John Holmes tells his own story in “Porn King”

No book has done more to complicate the legacy of the late John Holmes—to his favor—than “Porn King,” his fascinating work of semi-autobiography re-released by his widow, Laurie Holmes.

The Widow Holmes, once known as the performer Misty Dawn, now lives in Colorado, where she talked with me this week.

“People watch ‘Boogie Nights’ and ‘Wonderland,’ and they don’t get the real picture of John,” says Holmes, who married the eponymous Porn King in 1987, just a year before his death from AIDS. “After he got off drugs, he was the same fun-loving John, the hardworking family man.”

But it was the drugs—and what John Curtis Holmes did to get them—that informs a great deal of the popular perception of his life, and his widow says that the drugs are not the whole story.

“Every man wanted to be John,” she says, “but he wanted to be someone else.”

John Holmes’s desire to embellish his own life and distract others from the truth of it make “Porn King” required reading for anyone interested in the sociology of the adult business. But it’s not all a lie, and Holmes tells as much truth as he deflects.

“Porn King,” which was a collection of John’s tape-recorded musings that were then transcribed by Laurie, begins with a story about a paint closet hookup with an art student on the UCLA campus.

He had been getting dressed after a session as a live model when he was interrupted by a woman who had been flirting with him.

“Careful how you handle that, darling, ” I warned. “It could get out of control.”

She wasn’t careful, and it did get out of control. Her craving for sex matched mine. We were two desperate animals in heat. We both knew what we wanted, and nothing could hold us back.

“That part was made up,” Laurie Holmes says. “He would tell people he went to UCLA, but he never went to classes there.”

As his widow says, “John’s childhood was not rosy.”

Born in 1944 Ohio to a woman who was by default a single mom—Holmes says his father couldn’t be trusted not to drink his paycheck and that one day Edward Holmes just left—Holmes frames his birth within the larger events of the time, talking about the Nazi war machine continuing to march across Europe, the jitterbug, Betty Grable, and the musical “Oklahoma!”

…And on a wooden table in the kitchen of a modest Ohio farmhouse in Pickaway County, my mother gave birth to her fourth child, a son.

The midwife, Holmes relates, exclaimed that “the baby has three legs and two feet.”

We know from other accounts of Holmes’s life, including the exhaustive oral history “John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches” to Dawn Schiller’s “The Road from Wonderland,” that Mary Holmes, his mother, was not the type of woman who would hear or repeat such a description. Was the “three legs” story also a fabrication?

Holmes never mentions his mother’s name in “Porn King,” only referring to her as “Mother” (the former Mary Barton died earlier this year, Laurie says). Present in his last days, his mother didn’t approve of what he did, Holmes says.

We probably shouldn’t look for a pathology in any of these curious omissions, but they join other, more disturbing ones later in the book. Holmes does make clear that, throughout his young life, including his mother’s remarriage to an abusive man named Harold, he never wanted to be poor again.

I can’t remember when the promise of money hasn’t been a driving force in me. One that has too often led to trouble!

The book moves quickly through Holmes’s stint in the army and his tour of New York fleshpits with a buddy following his discharge. Returning now and again to male prostitution, Holmes describes gifts of money, jewelry, and cars from appreciative ladies that stand in contrast to the poverty that marked either end of his life.

Hitchhiking to California, he gets work at a Sunset Blvd. hot dog stand and then, with an attractive roommate, performs his first (“and last”) sex on film for $100.

The check bounced.

It is Holmes’s sense of humor in moments like this—and are they fibs, too?—that reveals a side of him that other books really don’t.

“He had a great sense of humor,” Laurie says today. “Anyone who knew him when he wasn’t on drugs loved him.”

Another quote I loved involved the sexual superiority of men with strategic paunches.

The more padding around a man’s stomach, the more he will stimulate his partner. Beer, anyone?

According to Holmes, the quest for drugs that would eventually land him square in the middle of 1981’s Wonderland Murders (“He didn’t kill anybody,” Laurie says) began with people he trusted.

Even though Holmes admits that marijuana and cocaine were all around him in the 1970’s porn scene, he only accepted pot at the urging of his younger brother, David, and cocaine at the offering of his great friend, Bill Amerson.

It is not that Holmes does not admit to lying, cheating, and stealing in his search for drugs. He also says that he could have just said No. But he does pass the responsibility around. And Amerson emerges in the later narrative to be one of the Holmes’ couple’s greatest betrayers.

At the same time, Holmes downplays the role of significant people in his life. He was married to Sharon Holmes, a nurse, for 19 years, and managed a Glendale apartment complex with her when he met and began a long relationship with the then-teenaged Dawn Schiller. But he dispatches with Sharon by saying she didn’t like his porn career so they grew apart—he kept it from her, he says, until after they were married—and with Dawn by referring to her as complacent and sex-starved.

Nothing pleased Dawn more than pleasing her partner. No matter what! No matter who!

Both of these women have rich and complicated memories of Holmes (Laurie is critical of Dawn’s version of events), and were deeper in his company than he gives them credit for in “Porn King.” While apparently Holmes thought he could not avoid a blanket “I was poison”—a mea culpa that occurs a few times in the book—it is as if he can’t face dwelling on the scale of the particulars, so he reduces the roles of some of his biggest victims.

But for all the information Holmes leaves out, makes up, or obfuscates, “Porn King” represents a wealth of data. We get his account of the the New York and L.A. swinger era, the Golden Age of Porn, the Wonderland events (he calls the residents of 8673 Wonderland Avenue “a bunch of addicts”), and his invaluable commentary on what it was like to be at the center—as he undoubtedly was—of his time.

The book also gets closer to an exoneration of Holmes than any other account, and not because he dazzles us with his side of the story, but because we see how uncomfortable he felt with himself.

“He created a fantasy he didn’t want to live up to,” Laurie says.

We have to look kindly on people who are so eager to please as to lie to us, even if the truth is so much more appealing. Holmes does lie in this book, but his heart shows through, too.

Holmes dictates the end of “Porn King” literally from his death bed. His description of going in and out of consciousness, of half-heard conversations between his visiting mother and Laurie (“Misty”), and his own helplessness against a disease that wasted him to 60 pounds are profoundly affecting.

Laurie Holmes says she delayed publication of “Porn King” until 1998 out of respect for John’s family, but in her new Epilogue to the re-release she lays bare her disillusion with the porn industry, the fictional and documentary movies of Holmes’s life, the LAPD, and with Bill Amerson, partner with John Holmes in Penguin Films.

The Epilogue, too, is a fascinating read, and is similar in tone to many accounts of people who feel the porn industry and its employees have let them down. It must be noted that, as “Porn King”‘s editor and the heir to John Holmes’s estate, the book is very much Laurie’s story, too.

“John would not have recognized the way things are today,” she says. “There used to be an endearing aspect to the art of lovemaking back then. Now it’s something else. And in the early 80’s, it really was a family.”

Previously on Porn Valley Observed: John Holmes and the Wonderland Murders—30 years ago today; John Holmes still isn’t “Exhausted”
See also: Buy “Porn King: The Autobiography of John C. Holmes

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