Cathy's World: Our man Flynt

By CATHERINE SEIPP  |  July 17, 2002 at 1:25 PM
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LOS ANGELES, July 17 (UPI) -- Larry Flynt's latest self-promotional push makes me wonder how long it will be before a statue of "Larry Flynt, American" replaces the big bronze of John Wayne in front of Flynt Publications (formerly a Great Western bank) in the Mid-Wilshire district.

Every time I'm stuck in that traffic-clogged intersection I can almost see it: Citizen Flynt in a bronze wheelchair, like F.D.R., with a similarly heroic, far-seeing expression on his face. And instead of Fala at his side ... maybe that chicken he raped as a lad back in Kentucky? Well, no, I guess not.

Flynt described the chicken-raping incident in his autobiography a few years ago. And now, it seems, he's got another tale to tell. As gossip columnist Liz Smith reported recently, Flynt's been shopping a book proposal about the importance of civil liberties and how sexual licentiousness will set you free.

"Moses freed the Jews. Lincoln freed the slaves. I would like to free all neurotics," Flynt claims in his proposal. "If we could live in a land of sexually healthy people, we'd have less crime, less poverty, less divorce, less drug use."

And probably many more nervous chickens, especially when Flynt's in the vicinity, but I digress.

He does talk a good game when it comes to freedom of speech. I remember going to see the Hustler publisher speak at a news conference about the First Amendment.

"One of the greatest rights any nation can afford its people is the right to be left alone," Flynt said. He didn't exactly say this ORIGINALLY of course; "the right to be left alone" is a famous opinion of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, whom Flynt cited without attribution, but never mind.

Ever since the 1996 Milos Forman film "The People vs. Larry Flynt" reconfigured the hillbilly smut peddler into a larger-than-life, tragi-comic American icon, Flynt has emerged from a wheelchair-bound period of semi-seclusion to enjoy the media spin. His enjoyment of his new role as tireless champion of the First Amendment is almost palpable.

"I'm often asked if the Founding Fathers had my magazines in mind (when they wrote the Constitution)," Flynt said, "and I always say, no, I don't think they did. But what I do think they had in mind was unrestricted free choice. If your comments aren't going to offend anyone you don't need the First Amendment."

Flynt added that it's ridiculous to see publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post "bathe in the glory of the First Amendment when they very seldom have to use it for protection." Hustler, the flagship title of Flynt's LFP, Inc., is obviously another matter, and here Flynt has a point.

The audience for Flynt's First Amendment philosophizing included many women, so it was odd that Flynt, who once famously published in Hustler a picture of a naked woman being put through a meat grinder, got a standing ovation for his speech -- with only a brief hiss at his comment that the women's movement has existed primarily as a reason "for ugly women to march in the streets for the past 30 years."

But of course the old chicken-rapist is in a wheelchair now. He doesn't breathe easily but still he rolls up gamely to the dais to speak, and it's hard to resist his defanged new persona of salty old survivor. Plus, Flynt's shrewdness serves him well when it comes to deflating the pretensions of the media elite.

He has a ready answer, for instance, to criticisms that his anti-Republican muckraking during the Clinton impeachment trial was wallowing in bottom-of-the-barrel filth.

"I said, yes, that's right," he recalled. "But look what I found when I got down there."

In any case, Flynt's pro-Clinton efforts transmogrified him among right-thinking liberals. "He is what he is," I remember someone lecturing me at Hollywood's Women In Film lunch, during the impeachment hearings, "and what he's doing is great."

Hard to believe that Gloria Steinem had urged women to boycott "The People vs. Larry Flynt" for its glorifying of a pornographer.

Anyway, an overlooked and rather remarkable aspect of the Larry Flynt saga is LFP, Inc. as unacknowledged L.A. media hatchery. If the typical entry level magazine position in New York is as a Conde Nast factotum, the Larry Flynt empire has long served a similar (if style-free) function.

In fact, it's hard to think of a local magazine enterprise, from Los Angeles magazine to Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, that hasn't employed at least one graduate of Larry Flynt's school of the splayed oyster, as the core business is called in-house.

I dropped by Flynt's headquarters once and was struck by how often the New York media get Los Angeles institutions wrong. Take the normally on-target James Wolcott, who once wrote in the New Yorker: "Unlike Hugh Hefner or Bob Guccione, his rivals in the wank trade, Flynt has never given himself airs as an epicurean surrounded by objets d'art."

Actually, that's exactly what he has been doing, for years. LFP, Inc.'s executive offices are so stuffed with Art Nouveau kitsch, not all of it exactly first-rate, that strangulation by swirl feels imminent.

Flynt does have a history of putting his money where his mouth is that precedes his current public phase as First Amendment champion.

Several years ago, a Los Angeles freelance writer I know named Jan Golab was subpoenaed for refusing to turn over unpublished material concerning an attempted-murder trial of two Los Angeles policemen -- a case he had written about in Hustler and Los Angeles magazines.

The cops' attorneys (whose clients were eventually convicted) argued that the "shield" law protecting unnamed sources did not apply to freelancers. Golab, who later expanded his articles into the book "Killer Cops," knew that neither Hustler nor Los Angeles was under any obligation to help him, since he hadn't been on assignment from either magazine when he began researching the case.

As every journalist here knows, it's no use approaching the legendarily cheap weenies at Los Angeles for anything. But figuring he had nothing to lose, Golab put in a call to Hustler. Five minutes later, Flynt returned the call himself.

"Mr. Golab," he said, in his moonshine-gulch cadence, "Ah'm gonna call Cooper, Epstein and Hurewitz, mah Century City attorneys, and ah'm gonna tell 'em to defend yer ass."

In 1993 the case went to the California Supreme Court, which decided in Golab's favor, thus clarifying an important right for freelancers. After the case was over, Golab worriedly asked one of his attorneys about how much all of this had cost his benefactor.

"The attorney shrugged," Golab recalled. "He said, 'About $20,000. Don't worry about it. On Larry's tab, that's nothing.'"

This is a heartwarming little story. But let's not make the mistake of romanticizing Flynt, as some of my correspondents do. A few years ago a prisoner wrote Flynt, in care of me, a letter: "My imagination does not even come close to the beauty and sensuality of your models," the prisoner said.

The inmate's problem was that the federal prison system had recently banned pornography, leaving behind-bars subscribers without pictures of beautiful sensual models to help their imaginations. He hoped Flynt would see this as a censorship issue, which indeed he might have, except I neglected to pass on the letter.

I'm not sure why; perhaps it was the prisoner's use of that word "sensuality" as a high-toned synonym for "sexuality," one of my pet peeves. But also, unlike those Team Clinton feminists, I've actually seen Hustler magazine, and it's a lot uglier than they probably think.

LFP Inc. officially eschews child pornography, but in reality its adults-only stance means that it peers deep into the toilet bowl of kiddie porn without quite diving in.

A typical fantastical Hustler letter-to-the-editor, for instance, describes an unwashed mechanic who has sex with his teenaged niece.

But enough of these misty, water-colored memories. I asked Flynt after his First Amendment speech about the tricky little matter of libel, which of course the First Amendment doesn't protect absolutely, even if Flynt did ultimately did win Jerry Falwell's libel suit against him. (It was a Hustler cartoon imagining the evangelist having sex with his mother in an outhouse that led to the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Flynt's favor, and, of course, the Milos Forman film.)

I was curious how often Hustler decided not to print something because of the libel worries, if ever.

"Nothing specific comes to mind," said Flynt after a longish pause. "What happens is an editor runs over to the legal department, and is told either 'You can't do this,' or, 'You have to do it this way.'"

"The only thing we don't compromise on is the Asshole of the Month column, and it's cost us a lot of money," he continued. "We've been sued 12 times over that and we've never lost. Because the truth is an absolute defense -- the guy's an asshole because everybody's got one."

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