As dreams go, Larry Flynt’s was a modest one.
It went something like this: Buy a bar. Put some plywood over the pool table. Hire a young woman in a bikini to dance on it.
Nothing fancy. No delusions of respectability. Just a safe bet that the world was full of men willing to pay cash to drink cheap beer and look at pretty dancers. This was Flynt’s business model when he opened the Hustler Cocktail Lounge in early 1968 in Dayton, Ohio.
“When I started out, I just wanted to make money and have a lot of fun,” Flynt said. “That was basically my vision.”
His timing could not have been better. The opening of his bar in the late 1960s made possible a career that would propel Flynt from dirt-poor Kentucky boy to one of 20th Century America’s most successful and reviled pornographers.
More opportunist than pioneer, Flynt saw fractures developing in American society and quickly made a home in those widening gaps. His strategy was as simple as it was crude: Find a tried-and-true formula to make a buck and take it as far as the changing culture would allow.
Strip clubs had been around for decades, but Flynt ran his with the shameless flair of a carnival barker. Pornography had existed since humans began drawing on cave walls, but Flynt took his to extremes unseen outside of gynecology textbooks.
Smut peddlers had always stumbled into fights over obscenity, but Flynt became an accidental champion of the First Amendment by carrying a fight over his Hustler magazine to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Along the way, he denigrated women, coarsened the culture and almost single-handedly redefined the meaning of bad taste.
Would he publish an image of a woman being run through a meat grinder? Yes, he would. Racist jokes? Absurd publicity stunts? Photos of a naked Jackie Kennedy Onassis? Flynt said yes to all of it.
“He certainly pushed the buttons on what could be tolerated,” said Jon Hughes, a journalist and former University of Cincinnati professor who has followed Flynt’s career. “Flynt was the catalyst for thinking about what obscenity is and is not.”
Considering the media landscape Americans inhabit today, where images of sex and violence appear with the swipe of a cell phone, it’s hard to argue Flynt alone changed the trajectory of American culture.
More likely, he was a product of that culture, a man whose greatest gift was recognizing he was in the right place at the right time.
A decade earlier, in the more conservative 1950s, Flynt’s career may not have happened. A decade later, in the more permissive 1970s, it may not have mattered.
But in 1968, on Third Street in Dayton, Flynt saw an opportunity to make a modest dream come true. There, he would watch one of America’s most chaotic years unfold.
Unlike millions of his fellow Americans, Flynt was not alarmed by what he saw. He was inspired by it.
The bar had been a dive for years, a “wino joint,” as Flynt liked to say. But he saw potential in the place.
Flynt was no stranger to the business. He and his mother owned a few bars around Dayton, most notably the Keewee Club and Larry’s Hillbilly Haven, catering to working class guys looking to unwind after shifts at General Motors or National Cash Register.
“It makes perfect sense he’d start in Dayton,” said Bob Bowman, a filmmaker who grew up in Dayton. “It was a real blue-collar town.”
But when Flynt visited a go-go dance club in Phoenix, he had an epiphany. He wanted to try something new. It wasn’t just the bikini-clad dancers who got his attention, although they did, it was their ability to keep the booze and the cash flowing.
“I thought it would go over great in Ohio,” Flynt said.
He knew he’d catch flak for opening a West Coast-style dance club right in the middle of Dayton, but it was 1968 and the sexual revolution was taking off, seemingly everywhere. People were testing boundaries, and Flynt decided to test them, too.
He bought the bar on Third Street and set about turning it into a club for “the common man.” He hired some dancers and built a stage so they could perform on something other than the plywood-covered tables they’d used at his other bars.
“We had dark lights, and that was a life-saver,” said Flynt’s brother, Jimmy, who helped run the bar when he got home from Vietnam in 1969. “When you opened it up during the day and let the sunlight in, it looked like a toilet.”
Yet this is where Larry Flynt would learn his most valuable lessons about business and human nature.
Standing behind the bar, watching the dancers gyrate, Flynt heard gripes about girlfriends and wives, bosses and politicians. He also heard in these men’s voices a growing frustration with the changing world and their place in it.
Flynt sensed an opportunity. He suspected they would like a guy who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. And he saw no reason why he couldn’t be that guy, especially if it got his bar some free publicity.
One night in 1968, Flynt loaded up his new Cadillac with dancers and sent them to a Young Democrats meeting in Dayton.
When the dancers arrived in tights and bikini tops, the Young Democrats refused to let them in. A photographer snapped a picture of the young women trying to pull the door open while a Young Democrat desperately clung to the door, as if fending off half-naked zombies.
Flynt got a headline in the next day’s newspaper: “Go, Girls! Wrong Party!”
A leader of the Young Democrats, stating the obvious, complained the whole thing was just a publicity stunt.
Some months later, Flynt called on his dancers again, this time when he got into a dispute with a Dayton bank over a loan. Flynt sent a half-dozen of them to the bank lobby pushing wheelbarrows filled with enough pennies to pay off the loan.
When they got there, the dancers dumped the pennies on the floor.
“He was definitely P.T. Barnum,” his brother said.
As the pennies spilled out of the wheelbarrows that day, Flynt sensed he was onto something. A crowd was gathering. Photographers were snapping more pictures.
Larry Flynt was becoming the best-known bar owner in town.
In the years to come, Flynt would wear a diaper to court, declare himself a born-again Christian, un-declare himself a born-again Christian, publish the Jackie Kennedy photos, pick fights with elected officials and generally make a public spectacle of himself.
His fame would, by then, have moved far beyond Dayton.
Larry Flynt through the years
Every few months in 1968, Flynt stuffed photos of his dancers into an envelope and mailed them to his brother, Jimmy, in Vietnam.
He’d used the photos to promote the bar and figured his brother and his Army buddies would appreciate them. They did. The young soldiers tucked the photos into pockets or pinned them to the walls of the bunkers they’d hollowed out of the ground.
“I was the most popular guy in Vietnam,” Jimmy said.
Back home in Dayton, Larry was learning soldiers weren’t the only ones eager to see images of his dancers. After purchasing a tabloid called Bachelors Beat in 1968, Flynt turned it into a promotional vehicle for his dance club.
The paper found an audience among the same working-class men who frequented the bar, which got Flynt to thinking. What if he ran a publication the way he ran his bar? What if he stripped away the pretense and gave the crowd what he thought it wanted?
Flynt’s work on Bachelor’s Beat in 1968 offered clues about what was to come. Though tame compared to his later work, his first foray into publishing bumped up against the moral standards of the day.
“He’d have a go-go dancer on the front page,” said Bowman, who was 14 at the time. “His sensibility was, ‘Let’s get down and dirty and show guys what they want to see.’”
Flynt was just getting started. A few years later, in 1974, he was the owner of eight dance clubs in Ohio and the publisher of a promotional newsletter called The Hustler, which would become the glossy magazine, Hustler, that he still publishes today.
He immediately recognized the potential of the magazine to attract the same guys he saw every night at his bars. He didn’t think they were interested in the kind of pseudo-artsy centerfolds they saw in Playboy, and he was certain they didn’t care about the articles.
“Playboy taught you how to make a perfect martini or told you what kind of car you should drive,” Flynt said. “People who buy these magazines want their porn to be porn.”
So that’s what he gave them. Hard-core porn. Those instincts led him to the audience he knew was out there. It wasn't as large as the 5 million a month who bought his tamer rivals, Playboy and Penthouse, at their peak. But Flynt managed to shock, offend and entertain his way to 3 million readers in the 1970s and 1980s.
If he was unsure where civil society drew a line, Flynt would keep going until he crossed it. And even then, he might keep going.
Once, during an obscenity trial in Cincinnati, a prosecutor drew an actual chalk line on the courtroom floor and declared, “To protect our community, you’ve got to draw that line.”
But the line was beginning to shift.
Because obscenity laws are based on “community standards,” a subjective term that only a jury can define, they tend to evolve over time. It’s up to a jury to decide, case by case, whether a work has artistic, scientific or political merit.
Flynt argued his pornography met the standards of his time, no matter how offensive it might be.
His opponents said he was trying to redefine community standards by degrading women and dragging the culture into the gutter. Worse, they said, he was encouraging millions of Hustler readers to do the same.
“Being a woman, what he did frightened me. It was so distressing,” said Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women. “It’s clear he doesn’t think of women as living, breathing human beings.”
Others saw Flynt’s magazine as a product of the times, a visceral male response to a sexual revolution that was shaking up their traditional roles and expectations.
“A nation gets the pornography it deserves,” author Laura Kipnis wrote in a 2014 essay about Flynt. “Which is obviously why so many people are affronted by it.”
Flynt wanted to be the guy who delivered the pornography America deserved, or at least the kind he thought could make him rich.
This was 1968, after all, and he was feeling ambitious.
He soon found ambition could lead to trouble, especially in his line of work. Police raids and the fate of his liquor license were constant worries during those early years in Dayton.
Flynt was stubborn, though. Despite his problems, he began opening clubs in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo. Wherever he went, he met resistance with the same defiant attitude he first showed in Dayton.
When Cincinnati police told him to remove a go-go dancer from the front window of his club, Flynt replaced her the next day with a closed-circuit TV showing a live broadcast of the same dancer.
“You just couldn’t tell Larry he couldn’t do something,” said Lou Sirkin, a Cincinnati lawyer who met Flynt in the 1970s and represented him in the 1990s.
Flynt didn’t set out to be a free speech crusader. But as his businesses grew, he found common cause with those who saw the late 1960s as an opportunity to expand individual freedoms.
He started showing up at panel discussions in Dayton and Cincinnati about the First Amendment and obscenity, sharing the stage with college professors and lawyers. Hughes remembers Flynt patiently listening to those with opposing views and then, in his slow Kentucky drawl, calmly defending his right to offend his fellow Americans.
“He was kind of charming,” Hughes said.
A growing chorus of critics thought otherwise. Evangelist Jerry Falwell, in particular, was not amused when Flynt published a satirical interview suggesting the preacher lost his virginity to his mother. Falwell sued, but Flynt fought him to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Once I made money, that’s when I really became dangerous,” Flynt said. “I could afford lawyers.”
Good lawyers, as it turned out. The Falwell case ended with a landmark decision supporting the right to publish parodies of public figures. It’s the first line of defense today for South Park, The Onion and Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump skits on Saturday Night Live.
Flynt won other cases, too, and often appealed the ones he lost, fighting to the end. He was betting that while most Americans might not like his magazine, there were plenty out there who didn’t want the government telling them what they could and could not see.
“He was an agitator,” Sirkin said. “He was like (comedian) Lenny Bruce. He was the first to go to the extreme.”
Flynt was battling another obscenity charge in Georgia in 1978 when a would-be assassin shot him as he left the courthouse. Paralyzed from the waist down, he descended into years of mental health struggles and erratic behavior.
For some, the shooting solidified Flynt’s position as a free speech icon, as a martyr for the cause. For others, it was a tragic distraction from the damage Flynt’s business was doing to American society.
“To call Larry Flynt anything other than a porn peddler is giving him way too much credit,” said Aaron Baer, president of Citizens for Community Values in Ohio. “There are ways to campaign for the First Amendment that don’t harm women and children.”
Baer said Flynt embraced the First Amendment to make a buck, nothing more. In other words, he’s the same guy he was back in Dayton in 1968.
Flynt, now 75, doesn’t entirely dispute that interpretation. He’s still a pornographer, one who has again adapted to his times by branching out to video production and the internet. But he takes obvious pride in the Supreme Court case that bears Hustler’s name.
“When you talk about expanding the parameters of free speech, that’s not a bad thing,” Flynt said.
Still, it’s not what he had in mind when he opened that bar on Third Street in Dayton. He was just a businessman then, young and stubborn and confident the world around him was about to change.
When it did, he was ready.
Will he be remembered as a pornographer or a free speech champion?
Flynt would gladly claim both, but only the first description was intentional. The second, a gift of the times.
“I think I started at the right time,” Flynt said. “There was a niche there that really worked for me.”
Reach Dan Horn at the Cincinnati Enquirer at email@example.com
For all the stories about this transformational year, visit 1968.usatoday.com