“The Devil and John Holmes” was my eighth story for Rolling Stone, my second as a contract writer. The year was 1989. I was thirty-two years old. The magazine called us contributing editors; I could hardly believe I was included every other week on the same masthead with the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, Susan Orlean, P.J. O’Rourke, Peter Travers, and Kurt Loder.
Rolling Stone in those days was just like you’d imagine. The walls were hung with Holy Grail stuff like the Annie Leibovitz photograph of a naked John Lennon draped around Yoko Ono. The first Rolling Stone editor I ever met, David Rosenthal, kept a big colorful bird in a cage on his windowsill, which overlooked Central Park. The first editor I ever worked with was Carolyn White, who was married to Pulitzer Prize winner—and personal hero—Richard Ben Cramer. The staff was peopled with hip geniuses who wore interesting clothes; traipsing through was the occasional visiting rock star or politician. You could buy cocaine downstairs in the production department —mixed with the ink smell and sour nicotine haze was the skunky aroma of green sinsemilla, which is what we called potent designer marijuana without seeds in those days.
My direct boss at Rolling Stone was Robert Love. It seemed like the perfect name for the job. He was a native New Yorker, an Irishman with a streak of sadness in his blue-gray eyes. His tortoise shell glasses made him look like a young professor, a forelock falling over one lens. Love would eventually serve a long stint as managing editor of Rolling Stone, the chief man under editor and publisher Jann Wenner. As my editor, Love assigned me stories, edited my copy, audited my expenses, taught me about using full stops between scenes instead of transitions, and generally nurtured me and my fledgling career as a national magazine writer. Over the years, I would come to care for him as both a friend and as a mentor. To me, editors have always felt like parents—people who enable you, people with whom you clash, people who you try above all else to make proud. It’s a classic co-dependent deal, because even though writers need editors for the work, even though much of the process of becoming a writer has to do with chasing these people down in hopes of serving them, the fact is, editors need writers to produce the work that distinguishes them—in the end, an editor is only as good as the work he or she is able to pull out of others.
Love and I spent a lot of time together at work and at play, much of it in the office (a guitar in the corner; a bottle of scotch in the drawer). The well-known literary watering hole Elaine’s was another haunt; our go-to dealer, codenamed Father Dave, lived in the east nineties, conveniently up the street from the bar. I’m pretty sure Love danced at my wedding in Washington, D.C., though things from that night, and many others during the period, remain a little hazy. I do remember for sure that no matter what we did, we had a great time and a deep bond. Working with Love, I felt understood as a writer, one of the greatest gifts we sort can enjoy.
As it happened, Love also edited Hunter S. Thompson. As a frequent overnight guest at Love’s apartment, on the Upper West Side, I would sometimes be present when Love edited the great man. Thompson’s process happened mostly at night. As the hours passed, Love scissored and taped and retyped and willed together the somewhat disjointed dispatches that were spewing out of his fax machine, some of it scrawled, some of it typed, some of it carefully cajoled and prospected from the dark and drug-addled recesses of the great man’s mind by his girl assistant of the moment.
A few years later, when Thompson was arrested on drug and sexual assault charges, I was dispatched by Rolling Stone to Woody Creek to “cover” Thompson’s case—and to lend to the entire grandiose affair an on-the-ground presence by the home office. (I still remember the antiquated language of the fax, on Rolling Stone letterhead, sent by Wenner in advance of me, a copy of which I carried in my leather backpack like a letter of introduction: “We’re sending our man Sager. He’s one of our best. He will be at your service.”) Thompson’s woes stemmed from a visit to his compound in 1990 by a former porn director, who would later describe cocaine use to authorities and accuse Thompson of giving her a tittie twister when she refused to join him in his hot tub. An 11-hour search of Thompson’s house turned up small quantities of various drugs and a few sticks of dynamite.
Upon arrival at Owl Farm, I discovered that Thompson’s usual cast of trusted functionaries and hangers-on, spooked by the unforgiving legal spotlight and Thompson’s own distraught and often erratic state of mind—not to mention his fondness for knives, firearms, and explosives— had run for the hills.
There seemed only one course of action: I volunteered to be Thompson’s man Friday.
Entering Thompson’s gonzo world was a little like falling through the looking glass. Everything was faster, louder, more dramatic, hyper-real. It was as if Thompson’s head was encased in a giant fishbowl filled with smoke. Some of the stuff that was happening in real time managed to penetrate. Other stuff, not so much. He had this way of twisting and building on what he perceived was happening until whole new worlds were forged. That’s what we all loved about his writing. In person, it was like living with Don Quixote.
And so it was that I became his faithful Sancho Panza. I did his bidding around the house, heating salmon croquets for lunch, bandaging his fingers when he cut them sharpening his knives, throwing bloody clothing into the washer, lighting enormous fires in the stone fireplace as the sun set—he insisted on dousing the logs with gasoline to enliven the show; at one point I jumped back and cut my bald head on a rusty nail; now I was bleeding too. I was given an old manual typewriter to take back with me to my not-at-all modest digs at a hotel in Aspen, where I worked into the wee hours polishing the rough columns the master was writing for a newspaper in San Francisco. “Gotta keep the cash stream flowing,” he mumbled insistently.
My days would begin in the late morning, around eleven, with an edgy trip up Thompson’s walkway; his watch-peacocks screeched like tortured ghouls from high in the bare trees. As it turned out, my initial duty of every shift was to receive from Thompson a baggie full of cocaine, usually about a quarter of an ounce, seven grams. The coke back then, if you got the unadulterated stuff, was more rocky and crystalline. It could even have a pinkish hue. You couldn’t snort it as it was. You had to render it into powder, usually with a fresh, single-edged razor blade. For greater efficiency, Thompson deployed a device that I remember being called a Deering Blender. Constructed of Tiffany-colored blue plastic, as big around as the base of a coffee mug, with a crank on the top, the Deering resembled a finer version of the multi-chambered marijuana grinders commonly in use today. When I was done cranking, a small glittery snowdrift was left gathered on the mirror.
Thompson liked to remove the ink cartridge from one of those old-school Bic pens. There were ink cartridges littered everywhere around the house; often they’d come into contact with one of his multiple burning cigarettes and melt and leak. He’d use the clear chamber of the Bic as a straw. With his fingertip securing the tiny hole, he’d dip into the pile and snort heroically ... and off we’d go, into the day and its many adventures, which lasted, on average, about thirty-six hours. One such period concluded in the wee hours with a pistol shot into the ceiling. Another came with the confession that he was lonely and wanted some privacy to call someone.
“Hey cool,” I said with jocular empathy. “Sometimes a man needs to get laid.”
Thompson looked at me soberly. “Sometimes a man just needs a hug.”
I never looked at him quite the same way after that. With his armor removed, he was just a man alone, a condition some of us writers well understand.
We were together for nearly three weeks; I wrote two stories about the case before it was dismissed after a pre-trial. Lord help me, my first draft of the first story was written in coke-fueled, rainbow-colored, faux-Thompson prose.
With Thompson I felt a little like Ebenezer Scrooge visiting the Ghost of Christmas Future. Important lessons were learned, the first of which was not to mix hard drugs and alcohol with the practice of writing. The second lesson was a little more subtle. In creating a voice for yourself as a writer, I think it’s important to make sure that the real you isn’t swept away. In the years before his death, Thompson and I would have two more adventures together in New York, one at four in the morning involving publishing honcho David Hirshey, a lost ball of hashish, and the Pope of Pot, who owned one of the pioneering marijuana services in New York.
Notwithstanding all the stagecraft and showboating and real and perceived drug craziness, Hunter Thompson was a sweet man with a large but damaged heart. For much of his life, I’m pretty sure, he was lonely in a crowd of merry makers. It’s good to know he spent his last years with someone who truly loved him and meant him well. It may be a measure of his mental state that he took his own life with his son and grandson in the house. He will always be a part of me, one of my heroes.
As an editor and a friend, Bob Love’s greatest gift to me was wonderful assignments. “A Boy and His Dog in Hell” was about kids fighting pit bulldogs in the ravaged ghettos of North Philadelphia. “Inhuman Bondage,” was about a raid on a USDA research facility outside Washington, D.C. with citizen-guerillas from the Animal Liberation Front. When Love assigned me “The Death of a High School Narc,” about a murder in a small Texas town during the early stirrings of the drug war, he did so thinking I was ready to do my first, big, true crime re-creation; he guided me through the difficult process as only a nurturer of his caliber could. “The Devil and John Holmes” was only my second attempt at true crime reportage. Like the subject himself, the task seemed gargantuan.
As it happened, the Holmes story was hatched one day in the fall of 1988. I was in New York, up from my home in Washington, DC, visiting the Rolling Stone offices. It was a good time for a writer to be seen in headquarters; my last piece for the magazine was on the newsstands—an account of my summer living with a Mexican-American gang in Venice, California during the early days of the crack epidemic. I was sitting on a desk top visiting with one of the cute assistants when I spied Jann Wenner making a bee-line toward me—at that point, we’d not yet met.
Wenner is a diminutive man like myself; his hair was wavy and full, shiny with whatever slickum men were using during that era of Pat Riley’s Showtime Lakers and Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko. He was the kind of man whose attention you wanted badly but learned to kind of regret.
Two sentences into our very first conversation, without provocation, Wenner dropped suddenly to all fours, acting out a part in my article where the Venice homeboys are feeling around on the floor for little pieces of crack that may have fallen, pedacitos, a behavior well known to many during those coke-tweaked times. With this millionaire publisher down on his hands and knees in front of me—this towering historic figure who had helped define the notion of youth culture and founded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a man who had already played himself in several movies, crawling around on the chic gray industrial carpet of this 23rd floor office in this ornate deco building in the Big Apple, just across from FAO Schwartz and the Plaza Hotel—I couldn’t help but notice one little detail: The lapels of his beautiful, bespoke blue wool pinstripe suit were dusted with tell-tale white flakes.
A little later that day, I was recounting my experience to Love in his office when he pulled out a news clipping about the AIDS death of the seminal porn star John Holmes, who’d been involved in the bludgeoning murders of four Hollywood lowlifes known as the Wonderland Gang. Holmes had earlier in the decade been tried and acquitted of the bloody crime, which would become known in the press as the Four on the Floor Murders. With Holmes’s death the case had been reopened by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Indicted in the murders were a Palestinian coke dealer and night club impresario—Adel Nasrallah, a.k.a. Eddie Nash—and his large, blubbery bodyguard, Gregory Diles.
It was a story unlike any other I’d yet done or even attempted, with three distinct reporting wars to wage—a lot of territory to claim. There was the human story of a man with a reputed fourteen-inch penis. There was the story of the porn industry that Holmes helped define—and bring into the living rooms and bedrooms of ordinary people. And there was the murder story—a tale of the wild, pre-twelve-step days in LaLa Land, when a gram of coke and a couple of Valiums were de rigueur as a pocket accessory. I was scared, excited, and overwhelmed. To pull this off, it would take every skill I’d yet learned as a journalist and then some.
Out of fear, afraid to fail on this big stage I’d talked myself onto, I assembled and contacted a twenty-page list of sources. I found the records room four stories beneath the courthouse that held all the files and evidence from the earlier court case (somebody later stole it); I found an employee who didn’t mind helping me sort things out and make copies. I interviewed porn stars, cops, federal prisoners, druggies, lawyers, film critics, and porn entrepreneurs. I took a lot of collect calls from prisons. All these bits and pieces and recollections and quotes were gathered into what I like to call my “bowl of details,” the bits of raw material that became this story.
Somewhere along in the reporting process, I heard that Holmes, before he’d become a porn star, had married a young nurse and lived a square and ordinary life in the suburbs. Searching for her, I’d somehow come across a man who claimed to have the exclusive rights to the woman’s story. At the beginning of the negotiations, he asked for money, creative input, and even a shared byline. I still have the file with all the back and forth. As I recall, I ended up going around the guy—I finally made the connection through a Los Angeles Times reporter named Rob Stewart. Reporters don’t always share contacts, but Stewart is a cool guy and agreed to forward my info to the former wife of John C. Holmes.
To keep expenses down while reporting the piece, I’d stayed in a little suite (where I could cook my own meals) at a rundown hotel on Wilshire Boulevard owned by a nice family of South Asians. I remember the knock on my door, the strong smell of curry in hallways.
At long last, Sharon Holmes stood in front of me.
And she’d arrived with a younger friend—which was weird. But at this point, after working so long on this piece, and hearing everything I’d heard, nothing was weird, if you know what I mean.
As the interview began, I learned the other woman’s name was Dawn Schiller. For the purposes of the story, she wanted to be known as Jeana.
Starting at the age of fifteen, she’d been John Holmes’s mistress.
For the next twelve hours, Sharon and Dawn sat at the little round Formica dinette table in my room and regaled me with the incredibly intimate details that helped me portray the human side of this larger-than-life figure. The stories they told were unimaginable. They helped turn this story of a mythological figure into that of a real man, a guy who used his skill as a carpenter to turn his suburban bathroom into a faux outhouse, complete with a half-moon in the door. As they spoke, it was everything I could do to keep from jumping up and down.
After a number of follow up phone interviews with both women and with other sources they suggested, and after a lot of writing, editing, fact-checking, and lawyering, “The Devil and John Holmes” ran in issue 554 of Rolling Stone, dated June 15, 1989. Paul McCartney was featured on the cover; the story was given a coveted cover line. Because of the space limitations of paper publishing, the piece ran at twelve thousand words. The “author’s refurbishment” contained in this edition weighs in at just under twenty thousand words. It was a pleasure to go back through and be able to restore so much astounding stuff to its rightful place in the manuscript, and also to smooth out some spots where saving details took precedence over voice. I remember working late into the night with copy chief Alice Gabriel to eliminate widows at the end of paragraphs by trimming sentences, allowing me to restore additional information.
Since the piece was published, a number of Hollywood types have optioned “The Devil and John Holmes” for film, including the actor Eric Roberts (who wanted to direct; his homage to Bob Fosse’s Star 80), and the screenwriter who wrote Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure II. I am also blessed and cursed by the fact that two popular movies, which were inspired and partially based on my story, Boogie Nights and Wonderland, did not credit me or include me as a financial participant—though I was pleased the Wonderland producers did compensate Sharon Holmes and Dawn Schiller for the use of their life stories.
The truth of the matter is that I did not own the rights to Holmes’s story or to the life stories of any of the characters in this piece, so nothing is owed to me that I can tell. The way I see it, I was lucky to have such a great story placed in my lap by a great editor at a great magazine—though I have always been left to wonder if the story is popular because I did a good job or because it’s about a guy with a reputed fourteen-inch penis.
In fact, it was not fourteen inches.
The exact dimensions are reported faithfully within the book.
Accompanying “The Devil and John Holmes” in this special author’s edition are three other related stories. “Little Girl Lost,” is about the life and death of the mercurial porn starlet Savannah, who was among the first of the high profile and well paid Vivid Girls, the A list of studio porn in the 1980s and 1990s; “Deviates in Love” about a visit to a swingers convention in the early days of amateur porn; and “The Porn Identity,” about a divorced man’s search for retired porn superstars in an effort to get his mojo back.
If you care to know more than is necessary about the author, that last one might be written in first person.
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DEEP IN LAUREL CANYON, the Wonderland Gang was planning its last heist. It was Sunday evening and the drugs were gone, the money was gone, the situation was desperate. They’d sold a pound of baking soda for a quarter of a million dollars: there were contracts out on their lives. Now they had another idea. They sat around a glass table in the breakfast nook. Before them were two pairs of handcuffs, a stolen police badge, several automatic pistols, and a dog-eared sheet of paper—a floor plan. They needed a score. This was it.
There were seven of them meeting in the house on Wonderland Avenue, a jaundiced stucco box on a steep, winding road in the hills above Hollywood. Joy Audrey Miller, forty-six, held the lease. She was thin, blonde, foul-mouthed, a heroin addict with seven arrests. She had two daughters, had once been married to a Beverly Hills attorney. A year ago, she’d been busted for dealing drugs out of the Wonderland house. Six months ago she’d had a double mastectomy. Her lover was Billy DeVerell, forty-two. He was also a heroin addict. He had a slight build, a pockmarked face, a record of thirteen arrests. He favored cowboy boots and dirty jeans. “He looked like a guy you might find in a dive bar in El Paso,” according to a neighbor.
Sharing the house with Miller and DeVerell was Ronald Launius, thirty-seven. Blond and bearded, Launius claimed to have been a sergeant in the air force. He’d served federal time for drug smuggling. A California cop called him “one of the coldest people I ever met.” According to police records, Launius had been arrested in connection with the 1973 death of an informant. Charges were dropped after a witness was killed in a shootout.
The house at 8763 Wonderland Avenue rented for $750 a month. There was a garage on the first floor; the second and third floors had balconies facing the street. A stairway, leading from the garage to the front door, was caged in iron bars. There was a telephone at the entrance, an electronic deadbolt on the gate, two pit bulls sleeping on the steps.
Though elaborately secure, the house was paint-cracked and rust-stained, an eyesore in a trendy neighborhood. Laurel Canyon had long been a prestige address, an earthy, woodsy setting just minutes from Sunset Boulevard and all the glitter and rush of Tinseltown. Tom Mix and Harry Houdini once lived there among the quail and scrub pine and coyotes. Later, in the sixties, the canyon attracted writers, artists, rock stars, actors, plenty of trust-funders, and a large community of drug dealers who kept all the various fires stoked. Number 8763 Wonderland Avenue had some history of its own: Paul Revere and the Raiders, a Beatles-era band, had once lived there.
By the eighties, former California governor Jerry Brown was living on Wonderland Avenue, and Steven Spielberg was building on a lot nearby. The house at 8763 had passed from a raucous group of women—neighbors recall naked women being tossed from the first-floor balcony—to the members of the Wonderland Gang. Things at the house were always hopping; someone was always showing up with a scam. Miller, DeVerell, and Launius needed drugs every day. They were always looking for an opportunity. Jewelry stores, convenience stores, private homes, a pet shop owner with an antique coin collection, a crooked cop with three kilos of marijuana in the trunk of his car. They would try anything, as long as it meant money or drugs.
“You could always tell when they had some drugs to sell,” recalls the neighbor across the street. “There was a lot of traffic, all day, all night,” says another neighbor. “Everything from Volkswagens to a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. Like thirty to forty cars over a two or three-day period. They would throw brown bags of dope off the balcony to the people in the cars. Sometimes people would park and stay a couple of hours, or sometimes they left quickly. There was shouting, laughing, and loud rock ’n’ roll music twenty-four hours a day.”
At the moment, on this evening of June 28, 1981, Wonderland Avenue was quiet. Five men and two women were meeting in the breakfast nook, sitting in swivel chairs, leaning against walls. The floor plan before them showed a three-bedroom, high-end tract house on a cul-de-sac in the San Fernando Valley. It had a pool and a sunken living room, a white stone façade, a chain-link fence surrounding the perimeter. Inside were smoked mirrors and a rare, theater-sized TV. Ready for the taking was a painting by Rembrandt, a jade and ivory collection, sterling silver, jewelry, a number of firearms and, most appealing of all, large quantities of money and drugs.
The man who owned the house was named Adel Nasrallah. He was known as Eddie Nash. A naturalized American, Nash came to California from Palestine in the early fifties. In 1960 he opened a hot-dog stand on Hollywood Boulevard. He cooked, served, and waited tables all by himself. By the mid-seventies, Nash held thirty-six liquor licenses, owned real estate and other assets worth more than $30 million.
Nash had clubs of all kinds; he catered to all predilections. The Kit Kat was a strip club. The Seven Seas was a bus-stop joint across Hollywood Boulevard from Mann’s Chinese Theaters. It had a tropical motif, a menu of special drinks, a Polynesian revue, sometimes belly dancers. His gay clubs were in the first in LA to allow same-sex dancing. His black club was like a Hollywood Harlem, jazz and pinkie rings and wide-brimmed straw hats. The Starwood, on Santa Monica Boulevard, featured cutting-edge rock ’n’ roll. In the late seventies, Los Angeles police averaged twenty-five drug busts a month at the Starwood. One search of the premises yielded a cardboard box containing four thousand counterfeit Quaaludes. A sign on the box, written in blue Magic Marker, said, FOR DISTRIBUTION AT BOX OFFICE.
Nash was a drug dealer and a heavy user. His drug of choice was freebase, home-cooked crack cocaine, and he was smoking it at the rate of two to three ounces a day. He always had large quantities of coke, heroin, Quaaludes and other drugs at the house. His bodyguard, Gregory DeWitt Diles, was a karate expert and convicted felon who weighed a blubbery 300 pounds. According to an eyewitness, Diles once chased a man out of the Kit Kat and emptied his .38 revolver into the man’s car. The car was on the other side of Santa Monica Boulevard, across six lanes of traffic. The time was 2:30 in the afternoon. No one was injured.
Nash and Diles were well known on Sunset Strip. “Eddie Nash assumed he deserved a certain amount of respect,” says one denizen. “He treated people right. Nobody who ever worked for him didn’t make good money. And he always stood up. If somebody needed to get out of jail, if somebody needed whatever, you could go explain the problem to him. If it was a decent problem—not just ‘I need money for dope,’ but really a problem—Eddie was in his pocket right now. No problem, no questions asked. But one thing’s for sure. If somebody fucked with Eddie Nash, they got dead.”
Now, in the breakfast nook, in one of the swivel chairs, a tall, gaunt man with curly hair and a sparse beard pointed to the floor plan he had sketched.
“Here, this back bedroom, that’s Diles’s room,” he said. “He keeps a sawed-off shotgun under the blanket . . . Here, this is Nash’s room. There’s a floor safe in the closet, right . . . over . . . here,” he indicated. “There’s a black attaché case somewhere in there, and also this metal strong box. And don’t forget, on the dresser, there’s a big vial of heroin.”
“You sure about this, donkey dick?” asked Tracy McCourt, the gang’s wheelman.
"Fuck you, dirt bag,” said John Holmes, thirty-six.
“Fuck you, Holmes!” shot back DeVerall from across the table. “You owe us. You owe me! You better be right about this shit.”
“Hey, it’s cool,” Holmes said. He flashed his well-known smirk, always the man with the plan. “I know Eddie. He loves me. He thinks I’m famous.”
John Holmes was famous, at least in some circles. What he was famous for was his penis.
In a career that would span twenty years, Holmes told people he’d made 2,274 hard-core pornographic films and had sex with fourteen thousand women. At the height of his popularity, he earned three thousand dollars a day on films and almost as much turning tricks, servicing wealthy men and women on both coasts and in Europe, according to a Los Angeles vice detective who used Holmes as an informant on prostitution and porn cases for fifteen years.
Since the late sixties, Holmes had traded on his natural endowment. According to legend, his penis, when erect, measured between eleven and fifteen inches in length. Recently, however, Holmes biggest commodity had been trouble. He was freebasing one hit of coke every ten to fifteen minutes, swallowing forty to fifty Valium a day to cut the edge. The drugs affected his penis; he couldn’t get it up, he couldn’t work in porn. Now he’d been reduced to being a drug delivery boy for the Wonderland Gang. His mistress, Dawn, who’d been with him since she was fifteen, was turning tricks to support his habit. They were living out of the trunk of his estranged wife’s Chevy Malibu. Holmes was stealing luggage off conveyers at LA International, buying appliances with his wife’s credit cards and fencing them for cash. Holmes was into Nash for a small fortune. And now Holmes owed the Wonderland Gang, too. He’d messed up a delivery, had a big argument with DeVerell and Launius; they took back his key to Wonderland and Launius punched him out. “You need to make this right,” the gang told him. Holmes’s addled synapses played him a picture: Eddie Nash.
And now it was actually happening.
“So you go in,” Launius continued to Holmes, reviewing the plan. “You talk to Nash, whatever, you tell him you got to take a piss. Then what?”
“I leave the sliding door unlocked. This one,” said Holmes, pointing to the floor plan. “Here in the back. The guest bedroom. Then I leave. I come back to Wonderland. Tell you it’s all clear. Then you guys go over with the badge and handcuffs, act like it’s a bust, and clean them out.”
“Why the fuck don't we just kill ’em?” asked McCourt. “Let’s go in there, get what we need, and kill everybody. That way we don't leave no witnesses.”
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