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To say Hustler mastermind Larry Flynt, who died this week of heart failure, leaves a complicated legacy is the ultimate understatement.
On one hand, the self-described“smut peddler who cares” will be remembered as a First Amendment champion, starting with his first court case on obscenity charges in the mid-70s, and ending with the battle royale against lifelong adversary Jerry Falwell Sr. in 1988 — which provided much fodder for his big-screen biopic, The People vs. Larry — the following decade. Then there were the public bounties that cemented his position as a persistent thorn in conservative America’s side. His promise of cash in exchange for dirt splashed across full-page ads in national newspapers led to the 1998 resignation of Republican House Speaker-elect Bob Livingston amid the Clinton sex scandal; contributed to presidential hopeful Mitt Romney releasing his tax returns in 2012; and almost caused (another, earlier) impeachment of former president Donald Trump in 2017. “Impeachment would be a messy, contentious affair, but the alternative — three more years of destabilizing dysfunction — is worse,” an ahead-of-his-time Flynt wrote in one advert. “I feel it is my patriotic duty, and the duty of all Americans, to dump Trump before it’s too late.”
The flip side of his larger-than-life persona, which included the use of a gold-plated wheelchair following a botched assesination attempt (assailant Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist, was outraged by an interracial spread seen in Hustler’s pages), is marred with myriad instances of misogyny and objectification of women (Exhibit A). Infamous pictorials like “The Naked and the Dead” and “Dirty Pool” bent the limits of free speech and broke any notion of good taste.
“Hustler is offensive, even to the point of being iconoclastic,” the publisher once said during an Independent profile. “That’s our purpose — to be offensive. That mantra led noted feminist Gloria Steinem to brand Flynt a “sexual fascist” and a “violent, sadistic pornographer.”
Living up to his checkered myth, during his lifetime, Flynt was accused of sexually abusing his eldest daughter, taking out a mob hit on competitor Hugh Hefner and losing his virginity to a chicken. He vehemently denied all but the last item.
Sometime in the fall of 2011, when I was working as a contributor for an alt-weekly in San Diego, I came across a tidbit that made the gears in my freelance head go into overdrive: Flynt was about to turn 69… oh, the possibilities! Armed with a brand of piss and vinegar often characteristic of young writers and the promise of an “edgy” final product, my interview request was somehow approved.
So, equipped with my trusty microcassette recorder, a borrowed digital camera and some birthday items I picked up at Party City, I hightailed it up the 5 Freeway. Pulling into the 10-story glass and steel monolith at 8484 Wilshire Blvd., Flynt’s signature style could be seen splashed across everything: from the gargantuan, Trump-approved “FLYNT PUBLICATIONS” lettering on the building’s exterior to the faux-marble columns that adorned the underground garage replete with a black Rolls Royce Phantom outfitted with a “HUSTLER” vanity plate.
The unsubtle décor continued inside, with green-and-gold carpeting and an ornate painting depicting the Virgin Mary rising displayed outside his office door. Before entering, I’d been instructed by his publicist to speak loudly and clearly and not to ask any stupid questions (that last bit inspired me to leave the birthday props behind.) I was also given the proper greeting protocol: go around the right side of Flynt’s desk and shake his hand.
The brief met, the publicist then told me she needed to approve whatever pictures I took. “You can’t tell him what to publish,” Flynt fired back in his familiar croaky drawl. The ice broken and propos of the big day, I started off by asking about his first birthday memory. “Coming out of the womb,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve spent all my life trying to get back in where I came from.”
The interview now reads like a time capsule. One during which his lifelong POV of women as toys is cemented (he said the age cap for his sexual partners was 23: “That’s how I stay young. I keep my women young and tender”) and strangely, violence is predicted in DC.
What gets you off? What excites you? And I don’t necessarily mean sexually.
Well, when you say “get off,” I immediately associate that with sex, so I’ll tell you upfront that my own sexual appetite is very pedestrian. Plain ol’ vanilla sex, you know? Nothing kinky for me.
You’ve called pornography “the purest form of art.” Care to explain?
Well, pornography has existed for thousands of years. Ever since cavemen used to do erotic sketches of the walls of the cave, you know? So, how much further back can you go than that? In the end, it’s all math. If you look at all of the great masters, whether it be Picasso or Renoir or even Van Gogh, they all had a penchant for pornography.
It says a lot for pornography when the elite and the aristocratic people, and even the cavemen, have always had an affinity with the art of pornography.
By publicly bringing down right-wing zealots, you’ve become something of a gay rights champion. How do you perceive that role?
I’ve always been pro-gay rights. I’m a civil libertarian to the core. Another thing that might surprise you about me is that I’m also very much a conservative. I’m especially conservative on fiscal issues, in terms of how I handle my money and how the government handles my money, but on social issues I’m totally liberal. I don’t think the government has any business in your bedroom whatsoever, and it’s none of their business who you’re in there with or what you’re doing.
If you were to be president for a week, what would you do first?
Well, I don’t know if they would let me do it, but I had this fantasy when I saw Obama take the oath of office. The first thing he should have done is have them lead Bush and Cheney out of the White House to that big old tree on the lawn and hang ’em both.
It’s safe to say you have no plans on retiring?
What would I do if I retire? I’ve witnessed thousands of people retire over my lifetime, and a year or two after they’ve retired, they’re dead. I’m firmly convinced that once you change your work habits, that’s when you’re on your way out right there.
Given your history with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, your piece about him that ran in the Los Angeles Times after his passing was very poignant. When your time comes, is there any political or pop-culture figure that you would like to be eulogized by?
After I’m gone, I don’t want much said about me. I’d just like for them to drive me in the ground and write my name on my shoe sole.
That raises something you’ve mentioned in the past, which is that you don’t want to leave a legacy behind but, rather, a good memory.
Well, my grandfather used to say: “When you get old, all you’re gonna have left are your memories, so make them good. Eat all the best food, drink all the best wine and fuck all the most beautiful women.”
Interview originally published in San Diego CityBeat on Nov. 9, 2011.