Larry Flynt, 'Hustler' Publisher and Unlikely First Amendment Champion, Dies at 78

Larry Flynt
Dan Tuffs/Getty Images

Larry Flynt

Portrayed by Woody Harrelson in a 1996 Milos Forman film, he famously beat televangelist Jerry Falwell in a case that went to the Supreme Court.

Larry Flynt, the tenacious, controversial and free-thinking entrepreneur who took a string of strip clubs and built them into Hustler, one of the world's most successful sex-based brands, has died. He was 78.

Flynt died Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from a sudden illness, according to his manager Minda Gowen.

Flynt changed the face of publishing with Hustler magazine, an explicitly lewd monthly featuring nude photos and crude, below-the-belt humor. Launched in 1974, it focused on a part of the female anatomy that Flynt felt Playboy was overlooking.

"I was always interested in the crotch," he told The Independent in a 2011 interview. "And [in] real women … I dared to portray people's real sexual fantasies, not somebody's idea of what fantasies should be."

After a year on newsstands, Hustler because a sensation in 1975 when it published naked photos of Jacqueline Onassis. Flynt had purchased them for $18,000 from a paparazzo who had snapped them without the former first lady's knowledge. The issue sold more than a million copies, making the up-and-coming publisher a millionaire.

His blue-collar approach to raunch worked; Hustler was viewed alongside Playboy and Penthouse as one of the world's leading sex magazines, and at the height of its popularity, it sold more than 3 million copies a month.

"It is what the people want," Flynt told People magazine in a 1977 profile. "When I started Hustler, I wanted to deal with sex as I knew it — as a boy growing up on a farm, working in a factory, on the street — four-letter words and all. That's the approach I've taken, and it cost me my freedom."

In 1976, Flynt was tried in Cincinnati on charges of obscenity and organized crime and convicted, sentenced to seven to 25 years in prison. But after serving six days in jail, he was freed amid allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and jury bias.

While fighting another obscenity charge in 1978, the flamboyant publisher was shot outside a courthouse in Gwinnett County, Georgia, suffering spinal cord damage that put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He later struggled with an addiction to prescription drugs.

Although no one was ever charged with the shooting, white supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin years later admitted that he was the sniper. He said an interracial photo spread that Hustler had published was his motivation.

The shooting and Flynt's legal bouts were the focus of the 1996 biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt. Directed by Milos Forman, it starred Woody Harrelson as the embattled title character and Courtney Love as his fourth wife, Althea Leasure.

As seen in the film, Flynt met Leasure, then 17, when she applied for a job as a dancer at a Hustler strip club, and she went on to become co-publisher of the magazine and its first life-sized centerfold. The two wed in 1976.

In 1987, Althea Flynt, then 33, drowned in her bathtub. According to an investigation, she passed out from a prescription drug overdose. Flynt revealed that his wife had AIDS and was told by doctors that she only had a year to live.

The film centered on Flynt's most notorious legal skirmish — Hustler Magazine Inc. v. Falwell — the case that cemented his reputation as the First Amendment's most unusual champion.

In the November 1983 issue, Hustler had featured a parody of an ad satirizing then-popular televangelist Jerry Falwell.

"After several years of listening to him bash me and reading his insults, I decided it was time to start poking some fun at him," Flynt wrote in a 2007 article for the Los Angeles Times. "So we ran a parody ad in Hustler — a takeoff on the then-current Campari ads in which people were interviewed describing 'their first time' [drinking the liqueur].

"In the ads, it ultimately became clear that the interviewees were describing their first time sipping Campari. But not in our parody. We had Falwell describing his 'first time' as having been with his mother, 'drunk off our God-fearing asses,' in an outhouse."

Falwell sued the magazine and Flynt's distribution company for libel, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The publisher's lawyers persuaded the court to drop the invasion of privacy charge. The jury split on the other two, finding in favor of Flynt on libel and for Falwell on infliction of emotional distress. Damages of $150,000 were awarded.

Flynt appealed, and the case was ultimately heard by the Supreme Court in 1988. In an 8-0 decision, it ruled that the First and 14th amendments preclude a public figure from receiving damages for emotional distress if that distress were inflicted by a caricature, parody or satire of the public figure that a reasonable person would not have interpreted as factual.

"To my amazement, we won," Flynt wrote. "It wasn't until after I won the case and read the justices' unanimous decision in my favor that I realized fully the significance of what had happened. In a unanimous decision — written by, of all people, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist — the court reasoned that if it supported Falwell's lower-court victory, no one would ever have to prove something was false and libelous to win a judgment. All anyone would have to prove is that 'he upset me' or 'she made me feel bad.' The lawsuits would be endless, and that would be the end of free speech."

The case became a key ruling on the freedom of speech and has since been cited in numerous legal arguments. But what may be its most surprising outcome is what happened between the reverend and the publisher. Falwell reached out to Flynt 10 years after the verdict, and the two began appearing together to discuss moral and First Amendment issues.

"I'll never admire him for his views or his opinions. To this day, I'm not sure if his television embrace was meant to mend fences, to show himself to the public as a generous and forgiving preacher, or merely to make me uneasy," Flynt wrote. "But the ultimate result was one I never expected and was just as shocking a turn to me as was winning that famous Supreme Court case: We became friends."

Larry Claxton Flynt Jr. was born on Nov. 1, 1942, in Lakeville, Kentucky. His father was a sharecropper who had married Flynt's mother when she was 14. Flynt and his two siblings grew up in poverty in an isolated community where dirt roads and illiteracy were the norm.

Judy, his sister, died of leukemia at age 4, and his parents divorced when Flynt was 10. For the next few years, he bounced back and forth between his mom, who had moved to Hamlet, Indiana, and his father, who remained in Kentucky.

In his 2004 book Sex, Lies & Politics: The Naked Truth, Flynt cited his humble beginnings as a major influence on his attitude toward sex. "I'm a hillbilly, and people like me come to sex without all the hang-ups imposed by the hypocritical, 'you must maintain proper appearances' morality of the middle class," he wrote. "When good Christian folk tell me that sex is dirty, I say, 'Yeah, when it's done right.' For me, sex has always been a way of saying, 'I am outside the reach of your power.'"

The book revealed how Flynt lost his virginity to a chicken when he was nine, and, after he had run away from home, he said he was molested at gunpoint.

Underage, Flynt joined the U.S. Army by faking his birth certificate. After being honorably discharged, he worked at a manufacturing company and as bootlegger before he quit when he learned the law was looking for him.

In 1960, Flynt returned to military service, enlisting in the U.S. Navy. He became a radio operator on the USS Enterprise and was on duty when the ship participated in the operation to recover John Glenn's capsule after the astronaut's first orbit in space. He married the first of his five wives, Mary, in 1961, but they divorced a year later.

Flynt left the Navy in 1964 with another honorable discharge. The following year, with $1,800 of his savings, he bought his mother's bar, the Keewee, in Dayton, Ohio, and later purchased two other establishments. He sold those and opened a more "upscale" place, one that featured nude dancers, the first in the area to do so. Flynt named it the Hustler Club.

The Hustler Club flourished, and after bringing in his younger brother Jimmy to help out, Flynt opened a string of strip joints throughout Ohio. He also began publishing a newsletter to promote his businesses.

When the economy tanked and put Flynt in debt in 1973, he took funds earmarked to pay the club's employee taxes and turned his newsletter into Hustler magazine, soon to push the boundaries of good taste and decency.

Larry Flynt Publications grew to include such sex-oriented publications as Barely LegalBeaver HuntAsian FeverHustler's TabooHustler XXXHustler's Leg World and Hustler's Busty Beauties. He also ventured out of his niche to publish RIP MagazineTurboPlay and Tips & Tricks.

At various times, Flynt's empire also included the Hustler Video film studio; the adult-film company VCA Pictures; dozens of domestic and international adult-oriented TV channels; a chain of Hustler Hollywood stores; an apparel business; a casino; and the adult movie distributor New Frontier Media. He ran his privately owned enterprise from the iconic 10-story office building that he purchased in 1984 at the intersection of Wilshire and La Cienega in Los Angeles.

In 1996, Flynt published his autobiography, An Unseemly Man: My Life as Pornographer, Pundit, and Social Outcast. In his later years, he got around in a gold-plated wheelchair.

Flynt also was married to Peggy Mathis from 1963-66, to dancer Kathy Barr from 1968-71 and to his former nurse, Elizabeth Berrios, from 1998 until his death. He had four children.