while Holmes could be a loving boyfriend to various women (who knew nothing of each other) and a father-figure to the children of Bill Amerson, a longtime producer and his partner in Penguin Video.
Inches provides an extended study of Holmes’ involvement in the robbery of club-owner and drug dealer Ed Nash and the murders of the Wonderland Gang two days later, as well as Holme’s imprisonment for contempt, flight across the country, and his eventual, if reluctant, exoneration.
But it is the aftermath of Holmes’ release from jail in 1982, up to the point when he contracted AIDS around 1986, that I found fascinating. Because it was in this time that he seemed to make the best use of this window for redemption. Accepting a divorce from Sharon (she had had enough, finally) and dumped by longtime girlfriend Dawn Schiller (she had had enough, finally), Holmes began a strong relationship with Misty Dawn on the set of his comeback movie. He eventually married her and she became Laurie Holmes.
But it all slid backward when he contracted AIDS, perhaps from a gay actor in a big-budget gay-for-pay movie. Knowing he had the disease, Holmes hit the drugs as hard as he could. He also knowingly worked with other performers during this time, including the Italian actress (and future member of the Italian parliament) Cicciolina. It is believed that Holmes did not pass on the disease to anyone else.
Inches is an oral and text history, meaning that Sugar and Nelson pored over existing interviews and added dozens of their own, quoting dozens of subjects in full paragraphs.
I talked with Sugar and Nelson from their homes in Michigan and Ontario, respectively.
Jennifer Sugar: I was five years old when John Holmes died, and so I had no idea who he was until I was 21, when I saw the movie Wonderland. After seeing the movie, I was interested in the details about John’s life story. After reading and watching everything about John Holmes that I could get my hands on, I learned that there wasn’t already a biography about him, so I decided to write A Life Measured in Inches.
A couple of years into the project, between juggling college classes and my part time job, I “met” Jill on an internet message board related to Wonderland. We corresponded by e-mail for a period of time and I could tell that she had some of the same questions about John’s life that I had and that she was genuinely interested in Inches, so I invited her to co-author the book.
Jill C. Nelson: When we first started communicating, I was impressed that Jennifer had decided to take the high road in her desire to author John’s bio, rather than resorting to sensational traps. John was involved in some despicable acts, but, I believe it is easier (and tempting, in many cases) to write a scathing book about a person’s life, rather than to dig and find the diamonds in the rough. When she invited me to assist her with this project, I was honored, in part, because of her intention to write a fair and balanced biography.
Gram: How did you decide on the oral history model?
Sugar: In the beginning of my writing process, I was intimidated with the volume of material and I was having difficulty presenting all of the information from various interviews. A few people suggested that I try the oral history format, so I read some examples of this (The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry and Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests). It took a lot of experimentation before Jill and I found what worked best — our goal was to present “whole” quotes that weren’t choppy or taken out of context and to present as unbiased view of John as possible.
The main reason I think the oral history format is the best way to tell Holmes’ story is because he is such a multi-faceted man. More often than not, there is more than one side to these stories and a juxtaposed presentation of the actual quotes from our interviewees allows the reader room to make interpretations.
Nelson: Some of the people we interviewed were displeased by the way in which the information they had imparted had been misconstrued in previous projects relating to the adult entertainment industry, as a whole. They very much appreciated the fact that we’d quoted them verbatim, utilizing the oral history format.
Gram: How long did the book take to complete and how would you describe the logistics of your collaboration? For example, did you write over e-mail or across a table?
Sugar: The book took a total of four years to complete, beginning in August 2004 to when the book was released in August 2008. When Jill and I started working together, we sent files back and forth over e-mail and talked over more complex issues by phone. The first time that we met in person was in July 2007, when we both went to California to do in-person interviews for the book. We only worked together in person one other time before the book was published, when I went to Jill’s house for several days to work together on the photo sections.
Gram: Did you encounter any resistance to your questions of the LAPD or the adult community?
Sugar: Not really. Once or twice, there were a couple of questions people would not answer or not want “on the record,” but it was very rare.
Nelson: The people within the adult community felt that our approach was refreshing, and I believe they took a leap of faith because of the fact that we weren’t a part of the adult entertainment industry.
The same is true for the two former L.A.P.D. homicide detectives, Tom Lange and Frank Tomlinson. They trusted us and viewed our book as a welcome opportunity to tell their side of the story, since neither one had really spoken (in depth) publicly, about the Laurel Canyon case before.
Gram: Aside from learning the facts of the Wonderland case and the those of Holmes’ life, did anything surprise you? If so, what?
Sugar: It was surprising to learn more about John as a father figure to Bill Amerson’s children and Laurie Holmes’ son. Up until A Life Measured in Inches, John’s role in these childrens’ lives hadn’t been discussed in detail.
Nelson: I found it enlightening to gain information about John artistic side. By many accounts, he truly enjoyed working in various capacities within the art medium — whether it was building, writing, drawing or sculpting. And he loved music.
Gram: As so much of Holmes’ story was of his own fabrication, did you ever find yourself in the middle of conflicting accounts between eyewitnesses? Particularly I’m thinking of Laurie Holmes, Dawn Schiller, Sharon Holmes, and Julia St. Vincent, who seem to be the main women in the story.
Sugar: We weren’t able to interview Sharon and Dawn, but we were granted permission by Hustler to use their quotes from the WADD interview transcripts. It was disappointing that we did not get to ask them our own questions, but using the other transcripts, we were able to fill in their stories. There did not seem to be conflicting accounts. For example, Dawn’s version of the time that she and Julia confronted John together was very similar to what Julia had told me. It all seemed to fit together very nicely.
Nelson: John was a chameleon and displayed different sides of himself to everyone he encountered, including the various women in his personal life. Julia commented that she experienced more of the flashier side of John, whereas, Dawn was more accustomed to John’s artistic side. Laurie spoke of him being a homebody, and because Sharon had known John longer than any of the other women, she remembered him when he was a “regular” guy, prior to his foray into the adult genre and his troubles that later resulted because of his addiction. It was interesting that because of their unique experiences with John, there really weren’t contrary accounts.
Gram: Based on your research and your immersion in this story, what do you think happened on 1 July, 1981, the morning of the Wonderland Murders?
Sugar: I think that Ed Nash found out that John set up the robbery at Nash’s on June 29th, and so he forced John to lead the killers to the Wonderland house — or else. John chose to lead the killers to the house and to let them in or leave the door unlocked, like he had done at Nash’s. My gut feeling is that the killers forced John to watch the murders. I will always wonder why John wasn’t also killed, but Nash seemed to have liked John and for whatever reason, he didn’t want to kill John, but still wanted to make sure that he fully understood, “Don’t f***” with Ed Nash.
Nelson: I have to go along with the evidence (or lack thereof) presented in the trial. Because there wasn’t anything concrete to support the proposal by the prosecution that John had actually participated in the murders, I believe that John’s involvement in the murders was as a spectator, and that he was forced to watch under duress.
Gram: Beyond calling Holmes complex, do you believe you would like him if you met him? My own jury is out on this, but I have a feeling that if I knew him as a contemporary, I’d like him.
Sugar: I hate to admit it, but I probably would have liked John if I had met him. He had “it,” whether it was, his blue eyes, his big heart, or his big penis — most people who met John were entranced by him and many of them still have fond memories of John, despite the bad (and often reprehensible) decisions he made in life.
Nelson: John’s charismatic nature was potent, which is why people found him hard to resist. Despite his “bad boy” tendencies, I do believe that he possessed redeeming qualities, so I most likely would have liked him, had I met him. According to those we talked to, John’s poor choices were (mostly) a result of his addiction to cocaine and freebase. That isn’t an excuse, but it is a way to try to comprehend what might have motivated him to be hurtful to other people, in his insatiable quest for drugs. Bob Chinn told Jennifer and I that the “old” John was the greatest person you’d ever want to meet.
My only complaint about the book is that the authors sometimes let their interviewees ramble past the point of usefulness and relevance, and the oral history aspect sometimes means that key events in Holmes’ life get presented more casually than one might expect. I don’t always want to have to come to my own conclusions.
Like Holmes himself, Inches is a massive and compelling book. Just don’t drop it on your feet.