When Larry Flynt published an unflattering parody of Jerry Falwell in Hustler, Falwell waged a suit that eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court. It ruled in Flynt’s favor, citing the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.
Born Larry Claxton Flynt, on November 1, 1942, in the Appalachian village of Lakeville, Kentucky, Larry Flynt became one of the world's most well-known publishers of pornography and unlikely champion of civil liberties. With the publication of his flagship magazine, Hustler, Flynt set off a firestorm, dragging into the eventual fray Jerry Falwell and the Supreme Court of the United States.
Publisher, civil liberties advocate. Born Larry Claxton Flynt, on November 1, 1942, in the isolated Appalachian village of Lakeville, Kentucky. He was the eldest of three children born into a poverty-stricken family, where his life was a struggle from the start. In 1951, tragedy struck when his four-year-old sister died of leukemia. A year later, the Flynt family unit began to disintegrate. Larry’s parents, Claxton and Edith, separated; his brother, Jimmy, stayed with his maternal grandparents; and Larry moved with his mother to Hamlet, Indiana.
In his early teens (under a false age), Flynt spent a year in the U.S. Army until he was discharged because of low test scores. He then joined his mother in Dayton, Ohio, where he held various jobs, including one at a General Motors Assembly Plant. Flynt soon grew frustrated with his job, and sought the familiar discipline of the military. This time he enlisted in the Navy, where he outshined first time recruits because of his previous experience. He eventually landed an esteemed position aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. With a renewed confidence, Flynt took correspondence courses and received his high school equivalency.
After a five-year stint in the Navy, Flynt returned to Dayton, where he bought a local bar and transformed it into a successful strip club. Within a year he expanded business, opening similar clubs in Columbus, Toledo, Akron, and Cleveland. The establishments quickly gained loyal customers, which influenced Flynt to send out a short newsletter about upcoming events to his growing clientele.
During the next few years, Flynt’s life became a whirlwind of flashy clubs, cars, and women. He had fathered four children (all by different mothers) by 1974. Around this time, he also met a 17-year-old dancer named Althea Leasure, who became his most trusted advisor, eventually managing his 300 dancers. The couple married in 1976.
Fueled by his vision that the artsy layouts of Penthouse and the unattainable models of Playboy alienated the average man, Flynt set out to launch his own men’s magazine. Using his newsletter as a template, he nationally released the first issue of Hustler magazine in 1974. Geared toward working-class men, Hustler’s contents were implicitly anti-establishment and class antagonistic. The publication prided itself on hard core depictions of raw sex, which often included graphic nude photos of disabled, pregnant, and elderly women. One issue featured nude pictures of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, while another depicted a woman being feed into a meat grinder. As expected, the magazine outraged anti-porn advocates and feminists.
From the first day Hustler hit the newsstands, Flynt challenged America’s interpretation of the First Amendment. Over the next few years, his brash style was showcased in a series of closely watched lawsuits that pitted freedom of speech against pornography. In May of 1976, Flynt was indicted on several counts of pandering obscenity and organized crime. The case was significant because it suggested that individual communities had the right to define obscenity. Initially, he was convicted and sentenced to 7-25 years in prison. However, the ruling was later overturned.
In 1977, a 60 Minutes producer introduced Flynt to Ruth Carter Stapleton, the evangelist sister of President Jimmy Carter. The two formed a fast friendship, which resulted in Flynt’s surprising and publicized conversion to Christianity. Under the guidance of Stapleton, Flynt altered his mindset about Hustler’s objective, vowing to no longer portray women in such a vulgar manner.
In March 1978, alleged gunman and white supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin shot Flynt and his lawyer, Gene Reeves, outside a Georgia courthouse. Flynt’s injuries included permanent paralysis of his legs, as well as a minor speech impediment. Shortly after, he renounced his enlightened Christian thinking. Althea and Flynt retreated to a lavish Bel Air estate where, over the next few years, the couple lived in their bedroom behind a steel door. In constant pain, Flynt grew dependent on painkillers, while Althea developed an addiction to heroin.
In the fall of 1983, Flynt again challenged the U.S. government when he threatened to publicize surveillance tapes that were potentially embarrassing to the FBI. When he refused to reveal the source of the tapes the courts fined him $10,000 a day. In a display of defiance, Flynt delivered his fine wearing a diaper made out of the American flag. He was tried and convicted for desecration of the flag, and spent six months (from February to July 1984) in a federal prison.
Flynt was once again thrust into the national spotlight in November 1983, when Reverend Jerry Falwell sued him for publishing a satirical cartoon, which implied that Falwell had an incestuous affair with his mother. The televangelist filed a libel suit for $45 million with the additional charge of intent to inflict emotional distress. Six months later, a court ruled in Flynt's favor in the libel matter, but awarded Falwell $200,000 for emotional distress.
Legacy and Later Years
In the mid 1980s, Althea was diagnosed with AIDS. She spiraled into a severe depression, which culminated in her death by drowning. She was 34 years old. A devastated Flynt refocused his attention on his First Amendment crusade. Unsatisfied with the Falwell decision, he appealed the ruling, which was unanimously overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988. The verdict was considered a landmark decision because it constitutionally protected offensive speech aimed at public figures (as long as it did not claim to be fact). The victory seemed to mark a turning point in Flynt’s life. Once again, he began to focus on his publishing empire, which had miraculously continued to thrive.
In 1996, Flynt re-emerged as the subject of a major motion picture, The People vs. Larry Flynt, starring Woody Harrelson (Flynt), Courtney Love (Althea), and Edward Norton (Reeves). Directed by Milos Foreman, the feature focused on Flynt’s career-long battle against censorship, portraying him as a charismatic champion of free speech who fought for his right to offend. That same year, he wrote an autobiography, An Unseemly Man: My Life as a Pornographer, Pundit, and Social Outcast, which candidly documented how he built a publishing enterprise out of the most violent and shockingly graphic mass circulation magazine in America.
To date, Larry Flynt Publications, Inc. consists of over 30 magazines, including Chic, and Barely Legal. Most recently, he released Rage magazine, which is geared toward Generation X-ers.
In the fall of 2013, Flynt spoke out on a very personal issue. He called for the state of Missouri not to execute Joseph Paul Franklin. Franklin was the man who shot Flynt in 1978. He also responsible for shooting civil rights leader Vernon Jordan Jr. in 1980 and for murdering an interracial couple. Flynt wrote a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter opposing Franklin's pending execution. In the article, he said, "As I see it, the sole motivating factor behind the death penalty is vengeance, not justice, and I firmly believe that a government that forbids killing among its citizens should not be in the business of killing people itself." Despite Flynt's request, Franklin was executed in November 2013.
Flynt currently lives in Beverly Hills with his current wife, Liz Berrios, whom he married in 1998.