Let’s just get this out of the way: The more you learn about pornography mogul and Hustler founder Larry Flynt, the more impossible it becomes to like, or even begrudgingly respect, the man. His magazine reached the outer limits of base misogyny and trafficked in outrageous racial stereotypes. He once called Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, to her face in the court’s own chambers, a hateful slur that I’ll spare the readers of this magazine. More harrowingly, in the late 1990s, his own daughter accused him of sexual abuse (a claim Flynt denied).
And yet, Flynt — who died in February at 78 from heart failure — has earned a portion of that begrudging respect in American history. The Flynt of our pop imagination, as portrayed in an Oscar-nominated performance from Woody Harrelson in the 1996 biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt, was a rakish new-money entrepreneur whose sexual and political provocations held up a mirror to the nation’s moral hypocrisy. You don’t have to respect, or even like me, Flynt would say. But you are compelled by the Constitution not to interfere with my right to be as vile as I want to be.
The reality of Flynt’s accomplishment is far more complicated than that myth and not just because of his personal failings. He was a dogged antagonist of the evangelical church who nonetheless counted Ruth Carter Stapleton, the sister of former President Jimmy Carter, as a close friend for a time. The would-be assassin who put Flynt in a wheelchair for the remainder of his life in 1978 was not an aggrieved feminist or religious radical, but a white supremacist angered by Hustler’s depiction of interracial sex. He railed against public prudishness by gleefully exposing the affairs that drove former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) from office.
More than any role as a crusading hero or perverted villain, Flynt is best understood as an expression of pure id; in turn, he helped to reveal the extent to which that id is and is not restrained by the rule of law in liberal society.
Flynt was born in the early 1940s in eastern Kentucky, into a childhood of poverty, death (his younger sister died at age four) and divorce. His early life reads like a picaresque: He bootlegged moonshine, he ran away from home, he used forged documents to enlist in the Army at the age of 15. (In a 1996 memoir, he claimed that, during a later stint in the Navy, he was part of a USS Enterprise crew that retrieved John Glenn’s capsule.) Flynt finally settled on a life as a nightclub operator, purchasing his first bar in 1965 at the age of 23. By the end of that decade, he and his brother Jimmy had opened a string of “Hustler Clubs” across Ohio, featuring live, nude dancers.
Out of those clubs, the magazine of the same name was born in 1974 — and, with it, Flynt’s legend and fortune. Hustler was pitched as the anti-Playboy: crass where Playboy was erudite, self-parodic where Playboy painstakingly constructed its “brand” and the furthest thing imaginable from a “lifestyle” magazine. Insomuch as Hustler had anything to say about American masculinity, it channeled an adolescent, compulsive obsession with sex and a thirst for taboo-puncturing titillation.
Hustler’s desire to provoke above all else led to extreme, sometimes surprising results: There was the shameless 1975 publication of paparazzi photos featuring Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sunbathing that helped to make the magazine’s name and then, just months later, a surprisingly humane, full pictorial spread featuring a transgender woman.
Flynt’s dedication to button-pushing led him to court — many, many times. In 1976, he was sentenced potentially to decades in prison for obscenity, but the verdict was overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct. For publishing a derogatory cartoon featuring his business rival, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, Flynt found himself in front of the Supreme Court for the first time, during which he engaged in the aforementioned verbal abuse of the justices while wearing a T-shirt that blared, “F— This Court.” (The court’s opinion in Keeton v. Hustler Magazine, Inc., established the precedent that a state’s courts held jurisdiction over the publisher of defamatory content distributed in that state, and Hustler was ultimately ordered to pay $2 million in damages to Guccione’s then-girlfriend.)
In Flynt’s most famous case, 1988’s Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, Rev. Jerry Falwell sued the magazine for writing — as part of an obviously parodic “advertisement” — that he had sex with his mother in an outhouse. The court ruled unanimously that Hustler’s parody was protected speech, setting the precedent that for public figures “emotional distress” is an insufficient cause for injury.
Less than a decade later, the Falwell case served as a dramatic linchpin for the 1996 Miloš Forman film that cemented Flynt’s legacy as not just a lowbrow Hugh Hefner, but a player in the centuries-old debate over free speech in America. Forman said he made that film “out of admiration for the beauty and wisdom of the American Constitution, which allows this country to rise to its best when provoked by the worst.” He was no doubt sincere, but the final product is unavoidably hagiographic, failed by a simplistic screenplay that portrays Flynt as a heroic foil to figures like Charles Keating — who, years before he became infamous as the face of the Reagan-era savings and loan crisis, made his name as a crusading anti-porn activist.
Flynt was a self-described liberal who spent most of his adult life as a gadfly in American politics, from his role in the Livingston scandal to a vanity California gubernatorial campaign to his hunt for incriminating materials about then-President Donald Trump. But he wasn’t an ideological actor; he was an opportunist. As with pornography, at a certain point the political realm was where he could find money and attention.
He pursued both interests in the same way: without taste, good judgment or shame. We remember Larry Flynt not as much for any intrinsic quality of his as for what he reflects about the rest of us — the seamy, underground market demand that made him a millionaire; the cultural offense we experience each day but know we’re obligated to tolerate; and the First Amendment law to which he contributed in his own small way. Flynt was a purely American creature, someone it’s impossible to imagine existing in any other society. As uncomfortable as it might be to acknowledge, he also revealed through his life and work how it might be even more difficult to imagine an America that didn’t tolerate him.