Hustler founder Larry Flynt—who passed away last month at 78—was never meant to be a media mogul.
Rupert Murdoch, by comparison, was the wealthy son of an Australian businessman, and by monopolistically eating up most of the Western world’s local and national news, transformed his generous inheritance into a multibillion-dollar paranoia empire.
Note that none of Mr. Murdoch’s output has been labeled “obscene.”
By contrast, Flynt was the son of an alcoholic sharecropper, born to poverty in Lakeville, Kentucky, an area “the twentieth century did not reach…until the early 1950s,” as Flynt wrote in his 1996 autobiography, An Unseemly Man: My Life as a Pornographer, Pundit, and Social Outcast. At 15 years old, he fled school and, armed with a counterfeit birth certificate, joined the Army. After various odd jobs in auto manufacturing and bootlegging and a stint in the Navy, he accrued enough money to buy a bar in 1965. Renaming it Hillbilly Haven, the 22-year-old Flynt turned the failing business into a golden goose, and by 1968 had bought four more bars with its profits, one of which he christened the Hustler Club in Dayton, Ohio. The first “go-go” bar in the Midwest, it was, per the slogan of his eventual magazine, for working men on the go. And they liked it. Hustler bars became a hugely successful national franchise.
Had Flynt stopped there, his would have been another forgotten story of a man who beat the odds to quietly live out his American Dream. But Flynt didn’t stop there. His black-and-white Hustler Newspaper—an advertisement for his bars—grew in pages, readership, quality, and profitability, far exceeding the influence of the bar it was named after. By the time he died, Flynt had turned it into a hugely successful magazine with a peak readership of 3 million a copy and $150 million in annual revenue before taking that money and putting it into merchandise, strip clubs, and other publications, and building an empire valued at $400 million by the time of his death. He even bought a casino in Gardena. And whereas Mr. Murdoch won his wealth in a zero-sum game against democratic and journalistic ideals, Flynt fought to strengthen freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.
By the time he died, Flynt had lost the use of his legs and the love of his life, but never sacrificed who he was or what he believed in.
Looking at the first issue of Hustler in July 1974—its cover girl a nearly makeup-free, bare-bottomed model smiling innocently in a mirror—no one would have predicted how raunchy—or controversial—the magazine would become. At first, the enterprise was an exercise in competition, an arms race in creative seduction. The sexual revolution had begun, and with it came a wave of adult magazines, each trying to compete for the attention of an aroused reader, leaving as little to the imagination as possible. A great example is Hustler’s May 1975 cover, in which the naked cover girl poses like a contortionist, hands, legs, and a strategically placed letter T covering just enough to allow public display.
But this cultural shift also produced new critics. Second-wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin decried pornography as the most graphic example of patriarchal exploitation, of “men possessing women,” while a new wave of televangelists—lead by Jerry Falwell, head of the self-appointed Moral Majority—declared it the product of a decaying, demonic culture. Some ignored the complaints; others tried to address them. Flynt just took their indictments as dares, leaning in to the absurdity and making his covers even more extreme.
Oh, you thought that was obscene? Wait till you see the next issue
He was manipulating the nudie-mag format to mock the views of its critics, just as John Waters would do for straight outrage to gay culture in Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos, and De Palma did by killing the lead girl in Body Double with a giant phallic drill. The covers weren’t even sexy anymore, but exercises in provocative absurdism, chuckling “fuck-offs” to their sneering, self-serious critics.
There was the July 1976 cover, with dark pubic hair peaking out of an American flag thong. A month later, the cover visualized “giving head” with comic literalism, showing a sentient woman’s head in a shoebox. This boundary pushing reached its infamous peak with the June 1978, whose cover depicts a woman being fed into a meat grinder, her long, glossy legs protruding from one end, and a plate piled high with freshly ground meat on the other.
The cover quote from Flynt sealed it: “We will no longer hang women up like pieces of meat.”
With time, the creativity would fade and by the ’90s be replaced by the crowded adult-mag look, with one memorable exception. The 2017 45th anniversary cover featured a woman wearing an American flag as a hijab, teasing only her eyes and a nipple; a celebration of American freedoms, a condemnation of Islamic theocracy, and a mockery of the Women’s March logo, all rolled into one.
The bawdy, provocative dynamism of Hustler’s ’70s covers was also a challenge to Flynt’s peers, Bob Guccione of Penthouse and Hugh Hefner of Playboy who, he wrote, were “masquerade[ing] their pornography as art …. [because] both of them were very uncomfortable with what they were doing.” In Playboy’s debut issue, Hefner advocated for a grand aesthetic vision, of glamour photography being consistent with the life of an intellectual gentleman and his “quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, [and] sex.” The descendants of this vision are premium services like Vixen, Helix, ReidMyLips, and Blue Artichoke, under the implicit claim that, due to the medium’s blend of a classical appreciation of the naked form with the body-entertainment of popular cinema, pornography has a very high artistic ceiling.
I like Hefner’s vision. I agree with this view of erotic art.
As he wrote in his memoir: “I hate pretentiousness—even among fellow pornographers.”
He was a self-professed “smut peddler” and wasn’t trying to craft a virtue from a vice, but instead just make it as wickedly irresistible and sinful as possible. The “Scratch and Sniff” edition of Hustler wasn’t your first port of call for a thoughtful read. There isn’t a joke about “reading Hustler for the articles.” They were page filler; part of Hustler’s big joke was that, oh yeah, this is a magazine.
Perhaps Hustler’s period of greatest absurdism was when Flynt briefly became a born-again Christian. He had been contacted by Jimmy Carter’s evangelical sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, who apparently expressed an almost erotic love of Christ and invited Flynt to visit her in her home in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1977. As he recounts in his memoir, aboard his “labia-pink” Westwind private jet, his young wife Althea asked: “Why the hell we were going to have dinner with a person with whom we had nothing in common?”
Althea was no fan of religion. She was orphaned at nine years old when her father pulled a gun and murdered her mother, her mother’s friend, her grandparents, and finally himself. As Flynt recounted in An Unseemly Man, “still numb from the horror of her parents’ violent deaths” she ended up in a children’s home where nuns sexually and physically abused her.
But, one flight later, he was confronted by a vision of God (and also free-speech icon Lenny Bruce) that brought him to his knees in prayer. By the time he landed at LAX, Larry Flynt was a religious man. He started a carrot-juice diet, banned smoking in his offices, raised wages, and considered converting Hustler into a purely Christian magazine. While Althea talked him out of that idea, the July 1978 issue was both the fourth anniversary special and the magazine’s “First Born-Again Issue!” The cover story was about the Garden of Eden as depicted in Genesis.
This religious streak didn’t last long though. Next month’s cover featured an illustration of a wide-eyed Jimmy Carter reading Hustler. The headline read: “The President’s Sister Shows Pink.”
The less aspirational reason for the gloss and glamour of Playboy and Penthouse was the industry’s Sword of Damocles: obscenity laws.
Contrary to the perceived permanence of the First Amendment, free expression in the United States has been a highly selective and recent phenomenon, won through decades of informal revisions. During the first and second world wars, socialist leafleteers and Jehovah’s Witnesses routinely had their right to self-expression denied, and while the Supreme Court gradually changed trajectory, the ambiguous exemption for “obscenity” has allowed for much governmental abuse. In 1973, the standard was sharpened somewhat when the Supreme Court developed the Miller test, which lays out three conditions that must be satisfied for something to be deemed obscene but still manages to be vague. For instance, the third prong asks whether a work “taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value,” when “value” is still highly subjective.
In Flynt’s opinion, the Miller test was “exceedingly dangerous.”
“The price you pay to live in a free society is toleration,” he told CBS in 2014. “You have to tolerate things that you don’t necessarily like so that you can be free. I have to tolerate Fox News.”
In March 1978, Flynt himself became a victim of intolerance. Leaving a courthouse in Lawrenceville, Georgia, for yet another obscenity charge, a white supremacist, offended by Hustler’s interracial photos, shot Flynt several times, bullets fraying his spinal cord. Flynt would never walk again, and as he emerged from unconsciousness, so began his constant, searing pain, which he said was like being “immersed in boiling water.” That pain was “the dominant theme of my private life,” Flynt said, and his resultant addiction to pain medication led to numerous overdoses and an eventual stroke.
“You have to tolerate things that you don’t necessarily like so that you can be free. I have to tolerate Fox News.” —Larry Flynt
In the years that followed, his wife Althea would also fall into addiction, though heroin was her drug of choice. Eventually, the needle that delivered her fix also brought infection, and an AIDS diagnosis stole any future from her just as she was thinking about going clean. In 1987, drunk and high, she drowned in one of the bathtubs in their Bel Air mansion. She was 33.
Flynt would never love again. As he said in 2016, after he’d remarried, “I am married, but I am not in love. … Everyone gets one true love in their life and I had mine.”
In a lot of ways, Flynt’s life was deeply, irreversibly marked by suffering, yet, bound to his golden wheelchair, he never stopped fighting for his publication. The October issue and November issue following the ‘78 shooting were the first with interracial covers, with black men holding white women. They even put a mock warning on the November issue: “WARNING: Explicit Photos in This Issue May Be Offensive to Certain Adults.”
As Flynt remarked, “I continued to be a pain in the ass to those whom I considered hypocrites, stuff shirts, or assholes.”
When Flynt launched Hustler, cigarette companies were among the biggest spenders in magazine advertising. They were very aware that their product’s glamour was swiftly fading as the health effects of smoking became less deniable, so Flynt approached them to support his burgeoning enterprise. All of them refused; it was against their standards to publish ads in something so base.
Flynt was furious.
He sold magazines with nude photos of women. His cover models hadn’t killed anybody, nor had taking pictures of them. Cigarettes were killing hundreds of thousands of people a year and their manufacturers were still trying to figure out ways to make the product more addictive.
And they were looking down on him?
Flynt responded by producing a series of full-page advertisements on the backs of magazines, showing graphic photographs of smoke-ravaged organs, an early precursor to warning labels that would appear on cigarette packages in some countries.
Nobody ever complained that the Marlboro man was “obscene.”
A moral opposition to hypocrisy was one of Flynt’s biggest motivators. It was the foundation of Hustler’s “Asshole of the Month” column, and this same compulsion drove him to fight obscenity cases when others would have bowed down and paid the price.
During the ‘70s, Campari was running a series of popular advertisements in glossy magazines featuring celebrities talking about their “first time” trying the drink. Hustler published its own version, a satire in which televangelist Falwell describes losing his virginity to his mother in an outhouse assisted by the famous liquor. As Flynt noted, it was more “single entredre” than double entendre.
When Falwell sued Hustler to the tune of $45 million for emotional harm, Flynt could have paid a $150,000 fine and moved on, but instead spent millions fighting it to the Supreme Court, and winning, setting an important precedent for comedic freedom along the way. It wasn’t the first time Flynt had appeared before the Supreme Court and it wouldn’t be the last.
The previous time was a 1984 libel case, during which he shouted: “You’re nothing but eight assholes and a token cunt!” Flynt became the first known person in U.S. history to be arrested for contempt of the Supreme Court.
Reflecting on Flynt’s life reveals a great irony. In time, the conservative argument of cultural decline has been proven somewhat correct in the digital age, with any “obscenity” found in an issue of Hustler trumped by a quick Google search. Flynt’s content is more available than ever, yet his unvarnished individuality seems all the scarcer.
The internet promised to give everyone a voice, but instead it made everyone into a product. We’re constantly selling ourselves and forever worry we’ll offend our consumer. The fear of being shamed online—a very real, often haphazard phenomenon chronicled in a famous 2015 book by Jon Ronson—has made people timid. It’s an odd direction for a progressive society to go in.
Flynt’s life was dedicated to saying “fuck all that.” When he rolled into court wearing an American flag as a diaper, it wasn’t to be anti-American, but to mock those who invoked America’s freedoms as readily as they tried to limit them. It was a synecdoche for his life as a whole.
In his opening essay in Flynt’s autobiography, director Miloš Forman wrote: “Twice in my life I have had the misfortune to live in societies where freedom of expression was totally suppressed, and where open discourse was an illegal act: first under the Nazis, and then the Communists. … Boredom rules everyone except those in power and those who were marching to the gallows.”
The mother of another late iconoclast, Christopher Hitchens, said that the “one unforgivable sin is to be boring.”
By this standard, I guess you could argue Larry Flynt was a saint—and a profoundly American saint at that.