The Hustler Strikes Back

I have long since come to accept and even to take pride in the fact that my work life encompasses a certain amount of built-in absurdity; nevertheless, I must confess to experiencing a deep and mortifying sense of despair in that moment last week when it occurred to me my epitaph might read "crushed to death on the corner of Fifth and Walnut in downtown Cincinnati while attempting to get a copy of Hustler magazine."Although Larry Flynt's 1977 obscenity conviction in Cincinnati was quickly overturned on appeal, local magazine retailers have refused to carry Hustler ever since, citing fears of prosecution. In an attempt to force the issue, Flynt returned to Cincinnati last Wednesday (May 14), intending to hand out 200 copies of the magazine. To the surprise of Flynt and everyone else, hundreds of people showed up, generating such a radical imbalance of demand vis a vis supply that it can only be called a pornography riot.The author of my opportunity to meet such a splendidly humiliating demise was parked in his gold-plated wheelchair no more than six feet from where I strained to keep my footing, pinioned within the tightly-packed mass of 1,500 or so bodies belonging (for the time being, at least) to people who, like me, had come to observe and/or take part in Flynt's latest affront to local community standards. Flynt's entourage included both his real-life brother, Jimmy, and Brett (brother of Woody) Harrelson, who portrays Jimmy in The People Vs. Larry Flynt. Harrelson, together with other of Flynt's friends, relatives and associates literally dug in his heels and formed a human buffer against the Hustler-hungry throng that threatened to trample the pinstripe-suited pornographer, while Jimmy desperately tried to keep the elder Flynt supplied with magazines. Alas, everyone soon realized that there were many fewer Hustlers than there were people hustling to get them and a situation conceived in ugliness threatened for a time to get a good deal uglier.Flynt had come to Cincinnati to get arrested. He intended to do this by distributing his magazines at a spot about a block and a half from where he used to get arrested regularly -- the site of the original Hustler club. There were mounted police in the street, sharpshooters on the roof of the Federal Building and, one felt certain, vans full of sheriff's deputies parked out of sight but within striking distance. Nevertheless, as Flynt set up his sidewalk magazine stand complete with large signs lettered in red on a white field saying "Hustler on sale here" and the crowd began its potentially lethal surge towards him, no one in the Flynt ensemble was about to ask the cops for any help controlling the mob. It had already become clear that the local authorities were not going to accommodate Flynt's wish that they arrest him. It may have disappointed Flynt, but that decision turned out to be a fortunate one for everyone else. Given the circumstances, sinking the Bismarck would not have been a messier assignment.Flynt's upscale model wasn't the only wheelchair in the midst of the melee. Directly behind me, a young disabled man with a dark goatee leaned to one side of his conveyance as if he expected to be trampled at any moment and I realized that, if things got out of hand, I would probably get to know a lot more than I wanted to about his canvass-backed wheelchair. Every time I felt my gorge rising, though, I sought reassurance from the elderly lady standing near my right armpit. She was over eighty if she was a minute, wearing a maniacal grin and a coat that once grew on another species of mammal. She was there to get her Hustler and she wasn't worried about a thing. Of course, that may have been because she was too short to see what was going on but I figured, if she could take it, so could I. Just ahead of me loomed a burly, bearded, sleeveless brute with bad hair and an attitude to match. This guy had decided on a shoulder-first mode of advancing toward the Promised Land of Porn located a few feet yonder and, as a byproduct of this technique, had lodged his beefy left forearm in my sternum. For a moment, I considered returning the uninvited limb to sender, but I didn't want to be the one to send things over the edge. Besides, I had a funny feeling about this guy (as distinct from the not-so-funny feeling he was causing in my mid-pectoral region). "Officer," I shouted respectfully, "kindly remove your elbow from my chest!" He turned, glared murderously at me, but didn't say a word. And he took his arm away. Whether the guy was an undercover vice squad cop or not, he was significantly more ruthless than I was in his quest to cop a Hustler. He was also more successful, shouldering his way out of the crowd with even greater determination than he'd used to gain his cellophane-wrapped tribute to blue-collar prurience. If my hunch about the guy was correct, that particular item may at this moment be undergoing review by law enforcement authorities or a grand jury. In any case, both Flynt and I had failed. He didn't get arrested and I didn't get a Hustler. Beware falling pornographers"I don't think anything has more socially redeeming value than pornography," said a beaming Flynt, responding to a question about the merits of Hustler (i.e., whether it had any) thrown at him during a hastily-convened press conference back at the Cincinnatian hotel. "I think it's the purest form of art," said Flynt. It's unlikely that anyone else in the room agreed with him, but the sincerity and warmth which with he made that statement made you believe that he believed it. It also became apparent during the press conference that Flynt, who seems to be suffering from a mild case of indictment-withdrawal, would much rather return to the courtroom as defendant rather than as appellant. He said again what he had said several times since coming to town, that he really, really wanted to get arrested for pandering obscenity, to go to jail, go directly to jail, and to get a new trial by jury on the old issue of whether Hustler is obscene. But wasn't that a peculiarly passive tactic for the man who'd kicked Jerry Falwell's ass on the floor of the US Supreme Court? "Given remarks by Hamilton County sheriff Simon Leis, Jr.," I asked Flynt, "remarks published in the Jan. 12 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer to the effect that, if you tried sell Hustler here, he would direct his deputies to round it up and bring charges, why would you not file a lawsuit against county authorities for restraint of free trade and prior restraint, particularly given the market demand for your publication demonstrated today?""We discussed doing exactly that with attorneys," Flynt answered, "but decided we didn't have proper standing to do that here." Nice-sounding baloney, I thought to myself. The man's just a born counter-puncher who fights better after getting hit; in fact, he has all the legal standing he needs. It was Flynt's lack of proper standing at the beginning of the press conference, however, that nearly resulted in disaster. Flynt was wheeled in by brother Jimmy, who parked his nattily attired elder sibling in front of the business end of the TV mics. Flynt surveyed the room (containing reporters and equipment from three of the four TV network local affiliates, both daily newspapers, and this writer), pushed back from the table in preparation for making his opening statement and fell straight over backwards.Evidently, something on the wheelchair that should have been locked hadn't been, or visa versa. Whatever the cause, the fact was that Flynt, having just survived a truly dangerous situation on the sidewalks of Cincinnati, was now headed for an unscheduled and potentially injurious meeting between the back of his noggin and the carpeted conference room floor of the Cincinnatian Hotel. Flynt's co-survivors the media, his brother, Harrelson, etc. were all too rung out, too surprised and too far away from the swiftly descending publisher to do anything other than watch in stunned disbelief as he hit the floor.Except that he didn't quite get there. Somehow, there interposed itself between the plummeting pornographer and the rug a body clad in a white t-shirt bearing the logo of a local alternative newsweekly my body, as it happened. Don't ask me how I got there (ask the news stations; they presumably have it all on tape). All I know is that I did get there. I caught Flynt's chair before he hit anything and set him upright back where he belonged. Jimmy came over to inspect the chair and his brother, in that order, and both seemed okay. Unhurt and unfazed, Flynt went on with his press conference without missing a beat. Afterwards, though, reflecting back on my little Flynt-catching episode not to mention the genuine risk to which Flynt had exposed himself on Fifth St. I concluded there had to be more to the man's mania for wrapping himself in the First Amendment than meets the eye. Flynt as First Amendment performance artistWhy does he do it? Those who would argue that Flynt's recent visit to his old stomped-on grounds was motivated by his greed for profit and publicity have a big problem. That "explanation" makes absolutely no sense because a.) Flynt doesn't need to increase profits and, even if he did, knocking himself out to penetrate a two-bit market like Cincinnati would be the dumbest conceivable way to go about it, and b.) the guy has already achieved a degree of fame that can only be diminished by hanging out on street corners in Cincinnati. Nor can one carry much Ohio River water with that favorite diagnosis of local armchair psychologists, that Flynt has returned specifically to take on his old enemy Simon Leis -- a man whose intellectual limitations have become so apparent (even to himself) that he has chosen to progress backwards with his career in the Hamilton County Justice system (from prosecutor to municipal judge to sheriff). As Flynt understood this very well when he said in his news conference later that day, "Si is an old wooden-head who I can dismiss with the blink of an eye." Leis may still be able to bust local computer bulletin board operators on the suspicion of posting dirty pictures, but he nullified himself long ago as any kind of a factor in the big-time porn wars.So, what makes Larry wheel? I may have been bruised and Hustler-less when I left the southeast corner of Fountain Square that morning, but I came away bearing a new insight into the Larry Flynt gestalt. Gloria Steinem cannot tell you why Flynt does the things he does. Neither can Bob Guccione, Jerry Falwell or any of Flynt's other celebrated nemeses. Oh, they can tell you what they think of Flynt and his shenanigans, of course, but none of them can offer a convincing explanation of why he does it.Well, I know why. It may well be that Flynt, at one point in his career, sought to exploit the First Amendment in order to make a profit (which, by the way, is precisely the kind of exploitation called for by the framers of the Constitution). These days, however, Flynt clearly exploits his business interests in a manner that profits the First Amendment. Don't believe me? Do you know what percentage of Americans who happen to drive semis for a living are aware that the First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws that establish a state religion, or that forbid the practice of any religion, or that encroach on freedom of the press, freedom of speech or the people's right to protest peacefully? No? Well, I don't know either, but I know that percentage is somewhat higher than it would be if it were not for Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine. I also know that, if Flynt were a national PR firm and the First Amendment were his client, the bill for Flynt's services would be enormous. Sneer if you like. The fact is that Larry Flynt (with considerable assistance from Milos Forman) has made the First Amendment famous in the same way that George Raft and the gangster film genre made the Fifth Amendment famous. The difference is that the Flynt/Forman PR campaign encourages a good deal more exploration of the issues implicit in the Bill of Rights than does the phrase, "I'm takin' da Fifth, yer Honor."So Larry Flynt serves the First Amendment by exploiting it for fun and for profit. But there is another reason that the man carries on as he does. We all enjoy doing things we are good at, and Flynt happens to be quite good at improvising Constitutional street theater, especially on the streets of Cincinnati, which, as Flynt points out, is the only American city of its size whose citizens cannot walk into a store and buy Hustler. Larry Flynt, you see, is America's first First Amendment performance artist. And, at least in one mid-sized American city, people have shown they're willing to fight for front-row seats at those performances. I can hardly wait to see the season subscription brochure.


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