“The Devil and John Holmes” was my eighth story for Rolling Stone, my second as a contract writer. It 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. 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, 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 sensimilla.
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 father figure. 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. 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.”
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. Thankfully, a verbal face slap was properly issued by my able then-editor, Robert Vare.
With Thompson I felt a little like Ebenezer Scrooge visiting with 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 small 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 newsclipping 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’ 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, well, 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’ mistress.
And here was the really interesting thing: They were friends now. More than friends. Sharon had become the mother to Dawn she’d never had.
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 turned this me turn a rather one-dimentional tale of a man with a mythological penis, into the story of a real man, the kind of guy who’d use his self-taught skill as a carpenter to turn his suburban bathroom into a faux outhouse, complete with a half-moon in the door. As the two women 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 the issue of Rolling Stone dated June 15, 1989. Paul McCartney was featured on the cover; the story was even 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 twenty-fifth anniversary 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 literary 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. I will always be grateful that someone would follow me down such a rabbit hole in the interest of saving little factoids, each one so beautiful and hard won, as any investigator knows.
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’ 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.
– Mike Sager
La Jolla, California