Born in Burlington, Ontario, Jill C. Nelson is the co-author (with Jennifer Sugar) of the exhaustive biography John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches and the forthcoming Golden Goddesses: 25 Legendary Women on Classic Erotic Cinema 1968–1985 (both published by Bear Manor Media). She’s interviewed by John Harrison, author of Hip Pocket Sleaze: The Lurid World of Vintage Adult Paperbacks.
John Harrison: What was the main impetus for writing John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches, and what did you and Jennifer Sugar feel you could add to the Holmes’ story that hadn’t been covered in previous books/films/documentaries on the man?
Jill Nelson: Jennifer, a twenty-one year old science and math student at the time, initiated writing Inches in 2004. She was stunned to learn that apart from Porn King, the autobiography released by John’s widow Laurie Holmes in 1998, a definitive bio on John Holmes had not already been published. With marginal knowledge about Holmes, Jennifer had seen the film Wonderland at a theatre and became curious about his entire life story. In her mind, given the weight of his status in the X-rated industry, combined with his involvement in the Wonderland crimes and the fact he was the first adult film celebrity to die of AIDS, screamed out that a consummate biography should be written on John Holmes. She decided to do it herself. Neither one of us had a writing background or knowledge of the pornographic film industry prior to taking this project on. We didn’t even know one another, which is ironically amusing. I came to the project much the same way that Jennifer had. I happened to rent the film Wonderland in 2005 and I was drawn to learn more about John’s background story which wasn’t depicted in the film. Jennifer and I met on a message board for the film Wonderland and began communicating through e-mail. About a year later in 2006, she invited me to be her collaborator.
After independently absorbing as much information about John as was possible, we felt that although the pre-existing documentaries/films were compelling, they were highly sensational, biased, and at least partially inaccurate. We believed we could present the John Holmes story in a way that it had not been told before: truthful, balanced and unbiased without shying away from the darker components of his life. We accomplished our goal by conducting many of our own interviews with the key people in John’s life and we utilized supplemental material. After sifting through everything we had, we were able to provide an in depth look at the entire scope of John’s life and career. Jennifer’s mandate was that Inches would be the consummate book on John Holmes, which is why we also screened and reviewed 114 feature films/86 loops, and generated the most up to date Holmes filmography in addition to the inclusion of several never-before-seen photos.
When you were researching Inches, were you more attracted to Holmes the man, the myth of his legend or the dark violence and tragedy of his downfall?
In the beginning, we were interested in the aspects of the Wonderland crimes; that is partly what had attracted each of us to see the film initially. Of course, the story was more intriguing because a porn legend was involved. I think that when an individual/writer takes on a biography or a project of sheer magnitude such as Inches, you have to feel some kind of affection or even empathy for your subject, otherwise the work can feel laborious. Especially when the writers are two novice authors and new to the genre of porn! For what it’s worth, for several reasons, we have both acknowledged since the book’s release that we were meant to tell this story. John was a deeply flawed man, but he also had many positive and enduring elements to his character. More than anything, people were drawn to his charisma, both women and men, which is one of the reasons, apart from his legendary appendage, he was successful in his field, and many people who had known him still speak fondly of him to this day. As a street-smart individual and survivor, he used his personality to his advantage. As time progressed, Jennifer and I were consumed by the total experience of John’s life and by the process of trying to assimilate everything, all of the highs and lows.
For instance, we’d be working on uncovering the ugly details of the robbery and the murders and talking with one or another of the homicide detectives, and suddenly, we’d receive an e-mail or call from someone in John’s private life who would disclose something thoughtful John had done. It was a challenging effort to make sure that despite some of the heinous things John did, we showed respect to John’s memory overall. Many people we talked to asked that we do that. It was important that we respected our interviewees. We had a precarious tightrope to walk to ensure that we were meticulous in revealing all angles equally. I think it helped that we didn’t have an agenda going in except to tell the story to the best of our ability.
How different do you think Holmes’ legacy would be if he hadn’t of gotten involved in the Wonderland gang, and if he hadn’t contracted HIV? In many ways, the spiral of his later years is more fascinating to many than his pioneering work in adult entertainment.
Certainly, John Holmes’ legacy might not hold quite the same position in the hierarchy of the adult industry it does today if John hadn’t developed the reputation he did for activities unrelated to his vocation. At the same time, I believe and I think Jennifer would agree, prior to his Wonderland activities and his death from AIDS, historically, John was already one of the most significant people in the adult genre because of his pioneering role and place in the early production of sex films. As a sexual performer/professional, John Holmes initiated his adult career in the mid-sixties doing nude photo layouts mostly for men’s magazines, and he appeared in nudist films for (Taboo director) Kirdy Stevens along with one of his girlfriends at the time, Sandy Dempsey. According to Stevens, in 1967, Holmes appeared in the first series of hardcore loops for mail order in the United States, also with Dempsey. John was the first performer/actor to carry a lead role in a porn series. That had not been done prior to director Bob Chinn’s brainstorm to create the gumshoe Johnny Wadd, resulting in a nine-part series that ran from 1970-1978. It was reiterated to us throughout the development of our book by directors, friends and associates that during the golden era, John’s worst movies would consistently outsell the leading women’s best films. No other golden age male performer was able to accomplish that. Ron Jeremy is still astounded by that fact to this day. Obviously, John’s member was the main attraction, but I also believe some of the credit goes to Holmes himself for playing an unassuming, easy-going character in most of his pictures which men (and women) could and did find relatable and non-threatening. Many truly wonderful male (and female) actors came along after Holmes and during his tenure who clearly elevated the quality of performance and enhanced the production values of adult pictures such as Jamie Gillis, John Leslie, Richard Pacheco, Paul Thomas, Bobby Astyr and many more, but John Holmes paved the way for those people who have all conceded as much. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Your new book, Golden Goddesses, profiles twenty-five women from the golden age of adult cinema. How did you go about deciding what names you would feature in the book?
Around the time we launched Inches, I started thinking it would be interesting to talk with many of the women we had interviewed to learn about their own lives in more detail. I felt it was important to document their contributions to the history of adult entertainment during the golden age, but I also wanted to try to show them in a human and humane light. It seemed a natural next step to do this book since many of the women we’d already established contacts with were well known.
First, I had to seriously consider if I wanted to devote another three or more years of my life to another all-consuming book project since Jennifer had graciously opted out of this one. Since the completion of Inches, she’d gotten married; started a full time job and began working on her master’s degree. However, she did write my new book’s foreword which is wonderful. I ultimately decided if I was going to do another book, the timing felt right to do something again of this nature. I acknowledged I had the energy to take it on because I work only three days a week at my real job (as a Hearing Instrument Specialist) so I was afforded the time. My husband is a very understanding and supportive person! I began going through my contact list and if they were agreeable, from there, several of the women put me in touch with others and it sort of snowballed.
My criteria for the book was/is this: I wanted to feature twenty-five women who had started their careers in sexual films during the golden era which I determined to fall between the years 1968–1985, around the introduction of hardcore and concluding with the crossover to video. My twenty-five profiles begin with Ann Perry-Rhine and end with Nina Hartley. I personally believe that each women featured is significant to the era in her own unique way which will be revealed by the stories shared. I think I’ve got a very impressive line-up. There were several other females I very much would like to have spoken to and/or interviewed. I was told certain individuals had either gone AWOL, were incognito, uninterested, or all of the above. I had to respect that and not attempt to contact them even if their information was available to me.
What performers would you liked to have included in the book but were unable to, either due to unavailability or the actress being deceased?
Off the top of my head, I had hoped to speak with Samantha Fox. Samantha Fox was a terrific actor and a magnetic personality in every single performance in which she appeared. She is a jewel. I thought she would make for a tremendous addition to my book. She allegedly still stays in touch with a few friends, but is definitely not interested in talking about her past. I had also hoped to speak with Lesllie Bovee, another hugely popular star from the seventies era. She apparently resides in New York with her husband and has a grown son. She is not interested in revisiting her past, although she also stays in touch with some industry friends. I had also hoped to include Vanessa del Rio. We actually had a few e-mail exchanges back and forth, but in the end, nothing came of it unfortunately. Annette Haven contemplated for quite a long time whether she would participate. Again, for personal reasons, she declined. Mai Lin and I had several telephone conversations but things didn’t work out. She has some health issues so we just weren’t able to make our schedules work. I was disappointed not to be able to speak with some of the other key women, but I am very pleased to say I have incorporated all five of the above women in my ‘Honourable Mentions’ section. Examples of others on my wish list were Candy Samples, Uschi Digart, Desiree West, Desiree Cousteau, and countless more. I have discovered that the stars have to be aligned when people are willing and ready to talk. It’s almost magical. Again, I am very pleased and proud of the stellar cross section of females I was able to assemble for this book consisting of performers, directors and one screenwriter. I anticipate that readers will see his or her favourite golden age personality in a new and exciting light. I also hope people will gain an insightful understanding and appreciation for this special group of maverick women. In addition to their interviews (each woman tells her own story throughout), I have added film highlights and a treasure trove of amazing photos. I’m very excited.
With Inches, Golden Goddesses, and my own forthcoming book on Rene Bond, it seems as if public interest in adult cinema’s golden age isn’t likely to wane anytime soon. What do you attribute it’s lasting fascination to?
I believe people of my generation, the baby boomers and others in that general age bracket are interested in the vintage medium of art and artists: music, films, books, entertainment. Another part of it is due to the fact that many of them feel the way several of the women featured in my book feel. People are disenchanted by today’s sex films and they don’t think there is any value in contemporary erotic movies. There isn’t anything tangible offered and the productions appear very extreme in every conceivable way. Not to mention, porn is so readily accessible now on the internet and girls are hired to perform specialty acts in scenes, not roles in films. The adult landscape has changed dramatically. I think the lack of quality, emotion and semblance of a storyline has motivated people to seek out the classics, where they feel a kinship with the performers and style of presentation. The classic performers were identifiable, distinctively talented and many of the films were extremely well made.
Any thoughts on what your next project will be after Golden Goddesses is out?
I have a couple of ideas I’d like to explore further that are completely unrelated to the adult industry although (adult film historian) Bill Margold keeps telling me he wants me to write his biography. I am interested in putting together a travelogue of a six-month sojourn I made with a girlfriend across Canada and the United States when we were seventeen and eighteen years old, hitchhiking, living in youth hostels and picking up work whenever we could. I’ve kept a journal of that trip with sketches, poems and other writings. It might be fun to see what I could do with it. I’m also interested in interviewing incarcerated men. I think it would be fascinating to do a book in a similar style as Goddesses, profiling one story per chapter. I don’t believe damaged men are granted the same level of support by society in our culture as women receive. They are generally perceived as perpetrators while women are seen as victims. In my mind, both genders are equally capable of good and evil. I’d really like to learn more about their personal life journeys: how they got from point A to B and what is in store for their futures with respect to rehabilitation, etc.