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Society

Hustler Founder and First Amendment Battler Larry Flynt Dies

February 11, 2021

LOS ANGELES — Larry Flynt, who turned his raunchy Hustler magazine into an empire while fighting numerous First Amendment court battles and flaying politicians with stunts such as a Donald Trump assassination Christmas card, has died. He was 78.

Flynt, who had been in declining health, died Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, his longtime attorney, Paul Cambria, told The Associated Press. 

Flynt was shot in a 1978 assassination attempt and left paralyzed from the waist down but refused to slow down, building a flamboyant reputation along with a fortune estimated at $100 million.

He tooled around in a gold-plated wheelchair with a velvet-lined seat.

"His doctors had said he should have passed away 30 years ago," his nephew, Jimmy Flynt Jr., said Wednesday. "He outlived most of the doctors who took care of him." 

Born Nov. 1, 1942, in Lakeville, Kentucky, Larry Claxton Flynt Jr. grew up poor. Divorced twice by age 21, Flynt eventually found his calling by buying bars and turning them into Hustler clubs that featured topless dancers. In an effort to drum up business, he published a newsletter that became Hustler magazine.

Founded in 1974, Hustler was unashamedly crude, low-brow and hard-core, thumbing its nose at the pretensions of such high-toned men's magazines as Playboy.

The magazine featured raw, politically incorrect humor, photos of female genitalia and sometimes S&M and bondage scenes with women tied and gagged. It shocked the public with a 1978 cover depicting a woman being fed into a meat grinder.

It was no shock, then, that Flynt faced many legal fights over obscenity laws or that he was intensely disliked by the religious right and feminist groups.

"Larry Flynt should be remembered as a scourge on society; he directly contributed to and profited from the sexual exploitation of women for the majority of his career, and our culture is poorer for it," Dawn Hawkins, senior vice president and executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, said in a statement Wednesday.

Flynt maintained throughout his life that he wasn't just a pornographer but also a fierce defender of free-speech rights. 

"My position is that you pay a price to live in a free society, and that price is toleration of some things you don't like," he once told the Seattle Times. "You have to tolerate the Larry Flynts of this world."

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with him at least once, when he won a long and bitter battle with the Rev. Jerry Falwell. The televangelist sued him for libel after a 1983 Hustler alcohol ad suggested Falwell had lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse. 

That case and much of the rest of Flynt's life were depicted in the 1996 film, "The People vs. Larry Flynt," which brought Oscar nominations for director Milos Forman and for Woody Harrelson, who portrayed Flynt. Flynt had a cameo as a judge.

Flynt owned not only Hustler but other niche publications, a video production company, scores of websites, two Los Angeles-area casinos and dozens of Hustler boutiques selling adult-oriented products. 

At the time of his death he claimed to have video-on-demand operations in more than 55 countries and more than 30 Hustler Hollywood retail stores throughout the United States. 

His successes were offset by tragedies. 

While he was involved in an obscenity trial in Georgia in 1978, Flynt was shot twice by white supremacist serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin, who said he was incensed by a Hustler mixed-race photo layout. Franklin was executed for a slaying despite opposition from Flynt, who was opposed to the death penalty.

The shooting left Flynt in unrelenting pain for many years, prompting him to give up his proclaimed born-again Christianity and embrace alcohol and pain killers. 

He and his fourth wife, Althea, moved to Los Angeles and spent most of their time behind their mansion's 5,000-pound steel door. Althea, who became addicted to heroin and contracted the AIDS virus, drowned in their bathtub in 1987 at age 33. Her death was ruled accidental. 

"Althea was the best thing that ever happened to me," a disconsolate Flynt said at the time.

Flynt's behavior in those years was wildly erratic. He was removed from the U.S. Supreme Court after he interrupted proceedings in 1983 by shouting invectives at the justices.

He later appeared in a federal courthouse in Los Angeles wearing a Purple Heart and a diaper made out of an American flag. 

A sober Flynt eventually returned to work, pain eased by surgery. 

He spent his later years in the political arena. When California voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, Flynt was among 135 candidates to replace him. He campaigned as "a smut peddler who cares" and gathered more than 15,000 votes.

A self-described progressive liberal, Flynt was no fan of former President Donald Trump. In 2017, Flynt offered a $10 million reward for evidence that would lead to Trump's impeachment, and in 2019 Larry Flynt Publications sent a Christmas card to some Republican congressional members that showed Trump lying dead in a pool of blood, with the killer saying, "I just shot Donald Trump on Fifth Avenue and no one assassinated me." It was a reference to Trump's boast that he could do the same and not lose any votes. 

Over the years, he vastly expanded his business into the internet and the adult movie industry, noting the inroads they made into his magazine sales. 

"You can see more on cable and satellite today than you could see in what I published in 1974," Flynt told The Associated Press in 2003.

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