If Larry Flynt weren't a publisher, he'd be a gynecologist. Or an evangelist.
He’s been tossed out of the U.S. Supreme Court for calling the chief justice an asshole; he’s been shot by a white supremacist for publishing interracial photos; and he’s spent six months in jail for refusing to divulge a source. Now 68, the years of hard living and fighting have taken their toll on Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. Wheelchair-bound since the late ’70s—his speech slurred from a painkiller-induced stroke—Flynt struggles to finish a sentence without choking on his own saliva. But the iconic pornographer and 1st Amendment crusader shows no signs of slowing down, although age and wisdom have definitely chilled him out a bit. Gone are the flag-desecrating, vitriolic-filled tirades of old, replaced instead by the sober perspicacity of a modern-day sage. PW caught up with Flynt in his suite at the Four Seasons when he was in town promoting his new book, One Nation Under Sex.
PW: Would you say Americans are hung up on sex?
LF: Look, you can take and put a picture on the front page of a newspaper, you might even win a Pulitzer Prize for it, and it can be the most grossly mutilated and decapitated body, or whatever, but if you replace that photograph with a picture of two people making love, you might go to jail. So what does that say about the society that we're living in? We're living in a society that condones violence but condemns sex.
Is that why you wrote One Nation Under Sex?
This book is the first-ever made to consolidate the history of this subject—presidents, first ladies, mistresses and lovers and to find out how it affected policy. Most history books are published by conservatives and they don't want to know about sex. They want to know about politics and policy. That's why so much history got shoveled around. A lot of things just weren't brought out. The great message, if you read the whole book is that these sex scandals are nothing new. They were happening at the founding of our nation.
You've been challenging authority for four decades. Where did you pick up your rebel attitude?
In 1967, when President Johnson released the study on poverty in America, the county I'm from in Kentucky, out of 7,000 counties, was rated the very poorest. We had a saying down there that our biggest industry is jury duty. Everybody in the county, in Magoffin County, they sold their vote in every election. The legal system never worked because everybody in the county either new somebody who had committed the offense or was related to someone–they would never send anyone to jail. You could literally get away with murder in the county. You had nothing, nothing working. So it shows you that with a certain amount of destitution, nothing works, be it your legal system, your democracy, or what have you.It seems like from that day forward I've always questioned authority, whether that authority be religion or politics or what have you.
You started Hustler as a newsletter for your Hustler clubs and entered a market then dominated by Playboy and Penthouse. What made you different?
I knew my competitors like [Hugh] Hefner and [Penthouse creator Bob] Guccione, and I always knew that Heff was uncomfortable publishing pornography. He would have been much happier as a publisher of Time magazine. Guccione was very much an artist and saw himself in that vein; so they were both just using the vehicle [of pornography] to make money. Well I never apologized for what I did and I figured I would do it as well as I could by pushing the envelope. So I never had second thoughts about whether I represented what a free press should be about or whether I represented something that the rest of the country wanted to get rid of.
Did you ever feel uncomfortable with anything you published?
I remember when [Gerald] Ford was president and his wife Betty Ford had just had a double mastectomy and we did a cartoon in the magazine that showed her on the White House patio saying, “All I want for Christmas is my two front tits.” Well, how that got by me I don't know. We were inundated because of our lack of sensitivity for doing that. On the other hand it gets to Hustler's honesty. We're not just irreverent, we're iconoclastic. And so we're bent on shocking people and offending people. That's why I say that the First Amendment is only important if it's offensive. Because if you're not going to offend anybody you don't need protection of the First Amendment.
Back in the 1970s, you started mailing free subscriptions of Hustler magazine to every Congress member. Is that a practice that continues to this day?
It's strange how that happened. When we first sent the Supreme Court, Congress and the president free subscriptions in the 1970s ... 30 percent of the people sent us nasty letters saying to take their name off the subscription list, so we all celebrated at the office because we still had a majority in Congress, 70 percent of them that didn't complain! Then these 16 congressmen went to federal court in Washington and sued trying to get a judge to order me not to send Hustler to them. The judge said, ‘He can send you whatever he wants as long as it's not a bomb.’
In 1983, you were sued by Jerry Falwell for a parody of a Campari advertisement that involved a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and you prevailed. Did you think you would win?
I was really worried about losing that case. I lost it at the trial level and even though the jury found no libel they still awarded him damages because of intentional infliction of emotional distress, which means basically we didn't libel him but they wanted us to pay him $200,000 for hurting his feelings. When we lost in the Fourth Circuit we couldn't get any of the big networks or papers to come in and file an Amicus brief because they didn't think it was going anywhere, they didn't think the Supreme Court would grant cert; but when the Supreme Court granted certiorari, boy they all jumped on the bandwagon then because they realized what they had at stake. Not a lot of people understand that case. They think that it was about pornography. It wasn't. It was about a free press and it's the first time in the history of the founding of our nation that parody was made protected speech.
What's the legacy of that case?
If you go back and look at the old Johnny Carson monologues and you look at Jay Leno today or Letterman today, it's much more outrageous; and what John Stewart does on The Daily Show and Colbert does ... The lawyers are sitting behind them at NBC saying you can do this because of the case that Larry Flynt won.
What kind of legacy would you like to leave?
I can't think of anything other than that I really have fought to expand the parameters of free speech in a good way. I can't be all things to all people. I don't try to be. So if I can do what I can to protect the First Amendment, I will.
If you weren't in the publishing field what would you be doing?
I'd be a gynecologist; or an evangelist.