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Larry Flynt is in the news again. The notorious publisher of Hustler magazine is trying to get a hold of Mitt Romney’s tax returns, and he’s attempting to do so in the same way he solicits pictures of girl’s breasts: by offering large sums of money to anyone that will uncover them.

Several months ago, I wound up sitting next to Mr. Flynt at breakfast. Here’s what he’s really like.

Flynt Breakfast

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“I’m breakfasting with Larry Flynt tomorrow,” said the voice at the other end of the line, “I’d like you to join… you in?” On the phone was my former boss, Josh Wheeler, the amicable family man and erudite director of the Thomas Jefferson Center. “Uh, sure,” I paused, perplexed. “Sure, I’m in.”

As he continued to explain, the breakfast was to be a sort of informal send-off for Mr. Flynt, who had been in town to give a series of interviews on issues relating to First Amendment rights. The line-up was to be Josh, Larry, myself, and a handful of legal scholars and second year law school students.

The prospect of dining with Larry Flynt is as intriguing as it is unappetizing. On the one hand, this is a figure that has been at the center of some of the major free speech cases of our age, however, he also put himself there by publishing paparazzi shots of a topless Jackie Onassis Kennedy. This is a man who has had an audience with the Supreme Court, only to be thrown out almost instantly for berating them as, “eight assholes and a token [four-letter anatomical term for Sandra Day O’Connor].” This is a guy who’s walked out a winner of several obscenity trials, but once donned a dirty, desecrated American flag as underwear while walking into one.

So curiosity and contempt stirred within me as I briskly made my way up a Downtown avenue and ducked into the hotel in which we were to be dining.

Immediately upon entering, I spotted our table from across the sunlit lobby. I get the impression that Flynt, despite being a difficult man to formally see, is never a hard guy to actually spot. A pair of suited security guards perpetually flanks him; he has, after all, endured numerous death threats and attempts on his life, including one near-assassination that left him partially paralyzed.

Our table is long, about ten people are seated already, and the only open chairs are the two nearest the head, nearest Larry. I move towards them and shuffle into my seat.

An aging W.H. Auden famously described his furrowed face as resembling, “a wedding cake left out in the rain,” and if that image is to hold here, then Flynt’s resembles one made of wax that’s been left out in the summer sun. His jowls melt from his massive head; his skin is soft and pink and it joggles as his mouth – the only part of his face that moves – begins to form words. He croaks, “Good to… it’s good to… have you.” We make eye contact for several seconds as I respond, deferentially, “Well thank you for having me, Mr. Flynt.” “I was… I was telling them about… about… my Hustler party in… in Las Vegas,” he says, his voice coarse, pained, like someone battling Bronchitis.

The account of his Vegas party is exactly what one would expect from the self-described “smut peddler”: girls, limousines, Heaven-and-Hell theme, empty airplane hangar, two levels of dance floors, three DJ’s, girls, cocktails, celebrities, athletes and girls. As he recounts the highlights of the evening, his wife scuttles to the table. She is a diminutive woman wearing a purple velvet jumpsuit; she pauses to kiss her husband on the forehead, barely acknowledging the rest of the table, and sits down across from me. The conversation is not changed by this new personality. We continue talking about Larry’s girls.

Yet the most striking facet of the family Flynt is their gaudy excess. A third of Larry’s fat fingers are adorned with gold rings; a golden watch rests on his limp wrist, and he sits in a gold-plated wheelchair. He cannot be bothered to address the wait staff, so his bodyguards order his meal for him: pancakes, waffles, scrambled eggs, grits, bacon and hash browns. He drinks an entire pot of coffee. I will never forget watching, wide-eyed, as the tiny Mrs. Flynt ripped open four packets of sugar and simultaneously poured them into her mug.

Part Two: coming soon