Larry Flynt, the publisher of the sexually explicit Hustler magazine whose legal battles turned him into a flamboyant crusader for free speech rights, has died at 78. Flynt’s famed legal battles — which he took to the Supreme Court — were memorialized in the 1996 film The People Versus Larry Flynt, starring Woody Harrelson. Flynt’s death was first reported by TMZ and his brother Jimmy Flynt confirmed the news to The Washington Post. A cause of death has not been revealed.
Larry Flynt was a Navy veteran who built a small empire of nude adult clubs in the late 1960s. He took those strip clubs and built them into one of the world’s most successful sex-based brands, transforming a newsletter about the clubs into Hustler magazine in 1974, publishing adult entertainment that critics frequently lambasted as obscene and degrading to women. The magazine once published a photo illustration of a nude woman being passed through a meat grinder. The feminist Gloria Steinem famously described Flynt as “a violent, sadistic pornographer.”
Always brash and opinionated, in his later years, he traveled most places in a gold-plated wheelchair. But he prided himself on being a self-made man who came from very humble beginnings. Larry Claxton Flynt Jr. was born in Lakeville, Kentucky on Nov. 1, 1942. His father was a sharecropper and he grew up in poverty; in his 2004 book Sex, Lies & Politics: The Naked Truth, Flynt cited his meager beginnings as an influence on his attitude toward sex. “I’m a hillbilly, and people like me come to sex without all the hang-ups imposed by the hypocritical, ‘you must maintain proper appearances’ morality of the middle class,” he wrote. “When good Christian folk tell me that sex is dirty, I say, ‘Yeah, when it’s done right.’ For me, sex has always been a way of saying, ‘I am outside the reach of your power.’ “
Hustler became a household name overnight after publishing paparazzi photos of a nude, sunbathing former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1975. “It is what the people want,” Flynt told People magazine in a 1977 profile. “When I started Hustler, I wanted to deal with sex as I knew it — as a boy growing up on a farm, working in a factory, on the street — four-letter words and all. That’s the approach I’ve taken, and it cost me my freedom.”
Flynt positioned Hustler as a hardcore, lowbrow alternative to Playboy and Penthouse. Larry Flynt Publications grew to include such sex-oriented publications as Barely Legal, Beaver Hunt, Asian Fever, Hustler’s Taboo, Hustler XXX, Hustler’s Leg World, and Hustler’s Busty Beauties. He also ventured out of his niche to publish RIP Magazine, TurboPlay and Tips & Tricks and his empire grew to include the Hustler Video film studio; the adult-film company VCA Pictures; dozens of domestic and international adult-oriented TV channels; a chain of Hustler Hollywood stores; an apparel business; a casino; and the adult movie distributor New Frontier Media. When other distributors refused or were scared to distribute gay-themed magazines and movies, Flynt filled that niche — becoming an unexpected LGBTQ ally — as is recounted in the recent documentary, Circus of Books.
While fighting obscenity charges in a case in Gwinnett County, a suburb of Georgia, in 1978, Flynt was shot through the spine and paralyzed by a gunman who was allegedly outraged over an inter-racial photo shoot in the magazine. Flynt used a wheelchair thereafter. Although no one was ever charged with the shooting, white supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin years later admitted that he was the sniper, claiming an interracial photo spread published in Hustler was his motivation.
Flynt called himself a “smut peddler” and took his in-your-face attitude to the court. (That same year, he launched tongue-in-cheek campaign to become the Republican nominee for the 1984 presidential race.) In 1983, he was indicted for desecrating the flag after wearing the stars and stripes as a diaper in an appearance in federal court. The most famous of Flynt’s legal battles did not involve nudity, but rather a parody piece about the Reverend Jerry Falwell that suggested the evangelist lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse. “After several years of listening to him bash me and reading his insults, I decided it was time to start poking some fun at him,” Flynt wrote in a 2007 article for the Los Angeles Times. “So we ran a parody ad in Hustler — a takeoff on the then-current Campari ads in which people were interviewed describing ‘their first time’ [drinking the liqueur]. Falwell sued for emotional distress. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Flynt’s favor, establishing an important free-speech precedent.
Ten years after the verdict, Falwell made a surprise about-face and reached out to Flynt, and the two began appearing together to discuss moral and First Amendment issues. “I’ll never admire him for his views or his opinions. To this day, I’m not sure if his television embrace was meant to mend fences, to show himself to the public as a generous and forgiving preacher, or merely to make me uneasy,” Flynt wrote. “But the ultimate result was one I never expected and was just as shocking a turn to me as was winning that famous Supreme Court case: We became friends.”
In his later years, Flynt was active in politics and was famed for offering bounties for compromising information about politicians. During the Bill Clinton impeachment, Flynt offered $1 million for information about infidelity by high-ranking GOP members of Congress. The effort was a success, and spurred the resignation of Speaker-designate Bob Livingston from his leadership post and from Congress. Livingston reportedly told colleagues: “I very much regret having to tell you that I’ve been Flynted!” In 2017, Flynt offered $10 million for “smoking gun” information that would lead to the impeachment of Donald Trump. In 1996, Flynt published his autobiography, An Unseemly Man: My Life as Pornographer, Pundit, and Social Outcast.
In a rare foray into politics himself, Flynt ran for governor of California in the chaotic recall election of 2003. He called himself the “smut peddler who cares” and finished in seventh place.