Larry Flynt's Wild Life: Porn, Politics and Penile Implants

Larry Flynt
Larry Flynt
 Frank W. Ockenfels 3

Although Hustler has seen its circulation drop from a peak of 3 million to about 150,000, Flynt says the publication -- one of 15 in a stable that also includes Barely Legal and Taboo -- is run by a staff of 10 and brings in some $3 million per year. It soon will have an online version, and if that doesn’t work, he plans to close it. “Never fall in love with a business,” he cautions.

Flynt himself is in love with both business in general and politics, noting, “In the end, most of the legislation Obama is attempting to achieve is common-sense stuff.” He says he spent $700,000 last year supporting Democrats such as Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, taking ads in papers, including The Washington Post, offering millions for information about Mitt Romney’s tax returns and for proof that Republicans Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were right in their comments about rape.

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Flynt’s greatest political coup came when he brought down Republican Speaker-elect Bob Livingston in 1999. During the Clinton impeachment debate, Flynt had offered a $1 million reward for incriminating evidence of philandering by Republicans in Congress, and he found dirt on the man just named speaker; Livingston resigned after admitting to an affair. Now Flynt is trying to target another prominent member of Congress, whom he declines to name on the record.

“I’ve had an investigation going on for two years,” he says, noting that the Republican in question is gay but in the closet. “We’re having trouble pinning him down, but this is one guy I’d really like to get.” It’s the hypocrisy that bothers Flynt, not the man’s sexuality, and indeed he favors gay marriage: “I think gays deserve the right to be just as miserable as the rest of us,” he quips.

The old anti-establishmentarian still lurks deep within him. Perhaps that is why he has never become as acceptable to polite society as his erstwhile rival Hugh Hefner, who has morphed from outcast to pop-culture icon to elder statesman.

“I like him; he is kind of boring, but he is a gentleman,” Flynt says. “When Hefner started Playboy, he would have much preferred to have started Time magazine. I think he always felt guilty that he had to wrap his pornography within so-called socially redeeming articles. Hefner was a genius in that way. But he never was a troublemaker. He espoused the First Amendment, but I have done more for the First Amendment than the rest of those yokels put together.”

As for Playboy, he says it has been held back by Hef ’s personal tastes. “Hefner likes well-endowed, blond, Amazon-type women; if you look in Hustler, you don’t know what my sexual preferences are.” So what are they? “I like petite women. I like brunettes. But ‘different strokes for different folks.’ ”

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Those strokes always went much further in Hustler than Playboy, not least in 1978, when the magazine published a much-criticized image of a woman’s legs poking out of a meat grinder. Flynt vacillates over whether he made a mistake. “It was satire, and I agree it did fall flat,” he says. “But it wasn’t trying to disgrace women.”

That comment might raise eyebrows from many women, and indeed men, but Flynt insists only extremists have spewed vitriol on him in person. “It’s usually some whacked-out feminists.”

Perhaps surprisingly for a man who uses such words, he favors “a decent equal-rights bill for women, along with the Violence Against Women Act.” Opposition to that, in fact, draws his ire. “How in the world can anybody vote against a bill that will protect women against violence? I can’t understand that, and I don’t understand how any woman would vote for a man who doesn’t want to protect them.”

Born in 1942 in Lakeville, Ky., the son of an alcoholic father and homemaker mother, Flynt lived in dire poverty and shuttled between the two after they divorced in 1952, then fled to the Army, where he used fake papers to enlist at age 15. Later, he joined the Navy as a radar operator, but after leaving in 1965 with an honorable discharge, he was lost, searching for something -- anything -- that could bring in money.

He found it through a bar his mother was running in Dayton, Ohio, which he purchased for $1,800, then refitted, boosting profits and allowing him to buy other bars, mostly in blue-collar areas where the clientele would get so drunk, he and his younger brother, Jimmy, would have to break up their fights.

In a bid to go upscale, Flynt sold the lower-class bars and bought more expensive joints, where go-go girls led his income to soar. But when the economy plummeted thanks to the 1973 oil crisis, Flynt found himself in debt. He'd recently started publishing a brief newsletter, which gradually grew in size and scope; he then turned it into a proper magazine -- using money that should have gone to pay his employees’ taxes -- and launched the first issue of Hustler in 1974. He targeted a more blue-collar audience than Playboy (founded in 1953), making his publication notorious for “pink” shots of female genitalia.

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The magazine rocketed to fame a year later when Flynt paid $18,000 for photos of a naked Jacqueline Onassis, taken by a paparazzo. Overnight he became a millionaire. Since then he has never stopped, despite jail stints (including one for obscenity and organized crime in a case that subsequently was overturned), bipolar disorder, the attempt on his life and the loss of Althea (played by Courtney Love in the movie), whom he met when the 17-year-old runaway started dancing in one of his clubs. They married in 1976 after Flynt’s two previous, short-lived marriages had failed. The publisher had a quick-fire fourth marriage before meeting Liz.

A large oil painting of Althea hangs in one of his conference rooms, while a painting of Liz is visible at home. For a man who so loves gold, the modesty of his house in the Hollywood Hills -- packed with antiques as it is -- seems surprising, especially compared to the grandeur of a three-story mansion he once owned in Bel-Air.

“I am in a wheelchair,” he says, “so I need to be in a house on one level. The house in Bel-Air was a monstrosity to navigate. I had to have security guards help me all the time.” Now it is his wife who does most of the helping, and she’s as modest as his home. “I’ve been with my present wife longer than Althea,” he reflects. “I love her to death. She knows I love and care about her.” Still, he admits, “Althea was the love of my life.”

Despite his openness, one wonders if he truly lets anyone get close to him, except perhaps Liz and his daughter Theresa, 43, executive vp for Flynt Management Group (born through a relationship with dancer Kathy Barr). His staff seems careful not to engage in too much debate when their boss pronounces judgment. At his office, everyone -- including Liz -- refers to him as “Mr. Flynt.”

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He has severed ties with four of his five children. “He doesn’t understand people who don’t work,” Theresa says. “He offered all of his children the same thing: To go to college and get a degree and show an interest in a division of the company, and they could have a job. But none of them took him up, and he can’t identify with them, so doesn’t have a relationship with them.”

Flynt even cut off his brother Jimmy -- who for many years was a key aide -- after Jimmy sued him for $20 million in 2011, claiming he was the brains behind the stores, which Flynt plans to expand from 11 to 30 during the next couple of years. (Neither Jimmy nor Flynt’s other children could be reached for comment.)

“If I sent them a big, fat check every month, everything would be fine,” Flynt maintains. “That’s all they want, you know?”

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