Larry Flynt, pornographer and self-styled First Amendment champion, dies at 78
Repeatedly sued, prosecuted, jailed for contempt, gagged for obscene outbursts in court and, in 1978, shot and paralyzed by a would-be assassin, Mr. Flynt thrived on controversy. After the shooting, he used a wheelchair — gold-plated and velvet-lined to his specifications.
In a grit-to-glitter saga like few others, the ninth-grade dropout from the hills of east Kentucky used street smarts, gutsy business instincts and, when necessary, his fists to parlay a string of shabby Ohio bars into a $100 million nationwide porn empire of magazines, private clubs, a swank casino in suburban Los Angeles, an online sex-toy store and other ventures.
Hustler, whose circulation peaked above 2 million in the late 1970s, thumbed its nose at sleeker skin publications such as Playboy and Penthouse. Mr. Flynt proudly offered Hustler as a blue-collar and taboo-smashing alternative with its raw frontal nudity of men and women, and crude cartoons.
“Playboy and Penthouse,” he once told an interviewer, “were parading their pornography as art, with the airbrushing and the soft lens. I realized that if we became more explicit, we could get a huge piece of this market. . . . I sensed that raw sex was what men wanted. And I was right.”
Equally reviled and celebrated for his depictions of close-up female genitalia, gang rape, bondage, bestiality, mutilation and, most famously, a naked woman being put through a meat grinder on the cover of the June 1978 Hustler, Mr. Flynt reveled in the nation’s collective gasp at his pornographic derring-do.
Feminist Gloria Steinem branded him a “violent, sadistic pornographer.” First Amendment devotees embraced him as “the Horatio Alger of the sexual revolution,” as a New York Times article once put it.
His checkered life spawned several books, including an autobiography, and a movie, “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996), directed by Milos Forman, co-produced by Oliver Stone and starring Woody Harrelson in the title role. Although the movie was well received, critics complained that it softened the harsher aspects of Flynt’s career and views toward women.
Beyond smut-peddling, Mr. Flynt presented a multilayered and sometimes unexpected public persona. He opposed the death penalty. He favored same-sex marriage. He spoke out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He published numerous non-pornographic mainstream periodicals. A private foundation he created contributes to research in spinal cord injuries, child abuse and youth violence.
The cigar-chomping, gravelly-voiced Mr. Flynt briefly professed becoming a born-again Christian in 1977 after befriending evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton, sister of President Jimmy Carter. Just as briefly, he toned down Hustler’s content, then returned to normal operations and announced he was an atheist.
He made what he called a “tongue-in-cheek” run for president in 1984 as a Republican, then trumpeted himself as a Democrat 14 years later in support of President Bill Clinton during his sex-tinged impeachment proceedings in Congress.
It was also at that time, in an effort to showcase hypocrisy among Clinton’s Republican prosecutors, that Mr. Flynt offered via an advertisement in The Washington Post up to $1 million for proof that a member of Congress or other senior government official was enmeshed in an adulterous affair.
Most prominently, Mr. Flynt was credited with forcing the resignation of incoming House Speaker Robert L. Livingston in 1998, after the Louisiana Republican admitted that he “on occasion strayed from my marriage.”
In his most notorious court case, Mr. Flynt was sued by conservative televangelist Jerry Falwell in 1983 for $45 million after Hustler published a crude satirical Campari liqueur ad depicting the preacher boasting of having drunken sex with his mother in an outhouse.
The case ultimately came to the Supreme Court, which in 1988 unanimously rejected Falwell’s claim that he was entitled to financial compensation for a parody calculated to inflict ridicule and emotional distress.
The court held that even patently offensive speech directed at “public figures” such as Falwell was constitutionally protected, as long as it did not purport to be factual.
First Amendment advocates cheered the decision as a breakthrough for satirical speech. “We could hardly draw the way we do if subjects could claim emotional stress as a result,” said Los Angeles Times political cartoonist Paul Conrad.
But — reflecting the equivocal sentiment of many in the mainstream media — Conrad added, “What I detest is the fact Flynt is going around as the savior of the First Amendment.”
Scholars of pornography as a genre of literature saw Hustler as a unique renegade publication motivated, as was its founder, to spark volcanic reaction.
“I see Hustler as really dedicated to violating the proprieties that uphold class distinctions,” cultural and media critic Laura Kipnis once told Newsday. “Its politics are sometimes questionable. It has this kind of anarchist libertarian streak. I’m not claiming it’s a progressive magazine, but I think it is one of the most class-antagonistic publications in the country.”
Larry Flynt was born Nov. 1, 1942, in the hardscrabble hollows of Magoffin County, Ky., son of an alcoholic father and a teenage mother. His parents divorced when he was 10, and for a time he was passed among relatives. He had two siblings, Jimmy Ray and Judy. The latter died of leukemia in childhood.
He dropped out of school at 15, lied about his age with a false birth certificate and joined the Army. Discharged in seven months as a supernumerary, he lied again and joined the Navy, where he stayed for five years, serving as a radar operator until he was honorably discharged in 1964.
By 33, Mr. Flynt had met, married and divorced his first three wives. Two more marriages were to follow. Proudly promiscuous, Mr. Flynt maintained several girlfriends simultaneously; two of his four children were born outside his marriages.
In 1965, with $1,800 of his savings, he bought his mother’s bar, the Keewee, in Dayton, Ohio. He gussied it up and soon was putting away $1,000 a week.
Working up to 20 hours a day, taking amphetamines to stay awake and breaking up fights when necessary, he bought additional bars, introduced strip dancing, and by the early 1970s created a prototype Hustler brand of adult clubs in seven Ohio cities.
About this time, he met Althea Leasure, a 17-year-old go-go dancer at one of his clubs. A bisexual runaway from a chaotic and violent household, she developed a lasting bond, both personal and entrepreneurial, with Mr. Flynt. The two married in 1976.
“She was a true soul mate,” he told Entertainment Weekly. The two of them expanded the Hustler club line and converted his plain black-and-white Hustler newsletter into the glossy, sexually explosive magazine. The first issue came out in July 1974.
Little was sacred. There were cartoonish depictions of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz getting it on with the Tin Man, and Santa Claus lasciviously pawing Mrs. Claus. A regular cartoon character was Chester the Molester, who stalked little girls.
The magazine scored a first in the United States in August 1975 when it published pictures purchased from a paparazzo for $18,000 of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sunbathing nude on the Greek island of Skorpios. Playboy and Penthouse had declined to publish the shots.
Bombarded from the feminist left and anti-pornography right with lawsuits and angry public rebukes, Mr. Flynt took it all in stride.
“I wanted to offend everyone on an equal-opportunity basis,” he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, “An Unseemly Man — My Life as a Pornographer, Pundit and Social Outcast,” co-authored with Kenneth Ross. “I decided to run cartoons lampooning blacks, whites, Jews, Christians, rich and poor.”
In 1976, he was convicted of obscenity and organized-crime charges in Cincinnati and sentenced to seven to 25 years, but won a dismissal on appeal.
The assassination attempt occurred on March 6, 1978, outside a courthouse near Atlanta, where Mr. Flynt was facing yet more obscenity charges. A sniper fired two shots, striking Mr. Flynt in the stomach and lower spine, leaving him with paralyzed legs and in pain for much of his life.
The sniper escaped undetected but, after being arrested in killings elsewhere, confessed to shooting Mr. Flynt. The attacker, white supremacist John Paul Franklin, said he objected to interracial photos in Hustler. He was executed in Missouri in 2013, an act Mr. Flynt opposed.
As Mr. Flynt’s business enterprises flourished in the 1970s, he moved his corporate headquarters from Columbus, Ohio, to palatial digs in Los Angeles — decorated floor to ceiling with Beaux-Arts canvases of classical mythological scenes and nude statuary.
On June 27, 1987, Althea, Mr. Flynt’s wife of more than 10 years, was found dead in the bath at their Bel Air, Calif., mansion. Authorities ruled the death an accidental drowning.
In 1998, Mr. Flynt married his fifth wife, Liz Berrios, his former nurse. That same year, Mr. Flynt’s oldest daughter, Tonya Flynt-Vega, by then an anti-porn activist, accused him in her book, “Hustled,” of molesting her when she was a child. He denied it.
Mr. Flynt tirelessly cloaked the erotic sleaze of Hustler magazine in the mantle of constitutionally protected liberties. “My position is that you pay a price to live in a free society, and that price is toleration of some things you don’t like,” he told the Seattle Times in 1996. “You have to tolerate the Larry Flynts of this world.”
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