THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (1996)
Historical Context:  Print -- Video -- Online
Larry Flynt
[1]  Larry Claxton Flynt has been called everything from a crooked smut peddler to a civil liberties hero.  Nevertheless, he remains a very successful publisher of over thirty magazines, including Hustler, Chic, Maternity Fashion, and Barely Legal.  Born in Lakeville, Kentucky, on November 1, 1942, to Claxton Flynt and Edith Arnett, Flynt's early years were spent in poverty.  The oldest of three, he maintained a close relationship with his brother Jimmy throughout his life, but his sister Judy died of leukemia at the age of four.  Soon after her death, relations between Flynt's 'hard-drinking" father and mother worsened, and the family started to crumble.  At the age of ten, Flynt moved to Hamlet, Indiana, with his mother, and Jimmy stayed with their maternal grandparents.

[2]  Flynt's early teens were a time of confusion and awkwardness, since he did not feel comfortable in urban Indiana with his newly remarried mother or in rural Kentucky with his alcoholic father.  Assuming a false identity, he joined the army at the age of 15—an experience he remembers fondly—but was discharged a year later for poor test scores.  The military had not, however, seen the last of Flynt.  Longing for a "reassuring routine," he enlisted in the Navy, where he earned an esteemed place aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise and received his high school equivalency.  The Navy provided Flynt with a renewed sense of himself—he believed that the bonds of ignorance and poverty were defeated.  During this time, he was enticed by a beautiful girl named Mary, whom he married after a couple of days, and divorced very soon after.  He also met and fell in love with Peggy, whom he married while she was pregnant with another man's baby.  Soon into their marriage, Flynt discovered that she was being unfaithful and blamed Peggy's mother, Ernestine.  In a fit of rage, he shot at the woman, and she fell down stairs.  Claiming temporary insanity, Flynt entered a psychiatric center in Dayton.   In 1965, his first daughter, Tonya, was born, but after a very tumultuous relationship, Flynt and Peggy got a divorce.

[3]  Newly single and eager to forget about his past follies, he entered the business world.  He purchased a bar from his mother, which he turned into a strip club, strategically targeting working-class hillbillies.  Flynt's venture proved an immediate success, and within the next few years he expanded his business, opening similar establishments that he named "Hustler Clubs" in Columbus, Cleveland, and Toledo.  Along with his partner and brother Jimmy, Flynt took amphetamines to stay awake and perform laborious responsibilities that included promoting the bar, bartending, and breaking up fights.  The brothers felt privileged, however, to have close relationships with several women.  During this time, Flynt impregnated three different women—Amanda, Kathy (whom he briefly married), and Flora—who gave birth to Lisa, Theresa, and Larry, Jr., respectively.

[4]  In 1971, Flynt finally met a woman who, according to his autobiography, he felt intimate with on many levels. Flynt was immediately attracted to the "energetic and sensual" Althea Leasure, who was working as an underage stripper in his Columbus club.  A bisexual runaway, Althea was raised in an orphanage after witnessing her father murder her mother and grandparents before committing suicide.  They developed a romantic relationship but, more importantly to Flynt, a strong friendship.  Soon enough, she became his most trusted advisor, managing all of his dancers.

[5]  Throughout the early 1970s, the success of his businesses fluctuated.  After his Hustler Clubs gained popularity, Flynt got involved in a vending-machine business, which placed him in debt.  He eventually dismissed that scheme to focus entirely on promoting his clubs.  He initiated a membership program, for which he published a two-page newsletter featuring pictures and facts about his dancers.  Pleased with the publication, his members encouraged him to expand.  After studying the editorial content and pictures in Playboy and Penthouse, he concluded that they were targeted toward upper-class males.  He surmised that the "working class" men desired a different kind of pornography—one that shows "real" women and exposes the female genitalia.  Flynt was determined to create a magazine for this "newly discovered" market.  What started as a small member newsletter eventually developed into what is known today as Hustler magazine.

[6]  Hustler, which was first printed in July of 1974, struggled enormously in the beginning.  By the publication of the fourth issue, Screw magazine's Bruce David labeled it "the most boring magazine in America."  Agreeing with the review, Flynt hired David to help him improve the magazine.  Many changes were effected, making the publication appear more professional, and by April of 1975, Flynt was grossing over $500,000 an issue.  The magazine, which depicted very racy photographs and anti-establishment reading material, was considered very offensive to many people.  Hustler prided itself on its extreme vulgarity and was engrossed in breaking social taboos.  The November 1974 issue was a landmark publication, revealing the so-called "pink shot" of a woman's open vagina.  Since then the magazine has depicted graphic photos of disabled, pregnant, elderly, heavily obese, and diseased women.  It has portrayed women being beaten, burned, chained, raped, mutilated, urinated on, and covered in feces.  In addition, Hustler featured a cartoon entitled "Chester the Molester" that revealed several strategies to abuse children.  Despite being offensive to many people, a market for this type of material continues to exist.

[7]  In August of 1975, Hustler reached new heights when it published nude photographs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.  The pictures, which Flynt purchased from an Italian paparazzo, made him a millionaire.  Along with his confidant and lover Althea, he moved into a mansion located in a wealthy section of Columbus and sold all of his clubs, which enabled him to devote all his energies into publishing the magazine.  He promoted Althea to the position of executive editor, where she played an integral part in running the magazine.  Agreeing to continue their lifestyle filled with multiple sexual partners, Flynt and Althea married in 1976.

[8]  Meanwhile, Flynt began to face a number of legal battles, many of which challenged the interpretation of the First Amendment.  In July of 1976, he was arrested on charges of pandering, obscenity, and organized crime.  The disputed notion in the trial became the method by which to judge whether something was obscene or not.  Flynt's initial loss and subsequent jail sentence suggested that individual communities had the right to define what is obscene and, thus, to control what can be sold in the local stores.  Flynt's lawyer, Harold Fahringer, appealed, and after spending six nights in jail, Flynt was released on bond.  He stated in a press conference, "We're the strongest country in the world today only because we are the freest country in the world today, and I don't want any American, anywhere, to ever forget that that strength lies in our principle to be free.  And I'll continue this fight.  And people will accuse me of continuing it in the name of pornography.  I continue it in the name of freedom."  Attempting to prove a point about the community's definition of obscenity, Flynt mailed out four thousand copies of a pamphlet entitled, "The Real Obscenity: War."  The photos depicted gruesome pictures from the Vietnam War that Flynt believed to be more "obscene" than the sex in Hustler.  Although many people found the images disturbing, Flynt showed that the obscenity of war could pass through the mail unchallenged.  Ultimately, he won this case on appeal, but his battles in court had just begun.

[9]  Following the trial, Flynt received a vast amount of publicity, since the Freedom of Expression issue was very important to the media.  He was introduced to many famous people, including the evangelist sister of President Jimmy Carter.  In 1977, Ruth Carter Stapleton convinced Flynt to visit her, stating they had many common beliefs about sexual repression.  The two connected immediately and established a friendship.  A couple of weeks later, Flynt had a vision of God while flying in his jet with Carter Stapleton on his way to Los Angeles.  He became a "born-again" Christian and felt remorse for representing "everything that was wrong with society."  Flynt resolved to change the face of Hustler, declaring that he would no longer portray women as pieces of meat.  Althea vehemently opposed his conversion, stating, "The Lord may have entered your life, but $20 million a year just walked out."  During this time, Flynt unsuccessfully tried to change Hustler into a "Christian magazine."

[10]  Despite the fact that he was "born again," his stances on the First Amendment were not altered.  In early 1978, Flynt was faced with another charge of obscenity in Lawrenceville, Georgia.  Upon leaving the court, he was shot in the abdomen by the alleged gunman and white supremacist, Joseph Paul Franklin, crippling him for life.  Shortly after, Flynt renounced his conversion, stating in his autobiography that he was not interested in a God who would let people suffer as he was.  He later declared that "if those born-agains would just take a little lithium, they'd be fine. . . . The visions would go away."

[11]  After the shooting, Flynt and Althea retreated to Bel Air, California, and hid in their bedroom behind a steel door.  Living in excruciating pain, Flynt took large doses of pain killers to get through each day and often overdosed.  He underwent several operations over the years but only the drugs seemed to help.  Althea also began taking the medication—first recreationally, later habitually—and eventually developed an addiction.
Flynt returned to the media's attention in 1983, when he threatened to release video tapes that were potentially embarrassing to the FBI.  The tapes illustrated FBI agents selling John DeLorean cocaine and arresting him for the purchase.   Flynt was fined $10,000 and later $20,000 each day, for every day that he refused to reveal his source.  When questioned by the media about the nature of his actions, he stated, "Yes, this is a publicity gimmick, and I thank God you all fell for it."  Flynt's mischievous behavior in court became notorious.  He shouted profane words, threw orange peels at the judge, and even wore an American flag as a diaper.  He claimed, "If they're gonna treat me like a baby, I'm gonna act like one."

[12]  One month after the DeLorean case, televangelist Jerry Falwell sued Flynt on the grounds of libel and intent to inflict emotional distress for publishing a parody of a well known Campari ad.  The parody depicted a picture of Falwell grinning and an interview describing Falwell's "first time" having sex in an outhouse with his mother.  The bottom of the page read, "Ad parody—not to be taken seriously."  The jury found Flynt innocent of libel but guilty of intent to inflict emotional distress, rewarding Falwell $200,000.  Four years later, unsatisfied with the outcome, Flynt appealed the case to the Supreme Court, and the decision was unanimously overturned.  The court decided that the emotional distress caused by the admittedly offensive cartoon did not entitle Falwell to reparations because it was not portrayed as the truth and did not constitute "actual malice."  Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote, "At the heart of the first amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern."  Flynt remarked, "We have to tolerate things that we don't necessarily like, so we can be free.  Free press is not just freedom for the thought you love, but freedom for the thought you hate."  The decision was important, because if Flynt had been found guilty, then any public figure could sue on the grounds of emotional distress.

[13]  Although triumphant in the Falwell case, Flynt lost his dearest possession, Althea, shortly before the verdict had been reached.  The thirty-four-year-old Althea drowned in her bathtub on June 27, 1987.  Flynt recollects, however, that her health had been long deteriorating, since she was still addicted to heroine and had contracted the AIDS virus.  Although he felt much remorse after her drowning, he admitted that he knew she wanted to die.
Since Althea's death, Flynt's emotional and physical states have uplifted, since he has received several operations that have eased his pain and enabled him to "perform" sexually once again.  Despite his physical improvements, he has admitted that he would give back everything he has devoted to the legal system for the ability to walk again.  The movie The People vs. Larry Flynt, released in 1996, highlights his First Amendment contributions.  Following its release, many of the events in Flynt's past were re-examined as he appeared on television shows such as 48 Hours, Jerry Springer, The Charlie Rose Show, and The Geraldo Rivera Show.  His oldest daughter, Tonya Flynt-Vega, also received attention, publicly accusing him of sexually abusing her as a child.  Flynt, who fervently denies the allegation, expressed that his daughter, whom he hardly knows, has a host of mental problems and is trying to "seize her 15 minutes of fame."  According to the A&E documentary "American Justice," Flynt took a lie detector test concerning this matter and "passed with flying colors."

[14]  Flynt returned to the limelight in 2000 when he published a one-page ad in the Washington Post offering $1 million to anyone with documentary evidence revealing an adulterous affair with any prominent government official.  He claims his purpose was to expose the hypocrisy of politicians who pry into people's lives.  Later that year, Flynt was married for the fifth time, to his nurse, Elizabeth Berrios.  No matter what the circumstance, the fabulously wealthy publisher manages to make his opinion known.
 


Print Resources

 Flynt, Larry, with Kenneth Ross.  An Unseemly Man.  Los Angeles: Dove Books, 1996.

Flynt chronicles the events of his outrageous, turbulent, and controversial life.  Flynt begins his autobiography peering out of his luxurious ten-story office in Beverly Hills, describing his lavish possessions.  He declares, "I have accomplished much and triumphed against the odds.  But one thing I have not done.  I have not looked back. . . . Perhaps it is time" (2).  This autobiography covers Flynt’s childhood up to Althea’s death.  It is especially useful for the unrivaled account of his childhood and teenage years.  The extremely poor and “backward” environment in which he was raised resulted in many outrageous stories.  He highlights living with boorish and ignorant people, having sex with a chicken, acquiring his first gun at the age of eight, running away from home, and being sexually abused by a man claiming to be a police officer.

Flynt nostalgically narrates his experiences in the army, in which he enlisted when he was only fifteen-years-old.  He describes his many sexual experiences ashore, most proudly remembering the time he had sex with twenty different women in the same night and became “incapacitated.”  All the while, though, he claims that he missed his future (ex-)wife, Peggy, whose eventual infidelity “devastated” Flynt.  After his destructive experiences with her, he declares, “I would never try to be faithful to any woman again” (44).  The remainder of the autobiography illustrates events found in many other publications, like the “birth” of Hustler, Flynt’s wild courtroom antics, the landmark First Amendment case involving Jerry Falwell, and the unconventional relationship with his fourth wife, Althea.  It is an interesting read for anyone seeking to view the way in which Larry rationalizes his actions.

Flynt-Vega, Tonya, with Ted Schwarz.  Hustled.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

Tonya Flynt-Vega, the daughter of Larry Flynt’s first marriage, tells the depressing story of her childhood filled with abuse, neglect, and loneliness.  In stark contrast to the movie, she depicts Flynt as a malicious pervert and incestuous child molester.  The book begins with a letter from Flynt saying, “Maybe I haven’t been much of a father, but you and I both know the accusations of physical and sexual abuse are a lie. . . . I want you to know that in the process of all this, you have forever burned any bridges between us.”  After describing several examples of the abuse that she endured, Tonya berates pornography, claiming it is “about violence, about rape, subjugation, and pain, at the very least.”  She dedicates the book to God, “the Father of the Fatherless, without whom [she] would not have survived.”

Jones, Larry.  Hustler for the Lord.  Plainfield: Logos International, 1978.

Preacher Larry Jones writes about his encounters with Larry and Althea Flynt before Flynt’s infamous public conversion to Christianity.  This book shows that Flynt’s decision to follow Christ was not so sudden as it might have appeared.  Jones tracks his battle against pornography and discloses his conversations with Hustler representatives, the media, and other religious figures.  He says, “Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the citizens right to buy and read what he wants are matters that must be analyzed in the light of a nation’s history and destiny.”  Hustler for the Lord is an interesting read for anyone seeking information about the evils of pornography and the period preceding Flynt’s religious transformation.

Russomanno, Joseph.  Speaking Our Minds: Conversations with the People behind Landmark First Amendment Cases.  Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.

The chapter entitled “Hustler Magazine and Larry C. Flynt v. Jerry Falwell” transcribes an interview featuring the “interesting association” between Alan Isaacman and Flynt.  It provides a background and illustration of the case.  It is a great source for learning more about Isaacman.

Smolla, Rodney A.  Jerry Falwell v. Larry Flynt: The First Amendment on Trial.  Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1990.

Describing the case as “a truly remarkable episode in American legal history,” Smolla narrates the $45 million lawsuit that televangelist and founder of the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell, brought against Flynt.  The main issue centered on the question of whether or not one could be sued for inflicting emotional distress upon a public figure.  After viewing an ad parody from Hustler magazine that describes Falwell’s first sexual encounter with his mother in an outhouse while drunk on Campari liqueur, Falwell said, “I think I have never been as angry as I was at that moment. . . . I somehow felt that in all of my life I had never believed that human beings could do something like this.”  Smolla proclaims, “Flynt's coarse speech is nothing but excrement, a form of moral pollution fouling the cultural environment,” but he also wrote an amicus curia brief in favor of him.  This book offers an extremely in-depth view of the four-year battle, describes the details of Flynt’s unanimous victory over Falwell, and prints the opinions rendered by the Justices in their ruling.
 


Transcribed Television Interviews

"Jerry vs. Larry Flynt."  The Jerry Springer Show.  24 Jan. 1997.

In this revealing interview, Springer calls Flynt “the most controversial fighter for free speech in America.”  He asks Flynt if he has ever said to himself “Why am I the leader of this fight—for free speech?”  Flynt replies that it was not worth it.  He says, “I’d give it all to have my legs back.  I can’t change history, and I’m not one to dwell on something I can’t do anything about.”  Many topics are covered in the interview, including the release of The People vs. Larry Flynt.  Flynt says that the thing that makes him most happy is that the critics “can’t attack this movie . . . because it’s a true story,” and it “lets you make up your mind about the issues.”  This interview provides useful insight into the character of Flynt.

"Geraldo vs. Larry Flynt."  The Geraldo Rivera Show.  15 Jan. 1997.

Rivera begins his hour-long interview with the question, “Is he the First Amendment folk hero that the movie portrays or is he just a shameless porn king who now faces serious allegations of abuse and scandal?”  Flynt attacks his opponents with statements such as “people who [criticize his magazine] are ill at ease with their sexuality” and describes Gloria Steinem as “an ancient old relic of a feminist whose only claim to fame is encouraging a bunch of ugly women to march.”  He also, shockingly, reveals too much information (for Rivera) about his penile implant, which has enabled him to perform—but not without missing some of the traditional positions.

An interesting part of the interview is when Rivera “catches” an untrue statement made by Flynt.  Flynt declares, “there was never any drugs as part of [Althea and his] relationship until after the shooting.”  But when asked about his amphetamine usage in his early days, he stumbles over his words and tries to conjure an excuse.  Rivera asks, “So you want to withdraw the previous statement?”  This dialogue reveals that Flynt may not always tell the truth in interviews.  Rivera concludes the interview questioning how history will treat this “raunchy rebel.”  He surmises, if they are fair, historians “will admit that there were at least two sides to Mr. Flynt’s extraordinary story.”

"Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell."  Larry King Live.  10 Jan. 1997.

This show is a good resource for anyone wanting to witness the dynamics between Flynt and Falwell.  When asked how the two feel about each other, Falwell responds, “I have never had any ill feelings toward him.  I think his business is sleaze and garbage, and I think that it’s demeaning to women and children.”  Flynt says, “I always thought Jerry was a hypocrite, and I still feel that way.”  Overall, the interview offers an entertaining look at the conflicting beliefs of the real Falwell and Flynt.

"Milos Forman."  The Charlie Rose Show.  2 Feb. 1997.

This show is an extremely provocative interview with director Milos Forman, who is challenged by the words of feminist Gloria Steinem.  When asked, “Why make a film about Larry Flynt?” Forman responds, “Freedom of the press is the cornerstone of democracy.”  What fascinates Forman is Flynt’s ambiguity.  He challenges one to ponder, “Is he really a conscious, courageous fighter for our freedom?  Or is he just a smut peddler, who is using, cowardly, the First Amendment to hide behind it to sell more dirty magazines?  Or is it possible that he is both?”  He claims that the real hero of the film is the Supreme Court of the United States.

Next, Rose plays a clip of Gloria Steinem, who claims that she felt heart-broken while viewing the film.  She could not fathom how a person like Flynt could be “grandized” into a First Amendment hero.  She compares his depiction of women to the Nazi’s hatred of Jews or the Ku Klux Klan’s hatred of Blacks.  Steinem accuses Forman of being ignorant of the materials that he is defending because “he has never opened an issue of Hustler.”

Forman responds that Steinem’s accusation is false—he has studied several issues—he just never bought them himself.  He thinks it is ridiculous to compare Hustler’s depiction of women to organizations who kill people.  He asserts that the film is not about Hustler and pornography.  He states, “If I insisted to show these [graphic and violent] pictures in my film, the film would never been made.”
 

On pornography, especially from a feminist perspective, see also:

Dworkin, Andrea.  Pornography: Men Possessing Women.  New York: Dutton, 1989.

Kipnis, Laura.  Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America.  New York: Grove Press, 1996.

Mackey, Thomas C.  Pornography on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Laws, and Documents.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2002.

MacKinnon, Catherine.

Sellen, Betty-Carol, and Patricia A. Young.  Feminists, Pornography & the Law: An Annotated Bibliography of Conflict, 1970-1986.  Hamden: Library Professional Publications, 1987.

Slade, Joseph W.  Pornography in America: A Reference Handbook.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2000.

Williams, Linda.  Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1989.
 


Video Resources

American Justice: The Larry Flynt Story: Hustling the First Amendment.  Prod. Barbara Pritchard.  Videocassette.  Kurtis Productions, Ltd. & Towers Productions, Inc. for A&E Network, 1998.

A very in-depth look at Flynt's legal affairs, this documentary covers his entrepreneurial endeavors ever since the instigation of his first Hustler club.  People from all areas of the social and political spectrum give their opinion about the nature of Flynt. The film states that, on one hand, he is seen as “deeply dedicated to the First Amendment and his right to publish his magazine,” but, on the other hand, some people believe he is “no more interested in the First Amendment than an illiterate clown.”  Flynt is seen many times throughout the documentary—sometimes in the form of actual footage and other times while reflecting on past events.  The viewer is able to observe his subsequent physical states and outrageous political tee-shirt slogans like “Convict a Cripple” and “Larry Flynt for President.”

Biography: Larry Flynt, Fighting Dirty.  Prod. Patti Hassler.  Videocassette.  CBS New Productions for A&E Television Networks, 1997.

This feature asks the viewer to take a closer look at Flynt and ask the question—“patriot or pervert”?    Various people provide insight into this question, such as evangelist, Jerry Falwell; activist, Gloria Steinem; brother, Jimmy Flynt; director, Milos Forman; feminist, Andrea Dworkin; attorney, Alan Isaacman; and publisher, Al Goldstein.  The film covers a wide range of subjects in Flynt’s life including his childhood, formation of Hustler, religious conversion, legal battles, and relationship with women.  Flynt closes the film with the remark, “We have to tolerate things that we don’t necessarily like, so that we can be free.  Free press is not just freedom for the thought you love, but freedom for the thought you hate.”

Not a Love Story: A Film about Pornography.  Dir. Bonnie Klein.  Videocassette. National Film Board of Canada, 1981.

This film raises questions about the existence of pornography and its effect on society.  Motivated to learn more about the subject, Linda Lee Tracy, a stripper, and Bonnie Klein, the director, explore several aspects of the sex industry.  They visit sex shops, strip clubs, and peep shows, and ask the owners and customers questions about the objectification of women.  By the end of the film, Tracy, who becomes conscious of the ramifications of the industry, joins a protest against it.

Understanding the Harmful Effects of Pornography.  Prod. Jonathan Schneider.  Dir. Jonathon Schneider.  Perf. Martin Kove, Craig Counard, and Ray Wadsworth. Videocassette.  United Broadcast Group, 2000.

Viewing pornography as a physical addiction, this film scrutinizes the effects of the billion-dollar industry on society.  It portrays the history of its entrance into mainstream life, ability to thrive, and negative implications.  Many men that were interviewed admitted that they had become desensitized by pornography.  When asked what they have learned from pornography, men replied, “that women are sluts,” “that they want it more than men,” and “that women want to ‘give it up.’”  The film articulates that it is difficult for men to see the violence because it is portrayed in an erotic manner.  It suggests that images in pornographic magazines and movies trigger immoral practices such as molestation and rape by making them appear acceptable.  Connections are drawn between pedophiles and their ownership of sexually explicit material.  In an interview, Flynt states that there is “no evidence that exposing this material is harmful to anyone.”
 


Online Resources

Hustler Magazine Web Site
http://www.hustler.com

"the same Hustler you've cum to love . . . the name you trust, the sexual erotica you desire -- online"

Larry Flynt's Web Site
http://www.larryflynt.com

Flynt's home page features articles and links dealing with politics, free speech, individual rights, and civil liberties.  Useful for the "Hustler political viewpoint," but not for any personal information about Flynt.
 
 

Copyright (c) 2003 by Stephanie McElroy, Undergraduate Student at Lehigh University.

This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of the U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.