Larry Flynt is the only wheelchair-using, multi-millionaire pornographer and free speech advocate in America, or at least the most notorious. Though 70 years old and slowed by a stroke, he spends most days, he says, at his spacious Los Angeles office in his gold-plated, velvet-tufted wheelchair — “If you sit in one of these things,” he quips, “it might as well be gold.” He oversees 30 different companies involved with pornographic magazines and videos, clubs, retail stores, a broadcast production studio, and a very popular gaming casino in Garden Grove, Calif., among other enterprises.
After almost 40 years of endless public opprobrium and counter-opprobrium, and no small amount of self-promotion, Mr. Flynt, as his employees call him, is not generally regarded as an inspirational role model for paralysis. He will never appear in one of those heartwarming “Against All Odds” stories at the end of the 6 o’clock news. If you were to name the 10 most admired disabled people in America, his name would probably not make the cut.
The irony is, if you can view his whole life — before and after a would-be assassin’s bullet shattered his cauda equina at the base of his back and left him paralyzed and in chronic pain — you might conclude that Larry Flynt has indeed survived and prospered “against all odds.”
I know many readers will cringe — and maybe stop reading — at the mention of Flynt’s route to success: shameless, in-your-face anatomical close-ups of female genitalia. Since he began to publish a primitive Hustler broadside in 1972, right in the middle of a quickly ascendant feminist movement, he has been scorned and reviled by many as a purveyor of tasteless smut that dehumanizes, exploits and demeans women to make a buck. Some see him as a public menace. Some see him as a public menace who has become “a toothless old lion.” Ellen Stohl, disability activist, teacher, writer and famously, the first disabled woman to appear in a pictorial in Playboy, speaks for a lot of women when she says that Flynt sees women “in parts and pieces … we are just interchangeable orifices in his mind” (see below: “Feminist Rage”).
But much has changed in America since the first glossy Hustler magazine came out in 1974. Pornography in 2013, like guns and Taylor Swift, continues to have a huge public presence, expanding at lightning speed on all new digital platforms from your iPad to your iPhone. Today many of Hustler’s most outrageous images and crude jokes look commonplace, even tame, compared to what anyone with a computer can find on the Internet. According to Forbes Magazine, 13 percent of all Web searches are for porn. It’s hard to know if broad scale attitudes toward pornography have changed, but as a $13 billion a year business, its popularity isn’t waning, nor is its acceptance. In a 2008 study of Midwestern college students, for instance, the survey found that roughly two thirds of the men and one half of the women agreed that viewing pornography was acceptable. That doesn’t make it either right or healthy, but does indicate a measure of tolerance.
This article is not about the knotty issue of pornography, no matter how you see it, and is not meant to glorify, accept, or condemn it. It’s about a very successful businessman who, in the middle of building an empire around a girlie magazine and fending off a storm of lawsuits, was shot in the back by an assailant in Georgia in 1978. He was 35 years old. Whether he sold porn or worked in a gas station, he was forced to go through the same post-paralysis juggernaut of anxiety and grief and confusion as millions of others. The question is: What difference did it make in his life?
The American Dream
Larry Flynt grew up in poverty in Magoffin County in eastern Kentucky, ran away from home at 15 to join the Army, got out, got back in the Navy, got out, and then bought his first bar in Dayton, Ohio, naming it Hillbilly Haven. When Hustler got off the ground, it broke an unspoken taboo — never violated by Playboy — by “going pink” with brazenly explicit female body shots. Flynt has said that he was publishing a magazine for blue-collar readers who weren’t interested in snooty articles on wine and cheese in Playboy. After publishing nude pictures of Jackie Kennedy Onassis in 1975, the magazine exploded and Flynt, the impoverished country boy from Nowhere, Kentucky, was soon America’s most famous pariah. As he was quoted in a NEW MOBILITY profile 15 years ago: “When people call me scumbag, I tell them it’s ‘Mr. Scumbag’”
And then, in 1978, like presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972, Flynt was shot down by someone who didn’t like him. No one was ever tried for the crime, but a white supremacist, now on death row for another murder, said he shot Flynt for publishing an interracial photo. Flynt became an L1 incomplete,”suffered chronic pain because of the location of his spinal cord injury, and started a strange new journey.
A good place to begin Larry Flynt’s post-paralysis story is with the book that he co-authored last year with historian and Columbia University professor David Eisenbach. Entitled One Nation Under Sex, the book is a sober study of the private lives of American presidents and people close to them and how their sexual peccadillos have influenced or altered public policy. At first blush, it is not a book you would associate with the publisher of not only Hustler, but also Barely Legal and Taboo. It has no dirty pictures, no more lurid sexual details than the New York Times published about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and well over a thousand annotated footnotes. It didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize, but it was generally regarded by critics as respectable, a word not often associated with a man who put a woman in a meat grinder on the cover of his magazine or appeared in federal court wearing the American flag as a diaper.
Co-author Eisenbach, who teaches presidential history at Columbia and hosts a program on The History Channel entitled Ten Things You Don’t Know About, had little hesitancy to working with Flynt. “There are only so many times that life throws you a curveball,” he says, and this one would have been crazy to pass up. Did he get any grief for doing it? “My girlfriend wasn’t happy about it, let’s put it that way.” But he joined in what he considers a true collaboration with Flynt in fleshing out, so to speak, the hush-hush lives of past American leaders.
Beginning with the randy womanizing of Benjamin Franklin and the well-known saga of Thomas Jefferson’s black family, One Nation Under Sex chronicles both inconclusive rumors about Abe Lincoln’s penchant for sleeping with men to more solid claims like President James Buchanan’s long-time affair with a Southern gentleman referred to by critics at the time as his “better half,” “his wife,” and “Aunt Fancy.” Most history books don’t mention a gay president nor how this may help explain why Buchanan was so accommodating to the South before the Civil War. “Flynt and I,” Eisenbach says, “took off the blinders.”
What someone like Buchanan did in his private life doesn’t bother Larry Flynt. His attitude is that “I don’t think a person’s sex life has anything to do with their ability to lead.” But it can influence the affairs of state. Case in point: Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Politicians seem to have a special gene that leads them into dicey sexual situations, and the book illustrates that this has long been the case.
Eisenbach’s favorite chapter of the book centers on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, their unorthodox marriage, and the impact that paralysis from poliomyelitis at age 39 had on FDR’s trajectory as a world leader. By all accounts (see the HBO movie, Warm Springs), paralysis transformed Roosevelt profoundly. After a long period of retreat — from getting drunk on a boat off the Florida coast to building a polio rehab camp in Georgia — he went from a privileged scion to a fierce man of the people. In Flynt’s words, “Roosevelt, in that chair, was more of a fighter than he would have been out of it.”
Along with the paralysis, Flynt and Eisenbach hone in on FDR’s storied affairs after he became paralyzed and conclude with a surprising twist: they were good for him. Whether sexual or not (the record is vague), his deep friendships with women like Missy LeHand, his personal secretary, and Lucy Mercer, arguably the love of his life, gave him something his wife couldn’t. Eisenbach: “He needed that feminine attention to give him that boost and that confidence to become the great world leader that he was. … That was his oxygen … and Eleanor, she even admitted, could not give him that kind of emotional support.”
‘It Gave My Life Purpose’
The obvious connection between Roosevelt’s paralysis and Flynt’s paralysis was never made explicit in the book, but the parallels, Eisenbach says, are obvious: “It was a turning point in Flynt’s life. He could have gone on purely being the new XXX Hugh Hefner, but instead, his life took a whole new direction. He could have curled up into a ball — which he did for a time — or emerge out of that and do something with your new life — and that’s what he did.” Eisenbach concludes: “In many ways it seemed to be liberating, empowering … I mean, what could they do to him now?”
Larry Flynt himself, even today, seems to be of two minds about how his paralysis changed his life. His most-often quoted view is that he never gives it a moment’s thought. “When people ask me what it’s like to be in a wheelchair, I tell them, ‘if you hadn’t have brought it up, I wouldn’t have even thought about it’ … I don’t spend my life dwelling on something I can’t do anything about.”
On the other hand, press him a little about the effects of his condition, especially in light of the comparison with FDR, and it’s clear that he has thought about it. At length: “Being in a wheelchair can make you stronger than if you were on your feet. It gave my life purpose. I think I fought harder after it, and only someone who is paralyzed will ever understand that statement. You just have a stronger will to go out there and fight.”
Flynt’s fight, then and now, is with the guardians of public morality and the parameters of free speech. In the beginning, it was a fight for his life, or at least his tawdry trade. He had to find some way to stop the litigious harassment he constantly faced and assert his right to say what he wanted. And he found that moment of victory in the 1988 Supreme Court case, “Hustler Magazine Inc. v. Jerry Falwell.”
In brief, Hustler ran a parody on an ad for Compari, a popular aperitif at the time, in which the nation’s leading televangelist, Jerry Falwell, admits to losing his virginity via drunken sex with his mother in an outhouse. In Flynt’s mind, this was a crude joke about a noted stuffed shirt. In Falwell’s mind, this was war. He sued for libel. In an early court decision in Virginia, Falwell lost on the issue of libel — it’s hard to win a libel case if you are a public figure in America — but he won on the issue of “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Flynt could have paid the $100,000 settlement fee and gone on his way, but that would have opened an even wider door for anyone to sue him, in his words, “if you hurt someone’s feelings, or you hurt his wife’s feelings, or their dog’s feelings …”
Through much of this period, Flynt was addicted to painkillers for the peripheral nerve pain from his lower-spine paralysis and was acting strangely, to say the least, in court and out. At one point, he showed up in court in the aforementioned American flag diaper, along with a pith helmet and Purple Heart, and also spent some time in a federal psychiatric prison. So, if you are keeping track, add “drug addict” and “temporarily deranged” to that list of odds he had to overcome.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, tossed out the “emotional distress” verdict. In Eisenbach’s view, “This guy was a martyr who fought the impossible fight and won, and all of us as Americans have benefited (or not: see below — “Hustler v. Falwell”). It’s safe to say that “political cartoonists and satirists,” to use the exact language of the decision, benefited from this ruling. “The art of the cartoonist,” the decision continues, “is often not reasoned or evenhanded, but slashing and one-sided.” And that’s what the First Amendment protects, even if the public subject of that assault is outraged or hurt.
Supporters of the decision claim that if Flynt had lost, it would have had “a chilling effect” on all satire going forward. Think of Tina Fey’s dumb-as-a-stump version of Sarah Palin, or the thousand David Letterman Monica Lewinsky jokes, or more recently, Bill Maher’s offer to give $5 million to charity if Donald Trump could prove that he wasn’t the “spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan.” Trump has produced his legal birth certificate and sued Maher. Maher, a hardcore satirist who skews everyone from the president to God, doesn’t seem too worried.
The cartoonist Gary Trudeau of Doonesbury fame was once asked by ABC commentator Ted Koppel if he ever worried about being sued for his scurrilous attacks on politicians. Trudeau reportedly answered, “There was a time I was very concerned, but I got a get-out-of-jail-free card from Larry Flynt.” Another legendary satirist, Paul Krassner, puts it like this: “The First Amendment dropped into Larry Flynt’s lap and he has nurtured it to the hilt.”
Flynt is quick to agree that the decision “affected the media incredibly” and changed the course of satire in America. He sums up his own view like this: “It’s always been my position that free speech is only important if it’s offensive. If you’re not going to offend anyone, you don’t need protection under the First Amendment.” And: “We pay a price for everything in a free society, and the price we pay is toleration. Hey, I have to tolerate Fox News.”
Over the last two decades since Hustler v. Falwell, Larry Flynt has been portrayed in a much-praised film, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and has launched a sporadic free-speech campaign with its principal focus on exposing corrupt politicians, usually about sex, and trumpeting their hypocrisy in the public square. And he’s found plenty of targets.
During the Clinton impeachment, he took out an ad in the Washington Post offering a million dollars for evidence of illicit sexual relations involving members of Congress. With a new label of “investigative pornographer” or “muckraking smut icon,” or in the minds of many, the latest bottom feeder in gutter journalism, Flynt succeeded in outing at least one congressman, Republican Robert Livingston from Louisiana, a vocal Clinton foe and speaker of the house-elect. After exposure as an adulterer in Hustler, Livingston admitted as much and resigned. As the Washington Post reported, “Livingston’s downfall was the handiwork of Flynt … and suddenly Hustler … was setting the agenda in the capital.”
Later, in 2007, Sen. David Vickers, a staunch “family values” Republican, admitted contacts with the famed D.C. Madam after being called by Hustler. Vickers survived the scandal, but Flynt could boast of nailing another hypocrite on Capitol Hill. There have been many other offers of cash-for-secrets, like for Mitt Romney’s tax returns, that haven’t led anywhere except to warn politicians that Flynt, anti-hypocrisy crusader, is on the prowl.
The Disability Disconnect
Larry Flynt, for all of his liberal political maneuvering and outspoken support for gay rights and even women’s rights — “A country,” he once wrote, “that discriminates against half its population cannot be held up as a great democracy” — has no connection with disability advocacy groups and rarely mentions disability rights in his pronouncements. In that earlier NEW MOBILITY piece, he seemed to be unfamiliar with the term “gimp.” When asked directly about this now, he answered: “I support all of that and give to the Spinal Cord Society [for medical research] … I give to a lot of organizations, but as far as being able to be out there and work myself, my company is so big, I don’t have time.”
For a man so entrenched in national politics and First Amendment rights, this seems like a curious blind spot. It could be, taking him at his word, he simply doesn’t have time for any more causes. It could be that the culture of Larry Flynt and the culture of major disability groups are too far apart to find a comfortable common ground. Or it could be that, in a criticism once directed toward Christopher Reeve, he cares more about a cure, however distant, than helping disabled people find their rightful place in the world.
Stohl is outspoken about this side of Larry Flynt. “He seems to be stuck in that state of infancy that people have after paralysis by trying to cure it,” she says, “not acknowledging and owning it as part of themselves, but trying to say that something is wrong with me that has to be fixed. I think that’s why he avoids engaging with disability groups who are about living with passion and living fully.”
Maybe that is one more obstacle, even at 70, for Larry Flynt to overcome in his lifelong battle for respect. If he feels the impulse to dive into issues affecting the disabled — as Stohl says, “I would love to see him fighting for parking spaces” — he probably won’t do it quietly. Whatever else you would say about him, he is his own man and arguably more of his own man in a wheelchair than before. Asked about why he often dismisses the impact of his chair, he says: “I don’t spend a lot of time feeling sorry for myself, because that’s not going to get me anywhere. I never wanted to pity someone because I didn’t want pity myself. Nobody created my condition, nobody is responsible for it.”
Wise words from the smut icon. He is no hero, but he’s no victim, either. In many ways, he’s just another guy in a wheelchair who has carved out a life for himself and found a new purpose in the aftermath of paralysis. You may hate him as a debaser of women or dismiss him as a media grandstander, but whatever you do, don’t feel sorry for him. Larry Flynt, against all odds, has made it.
Larry Flynt’s main job, even today, is pornography. Convicted first in Cincinnati in 1975 for “pandering, obscenity, and organized crime” (a decision later reversed) and hounded by a long list of lawsuits, he has never backed down from his view that the kind of pornography he practices “doesn’t kill anybody.” He also says, “You can’t legislate morality and you can’t legislate taste.” Or as Flynt (played by Woody Harrelson) shouts at one point in The People vs. Larry Flynt when faced with a long prison sentence: “Twenty-five years? All I’m guilty of is bad taste!”
Many others over the years — most notably women — fervently disagree. Here are some comments illustrating this view:
From Ellen Stohl, teacher and activist:
“I admire his determination, his persistence, and his battle for freedom of speech. I don’t admire his portrayal of women — funny coming from me who posed for Playboy. I think he sees women more in parts and pieces — not the whole person — than other magazines and that really bothers me. We are just interchangeable orifices in his mind.”
From an anonymous source deeply involved in the women’s movement: “As a feminist and a mom, I think most porn ought to be outlawed as it twists our notions of sexuality and promotes the idea … that the primary purpose of women is to please men. Larry Flynt is gross, and he and others like him have damaged our society profoundly, but in my opinion, he’s a toothless old lion.”
Finally, from feminist icon Gloria Steinem, in reaction to The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996):
“What’s left out [of the movie] are the magazine’s images of women being beaten, tortured, and raped, women subject to degradations from bestiality to sexual slavery. Let’s be clear: a pornographer is not a hero, no more than a publisher of Ku Klux Klan books or a Nazi on the Internet, no matter what constitutional protection he secures.”
Hustler v. Falwell
In 1988 then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the unanimous 8-0 decision in favor of Hustler (Justice Kennedy abstained). He wrote, in part: “Despite their sometimes caustic nature, from the early cartoons portraying George Washington as an ass down to the present day, graphic depictions and satirical cartoons have played a prominent role in public and political debate … the sort of expression involved in this case does not seem to us to be governed by an exception to the general First Amendment principles stated here.”
A strongly dissenting view is expressed by Dr. John Eastman, professor of law and community and former dean, the School of Law, at Chapman University:
“Yes,” Dr. Eastman says, “I think it [the decision] was important … in a bad way. I think the court took a wrong turn with the notion that the founders would have seen this as protected speech — which to them meant the use of the faculties of human reason to achieve important political ends. We denigrate that by including within it pornography and libelous speech like Larry Flynt portrayed against Jerry Falwell.”
He goes on: “What they [the court] conceded is that they aren’t capable of making the judgment we expect them to make — being able to distinguish between an utterly scurrilous libel and pointed political commentary.”
And finally, says Eastman, “I think it [the decision] led to a coarsening of society and the denigrating of the principals of the First Amendment rather than a vindication of it.”