On trial and under attack, the HUSTLER publisher is taking on his most ambitious project yet: making porn stars of the GOP
February 18, 1999
By NEIL STRAUSS
Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK
SINCE ANNOUNCING LATE last year that he would reveal the names of up to a dozen Clinton critics guilty of sexual indiscretions, Hustler millionaire and self‑styled porn martyr Larry Flynt has been getting as many as 150 calls a day from the press. But he hasn't granted too many interviews. Today he is making an exception in order to join an old foe and new friend, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, on a call‑in television show. The camera‑friendly Baptist minister, who is currently beaming at Flynt through a monitor, is the same person who filed a 1985 libel lawsuit against Flynt over a Hustler picture that jokingly implied the preacher lost his virginity to his mother. Falwell took his suit all the way to the Supreme Court before being defeated.
"I used to hate his guts in the Eighties, when we had that lawsuit going on," Flynt says. "But since I got to know him, I really kind of like him."
"It's all about money with Jerry," smirks Flynt's brother and business partner, Jimmy. "He gets a lot of publicity from hanging out with Larry, claiming to be his pastor. You should see them together ‑ they have a lot of fun."
Today, at least, that seems to be true. Flynt is enthroned in his gold‑plated wheelchair in a Los Angeles studio, sparring with Falwell, who's in Lynchburg, Virginia.
"I think, one day, Larry will be a truly committed Christian," the right reverend predicts, "and we'll know that by the fact that he closes down Hustler magazine. Then he'll move to Lynchburg and join Thomas Road Church. And I pray for him every day."
A lopsided smile breaks across Larry's face, and a phlegmy chuckle rises from his throat. "Jerry's promised me a job if I clean up my act," he says.
"That's a promise," says Falwell.
The show, called Take Action America, assumes the Manichaean character of a World Wrestling Federation match. Flynt, representing the force of darkness, as an atheist, is roundly attacked from all sides.
Voices of the callers tremble with anger, as does that of the program's host, Blanquita Cullum, a fun‑house‑mirror version of Diane Sawyer who tries to goad Flynt into revealing names on his list of Republican sinners.
"You've been postponing it for so long, people are saying this is baloney," she prods.
"I have not been postponing it," Flynt growls cantankerously. "I have to employ the same type of journalistic standards as the mainstream media do, otherwise I'll be dismissed by someone saying, 'Consider the source."
"But they dismiss you anyway, by viewing you as a pornographer," she barks at him.
Flynt thrives on conflict, especially when he thinks he's right, and now leaning forward in his chair ‑ he delivers his knockout blow. "I may not decide who the next speaker of the House is going to be," he begins, raising his voice, "but I sure as hell decided who it was not going to be."
Few argue this point. "But for Larry Flynt, Bob Livingston would be speaker ‑ that is a fact," echoes Democratic strategist James Carville in a separate interview. And all it took was money. In October, Flynt spent $85,000 for a full‑page ad in the Washington Post, offering up to $1 million to anyone able to provide evidence of "illicit sexual relations with a congressman, senator or other prominent officeholder." He received 2,000 responses. Within a week, the two private investigators he had hired narrowed the pool down to forty‑eight and then, a month later, to twelve lucky finalists, whose stories were well‑documented enough to pursue. But even before Flynt played his hand, one of his most formidable targets folded. On December 18th, Livingston, the Louisiana Republican who was about to become speaker of the House and second in line to the presidency, announced that he would resign his seat. Making a vague admission of "marital infidelity," Livingston complained about having been "Larry Flynted," but a full‑on Flynting promises to be a far more excruciating experience ‑ one supported by embarrassingly specific evidence for which Flynt is paying nicely. The week after the Falwell taping, Flynt held a press conference to charge that in 1983, Georgia Rep. Bob Barr ‑ a Republican who is an avid abortion opponent and a member of the pro‑life caucus ‑ drove his then‑wife to and from an abortion clinic and paid the doctor's bill. To support the claim, Flynt produced a signed affidavit from Barr's ex‑wife, Gail Vogel Barr, and a clinic receipt. Immediately after Flynt's announcement, Barr released a statement saying that he "never suggested, urged, forced or encouraged anyone, including my ex‑wife, to have an abortion." But Barr, a member of the House Judiciary Committee and the first House member to call for Clinton's impeachment, would not address specific questions as to whether he'd paid the bill.
Though Flynt is in the midst of assembling cases against more Republicans, he says Livingston will be spared. (So will Newt Gingrich, who was under Flynt's microscope before stepping down as speaker.) "I spoke with Livingston's wife last week," Flynt says. "She was a very nice lady. She said she didn't want the details of the investigation published. The suffering was already done. The guy retired, so what's the point?"
He stops the interview tape to talk further about Livingston and then starts it again, adding, "He's a sick fucker."
IN A REHAB HOSPITAL IN LOS ANGELES, 1919. The self-styled porn martyr was shot in '78 by a white supremacist -the same man who two years later shot Clinton ally Vernon Jordan ‑ and became paralyzed from the waist down.
And coming from Flynt…
THERE ARE FEW PEOPLE WHO REALLY know Larry Flynt, a self‑made man who dropped out of high school and ran away from his family's Kentucky farm when he was thirteen. Most of those who do are family, and many of them stick close by ‑ a brother, one or two of his daughters, a son and Flynt's fifth wife, Liz, a petite, diamond‑encrusted Mexican‑American who used to be his nurse and acts like she still is. Some see him as a pervert saint, sacrificing his freedom for our liberty; others, like his estranged daughter, Tonya Flynt‑Vega -who claims that Flynt molested her as a child ‑ see him as a monster. For the record, Flynt has steadfastly denied her accusations and claims to have taken a polygraph test that proves his innocence.
In conversation with the world's most notorious pornographer, it's hard not to stare. His soft, collapsed body and the defiance hardened into his chubby face give him an Orson Welles‑in‑Touch of Evil intensity. And because he'll admit to almost anything ‑ most famously, that he lost his virginity at age nine to a chicken ‑ it's hard to tell true candor from spin. A born self‑promoter, Flynt wore a FUCK THIS COURT T‑shirt to his Supreme Court hearing back when he was being sued by a Penthouse vice chairwoman for libel, and he showed up in a diaper made from an American flag at a court appearance related to his refusal to cooperate in the John De Lorean drug trial. During that time he was also running for president -on the Republican ticket ‑ but his campaign came to an end when he had to serve eighteen months in jail for contempt of court.
Now he says he's defending Clinton in order to expose Washington's moral hypocrisy. "I voted for Clinton in '92, and I voted for him in '96," Flynt says. "And I don't think he's getting a fair shake. I think the partisan effort to remove him from office is absolutely deplorable. And I wanted to expose the hypocrisy on both sides. He didn't do anything that anyone else in Congress didn't do. He had an affair and lied about it. He's been embarrassed. Sex or sexual preference or sexual attitudes do not have anything to do with somebody's ability to govern and lead."
On some level, Flynt probably relates to Clinton. When Falwell sued Flynt, after all, Falwell was using the courts as a means to take down someone he didn't approve of ‑ exactly what Flynt accuses Clinton's opponents of doing. And like Clinton, Flynt has his own slippery side.
"Personally, I oppose making someone's sex life public," he admits. "I know it sounds like a paradox because it's exactly what I'm doing, but desperate times require desperate measures."
"Larry hates the fact that people look down on him because he's in the porn business," says Larry Karaszewski, who became friendly with Flynt after co-writing Milos Forman's 1996 film, The People vs. Larry Flynt. "So anytime he can bring a stuffed shirt down to his level, he worships it. About fifteen years ago, an archconservative congressman, Larry McDonald, went down on that Korean Airlines flight. Later, Flynt found pictures of him fully nude with a prostitute and ran them. He also claimed to have nudie pictures of Reagan's Cabinet. This is a game he's always played, but he's on a more colossal playing field this time. He's hit the Super Bowl."
Beyond politics and revenge, there could be an even simpler motive: money. These days it is all too easy to see a naked girl ‑ on the Internet, on video, on pay-per‑view television and on hundreds of magazines at the newsstand. All of this makes Hustler's hegemony over the crotch shot a thing of the past. And although Flynt points to his impending launch of a black men's fashion magazine and his plans for a $23 million casino outside Los Angeles as proof that his empire is as strong as ever, the circulation of Hustler itself has dwindled to half of what it was twenty years ago.
"Of course I hope to make a little money," Flynt says. "When the movie came out about my life, I had about a twenty percent jump per month in sales. Well, each percentage point is worth $40,000. With this, I've already noticed a jump, whether people are buying an issue hoping there'll be something in it or just buying it because they support what I'm doing."
AS THE PRESIDENT BATTLES impeachment, Larry Flynt is also facing trial. But instead of the ornate Senate chamber, Flynt's venue will be a Cincinnati district court, where he and his brother will be fighting charges that they violated local obscenity laws. It's a case he modestly describes as the country's first major obscenity trial since his last one, twenty‑two years ago, and he and his brother face possible fines of $65,000 and twenty‑four years in jail. "Hopefully I won't go to jail this time," Flynt says. "But I always figure that if something's not worth going to jail for, it's not worth very much. If you think being in jail is bad, try being there in a wheelchair. I've been there." The wheelchair, for those who haven't seen the Forman movie, is the result of spinal injuries suffered when Flynt was shot in 1978 by a white supremacist who was outraged by Hustler's interracial sex shots. (The same man later shot Clinton friend and civil-rights figure Vernon Jordan in 1980.)
But to Flynt, jail could come in handy. "I'll tell you what," he drawls to his publicist during a commercial break on the call‑in show. "By the time this trial is over in Cincinnati, I want Time and Newsweek cover stories. I think this trial is going to be very, very big because of this thing in the Senate."
Later, he sees the opportunity for further cross‑promotion. After the taping he decides not to conduct his ROLLING STONE interview at the television studios as planned but rather to adjourn to the new Hustler Hollywood emporium, on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip. It's a free ad for the store, and if you want a description, you're out of luck: You can lead a writer to water, but you can't make him describe it.
In Las Vegas, Flynt is known as a compulsive high roller, and he approaches life the same way: You've got to pay to play. Years ago, in the wake of the affair between congressman Wayne Hays and Elizabeth Ray (the consummate Washington staffer: a secretary who couldn't type), Flynt offered $25,000 to anyone willing to expose an affair with a congressman. He received a few legitimate replies, he said, but the reward wasn't high enough. This time he's willing to up the ante, and he expects to spend between $1.5 million and $4 million for the investigations (it takes a big fish to net the big money).
Many people think he has already forced a change in the debate. "Once you reach this point of runaway puritanism that we're at in this country, puncturing the balloon of hypocrisy is a very good thing to do," says Larry Gross, professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing. But others see Flynt as a societal blight. "There is no place in America for [his] despicable, brutish politics of blackmail," says a statement from the Republican National Committee in response to Flynt's Barr announcement.
In the meantime, Flynt has forced the mainstream media to look head‑on at where their news is coming from. "He knows how people stick their noses up in the air at his kind of journalism and say, 'This has nothing to do with us,'" explains Scott Alexander, the other writer of The People vs. Larry Flynt. "He loves working his act into the pages of the respected media and considers them as hypocritical as Falwell and the Republicans. Every time they mention the things he's doing, they mention it with disdain but then go on to spend ten minutes going over details of politicians and their bedrooms."
Wheeling around his store, Flynt pauses for a teenager who runs up and asks his father to take a picture of the two of them together. After they leave, Flynt sighs noisily. "We are really at an incredible point in time," he says. "You can have a front‑page story published about oral sex in the newspaper, but you put a photograph of two people making love out there and you can go to jail. That says a lot about a society that condones violence and condemns sex. So I think the problem is not just the politicians, it's the country as a whole. It's got to come to grips with sexuality."
But if sex is no longer a taboo, will it still sell magazines?
"Men are basically the same," Flynt wheezes philosophically. "They don't miss an opportunity to see a beautiful girl spread‑eagled. I don't think that's ever going to go away."
NEIL STRAUSS is a Los Angeles‑base reporter for the "New York Times."