Larry Flynt, who built a porn empire before becoming a 1st Amendment champion, dies at 78

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Miles Corwin
·12 min read
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BEVERLY HILLS. CALIFONRIA MARCH 14, 2017-Publisher Larry Flynt sits in his office in Beverly Hills. Flynt will be remodeling his casino in Gardena. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
Publisher Larry Flynt in his Beverly Hills office in 2017. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Larry Flynt ran his pornographic empire from the 10th floor of a Beverly Hills office tower, moving about the Roman columns and nude sculptures in an $85,000 gold-plated wheelchair high above the city.

A would-be assassin’s bullet had left him paralyzed, and assistants had to lift him to his feet on a regular basis to keep the blood flowing through his body. But none of it seemed to slow him down.

Though he made his reputation and his wealth in porn as founder of Hustler magazine, Flynt repackaged himself again and again — an unlikely 1st Amendment champion, a self-appointed arbitrator of political hypocrisy and a born-again Christian who said he “hustled” for the Lord.

Beset with health issues since being shot by a white supremacist as he was arriving for a 1978 obscenity trial in Georgia, Flynt died Wednesday of heart failure at his Hollywood Hills home, the publisher’s nephew told the Associated Press. Flynt was 78.

Flynt became an improbable political broker who sought to discredit politicians he believed were hypocrites — the Georgia congressman who opposed abortion yet paid for his wife to undergo the procedure, the former House speaker who’d had extramarital affairs.

His foray into the seamy side of politics began in the late 1990s when Flynt placed a full-page ad in the Washington Post announcing “a cash offer of up to one million dollars” to anyone who could prove having an adulterous sexual encounter with a high-ranking government official or current member of Congress. In 2016, just weeks before the presidential election, he offered an identical bounty to anyone who could produce video or audio recordings of Donald Trump “engaged in illegal activity or in a sexually demeaning or derogatory manner.” There were no collectors on either offer.

The political jousting, courtroom fights and efforts to milk outrage at every turn were hallmarks for Flynt, whose quirky, iconoclastic behavior was portrayed in the 1996 movie, “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” Woody Harrelson played Flynt in the movie, which was nominated for two Academy Awards.

Many feminists were outraged that Flynt was portrayed affectionately in the film as a pornographer with a higher purpose, a defender of free speech in America. The real Flynt was not the likable rogue that Harrelson depicted, some argued, but a man who specialized in degrading women. One of his Hustler covers featured a photo illustration of a woman being fed head first into a meat grinder.

Feminist Gloria Steinem was among those unimpressed by Flynt’s crowning as a 1st Amendment champion.

“Let's be clear: A pornographer is not a hero, no more than a publisher of Ku Klux Klan books or a Nazi on the Internet, no matter what constitutional protection he secures. And Mr. Flynt didn't secure much,” she wrote in a 1997 opinion piece in the New York Times.

Flynt gained even more notoriety for his outrageous courtroom behavior during his many obscenity trials during the 1970s and 1980s. He tossed orange peels at judges. He shouted epithets from his wheelchair. He even appeared in court once wearing a diaper made from a U.S. flag.

His most controversial — and influential — obscenity trial was precipitated by a 1983 advertisement that parodied a liquor ad and quoted the Rev. Jerry Falwell recalling his “first time.” Flynt's parody portrayed Falwell as a drunk losing his virginity to his mother in an outhouse.

For such a sophomoric brand of satire, the case evolved into an important test of limits of the 1st Amendment and was the central issue depicted in the movie about Flynt.

Falwell ended up filing a $45-million lawsuit against Hustler. A Virginia jury threw out the libel charge but awarded Falwell $200,000 for emotional distress.

Flynt, a multimillionaire, could have easily cut a check for $200,000, but he contended the principle was too important to abandon. The case, he argued, transcended the dispute with Falwell. It was not about pornography; it was about censorship, Flynt insisted. So he appealed the verdict.

The case was decided in 1988 by the U.S. Supreme Court and remains a landmark decision. The court upheld the right of the press to publish “outrageous opinions” about public figures. The decision reversed the lower court's ruling that granted Falwell $200,000.

“The State's interest in protecting public figures from emotional distress,” the court ruled, “is not sufficient to deny 1st Amendment protection to speech.”

Flynt told The Times after the high court ruling: “You have a segment of society that thinks I'm a dirty old man in the basement of a building grinding out pornography every day.” But, he added with pride, “the case I won before the Supreme Court against the Rev. Jerry Falwell was without a doubt the most important 1st Amendment case in the history of the country.”

Legal experts say the case was not quite the defining decision that Flynt claimed but was significant nonetheless. Former Duke law professor William Van Alstyne called Flynt's case one of the half-dozen most important 1st Amendment decisions of the late 20th century.

Los Angeles attorney Doug Mirell, a 1st Amendment expert, told The Times: “Since there was a question about whether [parody] was to be protected under the 1st Amendment, this is a landmark case which establishes that principle.”

Flynt's suit transformed more than just libel law — it transformed Larry Flynt. The man who had previously been known as a tasteless pornographer, one of the most infamous misogynists in America, was suddenly transformed into a civil libertarian. Flynt was delighted. Yes, he would tell interviewers, with obvious pride, he had come a long, long way.

Born Nov. 1, 1942, Flynt grew up dirt-poor in a Kentucky county that was so impoverished, he liked to quip, that the “main industry was jury duty.” His parents divorced when he was a boy and he peddled moonshine whiskey to help his mother pay the bills.

At 15, Flynt altered his birth certificate to join the Army. After he was released in a general troop reduction, he joined the Navy at 17, again lying about his age. When he left the service at 21, he began working in a factory in Dayton, Ohio.

By 1965 he had saved enough money to buy a topless bar. Within four years, he owned eight bars in Ohio, which he called Hustler clubs, a blue-collar spin-off of the more upscale Playboy Clubs. At the Columbus club, he was smitten by one of the dancers, Althea Leasure, who eventually became his fourth wife.

Flynt began publishing a two-page newsletter for customers of his clubs, which was so popular that, in 1974, he decided to turn it into a national magazine. The magazine bordered on insolvency until Flynt paid a photographer $18,000 for nude photos of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The issue was a phenomenal seller and Hustler's future was ensured.

Flynt soon discovered an untapped market. While Playboy and Penthouse were relatively tame, Flynt decided to feature more provocative pictures. Hustler's circulation soon reached 2.2 million, and Flynt claimed he was making about $30 million a year. He purchased a 24-room mock Tudor mansion in Columbus and had a heart-shaped bathtub installed for Althea.

During the 1970s, Flynt continued to fight court battles against obscenity charges. Cincinnati corporate attorney Charles Keating, long before he became a convicted savings-and-loan swindler, spearheaded a campaign against Flynt. In 1976, Flynt ended up being sentenced to seven to 25 years in prison in Cincinnati, but the sentence was overturned on appeal. By the time the legal fighting was done, Flynt had moved to Bel-Air, believing California would provide a more hospitable climate for a pornographer.

In 1977, the improbable journey of Larry Flynt took an unexpected and bizarre turn. After becoming friends with Ruth Carter Stapleton, the evangelical sister of then-President Carter, Flynt converted to fundamental Christianity and vowed celibacy.

Hustler became the first ever born-again porn publication. He took naked women off the cover. Inside the magazine, he ran illustrated versions of salacious Bible stories.

Hustler's circulation tumbled. His wife Althea, annoyed with her husband's newborn publishing philosophies, quipped: “God may have walked into his life, but $20 million walked out.”

In 1978, Flynt lost his newfound faith when his world was inalterably changed by a single gunshot. He would never walk again.

As Flynt was leaving a courthouse in Lawrenceville, Ga., where he was facing obscenity charges, he was shot by a white supremacist named Joseph Paul Franklin. Franklin, who was apparently disturbed by a photo layout of an interracial couple, confessed to the shooting years later but was never tried. By then, Franklin was awaiting execution in a string of racially motivated murders.

When the state of Georgia set an execution date for Franklin, Flynt joined the American Civil Liberties Union in an effort to block it. “I find it totally absurd that a government that forbids killing is allowed to use that same crime as punishment,” he said in a statement. Franklin was ultimately executed by lethal injection in 2013.

Althea — and later Flynt's brother Jimmy — took over the publishing company after the shooting and Flynt became a recluse, holed up in his Bel-Air mansion. He took heavy doses of painkillers to ease the constant pain from the shooting and the depression that followed. In an interview with The Times, he conceded that he became addicted to the painkillers and overdosed at least six times.

Althea, who was portrayed by Courtney Love in "The People vs. Larry Flynt," also became a drug addict and her health declined sharply after she was diagnosed with AIDS. She drowned in a bathtub in the couple’s mansion in 1987. She was 33.

Flynt ended his self-imposed exile after a third operation rid him of the the constant pain he had suffered. He kicked drugs and assumed day-to-day control of Larry Flynt Publications. Once again, he was approving all of Hustler's layouts and cartoons and overseeing the expansion of his publishing empire.

In 1983, Flynt ran afoul of the law again when he acquired a videotape of the sting operation that landed auto executive John DeLorean in jail on cocaine trafficking charges. After he gave the tape to a television network, a federal judge ordered Flynt to reveal the source of the tape or pay a $10,000-a-day fine.

Flynt, as usual, found a way to tweak the judge and garner publicity. He sent models dressed in skimpy outfits to the courthouse to pay the fine with sacks stuffed with $1 bills. The judge was not amused, and sentenced Flynt to prison. He ended up serving five months in a North Carolina federal penitentiary.

During the late 1990s, he was publishing 30 magazines, including such ribald monthlies as Busty Beauties and Barely Legal. Many of his publications, however, were strictly mainstream — PC Laptop Computing and Darkroom Photography. Kathie Lee Gifford, who once appeared on the cover of Maternity Fashion and Beauty, was later outraged when she discovered the magazine was owned by Flynt's company.

Flynt ran his publishing empire — which he had claimed was worth $100 million — from an ostentatiously decorated Beverly Hills office, overflowing with antiques, gilt-edged furniture, dark woods, Tiffany dragonfly lamps, faux Old Masters and heavy marble columns. The only indication that he made his fortune from pornography was the sculpture behind his massive desk of a couple copulating.

In 1998, Flynt married former nurse Elizabeth Barrios, a longtime girlfriend. It was his fifth marriage.

Flynt came roaring back into the spotlight in 2003 when he became one of 135 candidates to run for governor following the recall of Gray Davis. The race — which featured the likes of Gary Coleman and porn star Mary Carey — was a crowded and comical affair, and one that Flynt never pretended he would win. But the exposure allowed him to advance a platform for curing some of California’s ills — stop incarcerating drug users, expand gaming regulations to allow slot machines, beef up the border.

“Bill Clinton made it awful easy for people to get elected to office who don’t necessarily have a politically correct background,” he said when asked if he was a qualified candidate.

Beyond porn, Flynt found money to be made in poker as the owner of the Hustler Casino in Gardena. He also opened up a chain of Hustler shops and a string of nightclubs, including one in Beverly Hills. In 2017, he offered a $10-million reward for any evidence that would lead to the impeachment and conviction of then-President Trump.

Flynt continued to be the provocateur as a magazine publisher. When Hustler marked its 40th anniversary in 2014, he put out a jumbo collector’s edition and in 2017 he tweaked sensibilities again with a cover that featured a women wearing a hijab fashioned from an American flag with her breasts exposed. When anger mounted, he tweeted: “We won't be silent, we won't be average, we won't "normal."

But the same market forces that ate away at mainstream publications eroded the bottom line at Hustler as well. Circulation dropped, advertising vanished and the internet as an alternative was not nearly as lucrative as the print product once had been. He told Forbes in 2014 that his staff had been cut nearly in half as readers and advertisers fled.

“I don’t know how much longer the magazine will be around,” he lamented.

Corwin is a former Times staff writer. Times staff writers Steve Marble and Hugo Martin contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.