By Fred McBee
I was prepared to like Larry Flynt. I’d seen the movie about him and read his autobiography. I considered him a rascal and a rogue. My kind of guy.
Flynt is a self-educated, self-made man, a kinky version of the American dream. Poor boy makes good by being bad. Grew up dirt poor, at the end of a hollow in the hills of Kentucky. Almost no formal education. Forged his birth certificate to join the Army when he was 15. The Army discharged him a year later because he was found to be illiterate. Joined the Navy at 17, studied hard, got his GED, excelled as a radar operator.
After his service, he bought a low-rent honky-tonk bar in Dayton, Ohio, for $800. Parlayed it into a string of go-go clubs and later into Hustler magazine. Now he runs a publishing empire–29 magazines–and the young man who could not read is now editing some of the most famous writers in America. Flynt loves the outsize dimensions of his success, loves being one of the ugliest Cinderellas in history.
I wait in the reception area of Larry Flynt Publications–rich furnishings, a lot of walnut, expensive gewgaws. Classy? I couldn’t say. Classy people will have to judge that. But it’s the finest whorehouse decor I’ve ever seen. The secretaries are wearing business suits, skirts dangerously high. The guys look important walking around in Armani suits with stacks of nudie magazines under their arms. Harvard MBAs, big-money porn executives, guys Flynt hires and fires.
I’m escorted down the ornate hall to Flynt’s private office, which is the size of most middle-class homes. A curved wall of windows looks down on Wilshire Boulevard, Rodeo Drive and Beverly Hills, one of the most expensive views in the world. A bronze stagecoach sits behind him, probably a real-deal Remington. Flynt is loaded, and he likes to flash it.
He’s on the phone when I come in. He’s agitated. “You tell the Hilton that they will comp them, or I won’t be back.”
I know Flynt wagers millions of dollars a day in Vegas. I know he’s telling the Vegas Hilton to take care of his friends or he will take his action elsewhere. I know a Hilton executive will soon be kissing Mr. Flynt’s royal gaming account.
Freedom of Association
The first thing he says to me is, “I guess you’ve heard I hate cripples and old people.” He’s referring to a joke he made on CBS’s Politically Incorrect. I tell him that’s one of the kinder things I’ve heard about him.
I roll around his desk to shake his hand and to get a look at his famous gold wheelchair. His handshake is weak, his back and neck rigid. His speech is slow. I’m guessing it’s the lithium he takes for manic depression. His wheelchair is an antique E&J sports model. It’s gold, all right, spokes and all, with wine-colored velvet upholstery. A throne on wheels. No doubt who’s king around here. Gaudy? This is Beverly Hills. There’s no such word.
Before the tape is rolling, Flynt rattles into his agenda in praise of his own philanthropy. Not many people know it, he says, but he gives a lot of money to spinal cord research. He doesn’t have to talk long before I realize he is not engaged with the disability community. No gimp friends, no rehab buddies; his association is with doctors, universities and foundations, the people he gives money to. His riches insulate him from the day-to-day hassles of disability. If he wanted to, he could have six guys carry him up Mount Kilimanjaro.
I bring up poker at the first opportunity. Flynt and I are both enthusiasts. I tell him I played at the World Series of Poker this year. So did he. We are bonded. He tells me he’s playing tonight at his Beverly Hills house, his weekly kitchen-table game. I ask him about the details. The game is seven card stud, $1,500 to $3,000 limit. You need $300,000 dollars to buy into a game like that. I’m a little short today, so I don’t inquire about an open seat.
Freedom of Choice
We talk about his injury. He was shot in 1978 in Lawrenceville, Ga. A white supremacist took offense when Hustler published interracial sex photos, so he shot Flynt twice with a .44 Magnum. The first bullet destroyed 6 feet of intestines, the second ripped through a bundle of nerves called the cauda equina at the base of his spine. The latter paralyzed him and left him in excruciating pain, which he describes as like being immersed in boiling water from the waist down. The agony lasted five years. Flynt guzzled hard-core pain drugs–as many as a zillionaire could buy–overdosed six or 10 times, was clinically DOA at a hospital twice. Then he had three surgeries that finally killed the pain. He quit drugs immediately, happy to get his mind back.
If Flynt is a brother in the disabled community, his credibility resides here, in the brotherhood of pain. He speaks earnestly about the surgery that brought him relief. He wants others who are suffering to know there is relief available at Duke University. I think he really cares about this.
When Flynt hears the word “gimp,” his eyes go blank. I ask if he knows that word. He doesn’t. This is one of the few times he’s caught unprepared. Think about it. This guy’s been interviewed by journalists for decades. Of course his answers are polished and pat. The only other unrehearsed moment is when he’s asked if Hustler has ever published nude photos of a disabled woman. He has to think about that one. He searches his memory–remembers an amputee in the ’80s, and some zaftig or older models–but sure, now that the subject is mentioned, he would certainly consider doing a spread featuring an attractive disabled woman.
How about the criticism he gets from some feminists? He hears this question every day, slams it home like an old pro.
“I believe in equal rights,” he says. “I strongly support women’s rights, equal pay, equal opportunity. But I do part ways with the Gloria Steinems of the world who are on the radical edge of the feminist movement. I don’t think they speak for most women in America.”
He rejects the notion that pornography exploits and degrades women and cites some mainstream feminist scholarship as evidence: Nadine Strossen’s Defending Pornography, Wendy McElroy’s A Woman’s Right to Pornography and Camille Paglia, who has openly declared her support for Flynt. He’s an equal opportunity pornographer, and he doesn’t feel he owes women any apologies. He believes they have the right to like sex as much as guys do.
“You’re basically in charge of your own life, and you make choices,” he says.
Freedom of Speech
Flynt says the most important thing he’s ever done is fight and win a case before the Supreme Court in 1988. He had offended Jerry Falwell in a parody ad in Hustler that suggested the minister had lost his virginity in a drunken outhouse tryst with his mother. Falwell sued and won on the grounds that his feelings were hurt. Flynt appealed to the Supremes, and this time he won. He says the decision, which defined and protected parody, was one of the most important First Amendment rulings of the 20th century. As Flynt put it to the nation in a post-victory news conference, “If the First Amendment protects a scumbag like Larry Flynt, it protects all of you.”
I ask him if he fought this battle on principle or out of financial self-interest. His answer seems immensely genuine. “I’m the first to concede that when I started out, the only thing I wanted to do was make money and have fun. I was in a courtroom being sentenced to 25 years before I realized that freedom of expression could no longer be taken for granted.”
Flynt once served six months in a federal penitentiary for contempt of court. He was released when the charge was overturned on appeal. I ask him how disabled people are treated in prison.
“If you think it’s bad being in prison, try being there in a wheelchair,” he says. “It was an absolutely terrible experience.” He’s aware of the recent Supreme Court decision granting ADA rights to prisoners and concedes that some of his privilege followed him behind bars. “I would have preferred to be treated like the general population, but because of my notoriety, I wasn’t. Still, it wasn’t very good.”
People love to vilify Larry Flynt. That’s all right with him. He revels in being a pariah, in disapproval, in controversy. He seems to love his life. He’s living large, messing with the puritans and getting richer every day.
Chairman Flynt speaks …
“I’m a civil libertarian to the core.”
“I never heard of a model who was exploited.”
On disabled models:
“If an attractive model came in wanting to do a photo shoot, even though she was disabled, we would do it.”
On public perception:
“There’s a lot of people who think I’m a dirty old man in the basement of a building.”
“When people call me ‘scumbag,’ I tell them it’s ‘Mister Scumbag.’”
“Other than myself and Abraham Lincoln, I don’t think anybody from there has achieved notoriety.”
On freedom of speech:
“My First Amendment case in 1988 is the most important case since The New York Times case.”
On the First Amendment:
“When I started all this, I’d never even read the First Amendment.”
On the disability community:
“Of course I relate to the disability community. I would like to instill hope in the disability community. I would also wish that they would recognize me as one of them and that my financial status is there to help and not isolate.”
“I’m an atheist. I don’t make a religion out of it. I think when you’re dead, you’re dead.”
On psychological support:
“A lot of people, when they go through a crisis, they have only a family member or minister to talk to. I went to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as manic-depressive.”
On equal access:
“I have an aide with me all the time. I never pay any attention when we go up steps or anything. I guess it’s a luxury.”
On his gold-plated wheelchair:
“I have three of these chairs, and they cost $12,000 apiece. But I tell you, there’s no difference in the ride. The ride is the same.”
On sex after spinal cord injury (clearing up years of discussion):
“There can be quality sex after spinal cord injury.”