Nieman Storyboard » Storyboard Posts http://niemanstoryboard.org Exploring the art and craft of story Wed, 26 Nov 2014 21:01:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.1 Annotation Tuesday: the Porn Star and Mike Sager http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/annotation-tuesday-the-porn-star-and-mike-sager/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/annotation-tuesday-the-porn-star-and-mike-sager/#comments Tue, 25 Nov 2014 17:51:05 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=117281 I’ve been thinking about Mike Sager’s story, “The Devil and John Holmes,” for a long time. I first read his chronicle of the famous porn star and the Wonderland murders when it came out in 1989; I was 10 years old. It is a testament to the story’s vividness that, when I picked it up years later, so much of it–entire scenes and lines of dialogue–had stuck with me. (It’s not surprising that parts of the story ended up in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. “There was this great Rolling Stone article,” Anderson said on his DVD commentary, “and I remember the description of this guy Eddie Nash in Speedos and the sheen of sweat on his body.”)

Some of the remarkable detail in the Rolling Stone piece comes from extensive interviews Sager did with two women in Holmes’s life: his first wife, Sharon, and Dawn Schiller, a teenager he had a relationship with and prostituted to support his drug habit. Schiller, who is now 53 and a graduate student at Eastern Oregon University, says the piece still holds up.

“The story is in alignment with what I lived,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “I think [Sager] did a really sensitive job. It could’ve been salacious. It could’ve been crude. He didn’t lean in any specific direction.”

For more than 25 years, Sager has continued to produce exceptional work, including the definitive portraits of Janet Cooke, Veronica Guerin and Todd Marinovich–for which he won the 2010 National Magazine Award for profile writing.

Mike Sager

Mike Sager

Sager, a writer-at-large for Esquire, invited me out to his home in San Diego. I reflexively said yes. We talked and talked and talked. In his office, in his car, at a restaurant. All told, we burned for about seven hours.

My comments are in red ; his responses in blue . (You can read the story without the annotations by clicking the “hide all annotations” button to the right.) First, some questions:

Storyboard: How did Rolling Stone approach you to do this story?

Mike Sager: I was in the office, and Bob Love pulled out a recent newsclip about the AIDS death of Holmes. “The Devil and John Holmes” was my eighth story for the magazine and my second as a contract writer.

If you could do the story now, would you do it any differently?

No, it was a great piece. It was delightful. I was very proud of it. I was a little hurt, as writers are, that no one noticed it, or said anything about it. So it’s gratifying to have you want to break it down–to see it as a work of art, not just a work of penis.

The story was cool because it was the culmination of the training I’d had. I’ve never been a genius. I’ve always been crawl, walk, run. But it took all the skills that I had to get this done. I’m proud of it. It’s cool.

I guess I like that I’m associated with porn and the underworld and drugs. In a certain way, I sometimes feel I’m a little tarnished or dirty for specializing in these things.

Is it frustrating to have an early story be so beloved?

No, because I never knew it was beloved. I feel like I’m garnering attention now that I didn’t get forever.

The Devil and John Holmes
By John Holmes
Rolling Stone
May 1989

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 dogeared sheet of paper, a floor plan. They needed a score. This was it. We enter the story with the action already in full swing, sort of like beginning a movie in the middle of a sentence. Why did you choose to begin it this way?   I have a very distinctive feeling that the story should not begin with the climax. As reporters, we’re trained to give our best stuff in the lede. As we move forward to becoming feature writers, a lot of people stick with that format; so many true crime stories start with what is, essentially, the orgasm. To me, it’s like, if I know the ending of the story, why should I read anymore? The psychology of storytelling is: foreshadowing, teasing, elongating, and making it dramatic. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing here. According to the sacred tenets of the New Journalism, we are using the techniques of the novel in order to tell truth. We’re trying to use scenes, setting, character development, but the very basis of that thing is storytelling. So I like to start before the climax, and get you sort of worked up, then drop you for a while and go back. Then, all the while, keep you wanting to read until the end. I feel as though this kind of stuff is entertainment, and we’re competing with everything else out there. So I’m writing to keep the reader involved and moving, hand over hand, reeling the reader in as I go. Sometimes I push him out a little bit, sometimes I pull him in. It’s the presentation of facts that helps you do that.   You mention New Journalism. Do you generally subscribe to those ideas? Not just generally. I subscribe to them, and I think what I have done, as each generation of artists should do, is take the work before you, make it your own, and take it to a new place. The tenets of New Journalism were made popular by Tom Wolfe, but I’m more of a Gay Talese guy, in the sense that I don’t exaggerate, and I treat my subjects with amazing respect. I don’t arrive with a white suit; I arrive all in black, stay small, and try to let the action happen around me. That is the basic thing about all of my writing. The crime writing is just a thing that I got into because it was a period of time when that’s what people wanted, and because I had the skillset. But what I really loved was the anthropological approach, where you hung out with people and you let the story come to you. Then you find the drama from within that. My background is an amalgamation of all the writers in this room–from Truman Capote, with his either remembered or made-up stuff, to John McPhee. But mostly, I’m in the sweet spot of Tom Wolfe for his anthropology, Gay Talese for his simplicity of language and humanity, and Hunter Thompson for his little bit of craziness.   That being said, did you have a model in mind, a certain story that served as a template?   I’ve never been that guy. I always have been weirdly self-taught. Around 1980, I’d been working at the [Washington] Post for two years, and Walt Harrington came to work there. He’d come from Allentown. He was not a professor at the time. He was just going to be my editor. He read my work, and he said, “Have you ever read Tom Wolfe?” I said, “Who?” I was a history major in college, I was 21 years old, and I’d barely read a newspaper before. I just wanted to write. So I started doing this reporting at the Washington Post, which was great because I had an ear for it. I could learn a police short in a minute. That give me the underpinnings. But then Harrington came along, and showed me this book, The New Journalism, and the first thing I read was about the ‘scoop slobs’ and the ‘feature writers’ and I said, “Oh my God, this is what’s been going on.” Because as a young person, you go through the storm thinking you’re the only one who’s ever gone through it.   Did you have a cinematic view of the story’s opening? Did you think about it as a movie?   Yes. When I do these stories, I think about everything in terms of a movie. I’d already had the idea of writing in scenes, but I used to write in one take, with transitions. Bob Love at Rolling Stone taught me to stop and go to black. I mean, this story is very raw. It was one of the first ones I’d done like this. Doing these stories is like paint by numbers, but you have to draw the stencil. The stencil is a film, 24 frames per second. First, I found all the shit I could find. Then I structured together what actually happened. I’m visual. I grew up with television. I see the focus of scenes. And when I sit down to write each individual scenes; that’s when I imagine it from the facts I have–which paint by numbers cells I can color in–and don’t have. So there’s two things: First of all, if you’re in contact with your sources and you’re a good reporter, you never burn your sources. So you can call them back and you can say, “Tell me more about this scene,” which is a huge, huge part of what I do. I never unfriend sources. The other thing is, you can judiciously pick what scenes you have, based on what information you have. Tracy McCourt, the driver in the first scene, I was in touch with him. He was in jail. He would call me collect. So between him, and all of the transcripts of the trial–all of this shit was in the transcripts. Like, What did you say then? What did you do then? What were you carrying? Where were you? When you go to trial, they ask all these questions. As we go through this, I can’t honestly say that I’ll remember where everything came from, but I can honestly say that I remember spending a week in a room with the lawyers and the fact-checkers. It was all paper back then. It cost hundreds of dollars to buy copies of the transcripts that I found, four stories underground, at this building next door to the courthouse. Some clerk told me to look down there, and I found a friendly guy who ended up helping me.

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, 46, held the lease. She was thin, blond, 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. Where did you get this information on Miller?   There had been some reporting done about her by a guy at the L.A. Times named Robert Stewart. The Times wrote a huge story about her when she was killed. So that’s where these details come from. I don’t remember being able to contact anyone from her family. But she was well written about at the time. Garry Wills said something like, “Let history happen and let the dust settle. Then go in afterwards.” The thing I talk about a lot in my writing is the bowl of details. What I do, after the dust settles, is I go in and try to fill my bowl with everything that was written, every person I can speak to, everything I can possibly collect.   Did Rolling Stone cover your expenses?   Rolling Stone paid every penny. Her lover was Billy DeVerell. DeVerell, 42, was also a heroin addict. He had a slight build, a pockmarked face, a record of thirteen arrests. “He looked like a guy in a dive bar in El Paso,” according to a neighbor.

Sharing the house with Miller and DeVerell was Ronald Launius, 37. Blond and bearded, Launius had served federal time for drug smuggling. A California cop called him “one of the coldest people I ever met.”

Story Proposal

Story Proposal

The house at 8763 Wonderland 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. There was a telephone at the entrance, an electronic deadbolt on the gate, two pit bulls sleeping on the steps.  Did you spend time in the house?   I don’t think I could get in, but I went door to fucking door on that street. Every fucking house. Some people who were still there would tell me things. I remember that day, the dejected feeling. The thing is, in the bowl of details, each is hard-won. I got enough details to give you a sense of things. I think it’s important to point out that magazine journalism, to some degree, is blue smoke and mirrors. Because if you get the sense of the plot, then you can find little snippets of things that, through digression, you don’t need a whole lot of action. If you can find three or four lines of dialogue, and then sprinkle in the characters and motion and attitude and setting, then you’re able to advance a point without having a whole lot. You find little moments of time, little scenes. Omission is a very important part of journalism and also the friend of the writer. You have some things and you don’t have other things. You go to your strengths to see what you have. But before you do that, you get everything you can possibly get. I should say that, around this time, I looked like I look, which was very unusual. I had a shaved head and a very dark complexion. When I left the Post in ‘84, I went to Don Graham to say goodbye. He’d helped me work up the line. The first thing he said was, “You did get an earring!” It was a rampant rumor [at the Post] that a guy who wasn’t gay had gotten an earring. I’d always get busted in every country I’d go into. I went to Israel, and the Shin Bet made a circle around me on the tarmac. I was wearing a purple shirt. So going door-to-door was an effort, too. But I always had a good smile, so I had you. Because I knew you were afraid and then I could say something silly and get you. But still, there’s nothing worse than the day-to-day slog of being a journalist and just collecting one little thing, one little thing, one little thing. Meanwhile, there are bigger things going on that are taking months and months to do, so you go out and do it.   Right. Early on, I had heard that John Holmes had a wife, and I was trying to get hold of her. So all through the time of doing this little stuff–talking to the cops, going door-to-door, talking to lawyers–I was also working my way through to this guy, Page Buckey, who was supposedly the agent for John Holmes’s wife, Sharon. He lived in Scottsdale, Arizona. His claim to fame was that he’d lived as the lover of Bette Davis during the glory years of Hollywood. He strung me out for, like, six or eight months. Anyway, I’d heard that he’d had this woman and that’s the story I wanted. Sharon had never been interviewed at that point? No, and nobody knew about Dawn [“Jeana”]. I didn’t know any of this shit then, but to me, finding the creamy center of your character–finding the heart–is the most important thing. My ex-wife used to joke that I’d write about Hitler and find something good about him. And I would gladly say, “Yes, because someone loved him.” Eva Braun loved him! And to me, John Holmes was always going to be painted as a guy who died of AIDS, who was a drug addict, all this bad stuff. Now that John’s drug use has been brought up: my ability to portray it had a lot to do with my job as a drugs correspondent and also as a seeker of drugs over the years. I was an excellent cook of freebase, back in the day. I freebased a lot. When Len Bias died, my friend Henry Schuster from CNN brought over pictures to try to identify this as crack or freebase. I mean, I was smoking it. That was my drug of choice.   While you were working on this story?   No, but for years before that.   So when you sat down with the lawyers, and they’d say, “How do you know this?,” did you say, “Because I’ve done it?”   Well, sometimes.

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 the glitter and rush of Tinseltown. Tom Mix and Harry Houdini once lived there among the quail and scrub pine and coyotes. Every sentence is packed with information, maybe even more than necessary. (It’s wonderful.) Most writers would have ended the sentence after “lived there.” What made you include the bit about quail and coyotes?   Albert Murray, you ever heard of him? He was the first real writer I ever met. When I was at Emory, before Emory got big, we used to have English out in the temporary classrooms. He was the writer-in-residence. I’d been a guitar player, a photographer, and then I found writing. That was my expression of creativity. So we were in the classroom one day, off the quad, and he’d written a sentence all the way around the room. He went through it and put slash marks. Then I remember him scat singing it. Ba! Boo! Doo! Da! That’s wild. I always wrote out loud, but I had to stop eventually because my voice was getting too fucked up. But if you listen to, say, Oscar Peterson playing, he’s always humming over his work. That’s how I write. That shit’s made to be read. There’s poetry in commission. I look at sentences that way. Also, I kind of like long sentences that, by pace and rhythm, give you time to breathe but take you on a different journey. I refer to it as the J-stroke. If you ever went to camp and took canoeing, you know what it is–a stroke with a turn. That’s what I like to do to my readers: fuck with their heads. Everybody thinks they always know where you’re going, and I never want to go there.  Later, in the Sixties, the canyon attracted writers and artists, rock stars and gurus. Number 8763 Wonderland Avenue had some history of its own: Paul Revere and the Raiders once lived there.

By the Eighties, former California governor Jerry Brown was living on Wonderland Avenue, and Steven Spielberg was building on a lot not far away. Interesting to see the house now. It looks so harmless! Is it still green?   My mother called it “cat-shit green.”  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—they would try anything, as long as it meant money or drugs.

“There was a lot of traffic, all day, all night,” says a neighbor. How many neighbors did you talk to? Were they hesitant?   Yeah, most people didn’t answer the door. But then I gave them a card from Rolling Stone. I left my card at every door. Maybe a person or two called back. I was in L.A., watching John Holmes videos, trying to keep myself busy to make justifiable the car–a Metro Geo. I don’t know if this is for Harvard consumption, but I have a personal story to tell that involves the months and months of research on John Holmes.   Go ahead.   When I was in this small hotel, they were able to rent me a VCR and I started collecting John Holmes videos. I felt like, as a good journalist, I should go through all the John Holmes films. And I remember distinctly, after months and months of doing this research, stopping the thing and going into the bathroom in my hotel room to take a pee, and looking down at my penis and thinking, What happened to it? I thought I was pretty well endowed, for a small guy–more of a grower than a shower–but after watching…The thing about John Holmes’s penis was, it was really symmetrical and anatomically correct, even in its gargantuan size. When you get gigantism in nature, you get often grotesqueries. By the way, I talked to doctors and they said it would take a pint of blood to fill that thing. So it was never completely rock hard.   So…the neighbors. Weren’t they frightened to talk to you because of the subject matter? Wasn’t Eddie Nash still at large?   Nobody was afraid of his reprisals. He might have been in jail, at that point. Actually, the hardest people to deal with in the whole story were those in the sex industry. Because they’re all damaged people, to some extent. But the great thing was, once I earned my way in, they were very kind and gave me a lot of access. I mean, I went to porn sets, I talked to people who knew John–enough so that, years later, when I did a story where I had to find these old porn starlets, my contacts from the John Holmes story invited me to the funeral of a director who had just died. And everybody was like, “Mike! How you doin’?” Everybody helped me.  “Everything from Volkswagens to a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. They threw brown bags of dope off the balcony. There was shouting, laughing, rock & roll twenty-four hours a day.”

Letter from Mike Sager to Tracy McCourt

Letter from Mike Sager to Tracy McCourt

At the moment, on this evening of June 28th, 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 facade. Inside was a painting by Rembrandt, a jade and ivory collection, sterling silver, jewelry and, most appealing of all, large quantities of money and drugs. Perhaps more than any other story I’ve ever read, I’m insanely curious about the sourcing. I’m generally pretty good at figuring it out. But here, I mean, you tell us the women were leaning against the wall during the planning of a heist. It’s a beautiful detail! How did you know?   Tracy McCourt. He just told me what the meeting was like. Where they were standing, where they were sitting, talking on the phone. Close your eyes and assemble in your mind the scene. Those are my questions. The first thing I do when I interview someone is ask the you-were-born-in-a-log-cabin shit. Then I start getting to the thing, and if there’s something I’m after, I ask for the scene to be painted. Who was where, what was here. Also, in the court documents, there’s a list of everything that was in the room. Because they’re so fucking, you know, thorough in court. There were pictures and all that shit to go along with it. That was a no-brainer. I had Tracy McCourt and they’d established the timeline of the crime very clearly in court. It was very clear, the part where John Holmes went from Wonderland Avenue to Dona Lola Place and back was very, very well documented in the court records. All the victims of the crime were also well documented in the court records and in the L.A. Times. For you, what were the biggest gaps in the story, in terms of what hadn’t already been written about?   Whatever I didn’t write about! I’m not sure I can answer that.   What did you consider to be the motherlode source for this story? Something that made you say, holy shit, now I’ve got it… Was it finding Dawn?   First, when Sharon said she’d do it, and set up the appointment to come. And then, when I opened the door, and there was another girl there. “This is Dawn.” “Call me Jeana.” I didn’t know who she was. And then I was like, “Wait a minute, you’re saying you were fucking John Holmes?” Like, of course I couldn’t say it like that. That was in my mind. I just went, Hmmm. They were just telling me this crazy story. And, as has happened before, my job is just to shut the fuck and to make sure that I rivet them in their eyes and don’t look away. I would go for a cigarette to look at my tape recorder. But a big part of everything is me being in there. So you didn’t know that Dawn was going to be there?   No.   In general, I think, sourcing has gotten tighter and tougher–you really have to document how you know a piece of information–compared to when this was written. Do you feel compelled to say, “According to…”? It’s the sort of necessity that really bothers guys like Talese and Wolfe.   No. The end of my life at the Washington Post came when I had a big fight with Bob Woodward’s second-in-command, with Walt Harrington at my side. I was trying to run dialogue. And he said, “How do you know this dialogue?” So I told him. He wanted me to say, “He recalls he said…” and “She recalls she said…” and we both thought that was stupid, me and Harrington. And we argued against it because we got the notes, it’s here. Well, the newspapers wouldn’t do that but Rolling Stone would. The other thing Rolling Stone would let you do was shorten a quote without ellipses, as long as you kept the sense of what they were saying. Everything was really well-checked. We had a whole fact-checking department at Rolling Stone and we had the lawyer on set. They had a conference room and me and my boxes of shit were in it for a week. What rankles me is, “He told me…” That’s like so much bullshit. Shut the fuck up! You know what? Shut the fuck up. That’s this whole New York affectation of I’m there, even in a third-person piece. Clearly everything there is from me or from some source that I’ve checked out, because this is the real world. See, the problem is, the lack of fact-checking in the new world–and the whole repeating of shit without anyone checking anything–that’s what’s caused this generation to question the process of a lot of people who get paid a lot of money to make sure the facts are straight. When we call it journalism, we mean it’s journalism.

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. By the mid-Seventies, Nash held thirty-six liquor licenses, owned real estate and other assets worth over $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 the first in L.A. 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 & 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 4000 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.  How do you juggle all these characters? You’re able to quickly describe them so they’re memorable to readers.   Well, I have a bad memory, if you’ve noticed. I’m bad with names and numbers. I think in pictures. When I was a coach, I’d say, “Get the long-haired boy.” In fact, I did this story recently where they took an EEG. I smoked pot, then they took another EEG. I was in San Francisco and there were lots of sounds–cars, trains, all that shit. Whenever there was a loud sound, they could see the lobe that shows visual was reacting. So characterization is bigger to me than what the fuck is this guy’s name. Also, I lean on the nouns and verbs.   How did you choose to introduce the characters?   Everything is driven by what pieces of scene you have to work with. You set up your timeline and then you destroy your timeline. The way I see it, scene drives my digression. That’s what makes the blue smoke and mirrors of scene in writing possible. You’ve got three or four lines of quote, but you’ve got reams and reams of information about all the people who are being quoted. Where they are, what they’re doing, and what the attitude of the scene is. All the bowl of details things go in here.

According to one 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.  Was this from a police report or your own reporting?   Yeah, and an L.A. Times story, too. It was pretty well known.

Nash and Diles were well known on Sunset Strip. “Eddie Nash assumed he deserved a certain amount of respect,” says one denizen. “If somebody fucked with him . . .”  How did you decide when to grant anonymity?   Well, people’s names don’t matter. Like, it was too many names. And who cares? Who cares what his name is? It’s like when you go up in the elevator, and there’s a piece of paper that says the license for this elevator is in the manager’s office. That’s a contract. Well, this is the contract between the reader and the Rolling Stone journalist. That’s why the Million Little Pieces guy got so fucked by the masses when he broke the confidence. Because you don’t know what’s true or not. That’s why Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and [Stephen] Glass are considered such high criminals. You have to be able to read this shit and know. I think some of that is eroding now because it’s such a free-for-all. Anyway, what we looked for with fact-checkers and lawyers is, is there malice in this characterization of Eddie Nash? Clearly, he was on trial and well-known for doing this, so the judgment was it was not.

Now, in the breakfast nook, 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.”

“You sure about this, donkey dick?” asked Tracy McCourt, the gang’s wheelman.

“Hey, it’s cool,” said John Holmes, 36, the man with the plan. “I know Eddie. Nash loves me. He thinks I’m famous.”  Where did you get ‘donkey dick’?   I’m guessing Tracy McCourt. Yeah, that was his thing. He loved telling me that.

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 made 2274 hardcore pornographic films, had sex with 14,000 women. At the height of his popularity, he earned $3000 a day on films and almost as much turning tricks, servicing wealthy men and women on both coasts and in Europe.

Since the late Sixties, Holmes had traded on his natural endowment. His penis, when erect, according to legend, measured between eleven and fifteen inches in length. Maybe this is a stupid question, but there’s a big difference between eleven and fifteen. How is that possible? And, given the renown of his penis, shouldn’t there be a definitive measurement? Well, there are two sections of history on Holmes. They’re back-to-back. I tell the story over again. The first history of Holmes is all the mythology about him, that he has degrees in this and that, and he went here and there. But that was a bunch of bullshit, some it true, some of it not. Who knows? But then there’s this whole other thing about how he was just this little guy, skinny, with bad parents. So the first history of Holmes is the history as he’s understood, Johnny Wadd almost. Then there’s a J-stroke moment. Look, the penis is the most interesting thing in this whole story. And for 25 years I’ve really wondered if I did a good job on this story, or whether it’s just because it’s about a guy with a big dick, and therefore very popular. The dick is the thing. The dick is the dick. As a storyteller, that’s what you really have to work for. So I’m not going to tell you how big the dick is yet, right? The hardest thing as a journalist is not only starting your piece, but holding off on your shit. Like, I often have the very best scenes in my story at the end. Don’t know if anyone’s ever going to read ‘em, but… Recently, however, Holmes’s biggest commodity had been trouble. He was freebasing one hit of coke every ten or 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 was a drug delivery boy for the Wonderland Gang. His mistress, Jeana, 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 L.A. International, buying appliances with his wife’s credit cards, fencing them for cash.

Holmes was into Nash for a small fortune. 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, then hit Holmes with his own blackthorn walking stick. They told him to make good. He tried to think. Addled synapses played him a picture: Eddie Nash.

Holmes was dead when you wrote this. Whom do you talk to for this speculation on his mental state?   I smoked freebase for, like, three days several times. And I know that my synapses were addled and I’m sure everyone else’s were, too. I also discussed a lot of stuff with Scott Thorson. He was a great source of shit, including the shit that they…put in “Boogie Nights.” Like, “Do you guys wanna play baseball?” Also, the thing about Nash dancing around in his underwear in a “thin sheen of sweat.” “So you go in,” Launius was saying 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 take him down.”  How was the story fact-checked?   Well, there was one main fact-checker assigned to the story.   Do you remember any times when the fact-checker strengthened it?   I’m sure I had a lot of little things wrong. The dates of things I always get wrong. But, you know, I’m known for getting it pretty straight. The fact-checking took a long time, because there was a lot of stuff, but this wasn’t any different than most stories.

And so the plan was fixed. At midnight, the Wonderland people scraped together $400, and Holmes, whose pretense for entrance would be buying drugs, drove off to Nash’s house.

It was 1.6 miles from Wonderland Avenue to Dona Lola Place, which was fortuitous, because the stolen Ford Granada driven by the Wonderland Gang was running on empty. Such a wonderful detail, foreshadowing how wrong things are going to turn.   I got that from Tracy McCourt, the driver. He had a really good memory. This was the biggest thing in his life. Of course, I had the documents, so I could jog his memory. In the car were DeVerell, Launius, McCourt and a man named David Lind, a friend of Launius’s. Lind and his girlfriend had come down three weeks earlier from Sacramento to stay at Wonderland. An ex-convict who’d served time for burglary, forgery and assault to commit rape, Lind had been invited to town, he would later tell a court, to practice his “profession,” committing crimes.

McCourt drove up the hill on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, across Mulholland Drive, over the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains, down into the Valley. The sun was warm and diffuse. Sprinklers were ticking water across lawns. Rush hour was on. It was 8:30 Monday morning.

Though Holmes had left Wonderland at midnight, he had stayed at Eddie Nash’s for six hours, smoking up the $400 he’d taken to spend, helping himself to a little more of Nash’s largess. Nash was extremely hospitable. He always called Holmes “my brother.” They’d known each other for three years.  I checked. Eddie Nash is somehow still alive. Did you talk to him? No. He was always being prosecuted while I was doing the story. His lawyer wouldn’t let him.

As night stretched into morning, Holmes had an attack of conscience, a glimmer of an understanding that knocking over Eddie Nash might lead to a lot of trouble. Is this supposition on your part? What’s it based on?   As I recall it, the only other person to whom Holmes told the story of what happened that night was Sharon. And Sharon told me quite a bit of it.  Nash knew the Wonderland people. He’d never met them, but he had, through Holmes, given them a $1000 loan. Holmes muttered something to Nash about the gang. He wasn’t specific, but it really didn’t matter anyway. Nash hadn’t slept in ten days. He hardly knew what Holmes was saying. And, as Holmes’s supply of coke dwindled, his conscience was overruled by his jones. He excused himself, left the room and unlocked the sliding door.

Arriving back at Wonderland just after dawn, Holmes announced the coast was clear. The time was right, he told Lind.  How did you establish a timeline for this scene? It’s amazing.   There was a lot of testimony about this in the court documents.

There was one hitch. DeVerell, Launius and McCourt, all heroin addicts, were out cold.

Three hours later, everyone was finally awake. Holmes drove to Nash’s again to make sure the sliding door was still open. This time, the gang decided not to wait for his return.

Now, as McCourt turned right, off Laurel Canyon Boulevard onto Dona Pegita, he saw Holmes driving back toward them. Both cars slowed, pulled even in the middle of the street. Holmes rolled down his window, McCourt rolled down his.

“It’s time,” Holmes said, and then he smiled and raised his fist “Get ’em, boys!”  The whole story is extraordinarily cinematic.   That was directly from Tracy McCourt, I swear.   It’s one of the many moments in the story that you can really visualize.   Luckily, McCourt was something of a Southern grit who was very expressive in the way he spoke. And he was bored. And he had 45 minutes at a time on the phone with only me. Nobody else was talking about him. I meant to ask you this earlier: Was anyone else chasing this story?   There was a guy who just died, Tony Lovett, who wrote about it for Hustler. We became very good friends. He was the only other one. His story was rather sexy.

John Curtis Holmes had the longest, most prolific career in the history of pornography. He had sex onscreen with two generations of leading ladies, from Seka and Marilyn Chambers to Traci Lords, Ginger Lynn and Italian member of Parliament Ciccolina. The first man to win the X-Rated Critics Organization Best Actor Award, Holmes was an idol and an icon, the most visible male porn star of his time.

Holmes started in the business around 1968, a time when porn was just beginning to surface from the underground of peep shows and frat houses into mainstream acceptance. The Sixties, the pill, “free love,” communes, wife swapping, the perverse creativity of mixed-media artists who were pushing the limit, trying to shock—all of these things created an atmosphere in which porn could blossom. The pivotal event in porn history was the release of Deep Throat, starring Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems, in 1972. Though the movie, when it began to appear at theaters around the country, was branded as obscene and closed down almost everywhere it played, its producers contested the charges in the courts and eventually won. In the end, Deep Throat was massively consumed by an enthusiastic public. With the release the same year of The Devil in Miss Jones and Behind the Green Door, porn became part of popular culture. Suddenly, Johnny Carson was telling Deep Throat jokes on The Tonight Show.  Did you watch porn while working on this? How much?   A shit-ton. I read and watch everything I can find, always.

One day in 1970, Holmes met Hawaiian producer Bob Chinn. Up to this time, Holmes had been doing mostly photo layouts, stag films and 8-mm bookstore loops. He showed Chinn his portfolio of stills, then stripped. That evening, Chinn wrote a three-page screenplay; a partnership was born. This would lead, in the mid-Seventies, to Holmes’s most successful role, as Johnny Wadd, the hard-boiled detective, porn’s parody of Sam Spade. Holmes’s character, said Al Goldstein in Screw magazine, was “a thin, bony, trench-coated shamus, outrageously horny, bedding down with client and quarry alike.” In Goldstein’s opinion, “it was a goofy, crudely made series,” but it was wildly successful. In a way, Holmes was everyman’s gigolo, a polyester smoothy with a sparse mustache, a flying collar and lots of buttons undone. He wasn’t threatening. He chewed gum and overacted. He took a lounge singer’s approach to sex, deliberately gentle, ostentatiously artful, a homely guy with a pinkie ring and a big dick who was convinced he was every woman’s dream. I love this sentence. How long do you spend on writing? I spend a lot of time writing. I write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Is writing a labor?   No, I love it. Reporting is a labor. Talking to people is a labor. Going places is really a labor. I have travel anxiety. When I was little, 10 years old, my parents put me on the wrong bus to go visit my grandparents. I ended up in a Richmond, Virginia bus station instead of Fredericksburg. I don’t remember being scared, but to this day if I don’t have four different ways of navigating I’m, like, freaking out. I don’t know if I told you this, but at the beginning of this story I almost quit writing. I sat there and sat there and there were two many names. Laurel Canyon, the Wonderland Gang, too many details, too many everything. I couldn’t write the thing and I just fucking got up from my desk. I was working on the first sentence. And I said, “I can always just be an editor.” So I walked around the house and I ate something and I guess the horror of that was too great. I went back up and I came up with the word ‘last.’ ‘Deep in Laurel Canyon, the Wonderland Gang was planning its last heist.’ I don’t know why, but that transported me into a different place as a writer.

Holmes went on to make more than 2000 movies. Teenage Cowgirls, Liquid Lips, China Cat and Tapestry of Passion. Eruption, a porn remake of Double Indemnity. Dickman and Throbbin, a lampoon of Batman and Robin. Hard Candy, a 3-D thriller. A porn “documentary” of his life, made in 1981, was called Exhausted.

In time, Holmes became known as the Errol Flynn of porn. And like the leading men of yesteryear, what was known of him was mostly myth.  How much did you know about Holmes when you went into this story? Zero. Nothing. I really wasn’t a porn guy. I was too mature for porn, since I was the son of a gynecologist. I’d run around once in Times Square while on Quaaludes, and we ended up looking at those quarter things. I’d seen a stag film at my fraternity. But other than that, not much. I mean, porn didn’t really figure into my life. It wasn’t available, and only weirdos went and bought it out of the fucking store.

According to legend—largely of his own making—Holmes was born in New York and lived with a rich aunt who’d been married fifteen times. The aunt sent him to fencing school, dancing school, a school of etiquette. They lived in London, Paris, Michigan, Florida. He lost his virginity at the Florida house, when he was six, to his Swiss nursemaid, Frieda.

In high school, Holmes said, he slept with all but three girls in his class. He graduated from UCLA with majors, variously, in physical therapy, pediatric physical therapy, medicine and political sciences. His first porn film was made while he was working his way through college. A girl from the dorm recommended him. Also while in college, he said, he danced “nude modern jazz ballet” and drove an ambulance.

When he became established as a porn star, Holmes said, he had a half dozen agents pulling in work for him. He made films nonstop, and he took eighty to ninety telephone calls a day. He had twenty-seven fan clubs; people wrote for locks of his pubic hair. Men asked him to autograph their wives’ breasts. Women asked him to deflower their daughters. One regular trick had him barge into her bedroom while she was watching TV, then tie her up and rape her. Her husband watched from the closet. Holmes said he’d had sex in airplanes, helicopters, trains, elevators, kitchens, bathrooms, on rooftops, in caves, storm cellars, bomb shelters in Europe, under a table in a restaurant filled with people, fifty feet underwater while wearing scuba gear. He’d been with three governors, two of their wives and one senator, who was “really a freak.”  What sources did you use for the background on Holmes’s life?   A lot of that is from a movie called “Exhausted.” But I read everything I could find about him and talked to everyone who knew him. Different sources took me through different periods of this story.   To what extent did you lean on secondary sources, and how many did you use? I’m sure I interviewed at least 50 or 60 people and I had thousands and thousands of pages of everything that could be found anywhere.   Did Rolling Stone assign you a researcher?   [laughter] No. And I had to transcribe everything myself, too. I have really bad tendonitis now.

Holmes said he owned ten different businesses, that he was a gourmet cook, that he had written twenty-nine books, including a how-to manual combining cooking and sex. His penis, he said, was “bigger than a pay phone, smaller than a Cadillac.”

Holmes’s voice was sly and ingratiating. He sounded a lot like Eddie Haskell on Leave It to Beaver and bore some resemblance to the actor who played him. Above all, he said, he loved his work: “A happy gardener is one with dirty fingernails, and a happy cook is a fat cook. I never get tired of what I do because I’m a sex fiend. I’m very lusty.”

John Curtis Holmes was born to Mary and Edward Holmes on August 8th, 1944, in Pickaway County, Ohio, the youngest of three boys and a girl. Edward, a carpenter, was an alcoholic. Mary was a Bible-thumping Baptist. John remembered screaming, yelling, his father puking all over the kids.

Holmes’s parents separated when he was three, and Mary moved the family into a housing project in Columbus. They shared an apartment with another divorced woman and her two children. When Holmes was eight, his mother married Harold, a manic-depressive who worked for the telephone company. They moved to a house on five acres in wooded, rural Pataskala, Ohio. Harold drank a lot. Once, he rammed his own hand into a harvesting machine. He lost his thumb and three fingers. At the hospital, as he came out of anesthesia, he said to Mary, “I’ll never have to work again.” He didn’t. Mary went to work on an assembly line at a Western Electric plant. Where did this story come from?   That’s from Sharon. Sharon knew the in-laws quite well.   Did you think Sharon was a reliable source?   Yeah. She was a caretaker type–she treated John more like a child than a husband–who was interested in having her point of view out there. I saw no reason not to believe her.

John was a shy and lonely kid who kept to himself and had perfect attendance at Sunday school. He lost his virginity at age twelve to a thirty-six-year-old woman who was a friend of his mother’s. At home, Harold picked on John. There were backhands, lectures, drunken rages. By the time John’s half brother was born, John was spending most of his time in the woods, hunting, trapping, fishing, staying away from Harold. Then one day Harold threw John down the stairs and came after him. John swung and knocked his stepfather out. On his sixteenth birthday, Holmes joined the army. He served in the signal corps, spending three years in Nuremberg, Germany. He never went home again.

After mustering out of the army, at age nineteen, Holmes went to work as an ambulance driver, and soon thereafter he met Sharon Gebenini. Sharon was a nurse at USC County General, working on a team that was pioneering open-heart surgery. She was twenty, an army brat. They were married in August 1965 at Fort Ord, California.

One summer day in 1968, Sharon came home a little early from work. Her new boss, a pediatrician, had shut down the office for the afternoon, and she’d gone to the market, planned a special dinner for her husband.  This is a rather audacious structural move. We leave Sharon just about to walk in on something–we don’t know what–and then rewind through his Holmes’s work history for three paragraphs to build up to what we’re about to see.   Every single scene is built exactly like that. I write my novels the same way. I find the punchline and then use the formula of suspense and digression to create even more suspense. It’s similar to the way I talk. At least with writing I can always remember where I started. I remember going to the Martin Luther King Library in Washington, DC, with a sockful of dimes to check their microfiche. It was great because the sock could also be used as a weapon, because it wasn’t really in a nice area. I was doing a story on Manute Bol, who played for the Washington Bullets. I read all about Dinkas. I knew that his sister, Abouk, six-foot-eight, was back home in Sudan, tending the flock of goats or sheep. And I read that they warm their hands by dung fires and use the ashes for toothpaste. So I asked him, “Ever hear of this?” “Yeah, we do that.” So I got to write this paragraph, “While Manute is making $2.4 million a year, Abouk is tending to the cattle back in Sudan, warming her hands by dung fire…” Oh my fucking God! That’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. And it’s not about me being so great. It’s just the juxtaposition of information that blows your fucking mind. And it’s true. And he never would’ve told me that. You have to do a lot of background research in order to know which questions to ask.   Always? Sometimes it’s better when you don’t know shit and you’re just drilling wells and you find a gusher that you didn’t know was going to be there. But you can’t be so structured that you can’t let the person digress, too.

Holmes, in those days, was a string bean, six feet tall, 150 pounds, hair still cut in a military buzz. When Sharon and John were first married, she says, he was very naive, looking for the perfect relationship. “He was very possessive. He wouldn’t even let me meet the people he worked with.”  How much time did you spend talking to Sharon? Was she eager/reluctant to talk to you? Well, on the first day we spent twelve hours at least. That started the relationship. Then I got letters from her, talked to her on the phone. As I’d go along with the writing, I’d ask Sharon and Dawn, “What about this? What about that?” They were very much a pair.   Yeah, they were living together. They were each other’s support group. They were brought together by John. They also shared in common that John was their first. Can you imagine John Holmes being your first penis?

Recently, Holmes had been drifting from job to job, trying to find a niche. He quit the ambulance service and got work stirring vats of chocolate at a Coffee Nips factory in Glendale. Then he sold shoes, furniture, Fuller brushes door-to-door. He drove a forklift at a meatpacking plant in Cudahy until his lung collapsed from working in the freezer. Just recently, he had begun training to be a uniformed security guard.  Where did this information come from? The detail (“vats of chocolate”) is wonderful and precise.   All from Sharon.

Unbeknownst to Sharon, Holmes had also recently started in porn, following an encounter with a professional photographer named Joel in the bathroom of the poker parlor in Gardina. Holmes was doing sex pictorials, dancing in clubs.

Now, home early from her office, Sharon left her purse in the foyer, squeaked down the hall on white rubber soles to the bathroom of their one-bedroom apartment in Glendale. The door was open. Inside was her husband, John. He had a tape measure in one hand, his penis in the other.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

“Is there something wrong? Are you afraid it’s withering and dying?” she said, laughing.

“No, I’m just curious,” said Holmes.

Sharon went to the bedroom, lay down, read a magazine. Twenty minutes later, Holmes walked into the room. He had a full erection.

“It’s incredible,” said John.

“What?” “It goes from five inches all the way to ten. Ten inches long! Four inches around!”

“That’s great,” said Sharon, turning a page of her magazine. “You want me to call the press?”

Her husband fixed her with a long stare. Finally he said, “I’ve got to tell you I’ve been doing something else, and I think I want to make it my life’s work.” This is one of the great scenes in the story. When you envision a story, is there a minimum number of scenes you’d like to have?   No, I write until the story’s done. Then I go back and tighten it, and lose writing, art and facts. I do that with every piece. The  Todd Marinovich piece was 30,000 words. That was supposed to be a book proposal.

Holmes went on to say that he wanted to be best in the world at something, and that he thought pornography was it. Sharon had been a virgin when they’d met. She wasn’t happy.

“You can’t be uptight about this,” John said, a refrain she would hear for the next fifteen years. “This means absolutely nothing to me. It’s like being a carpenter. These are my tools, I use them to make a living. When I come home at night, the tools stay on the job.”

“You are having sex with other women,” said Sharon. “It’s like being married to a hooker.”

Holmes said nothing.

Outline from Sharon Holmes

Outline from Sharon Holmes

And so began the loops and the stags, and then Johnny Wadd was born. Holmes let his hair grow, started wearing three-piece suits. He and Sharon settled into a strange hybrid of domesticity. She paid for food and household expenses, did his laundry, cooked for him when he was home. John kept his porn money and spent it on himself. Man, this is a crazy arrangement.   Well, first of all, people were more the ‘Fifties wife’ than today in the idea of partnerships. I was married to someone for 20 years who didn’t work. I’m 58. But they both worked. The point is, they were irregular to begin with and she was self-sufficient and a nurse-caretaker. She was also the resident manager of the joint they lived in. In the Wadd documentary–she’s in the dark but you hear her scolding voice–she wanted all this to be known so the truth would be out and her long suffering would be revealed. She was one of those people who would gladly suffer a little more, you know, in her own mind. Wasn’t telling you this story self-serving?   Anyone telling you their story is self-serving. Every time you do journalism you could get several people tell you different stories from several angles. It’s your job as a journalist to figure out who’s got what axe to grind. The stuff is all laid out there to make sense, or not. I think the witnesses are pretty reliable, though I think everyone embellishes. But both Sharon and Dawn consistently told the same story about John.  By 1973, John and Sharon were sharing the same house, even the same bed, but they were no longer having sex. Sharon had gone so far as to stop physical relations, but she couldn’t bring herself to kick him out. “Let’s face it,” she says. “I loved the schmuck. I just didn’t like what he was doing.”  The dialogue in this story is so good. What’s your strategy: note-taking, recorder…?   I’m pretty much against taking notes, or typing. I think it breaks the eye-to-eye contact, which is the most important part of journalism. I rely on my tape recorder. I never heard three quarters of that shit when they said it the first time. I never heard the nuance. I never heard the way they used words. The only things I take notes for are writing people’s names and numbers, or if I need some proper noun that isn’t in the tape.

John bought himself an El Camino pickup and a large diamond solitaire that became his trademark in films. Then he designed a massive gold and diamond ring in the shape of a dragonfly, and a gold belt buckle, measuring eight by five inches. The buckle depicted a mother whale swimming in the ocean, her baby nursing beneath. John was into Save the Whales. He wore the buckle when he and Sharon sold bumper stickers door-to-door.

In 1974, Sharon became the resident manager of a ten-unit apartment court in Glendale. It was owned by the pediatrician she worked for; she and Holmes lived rent-free in an adjacent house. Sometimes he worked around the apartments as the handyman and gardener. He also renovated the house, outdoing himself in the master bathroom, recreating a backwoods outhouse, complete with a quarter-moon cutout, a shingled roof over the bathtub and a rough-hewn box around the commode.

Holmes was an inveterate collector of junk. He picked wire out of dumpsters and sold the copper. He went to garage sales and bought old furniture. He could repair anything, liked sketching and working in clay. He also collected animal skulls. Once, Sharon says, he got a human head from UCLA. He boiled it clean in a pot on Sharon’s stove. They called it Louise. At Christmas, they decorated it with colored lights. Did you, personally, see the head?   No. The story I love about the skull is the copy editing. I was there with the copy chief, Alice Gabriel, at three in the morning, killing these widows, trying to get some extra space four words at a time. And one of the things we put back in was the skull and the name of the skull. I was really proud of that. All that stuff didn’t exist anymore at the time I was reporting it, too. All of John’s stuff didn’t exist anymore. What happened to it, who knows? It’s in a box somewhere.

About this time, Sharon says, Holmes began working as a courier for the Mob. “He’d come home from one of his movie premieres, take off his boots, peel down his socks and take out a wad of large bills. He’d say, ‘Count this.’ We’re talking $56,000 in two boots.”

Jeana Sellers (not her real name) arrived in Holmes’s life in 1976. Why did you give Dawn a pseudonym? Was it her idea, your idea, your editor’s idea, or Rolling Stone’s lawyer’s idea?   That was Dawn’s idea. She decided she was to be anonymous. For years I just called her Jeana-Dawn. I couldn’t remember what her name was. She was a teenager, and her parents had just divorced. She’d driven out from Miami with her father and younger sister. Along the way, in Colorado, Mr. Sellers picked up a hitchhiker who was going to Glendale to see his girlfriend. Mr. Sellers had no particular plan; Glendale sounded just fine. By the time they pulled into the apartment complex managed by Sharon Holmes, it had been decided. The Sellers would stay there. Did you interview Dawn’s parents?   No, she was estranged from her dad for a long time. There was no mother in the picture. Just a brother, who I didn’t talk to.

The complex had ten free-standing cabana apartments, built around a courtyard. Holmes’s half brother and his wife lived there; this little community was the personal fiefdom of John Holmes. One day, Jeana was visiting a neighbor when Holmes came by to deliver a bag of pot. Holmes talked a while, looked Jeana up and down. “Too bad you’re so young,” he said finally, then left.

Soon after, the courtship of Jeana began. Whenever he returned from days or weeks away, Holmes would bring gifts: stuffed animals, roses, a ring. For her sister Terry, who was fourteen and overweight, he brought what he called “Terry food,” pounds and pounds of candy. Holmes hired the sisters to do gardening around the complex. When they’d finish work, he’d make sandwiches. John had a van by then, and soon he began organizing camping trips with Jeana, Terry and Terry’s boyfriend, Jose. “I was really charmed,” says Jeana. “I was just taken off my feet. He treated me very special.” John was thirty-one, she was fifteen.

One night Holmes told Jeana to meet him at the van. They went to the beach. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew what might,” she says. “We sat on the rocks, the moon was just right. We sat for a long time, and he was very, very quiet. He just stared. I played in the water. When I got out, he said, ‘Let’s go,’ and we drove toward home. And then, just as we got to this intersection, he slammed on the brakes. It was dark, and there wasn’t any traffic. He said, ‘Would you make love to me?’ I literally shook to death. I said yes. I loved him. We did it in the van. After that I was his.”  You do not explicitly say how old Dawn was at the time of this incident. (I mean, I think you hint she was fifteen.) How come?   She was fifteen. And she was pretty forthcoming about that.   Would that, at that time, in that state, have been statutory rape?   Probably.

In time, Jeana’s father went back to Miami and took Terry with him, and Jeana moved in with John’s half brother and his wife, David and Karen. Jeana dropped out of Glendale High School. During the day, she worked in a nursing home. At night, she baby-sat for David and Karen.

By 1978, Holmes was freebasing cocaine all the time. He’d been turned on to the drug on a movie set in Las Vegas and had been smoking ever since. Now he never went anywhere without his brown Samsonite briefcase. Inside were his drugs, his glass pipe, baking soda and a petri dish for cooking cocaine powder into rock base, a bottle of 151 rum and cotton swabs for lighting the pipe.  The level of detail in this sentence is quite something. Where did you get it? I think that was a combination of people telling me about that. Dawn was very good about giving me stuff from this time period, particularly when they were on the road. Also, Bill Amerson and other people who did drugs with him, like porn people. Again, if you’re straight, you’re going to say, “Oh, did he get high?” And they’ll say yes, and that’s all you’ll get. But me, I asked if he had a pipe, if he used 151 rum… So you knew what questions to ask.   Right. And I understood why he took so much Valium–you get the high but not the edge. I understood all that stuff.  Jeana was doing freebase too, almost every night.

“When he did coke,” says Jeana, “he’d do it until it was all gone, and then he’d scrape the pipe and smoke all the resin he could find, and then he’d take a bunch of Valium. He’d have me make these peanut-butter chocolate-chip brown-sugar butter cookies. All the sugar helped him come down. He’d have a big glass of milk, and we’d turn on the cartoons, and then he’d go to bed in Sharon’s room. I’d usually fall asleep on the couch.”

By this time, Sharon had befriended Jeana. “The poor girl was emaciated,” Sharon says. Sharon’s first act was to move Jeana out of Karen and David’s and into a garage apartment in the complex. A few months later, Jeana moved into the guest room of the house. “I knew the whole picture,” says Sharon. “He was picking on a kid that didn’t know any better. I had to let her know there was another world out there, that John was not God Almighty.

“John was terrified that I was going to confront her. But I had no reason to confront her. Why? Why would I confront her? He meant nothing to me in that way.”

Holmes was gone now more and more, making films in Europe, San Francisco and Hawaii, doing private tricks, traveling to film openings across the country. At the same time, Holmes was acting as an informant on matters of porn and prostitution for Sergeant Tom Blake, an L.A. vice detective. He began spilling to Blake in 1973, after he was arrested on a movie set. It is debatable whether or not Holmes ever told Blake anything he could use.  I assume you tried to talk to Blake.   Yes, I talked to him. He’s also in “Wadd.” He was a good source.

Also during this period Holmes spent much of his time with his best and only friend, Bill Amerson, in Sherman Oaks. Amerson, a menacing six feet four, 250 pounds, tells tales of his own involvement in drug dealing and organized crime. He says he played pro football and worked as a stunt man, specializing in motorcycle crashes. He was now in porn—writing, directing, producing.

Amerson and Holmes had met on a shoot in San Francisco in 1970; they were kindred egos ever after. “John was like a little brother to me,” says Amerson.

Amerson named John the godfather of his children and gave Holmes his own room at his house. Holmes and Amerson went hunting, deep-sea fishing, camping. Mostly, says Amerson, he and Holmes excluded women. “John didn’t particularly care for women. At times, I think, he disliked women. I like that you don’t psychoanalyze Holmes. Was it tempting? Was there any pressure to do so?   It is my flow to write what’s in somebody’s mind, but only when I have them…Psychoanalysis is when you turn the person’s words on themselves in an interview. That’s what I did with Todd Marinovich. I could turn his words and not make a judgment–just use them to answer the question. Whereas with John Holmes I couldn’t, so I used other people to speak for him. What was the editing process like?   There was none. The editing process was more of a cutting process. I’m not sure there was even a rewrite. I know I was in touch with Bob [Love] a lot because I was having problems with the characters. He helped me a lot there. When he told me to use full stops–not using editorial transitions–that was the biggest editing change he had to make. With Holmes, when you get a good story like that, it tells the story. You just need to collect it and get out of the way. So there wasn’t much rewriting. Bob wasn’t there, I’m not sure why. Bob Wallace was in charge of me and my story. I was deputized to work directly with Alice Gabriel. We cut lines, we did the headlines, we did everything. It was great!   Who came up with the title?   I don’t know! I’m not gonna claim that I did. It sounds very much like a magazine title of the day.  He would rather be out in the woods. He was really a simple kid. He liked going to Disneyland, he liked all the rides. He was really sensitive, but he didn’t want anyone to know. A puppy getting hit by a car, a dead bird, strange things made him cry. We spent hours talking about reincarnation, about life, about God, or the lack of.”

Holmes started to become erratic around 1978. On sets, he was harder and harder to deal with. He’d lock himself in bathrooms, in closets. People who worked with him joked that you had to leave a trail of freebase from the bathroom to the bedroom to get Holmes to work. Amerson would get calls from directors. He’d go to the set, usually a rented house in the San Fernando Valley. He’d find Holmes “going through drawers, looking for something to steal. He’d turned into a fucking burglar.

“John got strange,” says Amerson. “He got wild eyed. He didn’t make a lot of sense when he talked.”  How many of Holmes’s film colleagues did you talk to? Quite a few. A lot of the people who were in his movies, like this one guy from “Dickman and Throbbin.” And I talked to a couple of big directors, I talked to Al Goldstein, I talked to Larry Flynt…

Soon the man who once claimed to be making almost $500,000 a year selling his sexual charms was working as a drug delivery boy for the gang of outlaws and junkies who lived on Wonderland Avenue. He stole luggage, broke into cars, visited old girlfriends and tricks and ripped them off, charged $30,000 worth of appliances to Sharon’s credit cards. For a while, he and his half-brother David tried to make a go of a combination antique store and locksmith service. Did you talk to David?   By phone. He wasn’t that cooperative. I would’ve loved to have more stuff about the family. You have to catch and release if they won’t talk to you.  Jeana ran the store, the Just Looking Emporium. It didn’t last long.

The night the store closed its doors for good, says Jeana, John was strung out and paranoid. “That was the first night he punched the shit out of me,” she says, and thereafter, the beatings were regular. “One time he beat me so I’d sleep with these two black guys from his answering service. I think he couldn’t pay the bill. Then he beat me ’cause I slept with them.”

By early 1980, Holmes and Jeana had moved out of the complex for good. They stayed in motels sometimes, but mostly they lived in Sharon’s Chevy Malibu. Or at least Jeana did. “I was famous for waiting in the car,” she says. “We’d drive somewhere to do a drug deal. He’d get out. I’d wait. Sometimes it would be two days. I’d have a six-pack of Pepsi and a coffee can to pee in. And my dog, Thor. He was a little Chihuahua. John and Sharon gave him to me.”

So it went, until they were busted in January of 1981. At that point, Holmes had Jeana, now twenty, turning tricks. She was living in an apartment in the Valley with a porn actress and high-priced hooker named Michelle. In the early hours of January 14th, Jeana and Michelle were visiting an apartment in Marina Del Ray. While John was waiting for them in the parking lot, he stole a computer out of a car. Thus far, Holmes had been pretty lucky. His connection as an informant for the L.A. police had kept him clear of being busted. How did you verify Holmes’s arrangement with the LAPD? All that stuff came from Blake. But also, there was a lot written about this case. I mean, it was the “Four on the Floor Murders.”  But now Holmes was committing felonies almost every day. His luck had run out. The cops got them in the parking lot.

The next day, Eddie Nash bailed them out. Jeana didn’t want to go back to Michelle’s. John insisted. She refused. He punched her in the stomach, dragged her through the door. “Get some sleep,” he told her. “You gotta work tonight.”  Was it depressing to work on this story?   Only when I realized my penis had shrunk. Um, at the time, no. In aggregation, the decade and a half of doing these crime stories, most of whose subjects were dead at the time I wrote them, and having to meet their crying relatives and go to their funerals, I started to think of this Scottish legend, the Sin Eater. Where, if you died in the village, they’d call the Sin Eater and lay out a feast upon the body. And the guy, who was poor, would come and eat the food and eat the sins away. I started to feel that way doing these stories. One of the very last ones was the Veronica Guerin story. At the end, after this woman died, her little son’s toys were used to show how she was set up and ambushed and how Mommy died. I mean, after a while, enough’s enough.

John went to take a bath. Jeana heard the water shut off, heard John get into the tub. She wasn’t going back to this. Enough was enough.

“Honey!” called John from the bathtub. “Get me a cup of coffee, will you?”

She was halfway out the door when she heard his voice. She froze for a moment, then took a step back inside. She took a deep breath. Then she was gone.

Jeana ran, with Thor in her arms, to a Denny’s restaurant. A little old man lent her a quarter. She called her mother in Oregon, asked for a bus ticket. Mom said okay, but it couldn’t happen until tomorrow. Jeana sat down and cried. The man bought her a bowl of chili, then sneaked her into his nursing home. Jeana slept the night on the floor by his bed. The other residents thought it was the scandal of the age. In the morning, many of them brought her toast from the cafeteria.  Dawn’s recall is extraordinary. Did she keep a diary?   I think just think, with certain events, you remember them. I mean, since that time, she’s told all the same stuff again.   But she was telling you this for the first time.   She might have told the cops a bunch of this stuff when they were trying to round him up.

Jeana said goodbye, then called the Glendale bus station. She told the ticket agent that John Holmes, the porn star, was looking for her and wanted to kill her. Please, she said, don’t tell him anything. The agent agreed to help. Then he asked how she was getting to the station. He and his son came and picked her up.

As Jeana expected, Holmes showed up at the bus station. The ticket agent played dumb. Holmes followed the wrong bus all the way to San Francisco.  Where did you get this story? From the ticket agent?   I got that from Jeana-Dawn because John started writing her the letters afterwards that went to her parents. She stayed with him and he told her all this.

***

Tracy McCourt turned right onto Dona Lola Place, drove 100 yards into the cul-de-sac, parked, cut the engine. DeVerell, Lind and Launius pushed aside the chain-link gate to Nash’s driveway and filed around to the right, behind the house. The sliding glass door was still open, as Holmes had said.  How did you settle on the structure of the story, toggling between the heist and Holmes’s life story? Did you have that from the beginning?   I didn’t. I started at the planning of the heist and then stopped, and told you who the character was. Then I picked it up again. More than anything, the story is the crime and the other stuff is embellishment. Plus, I had to do a full stop in there to talk about the industry and his role in it, because in the World War Three of this story that was one of the AOs–areas of operation. So I talked to First Amendment lawyers, old players from the industry who could tell me stories, like how actors would leave their clothes by the side of the set so they could run from the cops, and how it was important not to forget the masters. All that went into constructing this story. The reason I settled on the structure is because that’s how the story went.

They went inside, opened the door of the guest bedroom, peered out. Lind took the lead and charged down the hall, a short-barreled .357 Magnum in one hand, a stolen San Francisco police detective’s badge in the other. Diles and Nash were in the living room. Diles was wearing sweat pants, carrying a breakfast tray. Nash was wearing blue bikini briefs.

“Freeze!” yelled Lind. “You’re under arrest! Police officers!”

DeVerell and Launius covered Nash. Lind made his way behind the shirtless, blubbery bodyguard. He shifted the badge to his gun hand, his left, then took out the handcuffs with his right. As he fumbled with his paraphernalia and Diles’s thick wrists, Launius came over to help, tripped, bumped into Lind’s arm. The gun discharged. Diles was burned with the muzzle flash. The right side of his back, over his kidney, began to bleed. Nash fell to his knees. He begged to say a prayer for his children.

“Fuck your children!” said Launius. “Take us to the drugs.”

Lind rolled Diles onto his stomach, handcuffed him, threw a Persian rug over his head. Then he joined the others in Nash’s bedroom. Everything was where Holmes had said. Lind put his .357 to Nash’s head, asked for the combination to the floor safe. Nash refused. Then Launius forced the stainless-steel barrel of his gun into Nash’s mouth.

In the floor safe were two large Zip-lock bags full of cocaine. It’s a small thing, but I love that you don’t include Nash acquiescing to Launius. You cut directly from gun-in-mouth to the interior of the floor safe.   You don’t need to say that. In my descriptive writing, I’m constantly seeking to not beg the point, to not belabor it. If you edit less proficient writing, you see that people always add every detail. Right.   It’s funny, my son’s godfather is a sax player. And I all the people I was friends with in my twenties and thirties were jazz musicians. They don’t talk a lot. There’s that moment of syncopated pause where nothing is said, nothing is played. And that’s when they’d make the face that musicians make–oh, that’s so sick, you know? I dunno. I think it goes back to Murray and playing guitar and trying to make this an artistic pursuit.  In a gray attaché case were cash and jewelry. In a petty-cash box were several thousand Quaaludes and more cocaine. On the dresser was a laboratory vial about three-quarters full of heroin.  Did you have access to crime scene photos?   At some point, I had access to a bunch of stuff that Tom Blake had. He showed me stuff and there was also stuff in the case files. The other thing is, when something was sealed by the court, that meant it was in the file but it was in a manila envelope. That’s all that meant? And I’m not saying I ever opened those things while working on stories, but there was a fuckload of stuff you could usually get out of that. There were always glimmers of things that you could get that you couldn’t really nail down legally.

Lind taped Nash’s hands behind his back, put a sheet over his head. He found a Browning 9-mm under Nash’s bed, then went to Diles’s room, where he found more weapons. Meanwhile, Launius asked Lind for his hunting knife. He went over to Diles, pulled the rug off his head, edged the knife against his neck.

“Where’s the rest of the fucking heroin?” he demanded. “I don’t know,” said Diles. Launius pulled the knife slowly across Diles’s neck. Blood flowed. Suddenly, outside, Tracy McCourt began honking the horn of the getaway car.

“Forget it!” said Lind. “Let’s get out of here.”

At 10:00 a.m., Lind, McCourt, Launius and DeVerell walked through the door of the Wonderland house.  How did you establish this timeline? You don’t say “at about 10:00”–it’s exact. From the court transcript?   Yeah. They spend a lot of time in court establishing all that shit.

Holmes jumped up from the couch. “So what happened? How did it go down?”

“Don’t tell him anything,” snapped Lind.

Launius, DeVerell and Lind went into Launius’s bedroom. They’d decided, before leaving Nash’s, that they would short Holmes and McCourt in the division of the loot. Working quickly, Launius removed about $100,000 in cash from the briefcase and hid it in his room.

Meanwhile, Joy Miller and Barbara Richardson, Lind’s girlfriend, left the house and drove down the hill to the Laurel Canyon Country Store for gas and cartons of cigarettes.  Did you interview Miller and Richardson?   No, everything I know about them was from the L.A. Times.   To what extent did you get access to the criminals? Only Tracy McCourt, as I recall. Four of them were dead, right? I guess that winnowed down the source pool.

When they returned, the men were at the glass table in the breakfast nook. Everyone was busy. Holmes and Lind weighed the cocaine. Launius counted the Quaaludes. DeVerell counted the money. On the table were eight pounds of cocaine, 5000 Quaaludes, a kilo of high-quality China White heroin and $10,000 in cash. The jewelry would later be fenced for $150,000. Lind, Launius and DeVerell, the three who’d carried out the robbery, were to receive twenty-five percent each. Holmes and McCourt went halves on the last share.

As soon as the weighing was done, Holmes went to the kitchen to cook some cocaine powder into rock, then went into the bathroom to smoke. The rest of the Wonderland people took turns injecting heroin and cocaine. After a while, Holmes came back into the living room. He complained about his share of the money. It was only about $3000. He knew that Nash had a lot more than that lying around the house.

An argument ensued. Launius punched Holmes in the stomach.

“Get the fuck out of here!” he screamed. This is a queasy moment; I’ve decided Holmes is a monster, but I also feel bad for him. I guess the challenge for the writer is to make sure the protagonist never actually becomes a monster, but is always human.   Precisely. And that’s what I meant earlier about finding the creamy center of a character. Finding the goodness, the part that people can identify with. I mean, the underdog syndrome in this country is so huge. People like the underdog because we’re all schmoes. It’s also about trying to get it right, as it really is. The cool guys aren’t always cool. Everybody knows that. But yet, you can’t predict what might happen. The stuff you find out is cooler than what you could make up. Right. You’re only jealous of Holmes for about thirty seconds.

***

For the first few months, while she was in Oregon with her mother, Jeana had refused to take Holmes’s calls. She’d gotten a job at a nursing home and was paying her mom rent, trying to rebuild her life. But Holmes kept calling. He sent flowers, presents, photos of them with the dog.

By May, Jeana began taking his calls. By June, she was thinking, “Well, I’m not doing anything here.” On June 27th, two days before the robbery at Nash’s, she flew to Los Angeles.  I’m always amazed when, in a story like this, the reporter can pin down an exact date. Did Jeana keep her ticket stub? Those were her timelines. She had to go through all this with the police. She had to get her story straight. Then she talked to me.

John was carrying two suitcases when he met her. “Oh, shit,” she thought, but she didn’t say anything.

“I didn’t want to believe I’d fallen for a line again,” Jeana says. “He was sweet. He was great. There wasn’t any trouble. We went to a motel, had a nice reunion. No drugs. It was really nice. He was like the old John. Then he left.”

On the day of the robbery Holmes still hadn’t come back. Management asked Jeana to leave. Holmes hadn’t paid for the room.

Jeana packed her suitcase, gathered up her Chihuahua. She didn’t have any money. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t call Sharon. They hadn’t spoken in two years. Jeana was somewhere downtown. She didn’t know where. She walked the streets, tried to think. A pimp tried to pick her up. Then another. Then she ran into a woman preaching fire and brimstone on a corner. The woman took her to her house, put her to work painting a wall. Meanwhile, Jeana called Holmes’s answering service and left the number. Holmes finally called on the afternoon of the 29th, after the Wonderland Gang kicked him out. He showed up at the house in the early evening. “He had the biggest pile of coke I’d ever seen in my entire life,” says Jeana. “He took over the kitchen. He cooked coke all night long. He even had the Holy Roller’s sister smoking.”

In the morning, they went out to get food. “When we came back, the door was locked,” says Jeana. “The Holy Roller was up in the balcony, waving a Christian flag, praying and hollering, singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ She said John had cut some coke with an old tarot card and she believed it was a sign from the devil. I said, ‘Please, just let me get my clothes and my dog and we’ll leave.’ ”

***

Gregory DeWitt Diles, six feet four, 300 pounds, barged through the front door of the house on Dona Lola  There are so many moving parts to this story, I actually had to check back to see whose house this was. Was it tough to keep the story straight in your head, as you were writing it?   The thing is, every detail was so hard-won, it wasn’t like I had to master a huge bunch of shit. You’re old enough now that there’s some history you’ve lived through and you don’t have to look it up. You know what I mean? It’s like that. If you’re building a story, one little fucking piece at a time, each piece is a fucking war. It starts out, you just know about John Holmes. Then you learn about Eddie Nash and Diles, because those are the two people in the murders. You do more and more work and get more and more characters, and they all fit in. At one time, I’d do modified outlines, but always in longhand. Anyway, it’s just a story. It rolls at its own pace. It’s chronological. The only reason it doesn’t seem chronological is I don’t date every section. I do try to put a time peg within the first few grafs of everything, so it’s located in time. That’s an important duty of the writer, to keep it running. It can’t be so “Memento” that you lose yourself in the tale., dragging John Holmes by the scruff of his neck.

“In here,” said Nash.

Diles shoved, Holmes skidded across the carpet. Nash shut the bedroom door.

Wednesday afternoon, July 1st, two days after the robbery. Jeana was tucked into another hotel in the Valley. An hour before, Holmes had run into Diles. Holmes was wearing a ring that had been stolen from the boss.

Eddie Nash was fifty-two years old, six feet tall, gray haired, strong and wiry. His family had owned several hotels before the creation of Israel in 1948. Nash told a friend Who was the friend?   That’s June Schuyler. She was the greatest source of personal information on him. This was her great love affair.   Her appearance in the story is really extraordinary. An elementary school teacher in the middle of– It serves the same purpose as Sharon’s appearance. She was a registered nurse!  that he missed the moonlight and the olive trees of his homeland, that he’d spent time in a refugee camp, that his brother-in-law was shot by Israeli soldiers.

The youngest son in the family, Nash arrived in America with seven dollars in his pocket. He worked for others for a time, then opened Beef’s Chuck, a hotdog stand on Hollywood Boulevard. Nash was on the job day and night, wearing a tall white chef ’s hat, waiting tables himself.

June M. Schuyler, an elementary-school teacher from Santa Barbara, remembers meeting the “nice-looking, very-light-skinned foreign man” at Beef’s Chuck. She was living in Hollywood while her autistic son attended the Belle Dubnoff School for Brain-Damaged Children. The school was a block away from Nash’s place. She’d often take her son there for lunch.

From then, wrote Schuyler, in a letter to a judge many years later, “Ed Nasrallah began a courtship that was as old-fashioned as they come. For many months he took me out to dinner, introduced me to his mother and other relatives. There never was a sexual relationship between us. I said ‘No’ and I meant it.”

Over the next year, Nasrallah brought her grape leaves, hummus, pots of Turkish coffee. Schuyler said that Ed loved her son exceedingly and that he offered to “fix it up for you to take him to a top brain surgeon. . . . No strings attached.”  Schuyler is such a surprising source. How’d you hear about her?   I think I found her in the court papers, as a character witness. At the point where I got the papers, I redoubled my efforts to find people. I was getting all these dribs and drabs, but then I got the court papers. From that I got my scenes, more names, addresses and phone numbers. Back then, all we had was the Yellow Pages, 411, or a private investigator. So this was important. There’s this thing Woodward would say, when one of his investigative reporters would come in, like Ben Weiser or John Feinstein. You’d get this whole box full of documents. Woodward would call it a docugasm. He’d say, “It’s a docugasm!” Woodward has that Midwestern, ‘Aw, shucks’ accent, even to this day. A docugasm!

By the mid-Seventies, Ed Nasrallah had become Eddie Nash and had amassed a fortune. He was also a drug dealer and a heavy user. His drug of choice was freebase; sometimes he mixed the crack with heroin. Nash was missing part of his sinus cavity, one of his lungs had been removed, and he had a steel plate in his head.

For the last several years, Nash had rarely left his white-stone ranch house in Studio City. At home, Nash walked around in a maroon silk robe, or sometimes in bikini briefs, his body covered with a thin sheen of sweat. Where did this information come from? Medical records?   That was Scott Thorson. Freebasing makes you hot, so you undress. It’s like meth. It raises your blood pressure. His voice had a smooth Arabic lilt. “You want to play baseball?” he’d ask his ever-present guests, lighting his butane torch, offering a hit off his pipe.

“The consumption of alcohol and drugs was an ongoing, everyday affair,” says an attorney who is a longtime acquaintance of Nash’s. “The cast of characters would go from two or three to ten or more. It was amazing, the haphazard way in which people would come and go. You’d walk into the house, there were various girls walking around in various states of undress. Some were quite attractive. Others looked like they’d been sucking on the pipe a little too long.

“When you met with Eddie, you met at his place, on his terms. I believe that cocaine paranoia created within him the desire to stay within that closed environment that he had control over. If anything, one of the themes in Eddie’s life has always been control. He wanted to be in charge. He wanted to be the Arab man in his tent. The master, the giver of hospitality. All his lawyers—I think he had maybe six or seven working on different things— all his managers, employees, customers, everyone, would come to him. He’d have Jimmie, the cook, prepare these elaborate spreads. You could walk up, whisper something in his ear, and he’d make it available. Whatever. You just had to ask, and he’d give.”  This is one of the longest quotes in the piece. The guy seems to have more than a passing knowledge of Nash’s life.   Nash’s attorney was a great source of information. He was kind of the consigliere in his world.   Why did you choose to let this quote unwind at such length?   I don’t know. Maybe because he was an attorney. Maybe because I got it approved. That foreshadows my work later, where I let people talk a lot more. I can’t say this for sure, but if I try remember the way I was thinking back then, if I was fucking with an attorney, and I knew everyone was really litigious, it could be that we crafted the statement of what he was going to say, even though he was a source. I think because I bring to my crime reporting the anthropological background, I approach people differently. I end up making friends more than making enemies. People want to help you because they really think that I get their point of view. That’s the most important thing in all these interviews. And you’ll play people for that, believe me. You know that that guy’s in prison and he’s got nothing to do, so you don’t mind playing him a little bit. Be a little mean to him once in a while or whatever. Otherwise, they’re going to play you. You’re aware of this, but at the same time you’re also ministering to them and you’re listening; you’re playing both sides. You’re not a friend, but yet you can’t be Janet Malcolm’s confidence man, either. I don’t agree with that. I think there’s a better place where you can be. You can service all people for their needs. If you’re aware of people, then you know what they need. You can give them that in day-to-day commerce. I say, “Thank you, sir” to the guy at 7-Eleven and I don’t give a fuck. Everybody’s like that to me, and it gets me farther. People just like me and help me, because I act like I respect them. I am worshipful of my subjects, because this is what I want to know more than anything so it’s real. I’ll do anything for you, just help me figure this out.

According to court testimony, Nash had a fancy for young girls,  This is one of those sentences that could mean just about anything. Was he a pedophile?   No. That just meant that he liked teens. whips and a game with a revolver called Russian roulette. One woman who had sex with Nash remembers “a lot of temptation. There were piles of cocaine in front of you. Jewelry, wads of money. You’d be left in a room for hours, and then you’d be called in. There were two-way mirrors in the bedroom, anything you wanted would be made available. In a way Eddie would assess you on what you took or didn’t take.”

In early 1981, Nash’s second wife—the mother of his two sons, aged eight and five—filed for a protection order against Nash. After she left him, according to a court affidavit, “I took the children to Oklahoma to my aunt and uncle’s farm, together with my parents. My husband hired a girl to follow us. She came to the farm to find out if a certain man was with me. After she left, my husband called on the telephone at the farm and said to come home immediately. When I refused, he said, ‘Don’t come back to California or I will have two men waiting at the airport to kill you, and I will have your parents killed.’ ” Do you have a favorite source for this story? It could be a person or a document.   The guy in the basement of the courthouse, who helped me find the first boxful of stuff when I had the first docugasm. He helped me more than a person would usually help someone. When I got those court files, I was able to piece the story together. The single most important people were Sharon and Dawn, but the documents were second.

Nash is said to have had political, police and crime connections. According to one Los Angeles law-enforcement official, “Ed Nash was a very well-known figure in the Sixties around Hollywood with police, and it was never an antagonistic relationship.”

One of Nash’s friends and overnight guests was, according to a law-enforcement official Is this law-enforcement official the same as the one quoted in the previous paragraph?   I honestly can’t remember. , an Israeli with a military background, “the so-called reputed godfather of the Israeli Mafia.” A report by the California State Department of Justice revealed that the Israeli Mafia was active in California during the late Seventies and early Eighties and was involved in drugs, arson, extortion, gun-running and a number of murders, including the death and dismemberment of two Israeli nationals at the plush Bonaventure hotel in downtown L.A.  This is wild. Were you tempted to report on this further?   There was already a lot on this. To some degree, a lot of this story is aggregating the news. It’s in the Garry Wills model of it’s all fair game. I’m sure I tried to find more. You were never done with this piece. By the end, we had the wife, the girlfriend and the last wife, so we had a pretty good profile.

During his six or seven years of heavy drug use, said the attorney, “Nash lost over a million a year directly attributable to drugs. His business empire totally atrophied as a result of the coke. What really cracks me up is people believe he was a dope dealer. That’s bullshit. He was consuming it. At an alarming rate.”

On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 1st, 1981, Eddie Nash was again consuming drugs at an alarming rate. He’d been ripped off for eight pounds of cocaine, but the Wonderland Gang hadn’t found his private stash, and now he was bubbling his glass pipe furiously. He’d sent two of his minions out to score more drugs, but they hadn’t yet returned. Two customers waited. They did hits off Eddie’s pipe, eyed the door.

One of the customers was Scott Thorson. Thorson had driven from Lake Tahoe to score from Nash. Or perhaps he had flown from Las Vegas. In court testimony years later, he would say, in answer to this and many other questions, “I don’t recall. I really don’t recall.” Thorson was the live-in lover of the entertainer Liberace. He was also in Liberace’s Las Vegas act. Wearing jewel-bedecked livery, he would chauffeur Liberace onto the stage in a glittering mini-Rolls-Royce, open the door, take his master’s fur coat. Then Liberace would make a joke about having the only fur coat in the world that had its own limo. During one special engagement, Thorson danced with the Rockettes. Liberace called him Booper, treated him like a son, a lover, a pet.

Thorson had been addicted to cocaine for several years. It began, according to Thorson’s book, Behind the Candelabra, when Liberace ordered him to have cosmetic surgery. First, however, Thorson had to lose thirty pounds. A doctor of dubious practice prescribed a salad of different drugs to aid the weight loss. Pharmaceutical cocaine was one of the ingredients.

In time, the surgery was completed, and Thorson was made into a young vision of Liberace. He remained addicted to coke. At the moment that Diles barged through the door with Holmes in tow, Thorson was with Eddie in his bedroom, doing hits. Nash was very upset.

“I’ll have them on their knees!” Nash ranted to Thorson.

“I’ll teach them a lesson! They’ll never steal from anyone again!”  How much, if any, of this is from Behind the Candelabra?   I can’t remember how much is from the book and how much is from interviewing Thorson, but I used both. Nobody cared about him, so he was one of those people who wanted to talk. He was a druggie. When I talk to druggies, I’m like, Cool. Rick James and I were friends for many years, and that’s because we both liked to talk about smoking freebase and having sex. And we’d just sit there and talk about it for hours at a time with our jaws going. I knew which questions to ask. So Thorson was a good interview. Also: I wasn’t asking him any questions about Liberace or that part of his life. At this point, everybody wanted to be in a movie, so he was angling, too. It really helped that you knew your shit.   I read the early stories about [“Freeway”] Rick Ross in the L.A. Times and the writer failed to realize the difference between coke and crack. That’s what he give us: crack. Knowing that stuff is important in these stories. I guess you could say that this has been my beat over the years. We become expert at things. It helps me that I guess I’m expert at this.

Thorson was excused, and Nash closed the door. Diles smacked Holmes, threw him across the room, shoved him against a wall. “How could you do this thing!” Eddie Nash screamed. Diles hit him again. “I trusted you! I gave you everything!”

Nash and Holmes had met three years earlier at the Seven Seas. Nash was a big fan of porn. He invested in movies, leased office space to several porn-related operations. Holmes was one of the greats in the business. Nash liked having him around. He introduced him to all his guests. “I’d like you to meet Mr. John Holmes,” he’d say.

For his part, Holmes did anything he could for Nash. Frequently he brought him girls. On Christmas Day 1980, he’d even presented Jeana. Nash reciprocated with a quarter ounce of coke. Holmes thought Nash was the most evil man he’d ever met, but he couldn’t quite figure him out, so he respected him.  This is such a morbidly funny line. Holmes pimped his girlfriend for a quarter-ounce of coke, and yet he judges Nash!   That’s what I love about the world.

Now things were not so friendly. Holmes was crumpled on the floor. Diles leveled a gun at his head. Nash was leafing through a little black book that Diles had taken from Holmes’s pocket.

“Who’s this in Ohio?” Nash screamed. “Who’s Mary? Your mother? Who’s this in Montana? . . . Is this your brother? . . . I will kill your whole family! All of them! Go back to that house! Get my property! Bring me their eyeballs! Bring me their eyeballs in a bag, and I will forget what you have done to me! Go!”  Where did you get this dialogue?   I think it’s court records and probably Thorson’s testimony. I have Reagan-like memory. But how else would I have known about it? A lot of this stuff is also in Sharon’s outline.

***

Thursday, July 2nd, 3:30 a.m. Sharon Holmes switched on the porch light, spied through the peephole. Christ, she thought, John. She hadn’t seen him in three months. His clothes were ripped, he was bloody from head to toe. He stared straight ahead, unblinking. She opened the door, folded her arms against her chest.

“Well?” “Accident . . . car . . . um . . .” he stammered. “Can I . . . come in?” They went to the bathroom. Sharon, a registered nurse, rummaged through a well-stocked medicine cabinet, brought out iodine and cotton swabs. She reached up and took John’s chin in her hand, turned his head side to side. Funny, she thought, no cuts, no abrasions. Just blood. “You had an accident in the Malibu?”

John looked down at Sharon. His eyes blinked rapidly. They’d been married sixteen years. Sharon always knew when he was lying. That’s probably why he always came back. I love that in the middle of this scene with a bloody Holmes you allow Sharon a (well-deserved) shot at him.   It’s so her point of view, that scolding way about her. It becomes characteristic of my stories–I like to quote people without quoting them. Instead of quoting somebody, I just use their language. I’m using Sharon’s language. She was just so hatefully passive-aggressive.  “Run me a bath, will you?” he said.

John eased into the tub. Sharon sat on the wood-covered commode. “What now?” she thought. He dunked his head, put a steaming washcloth over his face. Then he sat up. “The murders,” he said. “I was there.”

“What do you mean you were there?”

“It was my fault,” John said, his eyes welling with tears.

“I stood there and watched them kill those people.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I was involved in a robbery,” John began, and he told the story. The setup, the robbery, Nash’s threat to kill his whole family, Sharon included. “So I told him everything,” John said. “I told where the robbers lived and how to get there. I had to take them there.”

“Who?”

“Three men and myself.”

“Okay, you took them there.”

“I took them there. There was a security system at the house. I called up and said I had some things for the people inside and to let me up. They opened the security gate, and the four of us went up the stairs, and when the door opened, they forced their way inside. Someone held a gun to my head. I stood there against the wall. I watched them beat them to death.”

“You stood there?”

“There was nothing I could do.”

“John, how could you?”

“It was them or me. They were stupid. They made him beg for his life.”

“They deserved what they got.”  Does Holmes’s version of the event, by way of Sharon, match up with what is otherwise known about it?   Yeah.

***

“Blood! Blood! So much blood!” Holmes was having a nightmare. Tossing and moaning, punching and kicking. “So much blood!” he groaned over and over.

Jeana was scared to death. She didn’t know what to do. Wake him? Let him scream? It was Thursday, July 2nd, 1981. After bathing at Sharon’s, Holmes had come here, to this motel in the Valley. He walked through the door, flopped on the bed, passed out.

Jeana sat very still on the edge of the bed, watching a TV that was mounted on the wall. After a while, the news. The top story was something about a mass murder. Four bodies. A bloody mess. A house on Wonderland Avenue. Jeana stood up, moved closer to the tube. “That house,” she thought. Things started to click. “I’ve waited outside that house. Isn’t that where John gets his drugs?”

Hours passed, John woke. Jeana said nothing. They made a run to McDonald’s for hamburgers. They watched some more TV. Then came the late-night news. The cops were calling it the Four on the Floor Murders. Dead were Joy Miller, Billy DeVerell, Ron Launius, Barbara Richardson. The Wonderland Gang. The murder weapon was a steel pipe with threading at the ends. Thread marks found on walls, skulls, skin. House tossed by assailants. Blood and brains splattered everywhere, even on the ceilings. The bodies were discovered by workmen next door; they’d heard faint cries from the back of the house: “Help me. Help me.” A fifth victim was carried out alive. Susan Launius, 25, Ron Launius’s wife. She was in intensive care with a severed finger and brain damage. The murders were so brutal that police were comparing the case to the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson Family.

Holmes and Jeana watched from the bed. Jeana was afraid to look at John. She cut her eyes slowly, caught his profile. He was frozen. The color drained from his face. She actually saw it. First his forehead, then his cheeks, then his neck. He went white.  I like this. You take a cliché–“the color drained from his face”–and put it under a microscope.   In this case, it was probably pointed out to me by my source, and I’m using her language again. Almost in every story, I try to use a cliché the right way, then do a bit more just prove that I wasn’t clichéing it up. I love that clichés are often the best way of explaining things. That’s me having fun, and trying to be effective as a storyteller.

Jeana said nothing. After a while, the weather report came on. She cleared her throat “John?”

“What?”

“You had this dream. You know, when you were sleeping? You said something about blood.”

Holmes’s eyes bulged. He looked very scared. She’d never seen him look scared before. “Yeah, well, uh,” he said. “Um, I lifted the trunk of the car, and I gave myself a nosebleed yesterday. Don’t worry.”

On July 10th, police knocked down the door of their motel room and arrested Jeana and Holmes. For the next three days, Holmes, Jeana and Sharon were held in protective custody in a luxury hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Armed guards in the lobby, in the hallway. Room service. Holmes tried to make a deal with the cops. He wanted witness protection, a new name, money, a home. He wanted new names for Sharon and Jeana, too. He offered the police secrets. Names of mobsters, drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps. The police wanted to know who killed the Wonderland Gang. Holmes wouldn’t tell.

“With Holmes, it was like he was center stage and the lights and the camera were on,” says a detective who was present. Who was the detective?   I can’t remember. Unless Lange didn’t want to be identified saying everything. But Lange had a partner, so I’m sure he talked to me, too.  “It was like he was doing a movie. Here he is, he has two women with him. All three of them are sleeping in the same bed. He stroked us, jacked us around. He told us certain things. That we were on the right track, that this is indeed what had happened, that this was the motivation, that this was how it came down. He played it for all it was worth, then he said he wouldn’t testify. We cut him loose.”

The three went back to Sharon’s house. Sharon cooked dinner. Holmes picked up Sharon’s two dogs and Thor from the kennel. Later, the women dyed Holmes’s hair black. Holmes and Jeana painted the Malibu gray with a red top. They used cans of spray paint. The finish was drippy and streaked, but it didn’t matter. They were going underground.

Now it was midnight in the parking lot at the Safeway in Glendale. The Malibu was idling. Jeana sat in the front seat, Thor in her arms. Holmes leaned up against the back bumper, smoking a cigarette. Sharon stood with arms crossed. “Change your mind. Come with us, Sharon.”

“No way, John.”

“It can be the three of us, Sharon, like old times.”

“You’ve got to be joking.”

“You can’t do this to me,” he said.

“Why? Why can’t I?”

“Because I love you.”

Sharon looked at him. On their first date, he’d brought a bottle of Mateus and a handful of flowers. Sharon had watched through the window as he picked them from the neighbor’s front yard. Now she shook her head slowly, walked around the car to the passenger side.

Letter from Sharon Holmes

Letter from Sharon Holmes

Jeana leaned out the window, and they hugged. Over the years, they’d become like mother and daughter. “Take care of him,” Sharon said.  Sharon seems like an incredibly forgiving, relatively decent person. But, because I am cynical, I note that people who talk to reporters always come off better than people who don’t. Maybe call it the Woodward Syndrome. What did you make of her?   Well, I got the point in there that she was in love with him but she hated him. She changed his life and they–she and Dawn–were like a club of two people that loved John. I thought that she was overly-precise in trying to tell the story accurately, but she was also totally in denial that she was still in love with him. She acted like John meant nothing to her, and he was just her friend. “We were long-time companions.” I think I reflect that in the material, but I also don’t bang her over the head with it because she was kind enough to give me the whole fucking thing.

***

“Hello, Jeana.”

“Chris? Is that you?”

“How are you, Sis?”

“Fine. Where are you calling from? You sound close.”

“I’m here.”

“In Miami?”

“Yeah.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Well, I, I, ah, came . . . with a friend. Listen. Tell me where you are. I’ll pick you up.” Was this call recorded? It doesn’t read like someone’s recollection.   l can’t remember. I got that from Dawn.

Jeana hung up the phone. Her brother Chris, 16, lived in Oregon. She hadn’t heard from him in, what, six months? Not since she was home. Now it was December 4th, 1981. After leaving California, Jeana and Holmes had gone to Vegas, then Montana, then headed south, visiting the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert. Holmes broke into cars along the way.

The couple ended up in Miami, at a small run-down hotel on Collins Avenue. Everyone there was on some kind of slide. Big Rosie, the manager, let Jeana work the switchboard and clean rooms in exchange for rent. Holmes went to work for a construction company, painting a hotel down the strip. This is amazing. At this point, did people recognize Holmes? Did people realize the guy working the construction job had been the world’s most famous porn star?   Apparently not. I don’t think porn was that famous than. He got big when he was finished and dying. Porn got big in the Vivid era, with high production values. So people didn’t really know him. He was not a household name. But so many people have read this story, maybe that has something to do with it? It was a front-page story when he died of AIDS.  For extra money, Jeana solicited tricks on the beach.

“Everybody at the hotel got to know us,” Jeana says. “We were real friendly. John was doing a lot of drawing. Drawings of the dog, of me. We’d have dinner with other people at the hotel, go to movies. We were like a normal couple. After a while, I said I didn’t want to go out on the beach anymore. We had a big fight. I ran out the door, down to the pool, and he ran after me, the fool. Everybody was down there. He beat the shit out of me, then walked back up to the room. Everybody was just shocked.”

The next day, while Holmes was at work, a delegation of residents came to see Jeana. A mother and daughter offered to help. The daughter had a kid and a job. She was moving to a house. Would Jeana want to be the live-in baby sitter? Jeana packed her bag, gathered up Thor, put Holmes’ gun in her pocketbook.

Now it was December 4th, and she hadn’t seen Holmes in two weeks. Do you have any idea of Holmes’s movements during these two weeks?   No, I have no idea. Presumably he kept painting. This is part of the blue smoke and mirrors of telling a story. I don’t know what happened so we just skip over it and go to the next part .  Her brother was in town; something weird was going on. Chris didn’t have a driver’s license. How could he rent a car?

They picked up a six-pack, went to a park, sat by a pond.

“Jeana, I’ve got to tell you. See that car over there? It’s the cops.”

“You little . . .” Jeana stood, walked away. Chris caught up.

“Listen,” he said, grabbing her elbow. “People are after John, and they think you’re with him. You’re going to get hurt. Tell the cops what they want to know, ’cause otherwise John’s going to be dead in a few days. You’re probably going to be saving him.”  Was the conversation recorded? I imagine Chris was wearing a wire.   I can’t remember.

When the cops got to his hotel, Holmes was there. “I’ve been expecting you,” he said. He invited them in for coffee.

“How you doing, John?” said the man in the gray suit, leaning over the safety rail of the bed. “John? Remember me?”

February 1988, seven years after the murders. It’s interesting that you jumped forward six and half years and then, to some extent, doubled back. Why did you do that?   You just advance, digress, then advance again. That’s my go-to. Sometimes I do it a little differently these days. I have noticed that in my earlier writing seems to roll in on itself too much, because each section kind of goes backwards. And even Todd Marinovich, the long form version, kind of does that, too. I mean, it’s what I do.  A sunny room in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sepulveda, California. The man in the suit was Los Angeles Police Department detective Tom Lange. Behind him was his partner, Mac McClain. The Wonderland case was still open. They had a few questions for John Holmes.

“We want to talk to you about Eddie Nash,” said McClain. “John? . . . Remember Eddie? . . . John? Are you awake?” Where does this dialogue come from? Oh, McClain! That’s the other detective! I’m pretty sure that’s the unnamed detective from earlier. That came from my interviews with Lange, McClain or Laurie Holmes.

Holmes’s eyelids fluttered. He weighed ninety pounds, his fingernails were two inches long. He was dying.

Following his arrest in Miami, Holmes was tried for the murder of the Wonderland Gang. His defense was simple: John Holmes was the “sixth victim” of the Wonderland murders, and Eddie Nash was “evil incarnate.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” his lawyer told the jury at the outset, “unlike some mysteries, this is not going to be a question of ‘Who done it? ’This is going to be a question of ‘Why aren’t the perpetrators here?’ ”

In the end, the most damaging evidence the prosecution could produce was a palm print on a headboard above one of the victims. Holmes refused to testify. The jury found him innocent.

Holmes remained in jail, however, on his outstanding burglary case. While awaiting that trial, he was ordered by a judge to tell the grand jury what he knew about the Wonderland murders. Because he’d already been tried, Holmes would not be able to invoke the Fifth Amendment. According to the law, he had to talk. He refused anyway. He’d underestimated Nash once, but he’d never do it again. Nash would kill him and his family if he talked, he was certain of it. He was held in the county jail for contempt.

In jail, Holmes went on a hunger strike. Two weeks later, it was reported that he’d lost only seven pounds. Jailers said other inmates were giving him candy bars. Later it was reported that Holmes interrupted his fast, ate a meal, then continued his fast.

Finally, on the afternoon of November 22nd, 1982, Holmes relented and testified. He’d been in jail eleven months in all, 110 days on the contempt charge. His attorney told reporters that he’d changed his mind because of “certain arrangements” that had been made and “certain circumstances” that had arisen. What he may have been referring to was the imprisonment, that very same morning, of Eddie Nash, on charges of dealing drugs.

Just after the murders, Nash and Diles had found themselves in a world of shit. Nash’s house was raided three times. Each time, drugs, money and weapons were seized. Each time, Nash made bail. Then Nash was arrested with three others on federal charges of racketeering, arson and mail fraud, an insurance scam. Nash’s three coconspirators were found guilty. Nash was acquitted.

In the end, both Diles and Nash went to jail. Diles got seven years on charges stemming from the drug raids. Nash was found guilty of possessing two pounds of cocaine for sale. At trial, his lawyer argued that the $1 million worth of coke was not for dealing, that it was strictly for personal use. During recesses in the trial, Nash would go out to his car and smoke freebase. Then he’d swallow a few Quaaludes and return. His lawyer hired a young associate to stick Nash with a pin whenever he nodded off in court.

The judge in the case was Everett E. Ricks Jr. It was obvious from his comments that Ricks, a hard-liner, considered Eddie Nash a plague. Ricks even came in from his sickbed to sentence Nash. Coughing into the microphone, Ricks called Nash “a danger to the public” and maxed him out. Eight years in prison, a $120,350 fine.  Did you attend the trial?   No, that was years before. Oh. This reminds me of the time Bob Woodward interviewed me for two days about Janet Cooke. At the end, I would have told him anything. Was that for an internal story?   No, it was to find out what happened. He grilled me in his office and then he said, “Meet me tomorrow at seven in the morning and I’ll take you to breakfast.” Then he started anew grilling me.   Did he hold you responsible? Well, I was on the edit trail because I rewrote the lede. She was annoyingly flaunting our relationship in-house, even after we weren’t having it anymore. I was still helping her with Jimmy and writing so I just said, “Send it to me.” So I fixed it and rewrote the lede, which I did all the time for her.   Given your experience with drugs, how come your bullshit detector didn’t go off with her story? No, it did. As I write in the story, I went to Pat Tyler and Joe Pichirallo–who were an investigative team on Metro–after Janet’s story came out and predicted that it would win a Pulitzer and turn out to be fake. It was the perfect storm of stories and I told them that. I also said, “I don’t know, because maybe I’m just jealous because she doesn’t deserve it…” I had to rewrite all her stories and she always had writer’s block. But I told people my reservations.   But you never told her.   No. The grownups were supposed to do their jobs.   Do you still keep in touch with Janet? I’m still in touch with her.

Two years later, Ricks reduced Nash’s sentence to time served, and Nash was released. Ricks cited Nash’s need for delicate surgery to remove a sinus tumor. “I wouldn’t want to be operated on in San Quentin Prison,” Ricks said sympathetically.

Two years later, Ricks, himself, was ordered held against his will for psychiatric observation. The fifty-two-year-old former jurist had been arrested after he allegedly punched his eighty-two-year-old mother and threatened to kill someone if she didn’t give him keys to a car.

After his release, Nash told a friend that jail had saved his life. He moved to a modest condo in Tarzana and set about rebuilding, taking college business courses at night. Drugs, inattention, back taxes and lawyers’ fees had depleted his fortune.

Holmes, meanwhile, had gone back to making films.

When he got out of jail, Holmes was jubilant. He greeted reporters, had dinner with his lawyer, then called Sharon. She told him to “get the fuck out of my life.” He couldn’t call Jeana. She was nowhere to be found.

Holmes had nothing to do and nowhere to go. His lawyer lent him a Volkswagen Beetle and $100, and Holmes showed up at his friend Amerson’s house. While Holmes was in jail, Amerson had started a company called John Holmes Productions. He was marketing Holmes’s old films on video. Like all porn actors, John had been paid per day and had signed away the rights to his own films. His old friend was happy to pick them up. “Let’s face it,” Amerson says, “John was a product. I marketed him. That’s what it’s all about. It’s business.”

With all the publicity from the murders, John Holmes had achieved almost mainstream celebrity. The video boom was just beginning, and Holmes became a kind of Marlon Brando of porn. No longer the leading man, he was now the featured oddity. In California Valley Girls, for instance, he had one scene. He came in, sat on a couch. A girl entered stage right. Then another girl, another. At the end, there were six working at once on his penis.

Early in 1983, Holmes was shooting Fleshpond at a studio in San Francisco. One of the actresses in the cast was Laurie Rose. Laurie was nineteen; she came from a small town outside Vegas. In the business she was billed as Misty Dawn, the anal queen of porn.

“That first time, we didn’t get to work together,” says Laurie, “but we were attracted. It sounds silly, but you know how you can meet someone for the first time and it’s like you know them already?”  At what point in the reporting did you talk to Laurie? How did you find her?   Through her lawyer. I had to make a deal with them.   Backend points on a movie or something like that?   Yeah. I actually only got a small amount of time because I didn’t want to give them more. It was a phoner. You get as much as you can. She was good for telling me that John didn’t want his penis cut off, the John Dillinger stuff. That was worth whatever I had to pay.

After the film, John and Laurie, who looked like Jeana, began dating. Usually, they smoked freebase and had sex. Then, says Laurie, “the third time I went up there, he came up to me with the mirror and said, ‘You want a hit?’ and I turned to him and said no. He looked shocked. He said, ‘Why not?’ and I said, ‘Because it makes me feel funny and I can’t talk.’ So he went in the bathroom, and he locked himself in. He stayed in there like three hours, and I’m just sitting there, you know, twiddling my thumbs. Finally he came out and said, ‘You know what? This stuff makes me feel funny too. I’m going to quit.’ ”

In time, John and Laurie moved in together at Amerson’s. When Amerson raised their rent to $400, they got their own place in Encino. John continued to make films, but he made Laurie stop. “He thought one porn person in the family was enough,” she says. “And the AIDS thing was just starting to come out. Nobody had gotten it yet; but it was still in the back of our minds. He thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to take a chance, that’s enough.’ ”

Apparently, Holmes had made good his promise and stopped doing drugs. John and Laurie stayed home a lot and watched videos. On weekends they went to swap meets and yard sales.

“Nobody ever came over,” says Laurie. “Nobody knew where we lived. His words to me were ‘Friends can get you killed.’ We were very careful. Then, when Eddie Nash got out of jail, John was very, very worried. We went on twenty-four-hour watch. For like three weeks, one of us had to be awake at all times. It was like being in a movie or something.”

By late 1984, John was working as an executive at Amerson’s VCX films. He was supposed to be doing sales and pre-production, writing and editing, in addition to acting. Amerson says Holmes spent most of his time playing cards and shooting darts. When VCX cut off Holmes’s salary, Amerson put up money to start Penguin Productions. Holmes was to run it. Laurie worked as a secretary.

“John was tired of the whole industry,” she says. “He wanted to make a million dollars so we could just leave and be done with it.”

Then, in the summer of 1985, John tested positive for AIDS.  So interesting to read this now. AZT wouldn’t be approved by the FDA for a couple of years and when your story came out it still hadn’t been approved for infants and children. It’s a time capsule, in a lot of ways.   At my age, probably, anyone who knows gay people, we know people who could be alive right now. And I just want to cry, saying that. I was very close to some people who died. They were young and talented and beautiful. I know a bunch of people who all died from fucking the same guy, you know? That’s just the way it goes. It’s funny, there were these two partners–one was a real estate agent, one was a journalist, Tom Morgan, who ended up going to the Times. Morgan was one of my mentors at night police. In, like, 1978, he said to me, “What would you say if I told you I was gay?” His lover, whose picture is upstairs and whose rug is on my floor, he didn’t get the same treatment as Tom. And he died 20 years ago. Tom Morgan lived until several years ago. It’s unbelievable.

“He went fucking crazy,” says Amerson. “He panicked, walked in circles around the doctor’s office, threw his briefcase down. He said, ‘I’m gonna die!’ and drove off.”

“When he came back,” says Laurie, “he was laughing about it. We closed up the office and went to the beach. We played our favorite songs, walked, talked. John said he felt like he was chosen to get AIDS because of who he was, how he lived. He felt like he was an example.”

John continued making films for a while. His last film was The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empress, starring Ilona “Ciccolina” Staller, a member of the Italian Parliament. By the time it was released, in 1987, Holmes’s health had already begun to slide. The word in the industry was that he had colon cancer. Holmes was telling people that doctors had removed sixteen feet of his large intestine. In truth, Holmes was operated on for hemorrhoids. Around that time, he also began developing complications related to AIDS. Amerson, meanwhile, accused his friend of embezzling $200,000 from the company. He cut Holmes off, canceled his insurance.

“John was really sick by this point,” says Laurie. “We moved around a lot because the rent kept going up. I was working as a computer programmer. John would just stay home. He was in so much pain, you couldn’t touch him. He couldn’t walk. His legs and feet would swell up, his ears would bleed, he had infections in his lungs. His surgery wouldn’t heal up, either. He was very upset about the business. He’d made all these people millions and millions of dollars. We were really broke. He called some people, and they said, ‘We’ll help you out.’ But we’d never get the money they promised.”

On January 24th, 1988, John and Laurie were married in the Little Chapel of the Flowers, in Las Vegas. It was a simple ceremony. The bride wore white. “It was a big ordeal for him,” says Laurie. “He knew he was dying. He knew we wouldn’t have a life together.”

In February, Holmes was admitted to the VA hospital in Sepulveda. Soon after, Detectives Lange and McCain called the hospital. They wanted to see Holmes. After seven years, the district attorney was reopening the Wonderland case, based, in part, on testimony from Scott Thorson, Liberace’s ex-lover. Thorson, who was waiting to be sentenced on a drug-related armed robbery, had sought a deal with police. He was prepared to testify that Eddie Nash had sent Holmes and Diles to Wonderland Avenue and that Nash felt responsible for the “bloody mess” that resulted. Now the police wanted Holmes’s testimony.

Laurie was standing at the door when Lange and McClain appeared down the corridor.

“John, they’re coming,” Laurie said in a stage whisper.

Holmes nodded his head, put out his cigarette, closed his eyes. “He was incoherent,” says Lange.

John Holmes died on March 13th, 1988. “His eyes were open,” says Laurie, “and it looked like he had looked up to Death and said, ‘Here I am.’ It was the most peaceful look I ever saw in my life. I tried to shut his eyes like in the movies, but they wouldn’t stay shut.”

Holmes didn’t want a funeral, but he did have a last wish.

“He wanted me to view his body and make sure that all the parts were there,” says Laurie. “He didn’t want part of him ending up in a jar somewhere. I viewed his body naked, you know, and then I watched them put the lid on the box and put it in the oven. We scattered his ashes over the ocean.”

Six months later, on September 8th, 1988, Diles and Nash were charged with the murders on Wonderland Avenue. After a preliminary hearing in January 1989, at which Thorson, among others, testified, Nash and Diles were bound over for trial this summer; they are currently being held without bail in the Los Angeles County Jail. Nash’s and Diles’s attorneys maintain their clients’ innocence and question the credibility of witnesses for the prosecution.  It’s extraordinary that the reader gets through almost the entire story before finding out about the news peg. Most editors, I think, would force a mention of this closer to the top, in order to “justify” the story. I know, but that was the grand old days. Look, if you take whatever day it was that Ben Bradlee started the Styles section and marry that with the New Journalists of New York and Esquire, that’s a golden era. This was right in the sweet spot of those stories. You were doing it for the art. You were trying to write stories that would last. You had to watch out because they couldn’t be updated, so how you covered a story was also an important consideration. Usually you’d cover it before or after a trial. So, in a sense, this is a pre-trial story for the Nash thing. I also did this for the monk story.

“You know,” says Detective Lange, “there’s no mystery here. Every time you read something, they say it’s a big mystery. Or the local TV says it’s a big mystery. Or that show out of New York, you know, A Current Affair. Big mystery. Like aliens or something. There’s no mystery. John Holmes didn’t go to his grave with anything but a very bad case of AIDS. He told us everything initially, right after it happened.”

“But it’s one thing to tell someone something,” says Lange. “It’s another thing to testify to it in court.”  Why did you end on this statement from Lange? You chose to finish with a guy who isn’t much in the story.   He’d been as haunted by the story as much as anyone. And he and the police presence are in and out. Isn’t the intuitive choice to end it with Sharon or Dawn? But they’re not in the story anymore, so it’s not intuitive to end it with them. I don’t need to review the story with something they said. It’s ending it now. The chronology has ended. It doesn’t have to circle back. Saving his dick is really the end of the story. The detectives just put a little bow on it.

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Third Coast Conference: Narrative off the news http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/third-coast-conference-narrative-off-the-news/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/third-coast-conference-narrative-off-the-news/#comments Thu, 20 Nov 2014 15:52:07 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=117269 Editor’s note: In her third and final dispatch from the recent Third Coast audio storytelling conference, radio producer Julia Barton examines a dilemma  journalists in every medium face: how to create good narrative on deadline.  In a session titled “Making News Stories Good Stories,” producer Marianne McCune deconstructed her techniques for doing exactly that. Read Barton’s earlier reports from the conference: Part 1 and Part 2. Also, Third Coast has just released its first set of audio recordings from the 2014 conference

For all the buzz around longform and super-longform podcasts, the fact remains that most audio producers — at least in the United  States — are still doing daily news work. They work fast and short, making stories that fit rigid network schedules like the ones at NPR (which just this week got even tighter, with more frequent newscasts: for some background see here.).

A reporter might despair that there’s no room for creative or human storytelling within this frame. Not necessarily, says longtime producer Marianne McCune. In two packed sessions at the Third Coast conference, McCune showed some of the ways she’s made quick-turnaround news pieces memorable and profound.

Marianne McCune

Marianne McCune

McCune started off playing a WNYC news feature of hers that’s won many awards: a dispatch from the apartment of an 87-year-old woman stranded in her apartment high in a housing project building after Superstorm Sandy inundated lower Manhattan in 2012.

Admittedly, this was a dramatic time in New York, and stories were literally washing up everywhere. But McCune’s work stays with us because of the little things: the smell of ham going bad in the woman’s fridge. A conversation (over McCune’s cell phone) with a friend who urges her to leave and get help. The woman insists she’ll be fine. “Oh, you are so hard-headed!” her friend exclaims.

McCune also has the presence of mind to narrate what she sees, using her microphone as a notebook. All these moments add up to what she calls “the in-betweens”—basically scene tape, moments that happen in field recording as opposed to scripted narration later recorded in the studio. Scene tape usually bobs up and then recedes quickly in news pieces, if it exists at all.  But with forethought, the scene tape can actually serve as the structure of the story and carry much more of its expository weight. All of this results in a piece that avoids “boilerplate,” McCune said.

Most importantly, McCune said, good audio reporters just “linger” — hanging around, tape rolling, as long as possible after they’ve “gotten” the story they came for. Deadlines are real, yes, but within that time constraint McCune thinks every reporter “should figure out maximum linger time you can do. Know yourself well enough.” Although she knew she had to rush over to WNYC and start filing her story, McCune still hung around as long as she could in the housing project building, recording as people struggled down the dark stairwells and then tried to figure out where to get provisions.

People stopped being “interviewed” and had conversations with one another. You get a glimpse into their real situation, rather than a performance for a microphone. “While you’re lingering, things happen, and more happens than the thing you came for,” McCune said.

When McCune gets back to the station from a reporting trip, she outlines the story quickly—where she’ll use tape, and where she’ll need exposition.

“It’s so rare you come back from a story not remembering the best moments you have,” she says. She does not transcribe her tape but plucks out the best parts based on the outline. This sounds minor, but it’s crucial: our memories and instincts really are the best filter for prioritizing quick-turnaround material, and getting into the weeds of a full interview can be deadly to the composition process.

Finally, McCune says, before finishing the story script, she follows up with sources if possible, even if only half a day has passed. Her Sandy story ends with the news that friends of the “hard-headed” elderly woman came to her apartment and moved her in with a relative in Queens. McCune calls this follow-up “turning one page” in the narrative.

“For some reason, it’s very satisfying,” she says. Satisfying because the update offers a modicum of resolution. That, combined with rich scene tape and evocative details, make stories by reporters like McCune linger in our minds, long after all the neighboring stories on the crowded NPR clock fade from memory.

Julia Barton is a longtime public media editor, working with “Life of the Law,” American Public Media, “99% Invisible,” and individual producers. She’s also been the managing editor of Radiotopia, a podcast collective from PRX. Barton’s reporting has appeared on “Radiolab,” “99% Invisible,” “Studio 360,” PRI’s “The World,” and other programs. She lives in Brooklyn in life, online at juliabarton.com.  

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Third Coast Conference: the invisible craft of StoryCorps http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/third-coast-conference-the-invisible-craft-of-storycorps/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/third-coast-conference-the-invisible-craft-of-storycorps/#comments Mon, 17 Nov 2014 14:57:54 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=117221 Editor’s note: In her second dispatch from the recent Third Coast audio storytelling conference, radio producer Julia Barton looks at the approach the producers of StoryCorps, the non-profit oral history project, take to invisibly piece together their compelling stories. Read her first dispatch from the conference, on the tension between journalism and storytelling.

NPR’s “Morning Edition” airs intense conversations every Friday, conversations you are not likely to forget: a woman forgives the man who shot and killed her son. A boy with Asperger’s syndrome asks his mother if she’s happy he was born. The stories are tender and real, and each one is unadorned by anything but a brief host introduction. There are none of the usual tools of audio storytelling: no narrator, no musical scoring, no “natural sound.”

David Isay

David Isay

These StoryCorps segments are only 2.5 minutes each, but they’re culled from 40-minute sessions recorded in the non-profit’s touring “booths” with two microphones and a facilitator who can help make the conversations meaningful.

Now 11 years old, StoryCorps has facilitated 50,000 such recordings. For their session at the Third Coast conference, StoryCorps founder David Isay and producer Michael Garofalo focused on how they get a select few of these recordings into shape for broadcast.

“There’s this illusion that people step into a StoryCorps booth and tell a perfect three-minute story,” Garofalo said. “There’s a lot of editing that goes on.”

No kidding. StoryCorps sessions are transcribed, but Garofalo doesn’t work from the logs. Once his team has selected a recording to break down, they go through it in ProTools, an audio production system, flagging sections by theme, and also flagging transitional words that might come in handy when rearranging bits of conversations. He showed us his list of 23 “buts” for one session.

In the end, the 2.5 minute broadcast version he showed us had 274 separate edits. That’s an average of almost two per second.

But even more goes into the back end of these productions, and that involves the participants themselves. They have to give StoryCorps permission to broadcast, of course, but they also cooperate with fact-checking as producers try to corroborate any incidents or facts that come up in the conversation. And finally, StoryCorps must get their permission for the final edited version before it goes to NPR. No one has ever refused, Garofalo says. In fact, “there’s a lot of crying” when people hear the distillation, he said.

Isay drew the name of his presentation from a Zen proverb he keeps tacked above his desk: “A good craftsman leaves no trace.” That disappearance is very much what StoryCorps is all about: elevating, above all else, those who speak. But so much art and intention goes into leaving no trace, it strikes me as the hardest work of all.

Julia Barton is a longtime public media editor, working with “Life of the Law,” American Public Media, “99% Invisible,” and individual producers. She’s also been the managing editor of Radiotopia, a podcast collective from PRX. Barton’s reporting has appeared on “Radiolab,” “99% Invisible,” “Studio 360,” PRI’s “The World,” and other programs. She lives in Brooklyn in life, online at juliabarton.com.  

 

 

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Third Coast Conference: Are journalism and storytelling “frenemies?” http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/third-coast-conference-are-journalism-and-storytelling-frenemies/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/third-coast-conference-are-journalism-and-storytelling-frenemies/#comments Fri, 14 Nov 2014 16:25:09 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=117190 Editor’s Note: Every other fall, hundreds of radio producers, journalists, documentarians and other audio artists gather in Chicago for the Third Coast conference to examine, explore and celebrate the world of audio storytelling. In the first of a series of dispatches from the 2014 conference, which took place last week, radio producer Julia Barton writes about a panel discussion on the question of where storytelling and journalism meet– and collide– in audio.

The session, called “Journalism and Storytelling: Frenemies?,” featured moderator Joe Richman, founder and producer of Radio Diaries, which gives people tape recorders to report their own lives; Brooke Gladstone, the co-host and managing editor of the public radio program “On the Media;” Roman Mars, host and creator of the podcast “99% Invisible;” and Andrea Silenzi, senior producer of Slate’s daily news show, “The Gist,” and host of the radio program “Why Oh Why?”.

Part of what makes the Third Coast International Audio Festival so intense, I’ve come to believe, is the lonely nature of life as an audio producer. Much of the world doesn’t understand the basics of what happens between our headphones and computer screens, and that creates a haze of silence around the professional decisions we have to make every day.

Many of those decisions have to do with interview tape: what to keep, what to remove, and how to balance the needs of a story’s framework while remaining honest to people who have trusted us with their voices.

 So it’s a relief to be in a room full of people who “get” these problems—problems which are at their core ethical. Radio Diaries producer Joe Richman started off the festival with a lively discussion of ethics, although he and the other panelists all agreed that “codes of behavior” is perhaps a better term for what audio producers need to develop.

It was fascinating to hear where people draw the line in their own work. “On the Media” co-host and managing editor Brooke Gladstone will cut and re-arrange an interview for length and clarity, and she’s a vicious excisor of “ums” and pauses (disclosure: I temped once as a producer at “On the Media”). But she’ll never insert a pause to slow an interview down.

“A pause suggests emotional moment,” Gladstone said. “To put one in would be like putting a word in the mouth of the person.”

But each story comes with its own set of dilemmas. In his “Radio Diaries” documentary series on Nelson Mandela, Richman included an interview about curfews in apartheid South Africa. At the sound of an evening bell, blacks knew they had to get off the streets. Richman found a 1940s record of church bells in Johannesburg to mix under the moment when the interviewee recalled the sound of the bell.

“You shouldn’t cheat, you shouldn’t take shortcuts,” Richman said. “Still, what if all I could find were bells from 1950s in Durban? Or Nigeria? Or Poughkeepsie?” In other words, when would the audio demands of the story lead us too far astray?

“He’s going ‘bong bong bong,’ and if you didn’t have ‘bongs’ in there, you’d go crazy!” Gladstone exclaimed. But “the closer you can get to his situation is best. That’s your goal as a documentarian.”

 “Poughkeepsie is too far,” “99% Invisible” host Roman Mars said. “That is your limit.”

What made this panel especially useful (and not a bloated discussion of ethics in audio journalism) was its nod to producers who inhabit a still-murky creative realm between audio fiction and verité. We tend to trust that voices we hear on the radio are who they say they are, but some producers like to play with that assumption.

In addition to producing Slate’s “The Gist,” Andrea Silenzi produces a live program and podcast “Why Oh Why?” at WFMU, a freewheeling, all-volunteer station in New Jersey. Silenzi played a moment with a recurring guest on her show named Randy. At Silenzi’s request, Randy sized her up as a possible date: “You are a little stumpy,” he declares. “But you have a clean, rural smell.” Randy’s so creatively obnoxious that some suspect he’s an acted character rather than a “real” person. But Silenzi won’t say whether he’s real or not.

Gladstone was not sure she liked that. “It’s possible to have a relationship with your audience where things are ambiguous,” she told Silenzi. “But if the energy is dependent on the authenticity, then that might be a violation [of trust].”

But for Silenzi—at least in the context of “Why Oh Why?”—toying with authenticity is part of a new media literacy that can be pleasurable. “I think people do know to ask, ‘Is it real?’ now with the Internet,” she said. “It’s this fun process where you imagine if it’s real and then ask whether it’s not.”

And artifice is baked into what we do anyway, said Roman Mars. “When you introduce microphones to real world, it becomes inauthentic. The craft is working back to making it feel real again.”

Julia Barton is a longtime public media editor, working with “Life of the Law,” American Public Media, “99% Invisible,” and individual producers. She’s also been the managing editor of Radiotopia, a podcast collective from PRX. Barton’s reporting has appeared on “Radiolab,” “99% Invisible,” “Studio 360,” PRI’s “The World,” and other programs. She lives in Brooklyn in life, online at juliabarton.com.  

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5 Questions for Tyler Hicks http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/5-questions-for-tyler-hicks/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/5-questions-for-tyler-hicks/#comments Wed, 12 Nov 2014 13:27:41 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=117173 Some of the most compelling, controversial images of conflict and terror in recent memory — a woman hiding with her children, motionless on a restaurant floor, a man carrying a boy’s body along a Gaza beach — have come from the camera of New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks. Hicks, whose work has taken him to Syria, Libya and many other troubled spots, won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in breaking news photography for his images of the Sept. 21, 2013 terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi and was a member of the Times team awarded the 2009 Pulitzer in international reporting for coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2006, he was named Newspaper Photographer of the Year by Pictures of the Year International.

Hicks recently visited the Nieman Foundation to deliver the annual Joe Alex Morris Jr. Memorial Lecture, which brings an American overseas correspondent or commentator on foreign affairs to Harvard to discuss international reporting. Before his speech, Hicks sat down with Storyboard and talked about working with reporters, the ubiquity of imagery and the one subject he’d most like to shoot. An edited conversation follows:

You work so closely with reporters, with people who are writing stories, and of course, you’re telling a story with images. Is your method the same, or different? How do you think the same or differently about storytelling? How much autonomy do you feel in that relationship? How much is it a two‑way street?

It depends on the reporter. It’s natural for some photographers and reporters to work really well together, and other relationships can be completely poisonous, terrible.

When you do find that right combination, it works very well. For me, I was lucky, I teamed up with Chris Chivers and we spent 10 years covering wars together, and we’re very good friends. It’s like going on the road with your fishing buddy. You have to have that relationship so you don’t end up killing each other.

Living next to somebody under those circumstances, where you can go a month or longer where you’re never more than 10 feet away from somebody. That would be true for Afghanistan, Syria, Libya. You’re always in the same space, whether it’s the same car, or the same military vehicle, whether you’re sleeping next to each other in sleeping bags. You have to have a pretty high tolerance for that person. I don’t care how well you get along.

I’d say with Chivers, he’s usually the one driving the direction of the story, but it puts me in places that I would never normally go. I think that I’m right, and then it turns out I’m not. Sometimes, I might see something that he doesn’t see. It really does work to have that type of relationship.

That said, I also work on my own sometimes. Gaza, where I was working most recently, is a good example of that, where my needs are much different than the reporter’s needs.

That’s very much a visual story that requires a higher level of risk that there’s absolutely no reason for the reporter to be taking. They can get those stories in the hospital and not go out at the times of day when things are more likely to happen, so I actually make a point not to work with a reporter in that place.

What about the public or political response to some of your images? You get such a strong response to a photograph that is a photograph of an event, but is interpreted politically as favoring one side or the other. Does that affect you personally and professionally? Is that something that you’re mindful of when you’re shooting, or think about afterward?

No matter how you’re doing it, there’s going to be an imbalance. The New York Times tries to balance that as much as possible. In the case of Gaza, having a photographer on the Palestinian side and another photographer on the Israeli side, and balance those images as far as how they’re run in the newspaper.

My role in that is very small. My job is to take pictures, to send them to the New York Times, and then that’s the end of my responsibility with it.

It actually can be very frustrating and distracting to look too much at what the dialogue is, with so much access. With so much freedom for people to respond to those photographs, it can become very emotional.

On the one hand that’s what covering news is all about. I take a photograph or a story runs, and that’s up to the reader or the viewer to interpret in any way they want. One person might look at a photograph I’ve taken and view it as some kind of propaganda. The other might see it as underscoring the civilian casualties at the hands of the Israeli military, and everything in between.

After I’ve sent my photographs, and being in Gaza, where it is very political, and you’re at the end of the day very exhausted, the best thing to do is not to go and start reading through the reams of comments.

Is it harder to be a photographer now that there are so many channels for people to talk back?

It’s not harder, I think it’s different. It’s not just about how people communicate in regard to pictures, but it’s also about the amount of photographs that are out there.

I think back to when I worked in the Balkans, that some of the first assignments I had for the New York Times, there was a Times reporter and a photographer that worked with that reporter, and that was it. It would be pretty rare for them to use any other picture, or for you to ever see a picture outside of that run in the New York Times.

Today, no matter what you see or get in any given place or time, there’s going to be 100 other people who have taken pictures and sent them, and the Times has seen them. There’s a lot more competition, but then you have to ask yourself, what is that competition? How do we determine, how do we decide what is valid news?

We work for a place like the Times because we have a certain track record, and they trust us, and there’s a book of ethics that we follow. All that’s got thrown out the window, and it’s this buffet of pictures out there. Are we just going to publish those because somebody said this is true, and this isn’t set up, this really happened?

In some cases, yes. There’s always that footnote these days. “This is something, a photograph that was said to be taken of,” or “Believed to be of,” and there’s a lot less of, “This happened, because we know where this came from.”

Do you think the ubiquity of imagery devalues the kind of work that you do, or makes it even more important?

It makes the work more important, because we have to keep up the tempo of quality news. The highest‑quality news is that marriage between a story and a photograph that comes from the reporting, and the team.

I’ve always worked for newspapers, whether it’s for the New York Times or small daily newspapers domestically before that, where I’ve always been teamed up with a reporter. Where sometimes you might feel that slows you down, much more common is that it actually makes your field of view much wider, and brings a much richer amount of information to the reader.

That’s really what we’re after. If I take a photograph and it doesn’t run, or it doesn’t get published, or it doesn’t have context, then the picture’s not ever worth taking if it’s not seen. It has to be seen, it has to be digested, in order for it to have any value whatsoever.

What would you like to shoot that haven’t yet had the chance to shoot?

I’d like to have complete access to see behind the lines of ISIS…That’s something that we haven’t seen. Aside from their own propaganda, what they masquerade as news, which is very controlled and very fake. To actually see how they’re fighting this, and how they’re controlling people, to have access to that today would be extremely valuable.

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Annotation Tuesday: Jonathan Goldstein and The Little Mermaid http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/annotation-tuesday-jonathan-goldstein-and-the-little-mermaid/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/annotation-tuesday-jonathan-goldstein-and-the-little-mermaid/#comments Tue, 04 Nov 2014 14:44:56 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=117104 Annotation Tuesday ventures into a new medium today with our first annotation of a radio story. It’s a natural fit. The human voice is, of course, the original storytelling instrument. Plus, some of the most innovative narrative work out there these days is in audio. (For more on that, check out our interview last week with the producers of the hit podcast “Serial.”)

The piece we’ve selected to inaugurate this feature originally aired on “This American Life” in 2002. Titled “Buddy Picture,” it’s better known today as “The Greatest Phone Message of All Time,”  or, more simply, “The Little Mermaid.” If you’ve never heard Jonathan Goldstein’s classic story about the phone message that turned an annoyed mother into a Columbia University celebrity, stop reading and click here now.

We chose this story not only because it’s exceptionally entertaining but because it’s such a classic that it inspired “This American Life” host Ira Glass to create a new award for this year’s competition at the Third Coast audio conference, which opens Friday in Chicago. “The Little Mermaid” prize, to be announced Sunday, will recognize a 3-60 minute documentary or story that is “FUN in subject matter and style,” according to the competition guidelines. As Glass writes on the Third Coast website:

“Now and then it occurs to me that some of my very favorite radio stories would never ever win an award because they’re not about anything Big and Serious and Important. There’s a whole class of stories I love hearing and doing that really are just out for fun. These stories often require just as much craft and thought and cunning as the big important stuff. Radio would be duller and sadder without them.”

Jonathan Goldstein, who wrote and produced the “The Little Mermaid,” now hosts the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio show “WireTap.” We asked another former “TAL” producer, Lisa Pollak, to interview Goldstein about the craft and thinking that went into his piece. They met last week at the CBC’s New York City bureau, where they discussed, among other topics, the beauty of the phrase “bitch squealer,” the control-freak nature of good radio production and how a “w” sound can keep you out of trouble.

Also, please heed the caveat on all the program’s web transcripts, which warns that the stories are “produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read.” In other words, if you haven’t already stopped to listen to the story, do it now, before reading this annotation.

Lisa Pollak’s comments are in red ; Jonathan Goldstein’s responses are in blue . But first, some questions:

Lisa Pollak: Before we get to the annotation, can you tell me how this story came about?

Jonathan Goldstein

Jonathan Goldstein

Jonathan Goldstein: Well, I think it started with me wanting to get my friend Josh [Karpati] on the radio. But I couldn’t just say, “My friend Josh is really funny so we should put him on the show.” Working for a show like TAL, which is so story-driven, I had to figure out a story.  I’ve described it subsequently as a Trojan horse for me to get Josh on the air.  And even the message itself was a kind of MacGuffin —  something to orbit around so I could kind of put on stage my dynamic with Josh, which I thought was an entertaining one based on our telephone calls.  Josh is a semi-regular on the show I’m doing now, “WireTap” on the CBC, and, in some ways, that Little Mermaid story was a blueprint for the entire show.

So the phone message story was one you’d heard from him.

Yes, it was just something he’d always talked about.

I worried a little that asking you about this story was like asking a band to play that hit song they’re tired of talking about.

It’s a bit weird because I did it like 15 years ago or so. But not everybody has a story like that which connects with people. If you’re lucky you’ll have something like that. So it’s cool. And I feel like I was lucky in terms of the facts of it, the way that things all kind of came together. The fact that the message was preserved, and that everyone I spoke to knew about it. It’s a pleasure when you’re working on a story where everyone wants to participate and everybody has a memory. It was a fun experience.

Any thoughts on why audiences love this piece so much?

I think it adheres to Ira Glass’s idea about what makes a radio narrative work… presenting a new enigma every 45 seconds or so. So it continues to surprise as you listen. I also think it’s fun to listen to someone be yelled at on national radio.

“Buddy Picture”
By Jonathan Goldstein
“This American Life”
January 11, 2002

 Ira Glass: And so without further ado, let us turn now to Act One. This Act One is the story of the greatest phone message of all time. Some people see it that way anyway. You may judge for yourself. A quick warning that there is one famously nasty word in this story that occurs exactly seven times. Count them yourself. But do not worry. We beep the word every single time. Producer Jonathan Goldstein tells the tale.  Since this is Nieman’s first-ever annotation of an audio piece, I’ll point out that this is called a host intro. Did you write it or did Ira?   Ira did, I’m sure, though I remember that he thought we needed to get in front of the swear words and I believe it was my idea to make that into a joke and actually count them, and possibly allow the listener to count them down. And while we’re on the subject, how does a having a host intro affect the way you write a lead? Do you think of it as a headline or something more?   I think the intro can be helpful. It can get the paperwork out of the way and let you get to the meat, the jokes, more quickly. It allows you to coldcock the listener [and] take the stage in the best way possible. It’s not so much a headline, as a headline might tell too much and step on what’s to come, but is the work of an introduction… sometimes delivered by a hype man.

Josh Karpati

Josh Karpati

Jonathan Goldstein: The first thing you should know about my friend Josh is that he calls me a “bitch squealer.” Now, “bitch” isn’t the bad word you’re going to be hearing in this story. And that’s because it’s referring to an actual dog, a fenced-in security dog that barked at me and Josh while we were out walking one night. And while my scream may have been louder that evening, Josh’s scream was definitely higher-pitched, which to my mind means Josh should rightfully be called the “bitch squealer,” while perhaps I should be called something like “bitch bellower” or “bitch loud crier.” Just the same, “Quit your bitch squealing” is what Josh says to me when I ask him to please change the station on the car radio or to stop crowding the armrest in the movie theater.   Was it a no-brainer to start with bitch squealer or did it take some work to figure out the lead?   I feel like everything I’m going to say will do nothing but take away from people’s enjoyment of this story. But I think it’s a kind of poetry. Like certain phrases and word constructions such as “bitch squealer” or whatever are just funny. Like “diggy do.” And you can feel it.  The other thing to know about Josh is that he thinks of himself as an idea man. And he always refers to his ideas as pure gold. So a few years ago, when I first started doing stories on the radio, I would call him up and ask him if he had any story ideas. And he always did. The thing was, most of them involved hot dog eating contests and all-nude car washes. One time Josh talked to a French-Canadian waitress who used the words “diggy do” as a conjunctive phrase, as in, “My mother, she gave birth to me in Lac Saint-Louis, and diggy do, I’m in Montreal.” Josh tried to convince me that this semantically innovative young woman was most definitely worthy of a 40-minute interview on national radio.

Just the other day, Josh was telling me about this really funny phone message that he heard back in his college days, and how I should definitely do a radio show about that. He swore to me that it was the defining moment in his class’s campus life that year. Now, how is a person supposed to believe something like that?  At the risk of further crushing the audience’s  enjoyment, can you break down your decision to frame the piece around Josh trying to sell you on his idea? I think a lot of writers would have heard about the phone message and figured that was the whole story.    I felt like [the message] was one of those kinds of pitches that on paper wouldn’t sound like very much… a story about one of these fancy-pants guys from Columbia and the rip-roaring time that they had in college. There’s no stakes there. The stakes come from me looking like an idiot because I don’t believe Josh. And in the end he is right and I’m wrong and I get my comeuppance and everyone goes home happy. It feels like something happened. And it’s kind of meta …like the story itself becomes a character because you’re rooting for it to succeed. So not only do you get the satisfaction of hearing the message, but there’s the added satisfaction that it actually exists, that Josh was right.

Jonathan: I can imagine you really liking this message.

Josh: Oh, I see. I see.

Jonathan: But you see, I can’t imagine it being the kind of thing that was like—

Josh: That your sedate NPR audience would appreciate?

Jonathan: No, no, no. I mean it sounds like you got a kick out of it at the time. But I can’t imagine it being like an atomic bomb that hit the campus or something.

Josh: Yeah. See, this is clearly another example of the failure of your imagination. How many times have I given you ideas that you have naysaid? How many times have I given you gold-standard ideas—  So where did this conversation take place?   Josh went into a studio in Montreal and I was in the studio in Chicago at the time.  I remember having a conversation with Ira where I said, “Aren’t people going to wonder, when I say, ‘Just the other day Josh was telling me’….Won’t that seem strange that we conduct our conversations in a radio studio?” And [Ira] was like, ‘No you have to understand, the audience, they think we’re these little people that live in the radio…’ He had this whole reasoning for it, and he was right. He just knew it was going to be invisible, and I was overthinking it.   I feel like it goes without saying that this tape is brilliant, but can you spell out why it was important for you to record Josh telling the story?   I thought to just tell the story in script wasn’t enough. What I wanted to do is give people the enjoyment of hearing the story the way I heard it, and in order for that enjoyment to exist, you had to get to know Josh the way I know Josh. You had to get to know our dynamic.

Jonathan: Josh yells at me a lot, especially when he thinks I’m not taking his ideas seriously. When we go out to eat, he yells at me loud enough to make the other patrons turn around and look at us. Sometimes though, he’ll get all unexpectedly silent, and just stare out the restaurant window, and then turn to me and say something like, “Wouldn’t life be better if there was a big old pig sitting out there by the fire hydrant? Why can’t life be more like that?”

But anyway, to get back to the phone message, the one Josh heard in college, I’m telling you about it not to demonstrate what a slightly misguided colorful character Josh is, but to chart with honesty the unfairness of my pre-emptive bitch squeals of doubt.

Josh: I went to Columbia University in the early ’90s, OK? Late ’80s, early ’90s. When I was there, they had this phone system– I’ll just give you a little bit of background, all right? And then I’ll cut to the chase. They has this system there called the Rolm system, Rolm phone system, R-O-L-M. And you could forward messages to people. You could forward messages to everyone on campus if you wanted.

Jonathan: Sort of like a precursor to the Internet.

Josh: Yes, like a precursor to the Internet. Thank you, Mr. Current Affairs Guy. So it was an amazing utility. People could forward all kinds of crazy messages. So one day, there was this guy named Fred. And his mother left him a message on his answering machine. And he forwarded it to maybe one or more of his friends. And his friends turned around and did a Brutus, and they stabbed him in the back. And they forwarded this message across campus to everyone. So do you want to hear the message? All right. So he prefaced it by saying–

Jonathan: You have it? You have the message?

Josh: I do not have the message. I have the message in my head. I am telling you a story. All right?  What’s going through your head as you do this interview?   At every beat I know that certain things are going to set [Josh] off and I know that’s only going to prolong the gratification. It was like, even when he’s about to tell me what the message is and then I ask him, “Oh, you have the message?” And I knew he didn’t have the message, but I also knew he would beat me up for it. And then when he’s just about to tell the message he’s like, “You’re ready?” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah,” and then he goes, “Oh, one more thing.” And I left that in because I felt like, you’re with him. You’re along for the ride in this wonderful way.   This isn’t the first time Josh is telling you the story, but it sounds like it could have been. How do you do that?   There’s this idea in radio that the best kind of tape is tape in which something is “happening.” So if there is a feeling of you reacting, being surprised, laughing, it makes it feel — though it’s only a conversation in a studio —  like something is happening. And the listener will have a bit more of that vicarious thrill… the joy of being in it together. So you want to find a balance between knowing some things but still allowing room for surprise. And I have to admit, I’m not much of a laugher, which has made my career in radio more difficult. I do not have the free and easy laugh that makes subjects feel like they are the wisest, funniest people in the world. I try to sound like I’m smiling  but that doesn’t always come across. I have to do things like say “Wait… you what?” or repeat what they just said to underline it for the listener. And one of the things I love about Josh is that he makes me laugh in a way very few people do and so he makes me a better broadcaster than I am.

Jonathan: OK.

Josh: All right. So he prefaced it by some kind of a sad little lead-in. In a little voice, he was like, “I think you’d would appreciate hearing this message from my mother.” And then the message played. This was the entirety of the message. And I’m going to do the voice for you as best I can. You ready?

Jonathan: Yeah.

Josh: Oh, sorry. More background. Apparently, he was not a hit with the ladies, Fred. This is what I was led to understand. I’m not sure if this is true or not. But he had managed to score a date to go see “The Little Mermaid,” of all movies. “The Little Mermaid.” OK? So this is the message his own mother, his blood relation, leaves for him. And I quote, “You and ‘The Little Mermaid’ can both go [BLEEP] yourselves. The books you wanted, they’re not here. They must be in La Jolla. I’m not going to wait up all night for you. Goodbyyye.” That’s the entirety of it. All right?

Jonathan: Yeah. That’s the message that his mother left him?

Josh: That’s correct. You catch that part? “You and The ‘Little Mermaid’ can both go [BLEEP] yourselves.” I love you, son. That’s gold.

Josh: And then– no, hold on. Are you going to listen?

Jonathan Yes.

Josh: Then somebody took it– some evil mix-meister genius took it and remixed it into a 12-inch dance version. “You and The Little Mermaid, La Jolla, La Jolla, [BLEEP] yourselves, [BLEEP] yourselves. They’re not here, the books. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Jonathan: And there are other people who remember it?

Josh: Are you even listening to a word I just told you? This was the “The Producers” of its day, OK? Everyone heard about it. Everyone knew it. Everyone had an opinion about it. Every single person who attended Columbia that year, I guarantee you they would know what I’m talking about.

Jonathan: I still didn’t believe him. But just for the hell of it, I phoned the Columbia alumni magazine to see if there was anyone there who might remember anything about the Little Mermaid message. I ended up speaking to someone who not only attended Columbia in the early ’90s and remembered the message, but just like Josh had, he actually quoted it to me, the whole message. “You and The Little Mermaid can both go [BLEEP] yourselves. I can’t find the books. They must be in La Jolla. I’m not going to wait up all night for you. Goodbye.” The guy then became so excited at the thought of someone doing serious research about the message that he offered to use the Columbia database to look up every Fred that might have graduated around that time. No matter how long it took, he said, it would be worth it if I could track down some recording of the message and allow him to hear it again. Were you surprised by how into it they all were?    Yes. I remember making this call at my desk and then the person’s whole tone changed. I wasn’t even recording the call.

[PHONE DIALING]

I called other Columbia students from that period. And every one of them reacted the same way to the message, like this guy Ben Feldman, now an entertainment lawyer.

Ben Feldman: Hello.

Jonathan: Is this Ben?

Ben: Yes.

Jonathan: I have two words for you, little mermaid.  This guy is on the phone and not in a studio , so you were recording your actual first call to him?   Yeah, with the phone you can take more chances. When you book someone into a studio, you have to know a bit more and take less of a gamble, because you have to book a tech, have them drive to the studio, etc. I think this was an idea from Ira that he had gotten from a story he had once heard. He said when you call up this guy, say ‘I have two words for you…’ I took a chance and it led to that great opener.

Ben Feldman: This is the funniest call I’ve ever received. Well, you and “The Little Mermaid “can go to hell.

Jonathan: A few days later, Josh called me back. He had found out Fred’s last name from his older brother, who it turns out graduated the same year as Fred. Josh said that Fred’s last name was Schultz. And I told Josh that this was great news. And Josh told me to shut my squeal hole, which I did.

So I called Fred Schultz. And it turns out that he had recorded the original message and still had a copy of it, a copy which I am now going to play for you. Remember, this is a phone message that was forwarded from one person to the next, each person re-prefacing the previous prefaces as it made its way from one voice mail message box to the next.

Voice Mail: Received at 4:20 PM Friday.

Woman 1: Guys, I have never heard a phone mail message like this one. Listen to the first person. You are going to die.

Man 1: No seriously, this is the funniest one of all of them.

Woman 2: All right, here it is–

Jonathan: These giddy introductory messages continue for two and 1/2 minutes, each one revving up the impending drama, acting as a kind of stage curtain that opens onto another curtain, and yet another one still, each one teasing you with the tantalizing proximity of the main stage about to be bathed in the spotlight.  The way you set up the tape here makes it even funnier and more dramatic than it would be on its own. Can you talk about the thinking behind this writing?   Basically, I’m telling people what’s happening as it’s happening. But you have to be economical. I can’t play all two and a half minutes of tape here so I want to give people the pleasure of the tape in a tighter way. I want people to find the tape entertaining in the way that  I find it entertaining That’s the great thing about radio, how you can juxtapose script with tape and have each one enhance the other and work in tandem and that’s the pleasure of mixing. There was a lot of time and thought put into what would be the tape that comes up –the funniest blip that really pops, and you use the other stuff underneath while you’re talking.

Man 2: OK, I’ve gotten like 95 phone mail messages in the last two days, but this is the funniest.

Man 3: This is going to blow you away. This makes the other ones look like chopped liver.

Jonathan: And then finally the chain of deferral ends with the very first forwarded student’s solemn pronouncement.

Man 4: There comes a time in life when we hear the greatest phone mail message of all time. And well, here it is. You have to hear it to believe it.

Fred Schultz: I thought you’d get a kick out of this message from my mother.

Joan Schultz: Hi, Fred. You and The Little Mermaid can go [BLEEP] yourselves. I told you to stay near the phone. I can’t find those books. You have other books here. It must be in La Jolla. Call me back. I’m not going to stay up all night for you. Goodbye.  Do you think you could have done the story without a tape of the message?    I think I needed to have it. It makes [the story] so much more satisfying, doesn’t it? It feels like we’ve gone someplace. Because we really aren’t going anywhere. It’s just me talking to people in a studio. There’s no real scenes. And yet it feels like we’ve gone on this odyssey.

Jonathan: These days, Fred Schultz lives in Venice Beach, California. He plays in a band, he skateboards, and he pretty much seems happy. When he sent me the recording of the Little Mermaid message, he also included burnt incense and a CD of his band’s soundtrack for a film about cannibalism called Eat Me. Here’s a clip. [MUSIC - "EAT ME"] Fred is the kind of guy who, when the subject gets on to future plans, will tell you he’s thinking pretty seriously about moving onto a boat.  Did you meet Fred in person?   No, he went into a studio in California. Years later, I met the technician who had mic’d Fred. [The technician] told me, and this speaks to what’s great about radio, because you weren’t distracted by the fact that Fred showed up to the studio barefoot with just half a beard on one side of his face and clean-shaven on the other side, and I think dreadlocks on both sides of his head. And then I got on his mailing list and he was running for president, I think with a dog as his running mate or something.   I think so many writers would have use a cliche like “free spirit” or “doesn’t follow convention” to describe Fred. The boat is so memorable and totally gives you a picture of him.    I remember that as being Ira’s idea. He asked what I knew about Fred and I mentioned the thing about the incense that he sent in the mail and also that he talks quite a bit about his plans to move onto a boat. Ira could see that it was all you needed to know about him in a way that I don’t think I was able to clue into then.

When I ask him about the phone message from his mom, he says that from the moment he got it, he knew he was sitting on something big. The question then became, what was he going to do with it?

Fred: I did sit down and stress and think about it for like an hour or two. I debated whether to send the message out to anyone. And then I sat down and listened to music, and just thought about it, re-listening to the message and just thinking, should I send this along or just let it die, kill it, hit erase.

Jonathan: But Fred decided not to hit erase. And he explains his mother’s cryptic message this way. He had called looking for an old school notebook. She said she’d search for it, but only if he’d wait by the phone while she did this special favor for him. But did he stay by the phone? No, he did not. As for “The Little Mermaid,” this was the one thing Josh was completely wrong about.

Fred: My whole life, I have had a thing about mermaids– and dolphins, but mermaids.

Jonathan: When you love mermaids that much — and dolphins– you don’t keep that to yourself.

Fred: My outgoing message, first it had Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” singing “Part of Your World,” singing like, “Part of your world/What would I give if I could live out of these waters?” And then I jump on and say, “Hi, please leave a message for me and ‘The Little Mermaid.’” And then you hear beep.

Jonathan: Now put yourself in his mother’s shoes. To hear Joan Schultz, Fred’s mom, tell the story, that outgoing message was like a call to arms.

Joan: I hear “The Little Mermaid” music. And he said, “Sorry I can’t answer you now. Please leave a message for me and ‘The Little Mermaid.’” Well, that’s all I had to hear. I was so infuriated and so incensed, that without even thinking– and I never ever say this word– I said, Fred, you and “The Little Mermaid” can both go [BLEEP] yourselves. And I slammed the phone down.  The moment we first get to hear from Joan is so surprising and satisfying. It’s like, You got her to talk!  And she’s really likable.   Yeah, you’re sort of on her side a little bit. Because Fred’s kind of like —  you can imagine if he was your son he’d be driving you crazy. I’m overstating it but you know, I wanted her to have her moment too.   Was she different than you expected?   I think I was most surprised by how formal she was being. Like she was on her best behavior. She reminded me a bit of my own mother. We weren’t in the same studio but if I were to imagine her, I would picture a woman dressed up for going out in the Sixties. Cat’s eye glasses. Stole. Handbag on lap. I’m not sure why. At no point did I feel sorry for Fred.

Jonathan: So late that night, studying in his dorm room for finals, Fred finally decides to forward the message to his friend Jeff. Then Fred goes to bed. And by the next morning, he wakes up to discover, that just like one of those guys in one of those movies, his life has suddenly become forever changed.

Fred: My message machine was blinking that all 10 messages that it accepts are filled. They were all filled with people– like chains of 20– it had already gone around to say each chain had hit 20 or 30 people.

Jonathan: How many people heard it over the course of the night?

Fred: Hundreds had already heard it in the middle of the night.

Jonathan: Over the course of how many hours?

Fred: Like four hours.

Jonathan: What was then to follow for the Schultzes was nothing short of campus-wide celebrityhood. Women ran up to Fred and hugged him. Men envied him for his ability to inspire that much raw transparent hostility in his mother. The phone message was so popular that, like a hit TV show, it spawned spin-offs. Other messages circulated with people commenting on the original.

Woman 3: As a history major, I think we’ve got to put this into a class struggle perspective. His mother represents–

Man 5: From a political science standpoint, I would say that both Fred and his mother are products of the political system.

Man 6: I feel that Mrs. Schultz’s sexual desire for her son, Fred, is manifest.

Jonathan: And Josh was even right about the dance remix version of the message.

Joan: You and The Little Mermaid can go [BLEEP] yourselves. The Little Mermaid can go [BLEEP] yourselves, yourselves, mother, mother.

Jonathan: Although no official at Columbia could confirm this next claim, virtually everyone I spoke to who graduated Fred’s year remembers this as a point of fact. The popularity of the Little Mermaid yielded message threads that were too long for the new voice mail technology to handle. And so the messaging service for the whole of Columbia crashed.

It goes further still. Fred’s mother’s message went on to become the most crowd-pleasing musical number from the year-end Varsity Show, a time-honored all-male production that goes back to Columbia alumni Rodgers and Hammerstein in the early 1900s. The choreographed routine involved a kick line of hairy-legged men in seashell brassieres and mermaid tails. Steve Nadick, the show’s lyricist, dug out the words and favored me with a few select lines.

Steve: Oh, here it is. Look at that. But I don’t even know if this is the final wording, because I see some handwritten notes on the side. It starts off, “We beautiful creatures inhabit the sea. Fish-women, frolicking frivolously. Although no one said that we’d have to enjoy-a, it still could be worse. We might be in La Jolla.” And we sang “in La Jolla” as Handel’s “Messiah.” “So it’s time to decide what you might want to do. We’re not going to wait up all night for you. Goodbye.”

One thing that’s impossible to appreciate in this transcript is how much the music adds to the comedy and pure enjoyment of the piece. This spot, where “Hallelujah” plays, seems like a good time to ask:  Did you pick the music?   I scored the piece, yes.   Explain what that entails.   Generally, I would audition about an hour, an hour and a half’s worth of music that seemed appropriate… trying out various songs. A great deal of time is put into this, as you know. And usually happens until late at night , the night before broadcast. It’s kind of an ineffable business, but the idea is to have songs in there that round various bases, make you feel like you’re going some place, being told a story.   Were there any particular choices that you’re really proud of?   In listening again, I do like how the music stops in the diggy do story —  like it’s an old-timey snare drum rim shot — and kicks back up. It’s subtle but time consuming. I’ve jokingly said that radio can be such a control-freak kind of thing because you can read the script the way you feel it should be read, you can apply the kind of scoring music you want, all of these things. If it’s the wrong song, you can see the wires and you feel like you’re being pushed to feel something that you’re not inclined to feel. But if it’s the right song, it gives you that extra little push to feel some emotion. It’s telling people what to feel. And if you’re on the money and you’re telling them to feel the things that’s appropriate, then it’s great…but if it’s off, it just feels like people see the artifice of it.

Jonathan: As even the most casual viewer of VH1′s “Behind the Music” knows, fame like this doesn’t come without a price. When Fred’s mother came to New York for her son’s graduation, she experienced the darker side of super stardom.

Joan: On Broadway, in restaurants, in the shops there they would say things like, that’s Fred’s mother. That’s the Little Mermaid. And I was mortified. Wherever we were, people would point and laugh and snicker.

Fred: So she just made it her job, at that point, to just walk up to any random group of people, and just start saying, “You don’t understand. I never use the F word. He provoked me. He provoked me.” So she felt that that was her responsibility, to clear her name, to at least let them know she never curses.

Joan: Before my message came along, the funniest message they had sent around was something like other kids’ mothers begging them not to forget to use their rubbers in the rainy season.

Jonathan: Here’s an example of what Joan Schultz is talking about, one of those feel good homesy messages. This is a message from Huey Hockman’s grandparents, making sure he was taking care of his cold.  This message was amazing. Do you remember who gave it to you?   I know, that was such a treat and such a fortunate thing to have.  Fred was really helpful so he might have saved it, but it might have been somebody else at the school. I don’t remember.

Huey’s Grandmother: Huey, we heard you have a cold, darling. We called to see how you feel.

Huey’s Grandfather: Yeah.

Huey’s Grandmother: And to tell you we love you.

Huey’s Grandfather: Yeah.

Huey’s Grandmother: That’s all. We hope you’re OK, darling.

Huey’s Grandfather: Yeah, me too.

Huey’s Grandmother: Good night.

Huey’s Grandfather: Good night.

Joan: Mine was so far and above that that they won’t even go back to the old one.

Jonathan: Do you take a certain level of pride in that?

Joan Schultz: I guess so. In a strange way, yes.  This was a great moment.   I think if I unraveled the raw tape, I might find that I had to dig to get her to the point where she admitted her pride in the message. One funny thing about Joan is how she says “I never use that language” and then the way she throws it off in the retelling so casually, you just know she can curse like a character in a Guy Ritchie film.

Jonathan: The Little Mermaid message was everything Josh said that it was. And now that I spoke with everyone about its glory, there was really only one more person left to talk to.

Josh: What do you want?

Jonathan: I made some calls to Columbia. I spoke to some people who went to school the same time that you did. Yes, I did. And diggy do, you were right. It was all true. The message made a great impact.

Josh: Wow, thanks John. Listen, what a bastard you are. I gave you gold. Don’t you understand?

Jonathan: But anyway, you are missing the point that what I’m saying is that I apologize, because you are right.

Josh: I diggy don’t give a rat’s ass.

Jonathan: I am going to read to you a piece of the script that I’ve written that I’m thinking I might actually end this whole story with, because I want to get some of your feedback. OK?

Josh: Oh, I’m ready.

Jonathan: I would say something to the effect of, “And so a recording intended for one person unintentionally became the beloved property of thousands. And in so happening, the message went from being what might have been considered a rather tragic personal artifact that spoke of dysfunction to becoming a triumph of contemporary American humor.”   To me, this was like you got to have your cake and eat it, too. You’re able to gesture at the TAL “big idea” ending and make fun of it at the same time.  Was this the actual ending you’d written?   Maybe I was still figuring out how to write endings, but I think it was a bit of a parody. I wanted to give Josh something really juicy to sink his teeth into.

Josh: What is that? That’s public radio wussy talk. Be a man.  He did sink his teeth into it.   What he actually said was, “That’s a lot of public radio pussy talk.” Which in its alliteration is just a beautiful way of putting it. But we couldn’t put “pussy talk” on the radio. So we spent a ridiculous amount of time in Ira’s office taking the “wuh” from another word — probably a “what” from  Josh getting angry at me and saying, “What the fuck are you talking about?” — taking that “wuh” sound and I swear to you it might have been a half-hour cutting it together and cross-fading it with  “ussy talk.” The beautiful irony of it is that it’s the most public radio pussy-talking thing you could possibly do, to spend all this time changing “pussy” to “wussy.”  And even after doing that crossfade for half an hour, I still feel like it doesn’t sound right. I always hear the edit.

Jonathan: No, a part of that whole statement is that I’m actually saying to you, “You were right and I was wrong.”

Josh: All right. Whatever. If you want to talk that fancy talk, you do your thing. But don’t drag me into your serious voice nonsense. And you get to speak in this stentorian tone, like, “And then America laughed at this inadvertent piece of comedy. I’m Jon Goldstein.”

Ira Glass: Jonathan Goldstein broadcasts his bitch squeals these days as host of the CBC’s program “WireTap,” which you can hear on some public radio stations in this country and also find on the Internet. His friend Josh is a regular contributor to the show.  Before we go: Any thoughts about “The Little Mermaid” becoming an award at Third Coast? That seems like a suitable epilogue to the whole thing. Dance remix. Musical. Radio award.

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“Serial” podcast producers talk storytelling, structure and if they know whodunnit http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/serial-podcast-producers-talk-storytelling-structure-and-if-they-know-whodunnit/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/serial-podcast-producers-talk-storytelling-structure-and-if-they-know-whodunnit/#comments Thu, 30 Oct 2014 12:39:24 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=117041 If, in recent weeks, you’ve walked up to a group at a party passionately debating whether Jay is telling the truth or overheard a headphone-wearing passenger on the train mutter something about a body in Leakin Park or interrupted a friend at her computer analyzing images of a 15-year-old cell phone call log, well, you’ve encountered “Serial” addiction.

Since it debuted earlier this month, “Serial,” the new podcast spinoff of “This American Life,” has consistently topped the iTunes charts, spawned dozens of discussion threads on Reddit and made a whole lot of people happier on Thursday mornings, which is when each weekly episode is released. The story, told one installment at a time, re-investigates the murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee, whose ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of strangling her to death in 1999 and has been imprisoned since.

The true-crime outline may sound familiar; the storytelling is not. The plot and characters unfold from episode to episode, meandering through fascinating wrong turns and unresolved mysteries. Halfway through the season, with 6 of the planned 12 episodes released, even the program’s producers aren’t sure how the story will turn out. Storyboard talked with “Serial” host and executive producer Sarah Koenig and executive producer Julie Snyder about how you structure a story when you don’t know the ending, the challenges of explaining how cellphone towers work and lack of sleep.

An edited transcript follows:

Storyboard: Maybe it’s just the English major in me, but the first thing I thought of when I heard the title “Serial” was Dickens. Is that what you were thinking? Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with the model for telling the story and how it’s evolved as you’ve been producing the segments?

Sarah: Yes, I was thinking of Dickens. I’m sorry — I know my colleagues do not like it when I discuss this because we’re “doing something that’s new.” I’m an old-fashioned consumer. I’m actually a very catholic consumer of entertainment. I like high and low and books and TV. I like it all. I listen to a lot of books on tape, and the reason I do that is because I hate to fly so I drive to a lot of places that normal people would take airplanes to and so I take out books on tape and I love it. I love getting lost in some story for hours and hours.

It’s not like it came to me in a flash, “We should make a radio show like that!” It was more like well, what if we just did one story over time? I’ve probably formed this into a more conscious line of cause and effect than it probably is, but I think somewhere in my head is that idea of a book on tape. So, that’s how I think of it.

And how has that model changed as you’ve been actually making it happen?

Sarah:  I think our ignorance probably allowed us to go ahead and try it. If we had known the difficulties, we might have thought twice. I think it’s good and bad.  I’m assuming Dickens knew what his story was as he was going. We really are reporting it as we go.

Julie and I have probably made two or three structures for the whole season, where we plotted out episodes one through twelve, for example. And we have ripped apart or erased each one within a few days of making it, or a week of making it, each time as we’ve just realized, “Wait, this story’s making this turn now; we can’t do what we thought we were going to do.” And that’s scary but it’s also kind of wonderful in that the format allows us to be so flexible and so responsive to new information as we’re getting it. We created this structure but it’s helping us and hurting us.

So you mapped out several structures in advance for how you thought the story might unfold?

Sarah: Yeah. So with each one, we’ve always known we don’t know exactly how it’s going to end, but assuming it’s going to go the way we think it’s going to go, here’s what we’ll do. And then, when we realize maybe it’s not going the way we think it’s going to go, let’s take it apart and start again. Or even just simpler things where [we are] figuring out what the audience needs to know to be with us along the way, so that when we figure stuff out, we all have the same base of knowledge. So, some of it is as simple as that. Then we’re still reporting it and so our assumptions about what things mean, or things that we kind of decided were one way five months ago — this is happening a lot where we’re going back to the same notes, the same police reports, the same whatever– and being like, “Oh, I never noticed this thing before because now I know all this.” You know what I mean? So, things are changing.

Were there any models or inspirations you had in mind for telling a story this way?

Julie: Yeah, definitely. In some ways, it’s a very traditional story in that we’re pretty solidly in the realm of a true-crime story, which is not breaking any new ground. I feel like the difference of what we’re trying to do compared to a lot of stuff you see, especially on TV, would be to try and tell a story, to talk about the case in a way where you understand that everybody is a real person and that it happened to real people and not play it for exploitation.

But other than that, I think we recognize in that way, we’re not breaking new ground. It’s a genre that is pretty tried-and-true. In terms of breaking it out into serialized installments, so that things are moving forward and changing as the story goes on, we’ve talked about this before, that there was a documentary called “The Staircase” that was on the Sundance channel. And I think that was seven parts, maybe eight parts. It followed a murder trial in North Carolina and it was very similar in a way that we felt about going through this process where a lot of times, like Sarah just was explaining, you see things differently based on the information that you have at the time.

As you get more information, all of a sudden that information gets colored. And so, I would imagine that is exactly the experience that a lot of, certainly reporters but maybe even investigators and homicide detectives and those kind of people who do this for a living, have as well. We really felt that realization of things changing as you find out more. So that was what we were looking at as a model.

What really appealed to us about the serialized format when Sarah first proposed it was that you could also do stories as they’re unfolding. So you could even do stories in real time. I’m so tired right now and I think Sarah’s so tired right now that the idea of that seems horrible, but it would be really cool. That would be really, really cool.

One of the most striking consequences about choosing to tell a story in a serial format is that you have all these people who are now investigating it and analyzing it and commenting about it right alongside you. There are discussion boards on Reddit, for example, and Rabia Chaudry, the woman who brought you the story idea, is blogging about it. Did you anticipate that might happen? How do you feel about it?

Sarah: I didn’t know so many people were going to listen. I really, really didn’t. I’m thrilled and it’s exciting, but I didn’t know so many people were going to give a shit, you know what I mean? And so, I didn’t see that coming, no.

I’m not on Facebook, I’m not on Twitter. I’m not someone who pays the attention necessarily to that sort of Internet activity. So I just didn’t even know. I’ve been really surprised and I think it’s great. People are engaged, right? But I also fear it, too. It’s very easy to start throwing around accusations and information or stuff you think you know, or whatever, and to just forget, like Julie’s saying, that these are real people. These are real people with families and lives, who have trusted me with their information or with their anonymity, and so it makes it nervous. It makes me really nervous.

Do either of you follow any of it? Are you looking at it at all?

Julie: Honestly, we’re so busy and working so much, so mainly only in the way of just trying to make sure that there isn’t horrible misinformation that’s being accepted as true.

And has it impacted the storytelling?

Sarah: I don’t think so. I’m not reading it for the most part. One of our colleagues is scanning it for two things. One is if there’s somebody who really knows something, can you let us know? And then also if there’s anything really horrible on there, we want to know about it and just make sure nothing too terrible is happening. But other than that, I’m not reading it. We don’t have time. So no, I don’t think it’s affected the story. It’s reinforced to me how careful we need to be. We were being careful anyway, but it definitely is a reminder–people are really listening closely. Julie, do you think it’s changed the story at all?

Julie: I don’t think it’s changed the story. I think the main question I had for a long time is, “Are you confused?” Because there’s a lot of information.  Last week’s episode — even my husband was brought to his knees a little. Even he was like, “I’m not sure I totally got everything… It’s dense.” That’s more my concern when I’m looking at the Facebook page and looking at posts. I think what I’m trying to gauge is, “Did we just try all of your patience and you’re just like ‘Okay, I was interested, but I wasn’t that interested that I wanted you to spend 45 minutes talking about cellphone towers in Baltimore County.’”

One of things that’s so interesting about “Serial” is that you’re not cleaning up the narrative as reporters often do. It’s really messy. We go down all the wrong turns with you. Can you talk a little bit about why you’re doing that?

Sarah: To me, that’s the pleasure of figuring this out. I think our rule of thumb is if it’s interesting to us, we’re going to assume it’s interesting to you. And as long as we’re responsible, not throwing stuff out there that’s totally half-cocked, and as long as we can corroborate what we’re doing, I think that’s kind of the fun of it.

In the midst of this dark, violent story, there are these surprising moments of levity. Can you talk a little about why you’ve included those and what purpose they serve in the storytelling?

Sarah: Oh my God, now you’re making me feel like it’s wrong to make jokes while we’re talking about a murder. Is that—is it wrong? Oh no, am I a bad person?

No, I think it’s effective storytelling.

Sarah: It’s not new to the story. For me, it just feels very normal, the way that I’m writing it and I think I like to have fun where I can.

Julie: Last week’s episode was so dense. But it was also a little unrelenting, so it’s nice to have a moment that just feels like a little bit of some breathing room and a break. So, yeah, take it where you can get it.

Sarah: But it’s not like we’re sitting around saying, “Insert joke here.” You know what I mean? We all have a pretty similar sense of humor, I think on the show. Julie and Dana [producer Dana Chivvis] and I think the same things are funny. When I heard there’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib, it just cracked me up, so let’s use it. If we can get away with it. Believe me, we’ve put in a lot of other goofy stuff that we’ve taken out before anyone else hears it.

The two main characters, Adnan and Hae, they’re still a little elusive. I’m waiting for that moment where we really get face-to-face with Adnan, whether it’s literally or metaphorically. Is that going to happen? And how are you thinking about the characters as you develop them over the course of the narrative?

Julie: Sarah’s going to be so happy that you just said that. We have to do all this work of laying out the details so that we can talk about the case on the air and in the story in the same way we talk about it amongst ourselves, with that level of familiarity. And so it takes all this time of explaining this and explaining that and talking about this and talking about that.

At the same time, Sarah has had so many conversations and interviews and experiences with Adnan and with a lot of the other people involved in the case and that she’s talked to over the year, and moments that aren’t necessarily related to — thumbs up, thumbs down, did he do it or did he not? That is the struggle, and I think it is one that we’ve had, right Sarah? Of trying to figure out when can we just settle in? When can I talk about this other stuff that isn’t directly related to having to vote on what you believe. When can we do that?

I do hope that we’re entering into that soon. I feel like we’re getting there now because now we’re at the point where you know everything that Sarah pretty much knew pretty soon on with an intensive amount of reading and some understanding. So then we can get into the kind of conversations and the interviews and the moments that are a little less…

Sarah: Technical.

Julie: Technical, exactly. Yeah. I’m glad that you said that’s what you’re waiting for because, honestly, I’m not sure everyone feels the way that you feel. I can’t quite tell. Is there more of a “Just tell me who did it” kind of thing? Like, “All I want to hear is evidence. I don’t really want to hear anything more narrative than that.” I don’t know. But we want to. But it has been a little bit of a struggle figuring out when we can do this.

Sarah: The popularity of this podcast, I was unprepared for. I think a lot of that is the fact that it’s a crime. It’s a murder case. I had not banked on that’s what people are responding to. It’s not our great idea and our wonderful storytelling; it’s just that people can’t resist a murder mystery. I really did not appreciate that until now. I’m afraid there probably is some of that out there, where it’s just a caper. And that’s fine. I think that’s not our interest, though. That’s not our intention. I think our intention is more complicated and probably more subtle, and maybe too subtle.

It’s funny because I keep thinking for all these people who are like, “Does she know the ending? What’s the ending? How’s it going to end?” To me, when I’m watching “House of Cards” or “Downton Abbey,” or whatever it is, I don’t want to know the ending. To me, the pleasure is in the story, right? So I’m always a little bit like, “Wait, don’t you guys just want to stick with me? Why are you trying to get ahead of the story? Isn’t the pleasure in having it lay out? To me, that’s what I like. So I don’t relate, honestly, so much. I really don’t. I’m sad when it gets to the end of those series. I just want it to keep going.

Do you feel now that you know which of the paths the story is going to take?

Sarah: I don’t think so. Julie? I don’t.

Julie: You know what? I’m not going to be a sucker anymore. I’m not talking about in interviews, more in my own life. I have been it so many times, being all like, “I am 98 percent sure,” and then literally turned back around and said it the other way. I’ve really made an ass of myself in front of Sarah and in front of my colleagues here one too many times in the last nine months. I think I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not making any definitive statements. I just can’t.

If you were starting afresh today with this concept and this particular story, is there anything you would do differently based on what you’ve experienced so far?

Sarah: Yes. Have more than two episodes done by the time you launch. That would be my number one change.

Julie: Yeah. That’s huge. Also, to be totally honest, the “Let’s figure it out ourselves” kind of thing really stresses me out, so I might be a little more wary on that front as well.

Sarah: We’re all a little fried. Julie and I haven’t seen our kids properly in about six weeks. All our home lives are crumbling. I don’t think we would put ourselves in the path of this much stress again, in the same way.

Julie: It’s so nice to be able to take on experiments and challenges and to tell things in new ways and work on new projects. It’s really invigorating, and I think I have learned so much both as an editor but also about what it means to come up with kind of a new concept and positioning that. In so many ways, it’s been incredibly fulfilling.

Sarah: I know, as soon as you started saying that I was like, “Oh right, I’m whining.” That’s ridiculous. We are so goddamn lucky. We are so lucky that we have the freedom to do what we’re doing. It’s crazy, it’s crazy. But we are very tired.

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5 Questions for David Finkel http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/5-questions-for-david-finkel/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/5-questions-for-david-finkel/#comments Wed, 22 Oct 2014 13:55:32 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=116922 David Finkel describes his "deliberate" reporting process to the Nieman Fellows

David Finkel describes his "deliberate" reporting process to the Nieman Fellows

In selecting David Finkel for one of its “genius” grants in 2012, the MacArthur Foundation described him as “a journalist whose finely honed methods of immersion reporting and empathy for often-overlooked lives yield stories that transform readers’ understanding of the difficult subjects he depicts.” Finkel, the Washington Post’s national enterprise editor, followed an infantry battalion deployed to Iraq in his 2009 book, “The Good Soldiers,” which was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times. A second book in 2013, “Thank You for Your Service,” traced the struggles of those soldiers as they returned to their lives at home. He also won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting for a series of stories in the Post about American efforts to bring democracy to Yemen. Finkel spoke recently with the current class of Nieman fellows and sat down with Storyboard afterward to continue the conversation. Following are edited excerpts of those discussions:

Talk a little bit about the nuts and bolts of writing. What do you do, in a very practical way, what do you start to do to shape a story so that you have something that comes out at the other end of it?

It’s a pretty deliberate process, and a lot of it involves working from an endpoint. But the first thing is I have to have a question I’m interested in answering. Then, after that, I go do reporting. I am a pretty ferocious reporter.

That doesn’t mean questioning all the time. All the tools we know. Learning to use silence as a reporting tool. All the things we do. Getting people to talk to each other. Trying to recede so something might occur as if it would have occurred if you weren’t there, if that’s possible. But, eventually, realizing what the story is I want to tell and then finishing the reporting to tell that story.

You finish the reporting for that story and then again it’s very deliberate. I go over my notes. I index all my notebooks. I transcribe everything. I’ve been doing that all along. I reread everything. I’m looking for…Because I’m not just a camera you turn on and I record everything. I’m trying to think my way through things. I’m trying to find patterns or I’m trying to find things that might relate in an authentic way.

You read your notes and read your notes and read your notes and eventually, I come up with a very specific outline. The outline is guided a lot by — and it’s not just knowing when I write this book, it’s going to be this many chapters — but it’s knowing where the book is going to end.

I may not know the words, but I pretty much know most of the words and what the tone will be. Then it’s just a matter of outlining my notes to get to that tone and those words as efficiently as possible. It helps if you go through your notes and organize.

It’s not for me a clean process. I don’t know. When you write, maybe if you’re having a bad day, you can forget the beginning and go to the middle and start writing the middle. Man, I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve got to write that first line until I get it right and at least the second line, and then the third. I write and rewrite all the way to the ending, but when I write the last line, I’m done.

If I’m having problems writing a story, it’s probably because I’ve screwed up in the previous step. If I’m having problems writing, it’s probably I haven’t organized well enough. If I’m having problems organizing, it’s probably because I haven’t reported thoroughly enough. You take a step back to the previous thing and it’ll solve the thing you’re in.

You mentioned using silence as a reporting tool. Could you tell us more about what you mean?

I want to reach the point in the story where people aren’t talking to me, where I’m just going along. The people I’m with, they no longer feel the obligation to be a host to me. You know how when your mom comes to visit, and your mom says, “Every second has to be filled with conversation because this is a special moment.” You want to get past the special moment and let things go.

Again, serendipity, this kind of reporting. You’re there. You’re there. You’re there. You just want to be there. If people are going to be quiet, let them be quiet, and listen to them be quiet. If they’re talking to each other, hear what they’re saying to each other. That’s much more valuable — don’t you think? — than them answering a question.

For the second book, especially, so much of that was built on just being present and being silent. A lot of the second book, these families recovering took place while they’re in the front seat of the car fighting with each other, and I’m in the back seat just trying to stay behind the headrest so that maybe they’ll forget I’m there.

How do you get to that place where people feel like you’re part of the situation, the normal situation, so they behave like that and you can observe things like that? Because you have to win their trust, you have to explain what a journalist does, but psychologically and personally, how do you do that?

If I go through a process, it’s when I’m interested in the possibility of a story and the possibility of someone being part of the story. I’m upfront with them. I’m quite transparent about the way I work ‐‐ that this is going to involve spending a good bit of time with them, and I hope I’ll spend enough time that it’s right up to the moment, maybe an inch short of where I would become entirely irritating to them. But that to do anything less, then I’m going to write a story that’s going to embarrass me, embarrass them and embarrass this subject, so they have to realize there’s an investment of time.

I try to explain this kind of journalism, because people don’t necessarily know it. I don’t give a lesson, but I try to explain it as much as I can and say the best way you can figure out what I do is … I mean, look at my previous work. If you want me to send you some stuff, I will. If you want to find it on your own, then do it that way.

I also explain some of the ethics and obligations involved. I explain that the story is being written about them. It’s not being written to them, and there’s a difference. The way to underscore that is I emphasize that they, despite their investment and time, despite everything they’ve agreed to, including having me around, they don’t get to see the story until it’s published. Because if you see it before, then that’s just, it’s an ethical violation. It taints the story. They become their own editor. In effect, they become their own censor, and that can’t happen. They have to realize that they’re not going to see the thing until it comes out. I lay it out and then I say, “So think about it. Think about whether you want to take a leap here. If you do, we’ll go at it, and if you don’t, I totally understand.”

Then we go from there.

What makes that difference in making the transition from reporter to great editor? What is it that’s needed?

When it’s done, I’ll let you know.

[laughter]

No, I’m telling you. I’m feeling my way through this. I was an editor once before and I think I was pretty ham‐handed about it. I was trying to get everybody to write a story as I write a story, and that’s not very fair. I was trying to solve a problem, and the way I would solve a problem of a story that wasn’t working was try to rewrite it into the way I would write it. That’s not being a good editor.

This time, I think I’m a little better at it, but I’m still learning my way. Editing is, it’s just, I don’t find it an easy thing to take a story and work through it and get it into better shape. I’m not giving an eloquent answer. It’s just hard.

I don’t know what being a great editor is except I’ve had great editors. I try to think, what made them great for me? We all get better by having templates, by having examples. Just like I became a better writer by becoming a critical reader, maybe I’m becoming a better editor by being a critical thinker about what my editors did for me, what made them good. The stuff that worked for me, do that, and the stuff that ticked me off, don’t do that.

But it’s a work in progress. If you ask five reporters, I think they would agree. Some days I’m quite helpful and some days I’m sure they wish they had a different person perched on their shoulder.

What is the role of long‐form? Where do you see the genre going?

I don’t know where it’s going. I just know it’s not going to be in the one thing I do. It’s not like long‐form is disappearing. I keep reading all kinds of places, “There is a resurgence.” I hope that’s true.

Like any proponent of long‐form, I believe in serious attempts. I believe in the power of a story. But what I don’t [know] is what storytelling is going to become. I’ve been doing this for a while. I have my moves, I have my likes. In a great story, it involves a primary emphasis on reading a written story, word by word, line by line, without adornment, without interruptions of hyperlinks, without interruptions of, “You’ve read what they say, now hear them say it in this video.”

It doesn’t make sense to me, but I know I’m in a minority — and an increasing minority. Things are shifting. They’re probably shifting in very, very exciting ways. I would count on it. It’s just, it’s not my move to master that shift. But I’m sure other people are.

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Fourth “Power of Storytelling” conference opens in Romania http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/fourth-power-of-storytelling-conference-opens-in-romania/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/fourth-power-of-storytelling-conference-opens-in-romania/#comments Fri, 17 Oct 2014 12:06:39 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=116883 If we were in Bucharest today, we could listen to newly named New York Times deputy international editor Amy O’Leary talk about digital storytelling or delve into the less glamorous aspects of the writer’s life with Esquire’s Chris Jones or watch Indiana University professor Kelley Benham deconstruct her remarkable story about the premature birth of her daughter.

But those of us stuck at home during the fourth annual “Power of Storytelling” narrative journalism conference need not despair. Thanks to conference founder Cristian Lupsa, editor of the non-fiction journal Decât o Revistă and a 2014 Nieman fellow, and his colleagues, Storyboard will bring you excerpts from the two-day conference as soon as they’re available.

In the interim, you can follow the happenings on Twitter, with the hashtag #story14, and whet your appetite here with some highlights from previous conferences.

In this session at the 2012 conference, Jones spoke about the purpose of writing and what makes a good writer:

I get asked all the time about what makes a great writer. What makes a good writer. And it’s such a hard question to answer. There’s things like curiosity, determination and honesty, and all these things are important, but the thing that for me – it’s my test – if I was to hire one person out of this room, who would I take? It would be the person who cared the most.

The same year, Atavist editor and founder Evan Ratliff talked about the challenges of creating his venture and how it required him to do all the work he had “become a writer not to do:”

“I think the lesson here is one that I’m still grappling with. I think that sometimes you just have to get over yourself, and sometimes you just have to survive. And this is what we had to do to survive. We had to do things that we were not ready to do and I think that is true for a lot of journalists who want to strike out as freelancers, who want to write things that are different from what your editors want you to write, and you want to go out in the world and find new magazines and find new homes.”

You can also read radio producer Starlee Kline‘s take on developing ideas or see what Jacqui Banaszynski thinks about the future of storytelling. And stay tuned for dispatches from this year’s sessions.

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Jonathan Eig searches for the characters of his new book http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/jonathan-eig-searches-for-the-characters-of-his-new-book/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/jonathan-eig-searches-for-the-characters-of-his-new-book/#comments Tue, 14 Oct 2014 12:46:39 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=116622 In previous books, best-selling author Jonathan Eig profiled baseball legend Lou Gehrig and Chicago gangster Al Capone. But as he set about researching his most recent project, he faced an interesting dilemma: what do you do when your main character is a little round pill? In this installment of the Storyboard feature “Writing the Book,” Eig, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, discusses the challenges of finding and establishing the protagonists of his new book, “The Birth of the Pill.” You can read the New York Times review of the book here.

Before I could begin writing my latest book, I had to kill Allan Pinkerton.

I was fascinated with Allan Pinkerton. I still am, really. But that didn’t stop me. The more I researched the life of the legendary detective, the more I grew to dislike him and the more I came to believe that he would never be good to me or anyone else. So I killed him. I buried him in the basement next to some of my other recent victims and set out looking for someone or something else to write about.

“Write a book women will want to read,” my wife said.

“Are you saying that women don’t care about my other books?” I asked.

When I stopped feeling defensive, I started making lists, as I always do when I’m searching for ideas. There are so many things I’m interested in writing about that making lists is easy. The hard part is narrowing down. I look for stories with conflict and passionate characters, because conflict and characters move plot. I look for stories that might give me something important to say, because Melville said to write a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme. I look for stories that might attract big audiences, because I like for my work to be read and I like getting paid.

This time, I also looked for a story that women might want to read, because I love my wife and she’s always right.

Here are some of the lists I made: most important Supreme Court cases; most important inventions; most important Jews; most important women; most important athletes; most important women athletes.

After a couple months of building lists, I noticed that the birth-control pill had popped up several times. It made my list of important inventions; in fact, The Economist had called it the most important invention of the twentieth century. Margaret Sanger, the crusading feminist who coined the term birth control, made my list of important women. And Gregory Pincus, the scientist who invented the pill, made my list of important Jews. Now I had a Venn diagram in my head with three overlapping circles.

It struck me as odd that I knew so little about the origin of the pill. The more I thought about it, the odder it seemed. Why would anyone invent a birth-control pill in the first place? To give women more power? That seemed unlikely. To help women better enjoy sex? Even more unlikely. In the 1950s, before the pill, men had almost complete control of government, science and business. What motivated the men in charge of these institutions go to work on a new contraceptive? And if men in charge didn’t make it happen, who did?

I knew something about Sanger and her longtime cause, which dated back at least to 1914. It was Pincus who intrigued me. Who was he and why had I never heard of him? What was in it for him? Every other scientist Sanger had approached told her no, they would never agree to work on a birth-control pill; it was too controversial, they said, and ultimately pointless. No company would ever manufacture such a pill and the FDA would never approve it.

I called Pincus’s daughter, who lived in Boston, and arranged to meet her. When she told me her father’s story, I was hooked. Pincus had been dismissed by Harvard in the prime of his career because he’d been too radical. He’d been working on in vitro fertilization in the 1930s and bragging to reporters that his work would change forever the way men and women reproduced. The world wasn’t ready. When Harvard denied him tenure, Pincus couldn’t find work anywhere, so he built his own laboratory and started his own foundation in the garage of an old house in Shrewsbury, Mass. Twenty years later, he agreed to take on Sanger’s birth-control project in large part because he had nothing to lose.

Let’s look back at my checklist for good stories.

Conflict? Check.

Passionate characters? Check.

Important? Check.

Ability to attract a big audience? Who the hell knows?

Something for women? Check.

The first two “checks” excited me most. This story had a ton of conflict and a great cast of characters. Sanger and Pincus were classic heroes–outsiders summoned to perform a seemingly impossible mission. And they were acting not for fame or glory. They fought to give women equality, make sex more fun, and prevent the planet from becoming overpopulated. Sanger, who was in her seventies and suffering from heart failure, sincerely believed that Pincus might get this done while she was still around to see it.

BirthofPilljacketFrom a storytelling perspective, there was one big challenge. In addition to Sanger and Pincus, I had two more compelling characters: Katharine Dexter McCormick, the heiress who financed the entire research project; and Dr. John Rock, the Catholic gynecologist who defied the church to lead the clinical trials. Constructing a narrative around four characters is tricky. Was the pill the hero of my story, or was it this team of crusaders?

For inspiration, I went back and re-read Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit,” which is one of my favorite recent works of non-fiction. There are chapters in that book that could be books on their own—it’s so rich. Seabiscuit made for a problematic central character because horses, with the exception of Mr. Ed, don’t talk. Hillenbrand overcame the problem by making heroes of three men surrounding the racehorse—the owner, trainer, and jockey.

It’s a nifty trick on her part. Hillenbrand describes Seabiscuit as an unlikely champion, with an awkward stride and a sad little tail. Even so, the reader never really cares about the horse. We know, win or lose, that Seabiscuit is going to get a warm paddock and plenty of oats. The humans are the real heroes. We care about Seabiscuit because they do.

In their quest for a birth-control pill, Sanger, Pincus, McCormick and Rock were fighting long odds. It was illegal to disseminate birth-control products or even information about birth control in most of the United States in 1950, when they began their work. The Catholic Church would fight them all the way. If those obstacles weren’t enough, consider this: the birth-control pill would be the first medicine designed for daily use by healthy people. If it made women sick or led to deaths, the results would be catastrophic.

Yet Pincus, Sanger, McCormick and Rock pushed ahead because they were true believers. In their minds, even the greatest risks were acceptable because the potential rewards were so enormous. And it was here, as these men and women took risks, that I was able to add the most new detail to the story of the pill’s invention. Patients had no privacy in the 1950s. Women participating in scientific experiments were not asked to give their consent.

At the Library of Congress, among Pincus’s papers, I found letters he wrote to gynecologists asking them to engage in what Pincus no doubt considered a minor and harmless deception. He asked the doctors to give birth-control hormones to women seeking treatment for infertility. The women would be told that these hormones would rest their reproductive systems. When they finished treatment, their systems would kick back into gear and they might be more fertile. In truth, Pincus was interested in only one thing: making sure his hormones shut down ovulation.

Then he tried testing the birth-control formula on mental patients at the Worcester State Hospital. He tried it on men as well as women there. I found lists of names. I tracked down some of the children of the women who were tested. They told me their mothers had no idea. Doctors at the hospital confirmed it. They said they injected men and women with all kinds of experimental drugs, never asking for their permission and seldom offering explanations.

After testing their birth-control formula in the insane asylum, Pincus and Rock traveled to the slums of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and conducted large-scale field trials on women there, where American laws would not apply. They gave women massive doses because they knew the Food and Drug Administration would assess the drug only based on its effectiveness, not on its side effects. They weren’t too considered with women suffering nausea and headaches just so long as the pill came close to 100 percent effectiveness.

Pincus and Rock were operating well within the ethical standards of their time. In fact, they considered themselves progressive—both in their treatment of women and in their scientific methods. In the 1950s, they really were more sensitive and more concerned with women’s rights than most men. This is what made them such compelling heroes—they weren’t perfect, and they were willing to take chances for something they strongly believed.

“Seabiscuit” and my book had one more thing in common: predictable endings. Before they turn a single page, readers of both books will know the horse is going to win the big race, just as they know the pill will win approval and change women’s lives.

But with strong characters and plenty of conflict, predictable endings are not necessarily bad. My book hinges on the FDA decision to approve the birth-control pill, which went by the brand name Enovid. In writing those critical pages, I pretended that I didn’t know the outcome of the agency’s decision. It wasn’t hard. I spent three years working on this book, and speaking to dozens of men and women who had known these characters. Every time I met with Pincus’s daughter or Rock’s daughter, I felt like I was looking into my characters’ eyes, that I was getting at least a glimpse at how they might have moved, how they might have spoken, how they might have felt. A writer can’t really know what’s in his subject’s heart, but he can try. At the very least, the writer can try to see the story through his character’s eyes. And so I tried to remember as I wrote the book’s climax that my characters didn’t know how it would end. I came to love these characters, and I was rooting hard for them to see their hard work pay off.

If I did my job, readers will feel the same way.

They’ll be rooting for the pill as it comes down the stretch.

As for me, I’ll soon be moving on to another book. Pincus, Rock, McCormick, and Sanger will be carried from my office to the basement. But they won’t be buried alongside Pinkerton. Pinkerton got a cardboard box. These heroes will get a fireproof file cabinet.

They earned it.

Jonathan Eig is the New York Times best-selling author of four books: “Luckiest Man,” “Opening Day” “Get Capone” and, most recently, “The Birth of the Pill.” He is currently working on a biography of Muhammad Ali. Before writing books, Jonathan worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Chicago magazine, The Dallas Morning News, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Esquire and The Washington Post.

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