Larry Flynt, Porn Mogul And 'Hustler' Founder, Dies At 78 Larry Flynt was a pornographer whose Supreme Court case in 1988 made him a free speech folk hero. Admire him, despise him — or both — Flynt left a singular mark on culture and politics.
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Larry Flynt, Porn Mogul And 'Hustler' Founder, Dies At 78

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Larry Flynt, Porn Mogul And 'Hustler' Founder, Dies At 78

Larry Flynt, Porn Mogul And 'Hustler' Founder, Dies At 78

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

** An American troublemaker has died. Larry Flynt was a hardcore pornographer whose Supreme Court case in 1988 made him a free-speech folk hero. Admire him, despise him or both, Flynt left a singular mark on culture and politics. Flynt died in Los Angeles this morning. He was 78 years old. NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It's highly unusual to start an obituary with a warning about sexual content ahead, but Larry Flynt would have approved.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LARRY FLYNT: Pornography is really the purest form of art.

ULABY: Larry Flynt on WHYY's Fresh Air in 1996. The high school dropout was born in a log cabin in Kentucky. His magazine, Hustler, started as a newsletter promoting Flynt's strip clubs. It was a proudly knuckle-dragging answer to Playboy's highfalutin interviews and comparatively prim centerfolds. At its peak in the 1970s, Hustler had more than 2 million subscribers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FLYNT: I felt guys wanted to see more of a girl next door, whether she might have small breasts, medium or large or be a brunette or blonde.

ULABY: Hustler also published racist and anti-Semitic jokes, a long-running cartoon about a pedophile - Chester the Molester - and photographs literally showing women as pieces of meat. All of it, said Flynt, was satire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FLYNT: We created humor for Hustler which is considered tasteless and lowbrow and many times offensive. But it's the type of humor that you hear and see in the workplace, in the factories.

ULABY: Larry Flynt made his first million dollars by publishing nude photographs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis taken on the sly. She was one of the few who did not sue Hustler. But over his lifetime, Flynt reportedly spent more than $50 million battling various charges of obscenity and libel. In 1983, Hustler ran a fake ad featuring televangelist Jerry Falwell in which he said he'd lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LARRY KING LIVE")

FLYNT: And he had to kick the goat out first. I mean, it was clearly a satire.

ULABY: That's Flynt on "Larry King Live" in 1996, talking about Falwell suing him for invasion of privacy, libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The case went to the Supreme Court. In a landmark unanimous decision, the court ruled Flynt's satire was protected by the First Amendment. The publisher was lionized in the 1996 movie "The People Vs. Larry Flynt." Actor Woody Harrelson got an Oscar nomination playing a lovable rascal, fighting even with his lawyer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT")

WOODY HARRELSON: (As Larry Flynt) Don't be so melodramatic. You don't want to court me. I'm your dream client. I'm the most fun. I'm rich, and I'm always in trouble.

ULABY: Flynt was always in trouble. There was a time he wore an American flag as a diaper. Another time, he was fined for contempt of court and hired women dressed as sex workers to deliver $10,000 in pennies. In 1977, Larry Flynt became a born-again Christian under the influence of President Jimmy Carter's sister. He reverted to atheism a year later after a white supremacist shot him and paralyzed Flynt for life. He spent years addicted to painkillers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FLYNT: You can't discuss pain with people that's never experienced it. Until you've had nerve damage, you really don't know what real pain is.

ULABY: But Flynt loudly campaigned against the death penalty for the man who tried to murder him. Riding around in a gold-plated wheelchair, he branched out into casinos and sex stores. Flynt ran for president in 1984 and donated millions to free-speech causes while antagonizing feminists with porn that, for example, glorified sexual assaults. His truly gross pornography, says sex columnist Dan Savage, made Flynt a necessary outlier, testing the principles of free speech.

DAN SAVAGE: And at the same time, you know, helped create Supreme Court decisions that further enhanced and strengthened the First Amendment that, in turn, protects us all. So we should be grateful for Larry Flynt even if his output isn't something that you're interested in. And I'm certainly not.

ULABY: Perhaps part of Larry Flynt's legacy, says Savage, should be a clear-eyed assessment of the porn so prevalent online now.

SAVAGE: And we need to say to our kids, you're going to see porn that's mixed up with anger and rage and misogyny, as Larry Flynt's porn was. And you need to not succumb to that anger, rage and misogyny.

ULABY: In 1996, Larry Flynt described his legacy this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FLYNT: You know, a free press is not freedom for the thought you love but rather for the thought you hate the most. People have to tolerate the Larry Flynts of the world so they can be free.

ULABY: In a newspaper interview, Larry Flynt was asked to imagine the afterlife. Predictably, he described a place of constant sexual fulfillment where no politicians are hypocrites. Even there, Larry Flynt will surely manage to stir up trouble.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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