Larry Flynt with porn stars
Larry Flynt with porn stars

Towards the close of 1996 I was in Los Angeles at the end of a long trip which had started with a Bruce Springsteen show and interview in Philadelphia. Towards the end I spent one of the most surreal days of my life – breakfast with Iggy Pop at the Chateau Marmont, lunch with Neil Diamond at his studio, back to the hotel for a chat with Jeff Buckley, then a drive up the Hollywood Hills to spend a few hours with Brian Wilson at his house. Could it get any crazier? Sure could. The day before I flew back to Australia I had an audience with Larry Flynt, the infamous and legendary publisher of Hustler magazine. The piece originally appeared (in an edited version) in the JJJ Magazine early in 1977. This is the original version.

“Hustler is purely an entertainment magazine,” says Larry Flynt of his most famous publication, the ‘mens’ magazine that’s almost as well known around the globe as Playboy and Penthouse. And in terms of content, well, whilst Playboy is tame, and Penthouse reasonably raunchy, Hustler is far and beyond the most over-the-top sex magazine openly on sale in newsagents, with an Australian edition first appearing late last year.

“Hustler deals very little with lifestyles,” Flynt continues. “We have a law in this country which says that if you publish something it must have socially redeeming value. I feel that sex within itself is socially redeeming. As far as pornography goes one man’s art is another man’s pornography so I try and dispel the stereotypes that exist with this business and proceed in a manner that looks to entertain and educate people about human sexuality.”
Flynt tells me this as I sit in his palatial (and I mean p-a-l-a-t-i-a-l) office on the top floor of the 10 story office building on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverley Hills. Amidst the oil paintings, antiques and an astonishing collection of Tiffany lamps the only slight indication that this is the office out of which comes  more than 30 magazines, many of the sexual variety, is a sculpted replica of a man and a woman having sex placed behind Flynt’s desk.

Aside from Hustler, Flynt Publications produces Hustler Fantasies, Hustler Barely Legal, Chic – along with magazines devoted to knives (Fighting Knives), memorabilia (Trading Cards), boating (Ski Boat), computers (Ultimate Gamer, Video Fames Presents: Tips And Tricks, Hard Drive, and PC Laptop), tattoo’s (Skin & Ink) and music (Rage and Rappages).

As the result of an assassination attempt outside a Georgia courthouse in 1978 during a famous court case over charges of obscenity levelled at his magazine Flynt sits in an 18 carrot gold wheelchair, although his desk is built high enough that the chair isn’t visible to anyone else in the office. Flynt speaks in a mute tone, another legacy of the bullet wound which went through his throat and severed his spinal column.

It wasn’t until I arrived in America in December of last year that I realised just how famous Flynt was. Sure, I knew what Hustler was all about but I had no idea who published it. In conversation after conversation I mumbled to friends about being asked to try and interview Hustler’s publisher. The responses were universal. The jaws dropped, followed by “You’re going to meet Larry Flynt.” 

Yes, this man is a legend, such so that Oliver Stone’s next film will be based on Flynt’s life with Woody Harrelson apparently playing the publisher, whilst Courtney Love is cast as his late wife Althea.    

By way of background Lawrence Claxton Flynt was born and raised  in eastern Kentucky’s Maggofin County, the Appalachian area ranked lowest in per-capita income by the 1964 report of President Lyndon Johnson’s Appalachian Regional Commission. 

Being born into a family with an annual income of $US600, he seemed destined to a life of poverty. But rather than become a product of his environment, 13-year-old Flynt ran away from home. Using a false birth certificate, he enlisted in the Army when he was 14, and by the age of 19 he had served in both the Army and Navy. At age 21 he had been divorced twice and had gone bankrupt once.

Working as a dishwasher and factory worker, Flynt saved enough money to buy his first bar, in Dayton, Ohio. Investing all he had saved, he turned the establishment into a moneymaker and later sold it at a profit. Over the next few years he continued his success as a young entrepreneur by purchasing money-loosing nightclubs, building up their business and selling at a high profit.

In 1968, having accumulated enough money to build the nightclub of his dreams, Flynt opened his first Hustler club, in Dayton. By 1972 he owned eight Hustler Clubs throughout the state of Ohio.
It was at this time that Flynt decided to publish a newsletter for his clubs’ patrons, which he appropriately titled Hustler. Consisting mainly of club news and profiles of the women employees, the newsletter also tackled many social issues. It was from this humble beginning that the fledgling Hustler  Magazine emerged.

In July 1974, with a staff of three and a contract with a national distributor, Flynt published the first issue of Hustler. It quickly established a reputation for being outrageous and iconoclastic, and became the world’s fastest-growing men’s magazine. By 1976 it ranked as the third largest selling magazine of its type on the market.

Part of Hustler’s success can be attributed to Flynt’s willingness to gamble, to publish features that no other men’s magazine would dare to run. These features including exposing female genitalia in a far more explicit fashion than his high profile competitors; the first nude photos of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ever published in the U.S.; a controversial article on the violence of war as obscenity which contained graphic photos of mutilated victims in the Vietnam War; the first life-size Scratch’n’Sniff centrefolds; and a series of investigative reports probing and exposing the questionable government investigations of the murders of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy and black leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.

With its anti-establishment stance Hustler, and particularly Flynt, became a target for many elements of American society. This led to seemingly never-ending legal manoeuvres designed to prevent Flynt from exercising his Constitutional rights under the guarantees of the First Amendment.

In February 1977 a Cincinatti, Ohio jury found Flynt guilty of pandering obscenity and engaging in organised crime – the latter charge resulting from his participation in the publishing of Hustler – and sentenced him to a prison term of from seven to 25 years. Flynt appealed the verdict, and in April 1979 the conviction was reversed by Ohio’s Court Of Appelate District.

In a separate Ohio case Flynt was charged with disseminating material harmful to juveniles. The action was a result of his mailing to Hamilton County residents the pamphlet “The Real Obscenity War” (a reprint of an article published in Hustler). This article was an attempt to impress upon Hamilton County’s citizens the need to establish unbiased priorities for the purpose of deciding what constitutes obscenity. If found guilty, Flynt could be sentenced to up to six years in prison and/or fined $US12,000.

In Atlanta, Georgia, Fulton County Solicitor General Hinson McAuliffe attempted to place a prior restraint on the distribution of what he deemed obscene sexually orientated magazines. Flynt responded to what he saw as yet another overzealous prosecutor’s attack on the Constitutional rights of citizens by personally selling copies of Hustler in Atlanta. This resulted in charges of 11 misdemeanour counts of sale and distribution of obscene material. In March 1979 Flynt was brought to trial on these charges. Attempts by his attorneys to introduce evidence establishing Hustler’s acceptability to local citizens were denied, and Flynt was convicted on all counts. 
It was soon after a 1978 court case that the attempted assassination of Flynt occurred. Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist currently serving life sentences for four racially motivated killings in Utah and Wisconsin, has been linked to Flynt’s shooting but has not been brought to trial because officials are troubled by inconsistencies in the evidence.

“I’ve had three obscenity prosecutions and many more libel litigation’s,” Flynt says. “On one of the obscenity cases I was given a 25 year prison sentence. That was later overturned by the appeals court but it’s been a rough and rocky road and we’ve come a long way. You can see on cable television today what you saw in Hustler when it started 20 years ago.”

Despite continuing harassment from law enforcement officials, Flynt continued to expand his publishing empire, launching numerous magazines and distributing others as well as starting a mail-order operation selling novelty items and sex/marital aids which quickly reached annual sales of $US10 million.

In September 1977 Flynt travelled to Washington to offer then President Jimmy Carter $US1 million to be used for the study of pornography.  That same month he testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime and offered to donate his entire profits from Hustler to form a governmental commission to study the overall effects of sexual repression on society, with particular emphasise on its links with child abuse. Both these offers were met with governmental indifference.

Long sceptical of the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination of JFK Flynt offered a $US1 million reward for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible. He also founded Americans For A Free Press which holds community-support rallies when First Amendment guarantees are threatened.

Flynt is also is renown for his charitable donations which range from money for an Ohio man who badly needed open-heart surgery to the donation of several hundred Christmas dinners to poor Cincinnati families. He has contributed heavily to the Anti-Defamation League, the American Civil Liberties Union and various other groups.

Not only was there the assassination attempt but further tragedy struck for Flynt in 1987 when his fourth wife, Althea (who Flynt says is the only woman he’s ever loved) drowned in their bathtub after doctors diagnosed her condition as AIDS-related complex, probably resulting from IV-drug use. She was 33 years old.

By Flynt’s own admission, he and Anthea became drug addicts during his recovery from the shooting. “You’d better believe that a lot of drugs have flown through this body,” he says. “I was detoxed three times.”

These days he spends much of his time in his eight-bedroom Mediterranean mansion in the Hollywood Hills, and remains as ferocious an anti-censorship fighter as he has ever been.

“There’s many problems – I feel that as long as sexual repression exists these problems will exist,” he says. 
“The church has had their hand on our crotch for two thousand years and the government is always trying to manoeuvre into the same position because if they can control your pleasure centre they can control you and they know this. Church and State both have their idea of what should be socially accepted and that’s not necessarily considering what the minority wants. That’s a basic premise for any democracy – individual rights – and any erosion of that is an erosion of the whole system.”

Hustler continues to push the barriers of what is acceptable for mass consumption and what isn’t.  I asked Flynt what, in the States,  differentiates a magazine that can be openly sold on newsstands and one that is only available through sex shops.

“That’s an interesting question and most people don’t understand the answer to that,” he says. “The only censorship that I’ve ever done has been for the marketplace, never for the censors because I fight them tooth and nail.

“But no matter what kind of magazine I produce, if I can’t get it out to the public it doesn’t do anyone any good, so when you see the more sexually explicit material only being available in a sex shop or an adult book store that’s because many of the mainstream retailers that carry magazines won’t carry them because they don’t want to deal with complaints, boycotts and things like that.

Certainly the more recently issues of Hustler draw a very thin line between implied and real penetration, something that Flynt doesn’t dispute. In Australia any publication that shows sexual penetration is automatically restricted to Sex Shop sale only.

“It’s pretty close to that in this country but it’s not law,” Flynt explains. “Our Supreme Court has identified a test that a work of art must meet before it can be considered obscene and it’s a very confusing law. It has not been effective. There was the way in 1973 when the court left it up to the individual community to set their own standards but that’s impossible because you have someone in the South trying to second guess what reading habits are in San Francisco and New York. It just doesn’t work.

“Now we have a political climate in this country that is moving more and more to the right with a tremendous amount of support from a group known as the Christian Coalition which is very powerful in Republican politics. We could very well loose many of the individual freedoms we’ve gained over the years, because as a nation traditionally we only respond to a crisis. There’s never any preventative work done. . . there is a group in this society that, if they have their way, will advocate censorship. And for those who say ‘well, maybe a little censorship would be good’ who’s going to go and be God? When Hitler started he didn’t start with the classics, he started with the so-called garbage that no-one wanted to read and then moved on to Shakespeare.”

And in the light of that there’s not the slightest chance that Flynt will do anything but keep pushing against the same censorship boundaries that have always obsessed him.

“Things are changing and we have to be at the forefront of that change,” he says. “We’ll continue responding to our readership – not for what we think they are but for who they are. So many people have a preconceived idea of the person who wants to read their magazines. We tend to listen a bit more to who they are.”

And if we’re to accept Flynt’s observations exactly who makes up Hustler’s readership is more than a little interesting. The traditional assumption is that magazines predominantly featuring explicit photographs of women in poses of shall we say, abandon, are almost exclusively read by, well, blokes who like looking at photos of women. Flynt isn’t so sure that’s completely the case.

“That’s hard to say,” he says when asked if he thinks Hustler has many women readers. “We don’t have any solid figures on what percentage of our readership is female but there are an awful lot of women who buy the magazine for their husband and you’ve got a lot of women who aren’t bothered a lot if their husband is reading Hustler, and there’s the other side of the coin where it can create a lot of problems in a relationship.

“If I had to guess I would say around 20 to 25 percent of our readership was female. Many of them may look at their husband or boyfriend’s magazine and not necessarily be going to the newsstand and buying it.”
Just before I was about to have my audience with Flynt into the Hustler office came  an extremely attractive woman who I’d guess to be in her early Twenties. She arrived in the office wearing a white dress that was as short as it could possibly be without making her knickers obvious. She was surrounded by three guys who looked like my stereotypical image of LA photographers (hey, they look pretty much the same the world over). Suddenly Flynt’s staff started emerging from offices and behind desks and started congratulating her. There was at least five minutes of “well done’ and ‘great’ and ‘you must be so pleased’.

Bemused by this I asked someone what all the fuss is about. “Oh honey, she’s this month’s Beaver Hunt winner,” I was told like I’ve just arrived from Mars. One of the guys walked over to me and asked who I was. I explained that I was a journalist from Australia who was about to interview Mr Flynt.

“That figures, you look a bit different from the White Trash that usually hangs around here,” he said with a smile before sauntering back to the body in what could loosely be described as a dress.

Ms Whateverhernameis has been selected from the presumably hundreds of women who send explicit polaroids of themselves to the magazine each month for the Beaver Hunt pages of Hustler. It’s a good lurk for the magazine – four or five  pages of photos each issues, ranging from the good, the bad to the truly pathetic, that cost them not one cent. The best ‘beaver’ wins $US5000, a Hustler travel bag (gee!) and the opportunity to do a real ‘spread’ for the magazine.

“She’ll be in the magazine,” Flynt says later. “There’s a bonus of $US5000 which is in addition to her original fee for posing. My competitors, they pay almost 20 times that. I think they do that with the theory in mind that the more you pay the better models you’re going to get. I don’t find it’s that’s way with us. It’s a question of supply and demand. We always have attractive models available.

“The thing is that I don’t push my own preferences in the magazine. With Mr Hefner who publishes Playboy it’s obvious that he likes blondes with big boobs. Whether they’re blonde, red head, whether they’ve got small boobs, medium boobs or large boobs or whether they’re tall or short . . . I really like petite brunettes myself but I always go out of my way to keep my own preferences out of the magazine.”

Welcome to Larry Flynt’s world.