Remembering the revolutionary, rebellious and defiant publisher of Hustler, free speech icon and thorn in the side of religious and political hypocrites.
The Reprobate is deeply saddened by the news that Larry Flynt has died. It comes as no surprise – the last time we saw Flynt interviewed, on the recent John DeLorean documentary, he seemed very frail. But it is still a tragedy to lose the last of the great American smut moguls. Along with Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione, Flynt (no relation to your editor, before anyone asks) led the sexual revolution, and while the last of the three to emerge – with Hustler in the 1970s – he was the most audacious and outrageous of the three, putting his freedom on the line throughout the ensuing years and becoming a free speech icon in the process.
When Flynt began publishing Hustler in 1972, it was initially just the in-house newsletter for his strip club chain of the same name; he later decided to publish it as a legitimate magazine, with the first issue appearing in 1974. American censorship and obscenity laws are a strange thing, varying wildly from state to state – when Hustler appeared, Deep Throat had already made hardcore porn films into a mainstream sensation, and Al Goldstein‘s outrageous Screw newspaper was several years into publication; Hustler was less explicit than both, but simply by ‘showing pink’ – that is not leaving female genitalia a blurry mystery buried under public hair – he caused outrage. Hustler, unlike Screw, was a nationally distributed magazine, and what might not have raised eyebrows in New York certainly caused a sensation in, say, Ohio – where Flynt was based.
Over the next few years, Flynt fought nervous distributors, retailers and printers, as well as several obscenity cases, not all of which he won. But he was more defiant than his rivals – while Hefner and Guccione both battled the law over the years, Flynt did so with a certain redneck aplomb, having no time for anyone who told him what he could or couldn’t do. In 1975, he published photographs of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sunbathing nude, snapped by a paparazzi – this caused a national sensation, with people lining up to condemn him even as they bought the magazine. A million copies were sold within a week. Hustler had hit the big time and Flynt was a millionaire.
Flynt’s court cases had the unexpected effect of turning him from a mere pornographer into a free speech campaigner. Outraged at what he rightly saw as the misuse of judicial proceedings and the outrageous sentences faced by people like himself, Flynt would become an unlikely and often uncouth champion of the rights of anyone to say and do anything – his most notable victory was a 1988 Supreme Court case against evangelist Jerry Falwell, who he had brutally satirised in the pages of the magazine (suggesting that his first sexual encounter was with his mother in an out-house); the victory established the right of parody, even if it hurts someone’s feelings.
Flynt’s personal life was always interesting – in 1977, President Jimmy Carter’s evangelical sister converted him to Christianity. Flynt continued to publish the magazine – this was the era of the infamous cover featuring a woman in a meat grinder, at once a feminist statement and provocation. A year later, Flynt and his lawyer were walking back from court in Georgia, where he was facing another obscenity trial, when a white supremacist gunman, Joseph Paul Franklin, shot him – allegedly in retaliation for an interracial photoshoot in the magazine. Flynt was left paralyzed; he later suffered a stroke after an overdose of his pain medication, resulting in the slurred speech that people will be familiar with. His brief flirtation with Christianity was, by this point, over.
In 1983, Flynt leaked FBI footage of car manufacturer John DeLorean being arrested in a drug sting. In the video, the FBI would appear to be threatening DeLorean’s daughter unless he pleaded guilty. The footage was shown all over the media, and DeLorean – who at that point seemed as though he was facing a guilty verdict – was acquitted. The authorities went after Flynt instead, trying unsuccessfully to force him to reveal where the tape came from. At one point in the subsequent trial, Flynt turned up in court wearing an American flag as a diaper, and was jailed for six months for the desecration of the flag – so much for the land of the free, eh?
By the late 1990s, Larry Flynt Publications seemed to have settled into a state of effective legality and were producing various adult magazines as well as some mainstream titles. In 1998, the business began producing adult movies, buying up VCA Pictures – the company behind Cafe Flesh, Latex and many more classic titles – in 2003. Sadly, LFP has not, to this date, seen the value in the extensive VCA back catalogue for the cult film audience and many of these films sit in the vaults, unavailable. Flynt also opened a Hustler Casino, several strip clubs and the adult store Hustler Hollywood, as well as others in the chain. By 2014, the print side of LFP was only worth 10% of the business, with the focus increasingly on the company’s websites.
Throughout the rest of his career, Flynt eased back on the legal battles – his company even pleaded guilty to an obscenity charge in Cincinnati in 1998 – but he continued to be a fly in the ointment for hypocrites: during the Bill Clinton impeachment, he offered $1 million for any evidence of Republican sex scandals. As a result, incoming House Speaker Bob Livingston resigned. In 2017, he offered $10 million for any evidence that would lead to the impeachment of Donald Trump. He saw himself as a civil libertarian, and political hypocrisy seemed to offend him more than anything. In more recent years, Flynt achieved a certain celebrity status and the grudging respect of many who might not have otherwise given the time of day to a grubby pornographer. The 1996 biopic The People vs Larry Flynt was part of a brief period when Hollywood stopped treating porn with moralising hysteria, though only to a point – had Milos Forman’s film been about anyone else, it would have certainly picked up numerous awards. Flynt wrote his autobiography An Unseemly Man the same year that the film came out, and later authored an attack on George W. Bush, Sex, Lies and Politics, in 2004.
The control of Larry Flynt Publications now transfers to his daughter Theresa; where things go from here is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for sure: we’ll never see a publisher, activist and provocateur like Larry Flynt again.
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