Larry Flynt: ‘King of Smut’ and unlikely free-speech champion dead at 78

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Larry Flynt, the poor Kentucky boy who got rich and famous selling pornography, died Wednesday of heart failure at his home in Los Angeles. He was 78.

Flynt's brother Jimmy Flynt confirmed the death to The Cincinnati Enquirer, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Crude, rude and outspoken, Flynt made his fortune in the early 1970s after he turned a racy newsletter for his Ohio strip clubs into Hustler magazine.

His sexually explicit magazine trampled over boundaries set by competitors, such as Playboy, and set the stage for court battles over obscenity that redefined the meaning of "community standards" and made Flynt an unlikely champion of free speech.

More: How 1968 helped Larry Flynt build a pornography empire

Flynt embraced the mantle of civil libertarian even as his critics complained he was simply exploiting media attention to make money selling hardcore porn. His magazine published racist jokes, sexually explicit photos, an illustration of a woman being run through a meat grinder and, most infamously, pictures of a nude Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

Flynt never shied away from the nature of his business and frequently referred to himself as the “King of Smut.” But he also relished being in the spotlight for his court fights with prosecutors, anti-pornography activists and religious leaders.

“The First Amendment is supposed to protect offensive speech,” Flynt told The Enquirer in 1998. “If you’re not going to offend anybody, you don’t need the First Amendment.”

Over the course of his career, Flynt made offending people a cornerstone of his business model.

More: Larry Flynt offers $10M for dirt leading to help impeach Trump

Porn mogul Larry Flynt posed with an issue of Hustler magazine for the 40th anniversary of the magazine in 2014.
Porn mogul Larry Flynt posed with an issue of Hustler magazine for the 40th anniversary of the magazine in 2014.

Hustler makes fortune, outrages critics

Born in Lakeville, a small Kentucky town in the heart of Appalachia, Flynt grew up in a poor and broken family. His sister died as a child, and Flynt and his younger brother, Jimmy, were separated for a time when his parents split up.

After serving in the Navy, Flynt moved to Dayton, Ohio, with his mother. Together, they opened a few bars in the Dayton area, most notably Larry's Hillbilly Haven.

Flynt found his calling in the late 1960s when he opened his first strip club in Dayton. He soon expanded the franchise to Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, and other cities.

Flynt used his newsletter for those clubs as a model for Hustler magazine, which he launched in 1974 as a publication “for the common man.”

He frequently mocked his rivals at Playboy and Penthouse for slick photo presentations of glamorous-looking women, who Flynt said were unattainable for average guys. Hustler, by contrast, showed far more graphic depictions of sex and included raunchy jokes and crude, anti-establishment articles.

"Playboy taught you how to make a perfect martini or told you what kind of car you should drive," Flynt told The Enquirer in 2018. "People who buy these magazines want their porn to be porn."

His most outspoken critics, including feminists and evangelical Christians, said Flynt’s magazine demeaned women and was an affront to basic decency.

"Being a woman, what he did frightened me. It was so distressing," said Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women, in a 2018 interview with The Enquirer. "It's clear he doesn't think of women as living, breathing human beings."

Conservative culture warriors also took issue with Flynt's work. “He was just another sleaze vendor,” said Phil Burress, a long-time foe and leader of Citizens for Community Values in Cincinnati.

But Flynt was determined to be more than that. He set out to be the world’s biggest sleaze vendor.

Court battles defined Flynt

Flynt said on several occasions that Cincinnati’s community leaders helped him achieve that goal by drawing more attention to his business and his frequently wild behavior.

Cincinnati’s former prosecutor and sheriff, Simon Leis, complained that Hustler portrayed almost everyone – from Santa Claus to President Ford – as a sex object. And he said the magazine violated community standards for obscenity, the legal standard for criminal charges.

“(Hustler) is printed for one reason only,” Leis said in the mid-1970s. “The commercial exploitation of sex.”

As prosecutor, Leis led the charge against Flynt in Cincinnati and won a grand jury indictment against him, his brother and his wife, Althea Leasure.

Flynt seized on the opportunity to put his name and business in the spotlight.

First, he mailed a pamphlet to 400,000 local residents that included gory Vietnam battle scenes, including photos of dead troops. The pamphlet was entitled “What is obscene?” and argued that war was the only true obscenity.

The images shocked and angered many, but Flynt was just getting started. He frequently interrupted his trial with outbursts – once shouting that Leis was a “storm trooper” – and often frustrated his own lawyers as much as the prosecution.

“He shocked people. Jaws were dropping,” recalled the late Judge William Morrissey, in a 1998 Enquirer interview. “He was a bad boy.”

Flynt lost the trial and went to jail for a week before winning his appeal.

He later closed his strip club and moved to Los Angeles, where he expanded Hustler, got involved in pornographic video production, started a line of Hustler retail gift stores and founded about 30 other magazines, about half of which were not pornographic.

Tragedy alters life, not desire to fight

Flynt’s troubles continued, however, and while leaving a Georgia courthouse in 1978 during another obscenity trial, a gunman shot him and his lawyer.

Though never charged, white supremacist and convicted serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin later admitted shooting Flynt, saying he did it because of a photo spread in Hustler that depicted a white woman with a Black man.

The shooting left Flynt paralyzed. His injuries, coupled with the death a few years later of his wife, who had been diagnosed with AIDS, seemed to exacerbate Flynt’s mood swings and unstable behavior, which included physical and verbal outbursts.

In the years that followed, Flynt claimed to have become a born-again Christian and expressed regret for the way his magazine portrayed women. But neither of those conversions stuck, and Flynt's pornography business carried on.

Along the way, Flynt continued to pick fights with his opponents. He once showed up in court in a diaper made out of an American flag, and in the mid-1980s he battled the late Rev. Jerry Falwell all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court over an ad parody in Hustler.

Falwell successfully sued Flynt for emotional distress over the parody, which suggested Falwell had an incestuous relationship with his mother. But the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the verdict in a landmark decision, saying public figures could not collect damages for a parody that reasonable people would not consider factual.

Flynt took pride in the case that bears Hustler’s name. “When you talk about expanding the parameters of free speech, that’s not a bad thing,” Flynt said.

The case, and the rest of Flynt’s life, was depicted in the 1996 movie “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” which starred Woody Harrelson as Flynt. Flynt made a cameo in the movie, playing Judge Morrissey during the scenes about his trial in Cincinnati.

Harrelson was nominated for a best actor Oscar and director Milos Forman was nominated for best director.

The movie, which critics said glossed over the seedier aspects of Flynt's life, seemed to reinvigorate Flynt and stirred up a desire to return to Ohio to re-fight his old battles. He opened a book store, started selling pornographic videos in Cincinnati and promptly was charged again with violating obscenity laws.

“If I’m going to continue this fight, what better place to do it than in Cincinnati?” Flynt said.

The trial ended with a plea deal in which Flynt agreed to stop selling videos.

Years later, he started selling videos anyway but never faced criminal charges again. By then, the wide availability of pornography on the internet had changed the way Americans and the legal system defined community standards on obscenity.

Family troubles cloud later years

Flynt’s most recent appearance in Cincinnati-area courts came a few years ago during a different kind of legal battle – this time between him and his brother, Jimmy.

The two had argued for years over the use of the Flynt and Hustler names, and those arguments boiled over in 2010 when Flynt fired his younger brother’s sons and, soon after, his brother.

The rift between the brothers began to heal before Flynt’s death. Jimmy Flynt said Wednesday they had spoken a few times in the past year and had planned to get together before the pandemic made a reunion impossible. "I told him I loved him, and he told me he loved me," he said.

Flynt, who married his former nurse, Liz Berrios, in 1998, told London’s Daily Mail in early 2013 that he also was estranged from four of his five children. One of those children, his oldest daughter, Tonya, accused him in the 1990s of sexually abusing her when she was a child, a claim Flynt denied.

When asked about his brother's legacy, Jimmy said that will always depend on who's being asked the question. Villain? Free-speech champion? Pornographer? The only thing everyone can agree on, he said, is that he'll be remembered.

"What more can be said?" Jimmy Flynt said. "The guy made his mark."

In 2017, Flynt took on then-newly elected President Donald Trump, announcing a $10 million bounty for information that could lead to Trump's impeachment. He took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post and outlined reasons he thought should lead to Trump's ouster from the White House.

“Impeachment would be a messy, contentious affair, but the alternative – three more years of destabilizing dysfunction – is worse,” Flynt wrote in the ad.

As it happens, Trump was impeached twice but was removed from the White House by the voters in the 2020 election. Flynt died just as the House Democrats opened their first day of arguments in the former president's second impeachment trial in the Senate. He is the only president ever impeached twice by the House of Representatives.

Flynt returned rarely to Cincinnati in his later years, flying in for the occasional book promotion or store opening. He did, however, talk at times about his legacy here and around the world.

He once admitted in an interview with The Enquirer that it was impossible to separate his life as a free speech crusader from his life as a notorious and often reviled pornographer.

Flynt said he’d come to terms with that a long time ago.

“I have no doubt people perceive me as a dirty old man in a basement cranking out pornography every day,” he said. “It just so happens that I happen to be very concerned and committed to free speech.”

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Larry Flynt: ‘King of Smut’ and free speech champion dies at 78