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'10 Authors Insider Tips

Cooking Up A Storey
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A Flash of Northern Light

John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches

by Jennifer Sugar & Jill C. Nelson

Book Review by Rob Hardy


John Holmes

John Holmes had an enormous penis.  It would be unfair to say that this fact is the only interesting thing about him, but it really was the only remarkable thing.  It was also the thing that determined how his life was going to go.  It was what got him into pornography and made him a nationally-recognized star, and that in turn got him involved in drugs and crime and AIDS.  If there were nothing to his life besides his record-breaking anatomy, Jennifer Sugar and Jill C. Nelson would not have had much to compile in their book John Holmes: a Life Measured in Inches (BearManor Media).  They have, however, dug so deeply into what was written about the man during his career and what people remembered afterwards that this surely will be the definitive biography.  It is almost 600 pages long, although that includes 150 pages of filmography at the end of the book, a list of all the known loops and films Holmes was in, along with a list of reviews of his more famous movies.  The text of the book is not a traditional biography.  It consists of quotations from many articles, books, and documentary films, as well as from interviews the authors conducted themselves.  These are arranged chronologically, and if there is a lack of analysis in this biography, it is made up by the immediacy of the words from Holmes himself, his costars, directors, business partners, prosecutors, wives, and godchildren.

Well, first things first.  The book’s subtitle makes plain that inches were the measurement of the man.  How big was it?  Well, big.  No one who has seen a Holmes film will deny that; even his costar and competitor Ron Jeremy admitted himself to be second best in the size department.  The problem with penis measurement is that even the anatomists have not come up with a foolproof, standardized way to measure a penis, and then there are all sorts of variables like temperature and degree of tumescence.  There are no films of Holmes close to a ruler, but there are reports that he approached the fourteen inch mark, and such reports will not be incredible to those familiar with his films.  In the films, too, it is obvious that Holmes’s erections were different from those of other men, and not just by size.  His erection would not point upward; that’s just a matter of gravity.  But also, his erection didn’t have the sort of firmness that typifies a tumescent penis of ordinary size.  There was a standing joke that Holmes never got a full erection, because it would take so much blood he would lose consciousness.  Annette Haven starred with him in several features, and found that Holmes’s erection collapsed down; it was “kind of squishy when erect, so actually it wasn’t that uncomfortable... it was like doing it with a big, soft loofah...”  However, Ginger Lynn, who was lowered onto Holmes while hanging from a bar in the film The Grafenberg Spot, said that being in labor and having a child was easier than getting Holmes inside her. 

Holmes, however, is given accolades for being a gentle lover.  One star after another (girlfriends and wives, too) say that he knew he might cause some discomfort, and was always solicitous, saying things like “Is it okay?  Do you want to stop?”  Unlike many well-endowed men, he realized that there was a great deal more to lovemaking than just presenting a large package, and he is praised in these pages for his skill at different forms of foreplay.  (He is also praised for an unusual skill which was useful for the directors he worked with: he was able to have an orgasm on cue.  Annette Haven said, “He was a professional; got it up, got it off, and got the hell out of your hair.”)  Many people make remarks on how nice a guy he was, consistently affable and helpful at least before the drug years started.  A male costar remembers, “He would help carry equipment in from the truck and help set it up.  He was almost an extension of the crew.  You’d never see that today.”  He enjoyed being a star, and was gracious with fans and fellow performers.  Costar Richard Pacheco had his picture taken with Holmes and had Holmes sign it; the inscription shows some of Holmes’s graciousness and humor: “To Richard Pacheco, who taught me everything I know.”  A surprising source of praise comes from the children of Bill Amerson, an adult talent agent and film producer.  Sean and Denise Amerson were made Holmes’s godchildren, and Holmes was caring to both of them even during his bad years.  Sean here tells a hilarious story of when he was called to the principal’s office, and since his father was not available, Holmes was called.  The principal asked Sean beforehand, “That’s not The John Holmes, is it?” and got confirmation.  Holmes was serious about Sean’s infraction, discussed recompense and punishment sensibly, and everyone walked away satisfied.  “Incidentally,” says Sean, “I was famous in high school from that day on.”

Holmes had two downfalls.  One was cocaine, which he started using in the mid-seventies.  He had been a Scotch drinker and casual pot smoker, but cocaine, often freebased, took over.  Some of his most famous movies are from this time, before the cocaine began to be a problem, but eventually he was stealing props from his sets and selling them, or stealing from fellow actors, breaking into cars, or ripping off luggage at the airport.  It isn’t a unique pattern, but it was grim.  He worked for a drug supply gang, and stole drugs and money from them.  His involvement led to his presence at the horrific revenge murder of the Wonderland Gang in 1981.  Holmes was eventually charged with the four murders, but he was acquitted.  He thereupon went relatively straight, and any use of drugs became just a recreation, not an obsession.  He was able to make a happy comeback into his industry.  He had been married, almost secretly, for nineteen years, when his first wife had had enough and sought divorce in 1983, but he formed a strong and supportive second marriage with his comeback costar “Misty Dawn”, a.k.a. Laurie Holmes.  He was doing well until he contracted AIDS, the second downfall.  It is not clear how he got it, but the knowledge that he had the disease propelled him back to using drugs.  He also had unprotected sex with other performers during his final years, including the Italian actress (and member-to-be of the Italian parliament) Cicciolina in 1986, but there are no indications that he passed the disease to anyone.  He made public appearances and autograph stops thereafter, but his physical appearance and abilities deteriorated.  He died in 1988, aged 43.

Sugar and Nelson have not just given an account of Holmes’s unique life, although they have done that in astonishing detail.  They have not been obsequious in praise of “The King,” nor have they neglected to detail his many flaws without excusing the questionable morality of some of Holmes’s off-screen actions (whatever you think of his on-screen ones).  This is a look at a time when pornographic movies were going mainstream, an epoch before straight-to-video movies and before the internet.  The time included not only Holmes’s first film (1970) in the famous Johnny Wadd series, filmed in one day for $750; but also films with close-to-mainstream production values like the final in the series, The Return of Johnny Wadd (1986).  It’s the period of time covered by the wonderful Holmes-inspired movie, Boogie Nights, and any fan of that movie, of adult films, or of Holmes himself will be impressed by the thoroughness of this volume and its, uh, size.

Rob Hardy
August 2010

John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches
(BearManor Media, August 2008; ISBN-10: 1593933029)
Available at: Amazon | Amazon UK

© 2010 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

About the Reviewer:†
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
WebBio: Rob Hardy

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