Business

Larry Flynt, Who Built a Porn Empire With Hustler, Dies at 78

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Larry Flynt, a ninth-grade dropout who built a $ 400 million empire around his sexually explicit magazine, Hustler, of raunchy publications, strip clubs, and “adult” stores, and for decades a self-promoted advocate of US freedom against obscenity and defamation battled press, died Wednesday at his Los Angeles home. He was 78 years old.

The cause was heart failure, said his brother Jimmy Flynt.

For a nation that found itself in a sexual revolution in the 1970s, Mr Flynt found himself – defiant, outrageous, relentless – in the conflict area of ​​a cultural and legal war in America: an unpopular hero for civil libertarians, the devil incarnated into one Unlikely alliance of feminists and moral preachers, a puzzle for judges and juries, and a provider of guilty secrets to legions of men sneaking brown paper parcels out of porn shops or mailboxes.

Hustler’s June 1978 cover hit the riddles of a magazine that was all at once violent, satirical, perverse, decadent, cheerfully immoral, and hypocritical. It showed a woman on her head and half in a meat grinder with a plate of hamburger underneath. A “seal of approval” noted: “Prime. Last edition of All Meat. Note ‘A’ pink. “In a caption, Mr. Flynt was quoted as saying,” We will no longer hang women up like pieces of meat. “

But of course, Hustler wasn’t serious. Starting with the first issue in July 1974 and for four decades without a break, it featured glossy, color photos of female genitals, nude women in degrading poses, and often depicted group sex and sex toy fetishes.

Hustler articles featured “Larry Flynt on White House Sex,” “Coverbabe: New Slut In Town,” and “Dirty Bedfellows: Explicit Photos and Dirty Stories from a Real Intern in Washington”. But it wasn’t all sex; There were also articles such as “The Politics of Torture”, “Grenada Invasion: The Real Story Behind Reagan’s” Facts “”, and “Shocking New Facts in JFK Assassination Coverup”.

Mr. Flynt’s major legal win was a long battle against Rev. Jerry Falwell, the television evangelist and founder of the Moral Majority, who sued for $ 45 million in 1983 for libel and emotional distress after Hustler released a parody he remembered about a sexual encounter with his mother in an outbuilding.

A jury denied the libel accusation, saying the parody was obviously not factual, but granted Mr. Falwell $ 200,000 for emotional stress. In 1988 the Supreme Court unanimously threw back the damage and called the parody a constitutionally protected political satire.

Mr. Flynt hailed the decision as the major victory of the first amendment since the obscenity ban on James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was lifted in the 1930s.

For all of Mr. Flynt’s fame, his image as a defender of free speech was bolstered by the 1996 Milos Forman film The People vs. Larry Flynt, in which he was portrayed as some sort of American folk hero, a filthy peddler into the stars and stripes . Woody Harrelson was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Mr. Flynt. The film received high acclaim from many critics and most, if not all, middle-class libertarians.

But the feminist Gloria Steinem wrote a scathing denunciation on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. “A pornographer is not a hero,” she said. “At worst, Hustler is portrayed as sticky and maybe even honest because he shows full nudity. What is left out are the images in the magazine of women being beaten, tortured and raped, women being demoted from bestiality to sexual slavery. “

The images shown in Hustler were undoubtedly graphic and often violent: women were depicted crawling at the end of a dog leash, nailed to a cross, wrapped like a deer, and tied to a luggage rack. One envelope showed a woman’s head in a gift box.

Hustler claimed a monthly circulation of three million copies in the mid-1970s, although Forbes peaked at two million in 1976. With explicit sex on cable TV, on DVD and on the Internet, its circulation fell sharply in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1997, the Times reported that Hustler’s circulation was less than a million, but half of the kiosk copies were returned unsold. In 2015, Mr. Flynt cited a circulation of 500,000.

The magazine’s revenues financed numerous Flynt companies for years: dozens of magazines, some mainstream but mostly pornographic, including Tabu, Barely Legal and Asian Fever, the number and type of which varied over time; Hustler strip clubs in a dozen cities; and perhaps an equal number of hustler chain stores selling pornographic videos as well as clothing, magazines, and sex toys.

Mr. Flynt also owned a casino in Gardena, California; operated websites that sell pornography; and licensed the Hustler name to magazines and other sex-oriented companies in Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa and Australia. Its main profit centers included Hollywood studios, which produced pornographic films, videos and cartoons, many of them with violent and misogynistic themes.

A 1983 Justice Department funded study by Conservative writer and scholar Judith Reisman found that thousands of cartoons in Hustler, as well as its competitors Playboy and Penthouse, depicted rape, botched abortions, and children in sexual poses. “Chester the Molester,” a long-running hustler cartoon about a pedophile, has received many critics, but Mr. Flynt defended it as a dogged social satire.

The value of the Flynt Empire was murky. It was privately owned and had no financial disclosure requirements. Mr Flynt put in estimates of up to $ 700 million, but financial experts said his wealth had changed dramatically over time due to economic conditions, and the 2015 consensus put his net worth at around $ 400 million.

Mr. Flynt, who once entered federal court wearing an American flag diaper, regularly stepped into the limelight with a drum beat – he mocked conservative religious leaders, recorded the sexual peccadillos of politicians, aroused anger and amusement with parodies of patriotism. and attack the dignity of cultural icons.

In 1975, a year after publication began, Hustler drew attention to himself with the publication of nudes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, captured by a paparazzo sunbathing on an Aegean beach. Mr. Flynt bought the paintings for $ 18,000 and quickly sold a million copies of the edition in which they were pictured.

Mr. Flynt was first prosecuted in 1976 on profanity and organized crime charges for selling obscene material in Cincinnati. Charles Keating, later convicted of a notorious savings and credit scandal, founded Citizens for Decent Literature and outraged the public over the case. Mr. Flynt lost on both counts and was sentenced to seven to 25 years. But he only served six days, and the conviction was overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct and judicial bias. The case highlighted Cincinnati as a bastion of conservatism and Mr. Flynt as a dubious free speech advocate.

After being approached by Evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton, sister of President Jimmy Carter, in 1977, Mr. Flynt announced that he had become a born again Christian and said he had a vision of God when he was in with Ms. Stapleton his jet was in the air. He banned Hustler’s smoking, gave the staff a raise, started a carrot juice diet, and vowed to “rush for God”. But he soon resumed his ventures and vices and called himself an atheist.

In 1978, during a trial in Lawrenceville, Georgia, he was shot dead by an escaped sniper near the courthouse for profanity. Mr. Flynt’s legs were permanently paralyzed and he spent the rest of his life in a gold-plated wheelchair. The assailant Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist who protested Hustler’s portrayal of interracial couples, was captured in 1980. He was never charged with the shooting of Mr. Flynt, but confessed to a number of murders and was executed in Missouri in 2013.

Many profanity cases were brought against Mr. Flynt in later years. He lost some due to jurisdiction or privacy. Most, however, failed the 1973 Supreme Court’s restrictive test, which defined profanity as prurient, overtly objectionable material that had no scientific, literary, artistic, political, or social merit and, as a whole, violated subjective “community standards” – which meant that it could be set in Times Square, but not in Cincinnati around 1976.

Mr. Flynt’s interpretation was easier. “If the first amendment protects a bastard like me,” he said, “then it protects you all. Because I am the worst. “

Larry Claxton Flynt Jr. was born in Lakeville, Kentucky, on November 1, 1942, the eldest of three children to Larry Claxton Flynt, a sharecropper, and Edith (Arnett) Flynt. After his sister Judy died of leukemia in 1951, the family was shattered. His parents divorced. Larry lived with his mother; his brother Jimmy lived with a grandmother.

Larry dropped out of school in Salyersville, Kentucky, when he was 15 and joined the Army with a false birth certificate. After his release, he counterfeited alcohol and joined the Navy in 1960 and became a radar operator.

Released in 1964, he bought a bar in Dayton, Ohio from his mother for $ 1,800 and used the profits to buy two more bars. Then he opened his first hustler club with naked hostess dancers.

In the late 1960s, he opened Hustler strip clubs in Akron, Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, and Cincinnati. To promote his business, he created a newsletter with naked women. In 1974 it became Hustler magazine.

Playboy, Penthouse and other competitors crowded the kiosks, and Hustler struggled in his first year, also because dealers and wholesalers were reluctant to deal with it. But the pictures of Mrs. Onassis made Hustler notorious overnight and Mr. Flynt a millionaire.

He was married five times. His first three marriages all ended in divorce. In 1976 he married Althea Leasure, who had helped found his company. She contracted AIDS and drowned in a bathtub in 1987. In 1998 he married Elizabeth Berrios. He had five children. One, Lisa Flynt, died in a car accident in 2014.

In addition to his wife and brother, his other children – TJ Flynt, Theresa Flynt, Tonya Flynt-Vega, and Larry Flynt Jr. – and many grandchildren survive him.

Mr. Flynt published a memoir in 1996 entitled “An Inappropriate Man: My Life as a Pornographer, Expert, and Social Outcast” (written with Kenneth Ross). It was the subject of a documentary directed by Joan Brooker-Marks, “Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone”, he wrote in 2007 with David Eisenbach “One Nation Under Sex” (2011) about former presidents. After Mr. Falwell’s death in 2007, Mr. Flynt said that despite their differences, they became friends. “I’ve always valued his sincerity,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “even though I knew what he was selling and he knew what I was selling.”

Alex Traub and Isabella Paoletto contributed to the coverage.

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Robert Dunfee