At the start of any interview, I explain to Larry Flynt, as I take my seat in his Los Angeles office, that there's almost always a question lurking at the back of the writer's mind: the kind of awkward inquiry that, prudence suggests, shouldn't be broached until the final stages of the meeting, for fear of an early exit. But this is the first time, in my experience at least, that the question has been: "Did you really rape that chicken?"
"Ah..." he says, pausing. "You shouldn't make a big deal out of that."
"So you did?"
"Yes. But boys that grow up on farms in this country, they are always, you know, screwing around with animals."
"Well, there are kids that get involved with other sorts of animals."
"But for you, it was just the chicken."
"The chicken was it."
"Right. Then I decided I liked girls better."
It was really the fault of the other boys on the farm in Kentucky, Flynt claims, because they'd told him how simple it was to "grab the first chicken that came by". But even now, you suspect, he might appreciate the ease of consorting with fowl, with its lack of any wearying preliminaries involving phone calls, after- shave or expensive foreign chocolates.
In Flynt's magazines such as Beaver Hunt, Barely Legal, and his trademark publication Hustler, swift one-way gratification has remained the keynote, and the publisher would never pretend otherwise. For all that, I can't help being reminded of Woody Allen's line from Love and Death: "He who hath clean hands, and a good heart, is OK in my book. But he who hangeth around with farmyard animals has got to be watched."
The offices of Larry Flynt Publications are at the top of one of the tallest skyscrapers in LA, where a large external sign ensures that no tourist can miss them. Inside, the décor is dominated by colonnades embraced by gilt cherubs; there are canvases portraying scenes from classical mythology, and big oil paintings of what looks like Venice, only better. Flynt's extravagant interior design represents the most awesome gap between financial outlay and taste that I've ever encountered in my life. These are precisely the sort of surroundings that Pauline Calf would choose for herself, if she was sole winner of a Rollover, and which would inspire her to exclaim - as you can imagine Flynt observing, each time he takes his place behind his enormous desk - "That's class."
The publisher, who has been paralysed from the waist down since he was shot in 1978, sits in a gold-plated wheelchair.
"I figured if I couldn't walk," says Flynt, 61, "then I might as well ride in style."
Physically, he resembles Citizen Kane as he might be played by an overweight Christopher Walken. His voice is little more than a hoarse whisper which could make even an innocent remark, should he ever attempt one, sound sinister. His consonants are heavily slurred from his once-chronic drug abuse, and his hearing is poor, which means you have to shout, all of which makes conversation with him something of a surreal experience.
Flynt's empire now includes dozens of orthodox publications on subjects such as photography and computing, but his fortune, like his reputation, was built on pornography. Hustler, which first appeared in 1972, abandoned all pretensions of recruiting a general readership in favour of arc-lit close-ups of women's genitalia.
"Playboy and Penthouse," he says, "were parading their pornography as art, with the air-brushing and the soft lens. I realised that if we became more explicit, we could get a huge piece of this market." By the mid-1970s, the magazine, which had started as a newsletter for the Hustler "go-go" bars he was running in Ohio, was selling two-and-a-half million copies. It continues to thrive today, mainly though its website, and you could argue that no publisher has ever been so perfectly attuned to the requirements of his readers as Flynt, who is reportedly worth more than $750m.
"I sensed that raw sex was what men wanted," Flynt says. "And I was right."
Initially admired only by his priapic subscribers, the pornographer has become an unlikely hero for America's liberal establishment, as a result of contesting innumerable prosecutions for obscenity, on the grounds of his constitutional right to free speech. The three jail terms he's served on such charges - not to mention his shooting, by a white supremacist appalled by Hustler's photographs of mixed-race couples - gave Flynt a claim to a kind of martyrdom; he has been described as "the Martin Luther King of pornography". In 1996 this status was affirmed, in the eyes of some, when Oliver Stone produced The People vs Larry Flynt, a hagiographic account of his life which (though no trial of this name ever took place) concentrated on his numerous legal cases, notably his battle with the leader of the US "Moral Majority", Reverend Jerry Falwell.
In 1983, Flynt had composed a satirical advertisement in which Falwell described losing his virginity to his mother in an outside toilet. "We were drunk off our God-fearing asses on Campari, ginger ale and soda - that's called a Fire and Brimstone," Falwell was quoted as saying, adding that, once the cocktail took hold, "Mom looked better than a Baptist whore with a $100 donation."
When Falwell saw the ad, Flynt recalls, "he said his first reaction had been to weep. He decided instead to file a $45m lawsuit." *
In 1988 the Supreme Court upheld Flynt's right to free speech under the First Amendment, a ruling which assured his place in constitutional history.
Stone's film, which was widely praised, included precisely the kind of timorous nudity Flynt scorns, and gave little idea of the true character of Hustler - one edition of which famously included a woman being shaved, raped, and apparently killed, in concentration-camp style surroundings. Milos Forman, who directed the movie, claimed that he had never seen the magazine. The screenplay also failed to touch on some of the less-loveable aspects of Flynt's biography, such as his attempt to shoot his second wife, the reported contracts he took out on the life of Frank Sinatra and others, or the allegations of sexual abuse made by his daughter Tonya. "This movie," wrote the film critic Alexander Walker, "sanctifies a sleaze merchant, misogynist and porn peddler".
Flynt, for his part, rather liked it. Since the film, his advance towards the centre ground of US culture has proceeded unchecked. Last year he ran, unsuccessfully, for the governorship of California, promising legal prostitution and more relaxed gambling laws.
"I'm a Democrat," says the publisher (who owns a casino). "I always have been."
"Even though you once said you were a Republican, by the definition that..."
"...I am wealthy, white and pornographic," interrupts Flynt, who has a good memory for his own robust wit, "and, like the nuclear-mad cowboy Ronald Reagan, I have been shot for the things I believe in."
His mission to bring pornography into the mainstream has been furthered by the opening of his Hustler Hollywood stores - large retail spaces with coffee shops and maple flooring, whose design resembles Borders or The Gap. In June, he will open the first two branches outside the States - in London and Birmingham. Like their American models, they will seek to remove the stigma associated with buying erotica. The night before we meet, I visit the Hustler Hollywood store in LA. It is spacious, tastefully lit and entirely empty, except for the staff and a street person slumped, apparently unconscious, over a table in the café area.
When the British stores open, local regulations permitting, UK shoppers will be able to sample a cappuccino and a pair of "Hustler's Vibrating Shanghai Ecstasy Balls", purchase the desk accessory sold under the somewhat ambiguous title of "Penis Eraser", and peruse up to 35 kinds of inflatable woman (one "Greek"). They'll be able to choose from Hustler's range of DVDs which includes: Dial M For Midget, Eskimo Gang Bang and The Best of German Orgies.
It's hard to imagine the average Mancunian, say, welcoming any of these products - the last especially - as the answer to a need that has long gone unfulfilled. Before I emerged from Hustler Hollywood with my pile of gynaecological research material, I tell Flynt, I'd never bought a pornographic magazine: to his mind, does that make me weird?
"Not at all," says Flynt. "I'd never bought porn either, before I started Hustler. It wasn't because I wasn't interested in sex, or that I wasn't sexually active. I was sexually active," he insists. "Very."
A battery-operated penis implant, Flynt says, allows him a satisfactory sex life with his fifth wife and former carer, Liz Berrios, who is almost 20 years his junior.
"I don't look at mags for erotic appeal," he says. "Pornography serves no purpose for me."
Larry Flynt has worked hard to eradicate the accent he acquired as a boy in Magoffin County in the Eastern coalfield of Kentucky, one of the poorest areas of the US. Speaking "correctly" became an obsession - though in the film of his life, Woody Harrelson plays him throughout with a cute Hillbilly drawl.
His father was an alcoholic bootlegger. After his parents split up, when he was 11, his mother is supposed to have gained a reputation for sleeping around.
He lets out a kind of low rasp.
"There were rumours, yeah," he says. "There was gossip."
Flynt enlisted in the US Army under age - when he got out, still a teenager, he put his combat skills into practice by braining his dad with a moonshine jar.
Violent rage is a recurrent theme in Flynt's life, even by his own account.
"All my dad did was lie in bed," he complains, "and drink the profits. That day I got furious. I ran into his bedroom and hit him in the face with the jar. He needed 20 stitches."
He joined the US Navy and became a radar operator, but by the time he was 22 he was retired as a sailor, twice divorced and washing dishes. He opened his first bar in Dayton Ohio in 1968. Five years later, aged 30, he had eight Hustler Clubs, whose clientele flocked to watch women in bikinis dance in a cage. The volcanic force of his own libido is a theme Flynt continually returns to. He claims to have spent an evening alone with 20 women, in a Cannes brothel ("I had so much sex, my back went into spasm.")
Curiously for a man widely seen as America's richest misogynist, the direction of Flynt's life and career has been largely shaped by women. If you were looking for an experience that might explain his disillusionment with orthodox relationships, you might consider the case of his second wife, Peggy, who married him in the early 1960s, while he was still at sea. (His first marriage had lasted a matter of weeks.)
Returning from one voyage, he says, he was met by Peggy's mother, Ernestine, who showed him a specimen jar containing the aborted foetus Flynt had no idea he had even fathered.
"Peggy is the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. "Because I was so very much in love with her."
"And then I got my heart ripped out," Flynt says, "is what happened." Peggy, he says, "had the morals of an alley-cat".
"While you, as a young sailor, were a well-known figure at your local monastery?"
"No. But I was away, with the Navy, for six months at one point. When I came back, I found her six months pregnant with another man's child. Peggy," he adds, "had no * shame. No guilt. I was smart enough to take a lesson. I decided I would never be faithful to any woman, ever again."
Flynt adopted the stranger's child, Judy, but he and Peggy were soon rowing again, and one evening he "fired a couple of rounds over her head" then crashed his car while attempting to flee. Following this incident, in 1965, he was detained in a Dayton psychiatric facility, where he was given electric-shock therapy: the treatment induced periods of amnesia and, others say, changed him for ever. He separated from Peggy shortly after she gave birth to his own daughter, Tonya.
"How many children do you have?"
"Five, that I know of."
They include Theresa, who runs Hustler's retail operation, and his only son Larry Junior, who Flynt describes as "worthless".
"Meaning that I offered him anything he wanted. And he works as a bartender."
"Were you present at any of the births?"
"I didn't want to be."
"Did any of the mothers want you there?"
"I never asked."
"Did they ask you?"
"Not that I recall."
"What if they had?"
"I'd have told them that childbirth was their business."
After a third, short-lived liaison, Flynt settled down happily - not by abandoning his promiscuity, but by formalising it within the terms of his fourth marriage to Althea Leasure, who met him in 1971 when she was 17 and a go-go dancer at a Hustler Club.
Althea - a bisexual heroin addict played by Courtney Love in Stone's movie - overdosed in the bath in 1987, by which time she was suffering from Aids. She shared and encouraged Flynt's interest in female hookers and, in her senior editorial capacity at Hustler was, many say, the driving force behind the magazine. Leasure egged Flynt on to new and more contentious features, such as pictures of naked women trussed like turkeys and squashed in giant burger buns, or a girl being fed head-first into a mincer.
"Althea was my first true love, and the only true love I will ever have," Flynt says.
The publisher concedes that, before he started getting prosecuted for obscenity, the principle of the First Amendment had not been his main preoccupation.
When it came to his first major trial, at Cincinnati in 1977, Flynt was championed by figures such as Woody Allen and Gore Vidal. In an open letter to the New York Times, they likened his situation to that of a Soviet dissident. But Flynt's relationship with prominent liberals was never an easy one. The debate on censorship had been more straightforward with Allen Ginsberg or Henry Miller - men whose output was also declared obscene but who, unlike Larry Flynt, didn't think it was a hoot to print a picture of a housewife's vagina being used as a makeshift roach trap.
The great American satirist Lewis Lapham originally signed the joint letter, then saw a copy of Hustler. Lapham immediately withdrew his name, saying that "I'm not sure this was quite what Jefferson had in mind."
Flynt had no artistic aspirations, and no aim except to make himself rich. And yet, from the point of the Manhattan libertarians, he had all the right people on his case - Richard Nixon's favourite judges, and right-wing zealots such as Charles Keating, of Citizens for Decency. (Keating would later be imprisoned for his role in America's biggest ever swindle, the Lincoln Savings and Loan affair.)
In court, Flynt was fearless, irreverent, and showed a reckless insolence verging on madness, which - even his opponents concede - had a certain magnificence about it. "I am your dream client," he told one of his lawyers. "I'm rich, I'm fun and I'm always in trouble."
He saw himself as a rebel, and even now - though you might not guess it from his diamond rings, fancy furnishings or red Rolls-Royce - he sees himself as a class warrior. In his introduction to Flynt's 1996 autobiography, An Unseemly Man, Oliver Stone describes him - it is a phrase worthy of actress Penelope Keith with her nose at its haughtiest angle - as "hopelessly tethered by his crude roots".
I read Flynt an extract from a 1977 article by Richard Neville, who was jailed in 1971 as one of co-editors (along with Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson) of Oz, a magazine tried under the Obscene Publications Act for its 1971 "Schoolkids" edition which contained, among other things, a Robert Crumb cartoon of Rupert the Bear in a sexual position.
"When Penguin published Lady Chatterley," Neville wrote, "they were tried at the Old Bailey. One question was: 'Would you let your servant read this book?' Larry Flynt has turned this upside down. Now it is the servants - the busboys and the truck drivers - whose erotic tastes are repulsive to a bewildered establishment. Hustler is the servant's revenge."
Flynt smiles, approvingly. "That's good. That's very good. That's..." He pauses, searching for a less Magoffin County kind of a phrase. "That's very apropos."
"Neville goes on to say that, 'Hustler exudes a virulent hatred for women'."
"He says what now?"
"A virulent hatred for women."
"Well, that's reading a lot into it."
What inspired his postcard of a woman being assaulted on a pool table, with the caption: "Greetings from New Bedford Mass, Gang Rape Capital of America"?
"Well there had been this report saying that a woman had been gang raped on a pool table in Massachusetts, OK? We staged a shoot using models and a pool table. We made a postcard and sent it to our readers. We do outrageous political satire. This is Hustler, not Reader's Digest."
"And then showing a woman apparently being raped in a concentration camp - that could offend some people."
"Yeah. But look - I went to the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Flynt versus Falwell, and their verdict was that parody is protected speech. So," he adds, sounding riled, "what I do in Hustler is protected under the Constitution. If you think I have bad taste - fine. Ridicule me. But don't tell me I don't have the right to publish."
"You say 'parody' - if I produce a photo shoot called 'Gang Bang in Auschwitz', that's not parody, is it?"
"Well," Flynt says, "it's pretty sick. But we wouldn't do that."
"We all have places we wouldn't go."
Flynt agrees. "We ran a photograph of this old man that had a young girl sitting on his lap. She looked about 13, but she was 18. I think that feature could have been seen as condoning - or at least promoting - paedophilia."
To Flynt's critics, such unease is not restricted to that one picture.
"Larry Flynt's new magazine, Barely Legal," says the Oakland-based academic Dr Diana Russell, "reveals his attempt to appeal to men who fancy adolescent females."
It's true that Russell, author of Against Pornography, was never going to enjoy Barely Legal, but then anybody familiar with Flynt's work is likely to regard some aspect of it as contemptible. Flynt himself announced, in 1977, that "I owe every mother an apology for treating women like pieces of meat."
He issued this statement shortly after he'd flown from Denver to Houston with Ruth Carter Stapleton, President Carter's sister. At 40,000ft, the editor of Hustler looked down the cabin and had a vision of "a guy with sandals on, and an old man with a beard. I took it to be them," says Flynt, referring to God and Saint Paul.
Deeply affected by the appearance of his distinguished fellow-passengers, he began * making changes to his magazine. The cartoon strip "Chester the Molester" became "Chester the Protector - Guardian of Young Girls". Hustler, Flynt promised, "will no longer demean women."
If you take a look at the "Asian" section of the Hustler website (you might begin with "Noy", a young woman who explains how surprised and thankful she was to discover that US servicemen have larger penises than the humble Vietnamese) you'll notice there's been something of a rethink on this front.
"What happened to fighting for Jesus?"
"What happened was, I went to a psychiatrist. And he diagnosed me as being bipolar."
"And that's why you saw God?"
"Right. If only all of those born-again converts would take a little lithium, like I did, they'd be fine."
His faith was ultimately eroded by his shooting, a few months later, outside a courtroom in Lawrenceville, Georgia. ("I decided I wasn't interested in a God," Flynt writes, in his autobiography, "who would allow a thing like this to happen.") The gunman - Joseph Paul Franklin - was also responsible for a synagogue bombing and the murder of a mixed-race couple. He is still on death row.
Flynt was struck by two bullets from a sporting rifle. One lodged in his stomach; the other shattered the base of his spine. Though paralysed, he was left in constant pain.
"It felt like standing up to my thighs in boiling water," he says, "while someone with a claw hammer ripped meat off my bones."
Flynt's mental equilibrium deteriorated rapidly after the shooting. Leasure moved him to the Bel Air mansion where he still lives; he retreated behind a 500lb steel bedroom door and began taking "morphine, cocaine, Quaaludes, uppers and downers; whatever eased the suffering". His wife, who had a more addictive personality, kept him company, and by the end of her life was spending over $20,000 a month on cocaine alone. When Leasure, who had probably contracted Aids from intravenous drug use, drowned in their heart-shaped bath, she was 33.
The pain from Flynt's injury was ended by an operation to sever the nerves in his spine, but even then bereavement and immobility did nothing to ease his mood swings. In 1983 he got his hands on a tape showing the sting operation that preceded the FBI's arrest of businessman John DeLorean on cocaine-trafficking charges. Flynt gave the video to a television network, then refused to reveal his sources. He appeared before Manuel Real, Chief Federal Judge in Los Angeles, wearing the stars and stripes like a diaper.
"What made me so pissed off," he says, "was that, had this been any other journalist, they would never have dreamed of pressing him on his source. They did it because it was me." In court, "I just blew it. I just went off."
Flynt tore up a charge sheet relating to his "defiling of the flag" and spat at Judge Real. Gagged, and handcuffed to his wheelchair after repeated outbursts, he was untied for the pronouncement of sentence, at which point he encouraged the judge to "give me more" - an invitation Real accepted, adding six months to an original nine-month term.
"But you know what?" Flynt says. "That's one thing I'm not sorry about. I got to do the thing that every American has thought about at one time or another: I got to tell a federal judge to go fuck himself."
Larry Flynt claims to have mellowed a little over the years, and has recently devoted much of his energy to exposing hypocrisy among custodians of public morality. At the time of President Clinton's first appearance before the Grand Jury, in autumn 1998, Flynt placed newspaper advertisements offering $1m to anyone with information compromising Republican members of congress. Bob Livingston (then second in line to the presidency) resigned after admitting extramarital affairs. Stepping down, he described himself as having been "Larry Flynted".
Among the many tales about Flynt, perhaps the most bizarre is the rumour - widely reported in the late 1980s - that he plotted the murder of Frank Sinatra, Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione of Penthouse.
LA police claimed they'd found a cheque for $1m given by Flynt to a bodyguard, Mitchell Werbell, who has since died of natural causes.
"Why kill Sinatra?"
"You know," says Flynt, "when I woke up and read that in the LA Times, I just couldn't believe my eyes."
"So you never wrote that cheque?"
"Well, I did," Flynt says. "But it was a joke. It was something for my security guy to put up on his wall."
The rumour has, nevertheless, become part of the Larry Flynt legend, like other contentious and unproven reports. (In 1997, Guccione's Penthouse would have its own rush of blood, publishing an article by William Rider, Althea Leasure's brother-in-law, alleging that Althea believed one of Flynt's minders had deliberately injected her with the HIV virus - a charge Flynt vehemently denies.)
We spend the uneasy final minutes of our meeting talking about Tonya Flynt-Vega, his daughter from his marriage to Peggy. In 1998, she published Hustled, a book in which she describes violent and incestuous acts she says Flynt committed against her. Certain aspects of her testimony - the fact that she claims to have suppressed these memories for years before recovering them, and the warmth with which they are disputed by other family members well-placed to have known - mean that even Flynt's enemies regard her case as unproven.
That said, her charges are not only grave, but graphically described: for some years in the late 1990s Tonya Flynt regularly addressed anti-pornography groups on the subject of her experience.
"He made me give him oral sex and he gave me oral sex," Flynt-Vega claimed, "and he said he did it because he loved me... if you want to see a victim of pornography, look at me."
The frontispiece of Hustled is a letter from her father stating that "you and I both know these accusations are a lie".
"I swear to you," Flynt says, "that I never, never, ever, touched that girl in any way. I never raised her - her mother Peggy raised her. She spent some time at the house in California, in 1983, but my daughter Theresa was here throughout that period. The only motive I can think of is that Church groups will book her, and pay her expenses, to go around and give talks on child abuse."
Flynt's opponents have also accused the publisher of improper conduct towards Theresa herself, suggestions which the supposed victim flatly denies. Tonya Flynt-Vega has stopped giving interviews on the subject of her father; her publishers, like the group Coalition Against Pornography, which she once represented, say they have lost touch with her. "And we haven't heard from Tonya," Theresa Flynt told me, "since she told us that she was sorry."
In the same way that there seems little point in disputing any newly discovered act of kindness by a saint, so - given Flynt's record of aberrant and unhinged behaviour - almost any allegation, however ill-founded, has a tendency to stick. It's something of a surprise, given his less than pristine reputation, to hear Hustler's publisher say that his thoughts are already with posterity; his main aim, he says, is "to become a memory".
"Every one of us becomes a memory. What do you really mean - a legend?"
"No," says Flynt. "I mean a memory. I think everybody has this ambition. To leave their prints in the sand. Personally, I would like that memory to be that I was someone who fought to expand the parameters of free speech. I think that memory would be..." He hesitates. "Honourable, and noble."
This last phrase, it has to be said, is not one he has ever inspired in life.
"What single adjective," I ask him, "would make for your most-mistaken epitaph?"
"Oh, I don't know... smut-peddler, pornographer, sleaze-merchant, scumbag, asshole, grinder-out of filth in the basement of his building."
Larry Flynt smiles, then adds, quite convincingly: "That's just not me at all."
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