For a disgusting, sleazy pornographer, Larry Flynt comes across as a pretty decent fellow.
The maverick publisher has been called those things and worse in a career founded upon the pioneering sex-and-satire magazine, Hustler. Eighteen years ago he even took a bullet in the spine, fired by a fanatical white supremacist incensed by a Hustler photo layout involving a biracial couple.
Yet here he is in his Seattle hotel suite, seated in his wheelchair and dressed nattily if not tastefully, sipping coffee and puffing a Cuban cigar while chatting amiably about a life that has carried him from an isolated Appalachian hamlet to the top of his own 10-story office building in Beverly Hills. For the past two decades, he has lived with immense pain - both physical and emotional - yet Larry Flynt seems like a man who has come to know himself, who is comfortable in his own skin.
"My position is that you pay a price to live in a free society, and that price is toleration of some things you don't like. You have to tolerate the Larry Flynts of this world," he said, warming up to his second-favorite topic, our constitutionally protected liberties.
"I don't think the average American citizen wants the Falwells, the Ralph Reeds or the Pat Buchanans dictating what they can read."
It took Flynt a decade of appearances in state and federal courts, as well as a couple of stays in federal penitentiaries and two hearings before the U.S. Supreme Court, before everyone got that message. But when eight high court justices voted unanimously in early 1988 to dismiss lower court rulings that granted the Rev. Jerry Falwell $200,000 in "emotional distress" damages from a Hustler parody, Flynt's long crusade finally drew the respect and support of First Amendment advocates who had long avoided a man considered by many to be a mere smut peddler.
Legal woes in print
That legal saga lies at the heart of two new works: Flynt's autobiography, "An Unseemly Man: My Life as Pornographer, Pundit and Social Outcast" (Dove, $22.95), which he autographed here yesterday, and a new film, "The People vs. Larry Flynt," co-produced by Oliver Stone, directed by two-time Oscar winner Milos Forman, and starring Woody Harrelson as Flynt and Seattle-based rocker Courtney Love as his late wife, Althea. The movie, which opens here Dec. 27, has drawn raves in advance screenings and at the recent New York Film Festival.
"It was painful for me to watch a lot of the stuff," said Flynt, who speaks softly and haltingly but whose face lights up frequently: "I think Woody Harrelson played me better than I play myself."
Flynt acknowledged that he lobbied against Love playing Althea, who became a drug addict during Flynt's own addiction, then contracted AIDS and drowned in the bathtub of their estate in 1987 after a heroin overdose. Flynt preferred Ashley Judd or newcomer Georgina Cates to play his wife, but Forman thought otherwise.
Flynt now believes the Czech-born director made the right call - a decision partly prompted by Forman's consultation with his boyhood friend, the playwright and Czech Republic president, Vaclav Havel.
"When I seen the film for the first time, I was just blown away - Courtney delivered an absolutely chilling portrayal of my late wife," said Flynt. "In retrospect, I don't think anyone could have done a better job."
Though "The People vs. Larry Flynt" may prove to be an Oscar contender, it's unlikely that Flynt's autobiography will be in the running for a Pulitzer Prize. It is a swift, shallow, no-frills account of Flynt's life, ghostwritten by Kenneth Ross. Yet it has an engaging candor, and a portrait gradually emerges of a poorly educated country boy who parlayed ambition, chutzpah and bad taste into a media empire that today includes 29 magazines - only six of which are adult-oriented.
Flynt is blunt about his origins as a fifth-generation hillbilly from a "holler" in desperately poor, sparsely populated Magoffin County, Kentucky.
"In 1964, out of over 7,000 counties in the country, it was at the bottom - poorer even than some counties in Mississippi - so that literally our biggest industry was jury duty," said Flynt. He smiles now when he recalls this, but his book recounts a childhood scarred by alcoholism, divorce and shuffling back and forth among relatives.
"The hill people down there - including my family - have a different mentality. Many have never traveled more than 20 miles from where they were born . . . and although they were not educated, there was a certain wisdom that came from them - often in short, philosophical tidbits of humor," said Flynt. He recalled his great-grandmother's dismay when automobiles replaced horses and silky synthetics began replacing cotton underwear: "What's ruined the world, she said, is riding on rubber and farting through silk."
At 15, Flynt lied his way into the Army, and later into the Navy, before getting into the bar business in Dayton, Ohio. Hillbilly Haven, a refuge for Appalachian migrants, was his first, followed by a dozen more that he developed into a chain of "Hustler Clubs" throughout Ohio.
Hustler magazine began as a crude newsletter for the chain, but was soon transformed into a "slick," with color photos. From the first, Flynt pushed the envelope, going beyond the airbrushed vacuity of Playboy to feature "a little personality": female nudes showing pubic hair, then the "watershed" issue of November 1974, with its first so-called "pink shot" (female genitalia, completely exposed).
With its combination of explicit photos, lowbrow humor, scatological cartoons and crude political satire ("The vulgar nature of our cartoons and features was a matter of editorial policy," boasts Flynt in his book), Hustler is the cornerstone of his empire. Yet his other magazines include boating, computer and music periodicals - even a fashion magazine for large women, Big Beautiful Woman.
Flynn found new market
"I made Hustler a success in a market nobody knew even existed," writes Flynt. "I had aimed at the `Archie Bunkers' of America - the men who liked their beer, bourbon, sex, and humor straight - and hit the bull's-eye. My hillbilly instincts had carried me through."
Now that Flynt's legal battles and drug addiction have receded into the past - a third laser operation in 1994 ended the pain in his legs - Flynt devotes himself to his magazines and the Larry Flynt Foundation for Human Development, which supports three causes: spinal cord research at Duke University; the American Civil Liberties Union; and studies of child abuse and violence among youth.
Whatever his focus, Flynt always returns to his favorite topic: sex - its importance and its difference from the violence glamorized in today's media.
"Sex is healthy; violence is not," he declared. "Sex is life-sustaining - it's the greatest asset we have, yet the church has had its hand on our crotch for 2,000 years."
Larry Flynt, that most unlikely of First Amendment crusaders, will try to loosen that grip once again on CNN's "Larry King Live" one week from today at 6 and 11 p.m. For the first time since their Supreme Court battle, he goes head-to-head with the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Stay tuned.