Larry Flynt is celebrating dual milestones. Now 70, he heads a business empire that’s larger and more profitable than ever. He’s also celebrating the 25-year anniversary of an unlikely Supreme Court victory. Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, Flynt’s epic legal battle against evangelist Jerry Falwell, started out as a tasteless joke about the preacher losing his virginity with his own mother and ended up as a historical landmark that significantly bolstered our First Amendment right to free speech.
Flynt sat down with longtime friend Robert Scheer, one of the country’s foremost progressive voices, for an honest conversation about the lofty principles of Constitutional rights and the gutter realities of being a multimillionaire smut peddler.
ROBERT SCHEER: You once told me HUSTLER is the best magazine you could read with one hand. In your office you have a book of Helmut Newton’s photographs: classy, beautiful erotica. In the magazine you’ve got cum-shots.
LARRY FLYNT: You know something? Helmut Newton loved HUSTLER; it was his favorite magazine. People that love smut like it hard, and they like it unapologetic. If you’re a connoisseur of pornography, you really don’t like it camouflaged with a lot of aesthetics; you like it in your face. You’re one of the few people I know who define pornography very objectively when it’s really very subjective. It exists in various forms.
We all know that the old masters, Picasso or Rembrandt, had a penchant for doing nudes—for doing porn basically. When writers like James Joyce came along, they were in a league of their own. They made the desire for pornography more acceptable. Eventually there came a time when it was available to the masses. The genie was out of the bottle, and there was no way of putting it back in. It got very unfiltered and very unsophisticated. So, many of the people who appreciated very good pornography were extremely critical of the crudeness in a lot of it. But that’s the marketplace.
When you started out, you just wanted to make a buck, right?
And have fun while I was doing it.
You were the primitive capitalist. You weren’t some great artist painting beautiful naked women.
No. But if I was selling peanut butter, I’d sell it with the same enthusiasm.
You sometimes talk about yourself as just a smut peddler. I remember when people criticized you about being a bottom-feeder, you said, “Yeah, but look what I found at the bottom.” But you’ve had an evolution. You’re a true believer now in the First Amendment argument.
I didn’t have to evolve on the First Amendment. I’ve always believed in it.
But did you understand it? Did you understand its power?
No. I don’t think any of us understands the overwhelming significance of the First Amendment. Without free expression or the right to assemble, we wouldn’t even be a nation. The Second Amendment wouldn’t even be important. All others come after the First Amendment.
So you start HUSTLER in 1974, and your life takes off. Then in 1978 you have this horrendous experience of being shot. One response could be a lower profile. Take the money and run. But you became a crusader.
I never slowed down. All through the ’70s, ’80s and some of the ’90s we were putting out censorship brush fires all over the country. Prosecutors wanted to prosecute me everywhere, and I always showed up to accommodate them. I think I finally just wore them out.
The People vs. Larry Flynt is the popular record of your First Amendment fight. It’s a brilliant piece of moviemaking, but is it accurate?
It’s extremely accurate. Some of it is very embarrassing, but the director, Milos Forman, knew what he had to focus on: the most bizarre, outrageous and controversial parts of my life, because that gets the money. All of that is true, but there was a lot left out of the movie that I would like to have seen in there.
In the beginning you’re just a redneck who wants to make a buck. You’ve got strip clubs, and you need a way of publicizing them. So you put out this magazine. Then you run up against hypocrites like Charles Keating— who landed in the middle of the savings-and loan scandal—and Jerry Falwell. That confrontation took you to our highest court. How important is the legacy of that Supreme Court decision 25 years ago?
Go back to the ’70s and get some tapes from Johnny Carson’s monologue, and you’ll realize how bland and tame they are; no comparison at all to Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. You can see the evolution that took place with my case. I was talking to Rodney Smolla, who wrote Jerry Falwell v. Larry Flynt: The First Amendment on Trial, the book about the Supreme Court case. He says people are not really aware of the full impact that case had because the lawyers for NBC, CBS and all the rest of them are standing behind people like Letterman, Leno and Stewart saying you can do this because of this case. Garry Trudeau, in an interview with Ted Koppel, talked about all the trouble that his comic Doonesbury got into with politicians—Bush the lapdog and things like that. He said he was really worried that he was going to be facing serious litigation. And he said, “Then I got a get-out-of-jail-free card.” And Koppel said, “Who was that from?” And he said, “Larry Flynt.”
That case just stopped it all right there. You can no longer sue someone because they hurt your feelings or your wife’s feelings or your dog’s feelings or whatever; you have to prove libel. If you can’t prove libel, it’s not going to fly. That was a huge thing in that case. The second component that made it so significant was that for the first time in the history of our nation, over 200 years, parody was made protected speech. If it’s not a serious piece of literary work, it cannot be taken as such. It must be treated as a parody.
I remember you once mentioned that you thought the infamous June 1978 meat grinder cover was parody; that you were putting down the idea of women being meat in a meat grinder.
It was a satirical-spoof parody, not done in the best taste, but that’s what it represented as far as I was concerned. I think as a heterosexual male about women. I love women. I adore them. I worship them. They’re my whole life. If there’s anything that brightens up my day, it’s a beautiful woman.
Do you think you empower women by the way they are depicted in HUSTLER?
As long as there’s a woman covered up, a man’s going to want to see her in her birthday suit. That is human nature. That is the attraction. In all of my years of being in business and all the thousands of models that I’ve interviewed, I’ve never had one model ever say to the press or to me personally or to anyone that she felt like she had been coerced or intimidated to be in the magazine. It was always something that she did voluntarily. It was always because they thought they were young, they had great bodies, and they would like to preserve it for posterity’s sake because they realized they would only be young once. That is the general theme of every young woman that’s ever posed for HUSTLER over the years. I know that people, feminists like Gloria Steinem, feel that these women are being exploited. Gloria’s a lot like Reverend Falwell, just selling her take.
One of the arguments about Playboy and magazines like that is they held up an idea of a woman that couldn’t really exist in life—the ultimate objectification. It makes the husband or the boyfriend disappointed with what he has. I remember you telling me that in HUSTLER you aim for the woman-next- door, the woman you would actually see in real life.
She could be short, skinny, whatever. Redheads, blondes, brunettes.
And you were against cosmetic surgery.
Yes, and I still am. But we’ve got a huge problem today. We like to publish women in their natural state, which means their pubes are intact, but 90% of girls that show up today have no pubic hair, and over half of them have had breast implants. So we are really faced with a crisis situation. Either we take what we can get or try to go with something that is not up to our standard.
People used to get arrested for what you do, even just saying or printing the word fuck. Now it’s all out of the bag. Have we gained some freedom? Is this a better way to live? Let it all hang out?
There’s nothing said or written that has not been said or written before. It’s just rearranged. I don’t think it’s that much of a different world. I think there were some true pioneers. It wasn’t Hugh Hefner or Larry Flynt. It was Lenny Bruce. I remember Lenny Bruce saying, “They say that kids are out to repeat what they see imitated, and in that case I’d rather my kids see a porn movie than King of Kings because I don’t want them to kill Christ when he comes back.”
Lenny was scary to the establishment because he was saying things that made the establishment cringe. No one should even utter these words! But we have a First Amendment that guarantees us the right to express ourselves and not have to worry about what kind of words we’re using.
In the case of Falwell and the Moral Majority, he seemed to be riding a wave that was going to get bigger and bigger and sweep aside a lot of progress. Now, after this last election, you even have a Christian conservative like Ralph Reed saying, “We don’t have the people anymore, and we particularly don’t have the young people.” They’re not buying into that Puritanism. They’re not buying into what the Moral Majority wants. So you won at the end of the day. Did Falwell see that coming?
I think that there was one side of him that believed he was going to win; at least he wanted to win. And until the decision was rendered, I thought he was going to. When I sat in that gallery at the Supreme Court and looked over there at him and his family, it looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. The pornographer versus the preacher. I’m dead, and then it wound up being a unanimous decision. In the whole history of our nation there have only been a handful of unanimous decisions to come out of the Supreme Court, and mine was one of them.
After the case was over, I was sitting in my office, and my secretary called me and said, “There’s a Reverend Jerry Falwell in the lobby.” I said, “Send him in.” He comes walking through my office door, and he’s got both hands in the air, and he says, “I surrender.” He comes in and sits down and says, “Look, I know when I’m beaten.” I think he knew he was beaten all along, but he milked it for all he could get.
Did you get the feeling that Falwell was in it as an act, that this was a racket? Or was he a true believer?
I think Reverend Falwell knew what he was selling just like I knew what I was selling. I was selling porn; he was selling religion.
Let me ask you about exposing politicians. At first I thought this was a little weird and contradictory. Here is a guy who wants us to be sexually freer, and yet he’s going after people because they’ve got a mistress. Did you feel that there was something contradictory about your big campaign?
Not at all. I have one vote, only one. But by outing corrupt politicians, I can get rid of some people who shouldn’t be there—not because I’m exposing their sex life but because I’m exposing their hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is the biggest enemy that democracy has. It doesn’t have anything to do with sex or money; it’s the hypocrisy involved.
Take somebody like Bob Livingston. He’s trying to impeach Bill Clinton, and he’s talking about how solid his marriage is, saying he had never strayed from his marriage, never had an affair with a government employee or an intern or a lobbyist. Then we find out he’s doing a lobbyist, a federal judge and an intern in his own office. That guy just reeked of hypocrisy. He was ripe to be exposed.
Like when we exposed Larry Craig, the congressman from Idaho who was doing the footsies in the men’s-room stall. He’d voted against every piece of gay-rights legislation in the last 20 years and was gay himself. He should have been exposed.
What if they’re public citizens, and they’re not being hypocritical?
You have some liberals in both the House and the Senate who don’t profess to be holier-than- thou. They’re not trying to conduct their personal lives differently than the way they conduct their public life. We leave those people alone. I’ve had very compromising information and photographs of some very famous and influential people in this country, and I stopped it from being published because they were private citizens. I could have made a lot of money by publishing the material, but I didn’t do it.
HUSTLER is a pretty tawdry publication. But when people picked it up during the last election, they saw—right next to the smut—statements by Larry Flynt about why we need to vote for Obama, why we need to tax rich people like yourself, why we need to care about people who don’t have so much.
I don’t know how people who are successful can feel that they do not have an obligation to help people who have been less fortunate, especially the young and the elderly or the handicapped. I give a lot of money to charity every year. I don’t do it because it makes me feel better. I do it because I know there’s a need for it. Republicans are mean-spirited. I don’t think they give a damn. At their core they’re racist, and they’re on their way to becoming a minority party because they have no compassion for their fellow people. A nation cannot survive with a bunch of selfish rich people.
What impresses me is that, somehow out of all of this madness, you ended up being a pretty classy guy. The last thing anybody would have expected is that you, smut peddler Larry Flynt, would still be here at 70 years old a respected member of the community, the one who protected our freedoms.
Somebody said to me once, “My problem with you is that you’re offensive.” I said, “Well, freedom of speech is only important if it’s offensive. If you’re not going to offend anybody, you don’t need protection of the First Amendment.”
When they were interviewing me in front of the Supreme Court, I said, “If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, it’ll protect everybody.”