A multi-faceted man of many passions and weaknesses, Larry Flynt was an entrepreneur, champion of free speech, and crusader against political hypocrisy who amassed his considerable fortune through the publication of pornography, most notably his creation, Hustler magazine. Born into poverty, Flynt was a hustler himself, working his way up from struggling bar owner to successful publisher in the space of just a decade. The material he chose to publish was the most sexually explicit and controversial of its time, landing Flynt before the Supreme Court of the United States on three separate occasions, and making him the target of a failed assassination attempt in 1978 that left him paralyzed from the waist down. His courtroom battles, all of which centered on the defense of freedom of speech, kindled a passion for lawmaking that led Flynt to take on political wrongdoing wherever he saw it. It was this facet of his life that was the focus of Milos Forman's 1996 feature film, "The People Vs. Larry Flynt," starring Woody Harrelson as Flynt. Two years later, during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, Flynt offered a reward for evidence of sexual misconduct involving Republican politicians that resulted in the resignation of incoming House Speaker Bob Livingston. A self-professed "smut peddler who cares," Larry Flynt was the embodiment of a perfectly American dichotomy: an believer in the inherent goodness of freedom, even if that freedom included the publication of images and words that many considered controversial, indecent, or immoral.
Larry Claxton Flynt, Jr. was born on Nov. 1, 1942 in Lakeville, KY. His alcoholic, unemployed father and housewife mother divorced when Flynt was 10 years old, and he split his time between their two homes, living in abject poverty until age 15 when Flynt joined the U.S. Army using fake identification. He was discharged after his first year due to low test scores. After struggling to find work, Flynt returned to the familiarity of military life, serving in the U.S. Navy as a radar operator until being honorably discharged in 1965. By this time, his mother was managing a bar in Ohio, and Flynt pulled together $1,800 to buy it. The Dayton-based bar was a blue-collar dive, but Flynt managed to turn a profit. By 1970, Flynt owned eight strip clubs, which he managed with his brother, Jimmy. America's economic downturn in 1973, however, left Flynt deep in debt. Desperate to bolster business, he spent the money earmarked for his company payroll taxes to publish the first issue of Hustler, essentially an expanded version of his nightclub's newsletter, replete with pornographic photos of his go-go dancers. The magazine's images were far more graphic than those of its predecessor and competitor, Playboy, and Flynt was soon defending himself against charges of obscenity and organized crime. In 1976, he was found guilty and sentenced to 27 years in prison, but served only six days before the trial was overturned on a technicality. Flynt's pandering did not stop there. The year prior, he had published nude photos of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis purchased from a paparazzo who had snapped the former First Lady sunbathing sans clothes, a move that defined Hustler's exploitative ethos and, paradoxically, made it an enormous success.
In 1976, Flynt married Althea Leasure, a dancer at one of his clubs whom he had first hired when she was a 17-year-old runaway. Though their marriage, his third, was open to multiple sexual partners, Flynt was completely committed to Leasure when it came to business. She made increasing contributions to Hustler while Flynt launched Larry Flynt Publications, a privately owned company that distributed Hustler as well as other magazines. By 1977, Flynt was wealthy and famous, living the "hustler" lifestyle rivaled only by his competition, Hugh Hefner. One day while flying his private jet, Flynt claimed, he saw a vision of God. With the help of evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton, the sister of then-President Jimmy Carter, Flynt converted to Christianity, though he continued to publish pornography, have sex outside of his marriage and indulge in drugs and alcohol. Whatever change may have taken place in Flynt's soul were short-lived. In 1978, Flynt and his lawyer, Gene Reeves, Jr. were shot from long range as they left a Gwinnett County, GA courthouse where Flynt was once defending himself, this time in a libel suit brought against him by the girlfriend of Penthouse magazine publisher, Bob Guccione, who had been the subject of an unflattering cartoon in Hustler. The gunshot wounds paralyzed Flynt from the waist down, left him with chronic pain that resulted in an addiction to painkillers, and ended his brief flirtation with religion. The shooter was never identified, though convicted killer and white supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin later claimed to have shot Flynt, outraged over an interracial photo spread in an issue of Hustler.
In 1981, Flynt was back in court, still defending himself against the libel charges levied in 1978. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Though Flynt won the case, he was brought back before the Supreme Court in 1983, with the alleged libel victim suing Flynt from another state in which Hustler was sold. Flynt lost the court battle and was arrested for contempt of court for insulting outbursts directed at the Justices. Freedom of speech and resistance of government oppression, perceived or otherwise, became Flynt's new obsession. That same year, he leaked a surveillance video that incriminated on-duty FBI agents of threatening American automotive executive John Delorean. When Flynt was once again brought before the Supreme Court, he appeared wearing an American flag as a diaper, for which he was jailed for six months for desecration of the flag. Emboldened by his new passion for politics, Flynt ran for president in 1984. Though he lost the race, Flynt did, for a time, appear to clean up his act. Following a stroke caused by an overdose of his various medications which left him with permanently slurred speech, Flynt made his first unsuccessful attempt at sobriety. He also began publishing a number of non-pornographic magazines.
In 1987, Althea Leasure, who had been diagnosed with AIDS, was found dead in her bathtub, apparently from a drug overdose. At this low point in Flynt's life, he also achieved a significant victory: In 1988, he again faced off with the Supreme Court, this time defending himself against charges brought by the Revered Jerry Falwell, who claimed emotional damages caused by a cartoon printed in Hustler depicting Falwell losing his virginity to his own mother. Flynt won the case. By then, Flynt was both a millionaire and an outspoken political firebrand, using his publications as a bully pulpit from which to attack politicians whom he considered hypocritical. It was this facet of Flynt's life that was the focus of Milos Forman's 1996 film, "The People Vs. Larry Flynt," a somewhat sanitized biography starring Woody Harrelson as Flynt and Courtney Love as Althea. Flynt himself appeared in the film as a judge in one of his many courtroom appearances. He would take that image of himself as a crusader of free speech and political freedom to new extremes during the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton for lying to the public over sex with an intern. Flynt offered millions in reward money to anyone who could provide proof of sexual misconduct involving Republican politicians, and gathered evidence that resulted in the resignation of House Speaker Bob Livingston.
In 1998, Flynt expanded beyond print publication to produce pornographic videos. That same year, Tonya Flynt-Vega, one of his five children by various former lovers, wrote a book accusing Flynt of sexual abuse. Flynt denied the charges and disowned Flynt-Vega, along with three of his other children, all of whom he claimed were only after his money. His daughter, Theresa Flynt, however, served as an executive vice president for Flynt Management Group, and worked with her father to expand the company in 2000 to include the Hustler Casino, a cardroom in Gardena, CA, as well as a chain of Hustler retail stores. In 2003, Flynt returned to politics, running for governor of California in the recall of Governor Gray Davis and placing seventh in a crowded field of 135 candidates. In 2011, Flynt's own brother, Jimmy, sued him for $20 million, claiming that Flynt had withheld profits from the Hustler retail chain that they mutually owned. Flynt settled, giving his brother controlling interest in the stores, but also cut him off from all future dealings. The suit was a mere distraction for Flynt, who appeared more intent than ever in his quest against political hypocrisy. In 2011, he co-authored the book, One Nation Under Sex, which detailed the sex lives of America's political leaders. The following year, he offered a reward of $1 million for information on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's unreleased tax returns, causing many to yet again dismiss him as an attention-seeking opportunist, or what he, himself, believed himself to be - a crusading voice of the people.
By John Crye