Hustling for Respect
The most misunderstood man in America is sitting in his gold-plated wheelchair in a penthouse office on Wilshire Boulevard and waiting for his moment to arrive.
In Larry Flynt’s fondest dreams, that moment will make him whole, not merely a sum of his parts. In his most infamous guise, Flynt is a widely reviled pornographer, founder of the explicit Hustler magazine. Yet he was impotent for much of his reign, paralyzed from the hips down by a would-be assassin. And while Flynt skates the razor’s edge of taste and publishing propriety, he also works the other side of the respectability aisle as a crusader for the First Amendment.
Once dubbed “the nightmare version of the American dream” by People magazine, Flynt literally wrapped himself in the American flag--he pinned it on as a diaper for a court appearance, thumbing his nose at a justice system that had smothered him in obscenity trials. His Gulfstream jet sports red-white-and-blue stripes on its tail because Flynt is, after all, “still proud to be an American.”
Flynt, 53, says candidly that he went into the porn business for the money. But after years of bottom-feeding publishing and outrageous behavior, he went on to endure a less enticing side effect: the life of a pariah. Now he’s hoping that history will be kinder to him than his reluctant colleagues in the media--even though controversy still clings to him.
“If you asked him when he was 20 and running go-go bars in Columbus,” says freelance journalist and longtime friend Rudy Maxa, “ ‘Do you want $10 million or the respect of a grateful nation?’ he would have taken the $10 million. But now that he has the money and his name on a building on La Cienega, there comes a time in a man’s life when the next hurdle is respect.”
And with any luck--and a leg up from Hollywood--Flynt won’t have to die before he sees advance copies of his official bios.
Columbia is releasing the Oliver Stone-produced biopic “The People vs. Larry Flynt” in December, directed by Milos Forman and starring Woody Harrelson as the pornographer and Courtney Love as his fourth wife, the late Althea Leasure Flynt. Flynt signed on as a consultant and spent two weeks coaching the stars in the Cayman Islands. He also appears in the film as the Cincinnati judge who sentenced him to prison for a 1977 obscenity conviction that was later reversed. Sentencing himself “was a very strange feeling,” he says.
Flynt’s “expose autobiography,” “An Unseemly Man: My Life as Pornographer, Pundit and Social Outcast,” is being published by Dove Books in November.
Just check out the pornographer-outcast’s dizzying schedule these days. First he’s off to New York in mid-October for the premiere of the film, which is closing the New York Film Festival. Then it’s on to Prague for a screening at the Presidential Palace for Forman’s old friend Vaclav Havel.
That may not be a pornographer’s usual stomping ground. But then Flynt considers himself “probably one of the most misunderstood personalities around. I constantly meet people who say, ‘You’re nothing like I thought you would be.’ Well, what did you think I would be?
“You have a segment of society out there that thinks I’m a dirty old man in the basement of a building grinding out pornography every day. And the case I won before the Supreme Court against the Rev. Jerry Falwell was without a doubt the most important First Amendment case in the history of this country.”
Not quite the most important, says First Amendment expert and L.A. attorney Doug Mirell. A lower court had awarded Falwell $200,000 for “emotional distress” because of a Hustler ad parody depicting the reverend as an alcoholic losing his virginity to his mother in an outhouse. The Supreme Court overturned that in 1988.
“Larry is engaging in another well-worn First Amendment-protected type of speech--rhetorical hyperbole. But since there was a question about whether [parody] was to be protected under the First Amendment, this is a landmark case which establishes that principle.”
A new book on pornography by a Northwestern University professor argues that it’s precisely in the most offensive territory that First Amendment wars are fought.
“Historically, pornography was defined as what the state was determined to suppress,” writes Laura Kipnis in “Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America” (Grove Press). “Hustler’s entire publishing history . . . has also been punctuated by extraordinarily numerous attempts at regulation and suppression. . . .” She compares Flynt and his penchant for vulgar political parody to the 16th century satirist Rabelais.
Still, Flynt is a hard man to feel sympathy for. How do you make a hero of someone whose mission in life is to shatter the publishing taboo against showing penetration?
It has irked Flynt that he has done some of the dirty work for the more reputable beneficiaries of the First Amendment, the mainstream press, and yet lived to reap their disdain. Still, he sounds almost hopeful as he says he could easily resurface as the whipping boy for free speech as censorship battles shift from the newsstand to the Internet, where Hustler has a torrid World Wide Web site.
“Prosecutors tend to want high-profile cases,” Flynt says in a thin rasp honed by cigars and his native Kentucky. “Well, if somebody’s putting smut on the Internet and it’s Joe Blow from Kansas, who cares? But if it’s Larry Flynt, let’s do it. So I’m always out there on the edge.”
At the same time, his environment couldn’t be more genteel. Flynt likes to surround himself with trappings of the Victorian good life. Born in the antiques-free zone of the impoverished Kentucky hills, he developed a passion for French Provincial and 18th century English furniture--"the pastimes of the leisure classes into which his talent for vulgarity allowed him entree,” as Kipnis tartly puts it.
Flynt says he decorated his offices himself from his arsenal of antiques, an overstuffed museum of gilt-edged furniture, dark woods, Tiffany dragonfly lamps, faux Old Masters and heavy marble columns. The only Hustlerian note is a sculpture of a couple copulating behind his massive desk.
As for Flynt, his face has rounded into a pale moon after nearly two decades in a wheelchair. He has a taste for expensive beige suits, silk shirts and cologne. A gold watch attached to a solid band of tiny diamonds encircles his wrist. A diamond-dabbed "#1" pendant of gold dangles from his neck. He barely moves when he talks, occasionally bringing a cigar to his lips with slightly tremulous hands. He is discussing his inexhaustible appetite for antiques.
“I have a lot of antiques in storage,” he says during one of two long interviews. “I’ve got antiques here, a lot in my home, and I don’t consider myself a connoisseur of the arts. If I see something and I like it, I buy it.”
If he’s buying too many of them, that’s a signal that he’s on a binge. “The people around me know things to watch for,” he says. “So suddenly you go from a 15% tipper to a 50% tipper.”
Of course, that’s far less costly than the other exploits he now ascribes to manic depression--from his short-lived conversion to born-again Christianity to his 1984 presidential campaign to cussing out the Supreme Court during a 1983 hearing in a libel case.
Flynt’s own lawyer had him bound and gagged during a swirl of trials the next year. They were touched off by Flynt’s refusal to name the source of a videotape he’d given “60 Minutes"--the tape showed the sting operation that led to drug charges against auto maker John DeLorean. Faced with a $10,000-a-day fine, Flynt dispatched barely clad models to the Los Angeles courthouse with sacks of dollar bills. But his antics won him no friends in court. He was charged with contempt for cussing out a judge and other mischief, and in February 1984 he began five months behind federal bars. A higher court dismissed the case and set him free.
Prison officials refused him drugs to numb the pain caused by a .44-caliber bullet to his spinal cord, pain he once said felt like “standing up to my thighs in boiling water while someone with a claw hammer ripped the meat off my bones.”
When Flynt got out, he resumed the addiction to Dilaudid and other painkillers that kept him in a stupor for 14 years. He says he overdosed six times, was declared DOA twice and kept so many drugs around that Althea got hooked too. Weakened by addiction and AIDS, Althea slipped underwater in the bathtub and drowned in 1987. She was 33.
Flynt still thinks about losing the only woman he says he ever loved. “If I had never gotten shot,” he says, “Althea would be here today because she didn’t do drugs when I met her and we didn’t do drugs together.”
Kipnis considers Flynt a tragic figure. She describes him in the book as “a late 20th century pornographic Horatio Alger who comes to suffer horribly for his ambitions despite his frantic, futile gestures of repentance.”
Flynt listens to the quote read aloud, nods, but softly demurs on one point. “I’ve never apologized for what I did,” he says in a slow drawl. “There are a lot of very bizarre and embarrassing things that’ve happened in my life that I’d probably do different if I lived it over, but I’m still basically not willing to eat crow for anything I’ve done.”
Although Flynt eventually bought his grandparents’ 500-acre Kentucky farm, he rarely goes home anymore. He says his family never related to his express-lane life. His father, a sharecropper and pipe fitter, was an alcoholic when Larry was growing up. His parents divorced when he was 12. “There is nothing more remote than Eastern Kentucky,” he says. “I mean, our biggest industry down there is jury duty.”
Flynt got out by entering the Army at 14 with a fake birth certificate, and he traveled the world for five years. By 21, he’d been divorced twice. Five years later, he opened his first Hustler Club--a working man’s Playboy Club with go-go dancers--in Dayton, Ohio. Within four years, there were eight Hustler Clubs in Ohio, and Flynt began publishing a newsletter featuring the dancers.
Hustler made its national debut in 1974, and within two years it claimed to be the third largest-selling skin magazine. Hustler’s circulation can’t be verified because it isn’t audited. The magazine, which claims a circulation of 900,000, is shunned by national advertisers anyway. (A competitor, who declines to be named, estimates that Hustler’s circulation is closer to 400,000.)
Flynt almost seems to relish being commercially ostracized. “I thought that if the reader felt he was getting a better magazine, he would be willing to pay more for it, so we always charged 50 cents a copy more than the competition.”
What they got for their money was broken barriers. Hustler was the first mass-circulation magazine to show female genitalia. It was also the first to show men and women having sex and pubic hair on the cover.
Catherine Mackinnon, feminist professor of law at the University of Michigan, lambastes the magazine for sideswiping laws barring obscenity defined by community standards. In fact, Flynt never served more than a few days behind bars in his three obscenity trials in Ohio and Georgia in the late ‘70s.
“Hustler exists to lower community standards,” says Mackinnon, a vocal opponent of pornography for promoting violence against women. “The more pornography you have in a community, the more standards come to conform to the pornography. What Hustler does is operate as the thin entering wedge of the industry.”
Flynt provocatively dismisses such criticism as the ravings of “ugly feminists” and the sexually repressed. Still, he tried to make amends in his own way during his highly publicized religious conversion. Just before Thanksgiving in 1977, while on a Lear jet headed for the West Coast, Flynt had a vision of Jesus “sandals and all.”
Newly chummy with Ruth Carter Stapleton, the evangelical sister of then-President Carter, Flynt vowed celibacy and a new mission--to “hustle for the Lord.” He turned over the magazine’s reins to satirist Paul Krassner, who had the curious job of putting out born-again porn.
“They had a regular cartoon called ‘Chester the Molester,’ ” Krassner says. “But when he was born again, it became plain ‘Chester.’ It was like Alice in Wonderland, watching the cartoonist arguing with [Flynt] that it had to be ‘Chester the Molester.’ He said it took away from the integrity of the cartoon. The whole thing was a surrealistic experience.”
And an annoying one for the practical Althea, who told Krassner, “God may have walked into his life, but $20 million a year walked out.”
Hustler published its most controversial cover during that period, a photo illustration of a woman’s legs poking out of a meat grinder with a quote from Flynt: “We will no longer hang women up like pieces of meat.” Critics still point to the cover as proof that women always were Hustler’s plat du jour.
Flynt says the Christian establishment never really accepted him. “I was living all my dreams. The last thing in the world I wanted to have was God to tap me on the shoulder.” He now writes off his yearlong spell as a Christian to manic depression and considers himself an atheist. But he had other reasons to be disillusioned. On March 6, 1978, as Flynt was walking out of a courthouse in Lawrenceville, Ga., where he was facing obscenity charges, he was shot, allegedly by a white supremacist named Joseph Paul Franklin.
Franklin, who was apparently disturbed by a Hustler photo layout of an interracial couple, was indicted in 1984 but never tried. He was already serving two life sentences for racially motivated murders.
Flynt says he never thinks about Franklin. “I don’t blame the prosecutor,” he says. “There was just no interest in prosecuting my case because the most they could have convicted him for was attempted murder anyway. Even immediately after I was shot, I never cared about knowing who shot me. It was not ‘who.’ It was ‘what,’ and the ‘what’ is the mentality of a person who wants to assassinate someone because they don’t agree with his views.”
After the shooting, Althea, a former go-go dancer, took over the company. And for years after that, Flynt barred himself behind the steel door to his Bel-Air bedroom and descended into an oblivion of drugs, bodyguards, cable television and conspiracy theories. On his rare ventures out, he traveled with bodyguards from his corps of 14.
“He was very worried that he was going to be assassinated,” says his friend Harold Robbins, who based his novel about a high-flying pornographer, “Dreams Die First,” on Flynt. “He came to my house with four men carrying Uzis.”
The pain finally ended with a third operation in 1992. Flynt says he immediately kicked the drugs and settled into a quiet life. He returned to hands-on control of his firm Larry Flynt Publications, approving all of Hustler’s layouts and cartoons.
Flynt admits that Hustler tries to offend people, lacerating its enemies like Falwell and feminist Andrea Dworkin in cartoons that are often scatological. Deities of popular culture are particularly tasty to Hustler, which gleefully published nude photos of Jackie Onassis sunbathing on her Greek Island. Flynt admits, however, that even he lived to regret cartoons lampooning Betty Ford’s mastectomy.
The Hustler formula lures 80% men with a median age of 28 and income of $50,000, according to Flynt, who says an unusually high proportion of women read Hustler for the pictorials of lesbian sex. He says he expected his constituency to be mainly the blue-collar likes of “Joe Lunchbox” but was shocked to find “a large number” of highly educated readers.
Their enthusiasm helped seed an unusual magazine empire, which publishes 30 magazines with such unsexy titles as PC Laptop Computing and RapPages, a journal of hip-hop music. Over the years, the independently owned LFP has also acquired such niche publications as Camera & Darkroom and Fighting Knives. Flynt’s titles generally are the weakest in their respective category--so far behind, “they don’t factor on anybody’s competitive radar,” says Anne Russell, editor in chief of the trade magazine Folio.
Although Flynt says LFP grosses $110 million a year, industry sources say much of Flynt’s fortune was made in distributing 150 magazines, including the distinctly un-Hustlerish New York Review of Books. Flynt sold LFP’s distribution arm to Hachette Filipacchi magazines in July for $21 million, he says.
Russell says that doesn’t bode well for Flynt’s businesses. “Companies don’t generally sell off pieces of themselves unless there are problems. Companies usually want to grow through acquisition and they haven’t grown for a couple of years.”
Flynt’s attorney, Alan Isaacman, denies that the company’s in trouble. "[Flynt] wanted to concentrate on publishing and competitors came and made very attractive offers” for the distribution end, he says. “Essentially they’re a very profitable publishing business.”
About 210 people remain at the company working for a man reputed to be a tough taskmaster. Maxa says Flynt “could be an absolute bastard. He changes his mind a lot.”
With the spoils of empire, Flynt travels to Europe and Aruba. He antiques, hobnobs in Hollywood and tries to compensate for years as an absentee father. “If anything plagues me about my life,” he says, “it’s that I’m trying to do everything I can to make it up to all of [the children], but it’s not that easy.”
His most difficult relationship is with his eldest daughter, Tonya Flynt-Vega, 31, who has been speaking out to counter his resurrection on film. Flynt-Vega, who says she saw Flynt often growing up, told USA Today in May that he’d sexually abused her between the ages of 10 and 18. In a subsequent interview with The Times, she says she was damaged by “the sex, the drugs, the abuse, the pornography around me that I accepted as a very young child.”
"[Flynt] is so wealthy, and it’s so disturbing to know that people like that can buy a respectable place in history,” says Flynt-Vega, adding that she has read the script.
Flynt denies abusing Flynt-Vega, whose mother he divorced when Tonya was a baby, and says he has spent a total of only six weeks with her. “Anyone who knows me knows what my sexual preference is,” he says. “It’s not children, especially my own.”
Another daughter says she’s appalled by Flynt-Vega’s allegations. “I definitely think she’s not telling the truth,” says Theresa Flynt, a 27-year-old student who works part time at LFP. “I grew up with him on and off for two-thirds of my life. He’s been a wonderful father in every way.”
Flynt has five children “that I know of.” The newest addition is 29-year-old Theresa Bona, an Orlando biochemist who just surfaced a few months ago. Flynt says he didn’t know of her existence until she wrote to say she wanted to meet him. A DNA test confirmed his paternity, and they were united last month.
Flynt’s days of wild sex and creating dynasties are long gone. He’s now engaged to his former nurse, Liz Berrios, 35, his girlfriend of five years. Flynt says he’s no longer celibate thanks to a penile implant.
“Today my sex life is rather pedestrian. My grandfather once told me, ‘When you get old, all you’re going to have left is your memories, so make them good. Drink only the best wine and eat only the best food and sleep with only the prettiest women.’ ”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Native?: No. Born in Magoffin County, Ky. Now lives in the Hollywood Hills.
Family: Four times divorced. Father of five.
Passions: Antiques and taking his Gulfstream jet to Europe and the Caribbean.
On how he ended up wearing an American flag as a diaper to court: “Annie Leibovitz was photographing me for a story for Vanity Fair during the DeLorean case. My attorney called and said, ‘The judge wants you in the courtroom in an hour,’ and I was nude on my couch draped in an American flag. It was Annie’s idea. So I pinned the flag on as a diaper and that’s the way I went. And I told the judge, ‘If you’re going to treat me like a baby, I just thought I’d act like one.’ ”
On why he commissioned art reproductions for his office: “If they were originals they would all be in the millions. But I would rather have something that I really like. It doesn’t bother me that it’s a reproduction and unless people are real art connoisseurs, they don’t know the difference anyway.”
On the root of a lot of evil: “We need to get rid of our sexual hang-ups. I think our inability to deal with them is rooted in our inability to deal with a lot of other problems.”