When Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt died on Feb. 10 at the age of 78, it signaled the end of an era where a misogynistic smut peddler could be viewed as a kind of antihero.
It’s hard to laud someone who built his empire by unabashedly treating women like pieces of meat, but as a First Amendment warrior, Flynt won important legal victories while sticking his thumb in the eye of the powers that be.
Over the decades, Flynt took on America’s morality police or anyone he felt to be hypocritical on matters of sex, engaging in what the Washington Post once referred to as “Dirt Bag Journalism.” This involved offering millions to anyone who could prove an extramarital affair with a high-ranking government official, such as in 1998, when he took down then-House speaker designate and staunch Clinton impeachment backer Bob Livingston. In 2017, Flynt offered $10 million for information leading to Donald Trump’s impeachment and removal from office.
Many know Flynt best from the Oscar-winning 1996 Milos Forman film “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” in which he was portrayed as a rakish rogue by Woody Harrelson. The movie went a long way toward softening Flynt’s image as a tawdry yet charismatic freedom fighter, while sanding off the more grotesque aspects of his personality.
To the FBI, he was a person of interest. His 322-page FBI file, obtained by VICE News through a Freedom of Information Act request, contains a wild litany of events involving the Hustler honcho—from John DeLorean's cocaine bust and an alleged plot to hire a mercenary to kill Hugh Hefner and Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, to an alleged effort by Flynt to blow himself up in the Supreme Court, as well as threats to Sandra Day O’Connor and President Ronald Reagan.
His FBI file focuses mainly on his activities in the 1980s, when his behavior was at its most erratic, but also when many of his important First Amendment battles came to a head.
Flynt once described himself as a “smut peddler who cares,” but he also said it was his goal to “offend every single person in this world at some point.” Despite it all, he knew the law was on his side because, “If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, then it will protect all of you, because I'm the worst."
Here are the 10 wildest revelations from the FBI’s file on Flynt:
Fuck This Court!
Flynt’s most famous Supreme Court battle involved a defamation suit brought by televangelist Jerry Falwell after Hustler published a parody advertisement that suggested he had lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse.
But it wasn’t his first: On Nov. 8, 1983, the Supreme Court heard the case of Keeton v. Hustler Magazine, Inc. involving another defamation lawsuit. This one was brought by Kathy Keeton, the co-founder of Penthouse magazine, in response to a cartoon that falsely suggested she had contracted a venereal disease from Bob Guccione, Penthouse’s publisher and her longtime partner. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in her favor.
Flynt had tried to convince the court to allow him to argue his own case before them, but he was denied. Things turned ugly from there, as was revealed in a series of affidavits collected by the FBI from witnesses to what occurred in court that day.
“On Nov. 8, 1983, the dignity and decorum of the United States Supreme Court—pristine for nearly two centuries—was shattered by the deliberately outrageous conduct of the defendant,” was how the episode was described in a charging document signed by Joe DiGenova, the then-U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. DiGenova has more recently been in the limelight as a pro-Trump analyst and Fox News regular.
At 10 o’clock that morning, Flynt arrived in the Supreme Court surrounded by bodyguards. U.S. Marshals were prepared for an outburst, as Flynt had a history of misbehaving in court, and Flynt delivered. As the justices wrapped up the hearing, Flynt shouted: “Fuck this court! You denied me counsel of my choice. I won’t be judged by nine assholes and one token cunt—goddamn motherfuckers!” according to a transcript of audio recordings from the court that was part of the FBI file.
Flynt attempted to open his coat to reveal a T-shirt reading “Fuck This Court” underneath, but the marshals quickly whisked him out of the room to a side chamber, where he was placed under arrest.
Flynt, paralyzed from the waist down, told officers he needed to use the bathroom, several of the affidavits revealed. But as this was 1983, the Supreme Court’s bathrooms were not wheelchair-accessible. Neither were the toilets at central booking. The only option was to take him to a hospital emergency room.
Officers attempted to place him in a police wagon to take him to the hospital, but they couldn’t get him in with the wheelchair. A police cruiser also didn’t work. Then, Flynt’s lawyers offered the use of a limo they had rented that day. The offer was accepted and Flynt was driven to the clink in style.
Fuck This Court Too
Later that day Flynt was brought before Judge Jean Dwyer in Washington on charges of disrupting the court. He arrived still wearing the “Fuck This Court” shirt. According to a transcript of the proceeding that had been placed in Flynt’s file, the judge agreed to allow him to be released if he complied with a prosecution request that he not go to the Supreme Court again. Flynt declined and, according to the transcript, told Dwyer:
“Free expression is absolute. The First Amendment is the most important amendment of the Constitution. It cannot be compromised. You do not have the right to compromise it. Neither does the Supreme Court have a right to compromise it, and when I am the next president, anybody that is responsible for perverting the constitution of this great land will be put in a glass cage and I will sell tickets so people can come to Washington and see what evil perverts really look like.”
Dwyer informed Flynt that the Supreme Court ban wasn’t absolute but only for the duration of the contempt case against him. He then agreed. Before the proceeding ended, federal prosecutors asked that Flynt’s shirt be taken as evidence in the case. The judge said a photograph of the offending shirt would be sufficient.
With My Complements
In the weeks preceding the Supreme Court hearing in the Keeton case, Flynt began sending Justice Sandra Day O’Connor a complimentary subscription to Hustler. A list included in the file that detailed the subsequent correspondence noted that O’Connor’s secretary wrote back asking Flynt to remove the justice from the magazine’s subscription list. Flynt replied: “Fuck you, cunt. I’ll take you off Hustler’s subscription list when you resign from the court.” He then added her to the subscription list of other magazines he published.
The Exploding Wheelchair
A statement in the file from an unnamed informant claimed Flynt had sought help from an alcoholic mercenary and a private investigator to wire his wheelchair with explosives so he could blow himself up during his 1983 Supreme Court hearing and take all the justices with him.
Flynt allegedly asked Mitch WerBell, a weapons expert who ran a guerrilla training school in Georgia, and Gordon Novel, a private investigator, to fill the hollow metal tubes of his wheelchair with C-4 explosives impregnated with needles for the maximum effect, the informant said. The men refused, and WerBell later discussed swapping out Flynt’s wheelchair before the hearing, in the event he managed to convince someone else to do it for him, the informant said.
Prosecutors ultimately decided not to charge Flynt with a crime, determining that any discussion of detonating himself in the Supreme Court was just idle talk.
The DeLorean Tapes
Around the same time of the Supreme Court imbroglio, Flynt found himself in the middle of another high-profile scandal: the cocaine bust of auto executive John DeLorean.
By 1982, DeLorean’s sports car company was on the brink of collapse and he found himself in the middle of a $24 million cocaine deal that he hoped would save his business. But it all turned out to be an undercover FBI sting. While the bust drew international headlines, it was ultimately revealed to be entrapment and turned into a huge embarrassment for the FBI.
What convinced the public that DeLorean had been set up were secret FBI surveillance videos and audio recordings that showed an informant threatening the auto executive if he didn’t go through with the deal. Those tapes somehow ended up in Flynt’s hands, which he handed over to “60 Minutes” and played for reporters at a press conference.
The leak of the tapes infuriated prosecutors and a judge ordered Flynt to reveal how he’d gotten them. When he refused, he was held in contempt, jailed, and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars. Through it all, Flynt taunted the legal process, once showing up in court wearing a flak jacket and a diaper fashioned out of an American flag.
The FBI’s file on Flynt includes several tidbits on the bureau’s efforts to ferret out his source. While Flynt never publicly revealed how he got the tapes, one informant told agents that Flynt paid WerBell, the weapons expert, $1 million for them.
Feminist International Revolutionary Echelon
In 1978, Flynt was shot by a white supremacist in Georgia. The attack left him paralyzed and media outlets around the country were flooded with calls and letters from various people claiming credit; many were forwarded to the FBI and were placed in the file.
A woman claiming to represent a group called the Feminist International Revolutionary Echelon, or FIRE, phoned ABC News and the New York Daily News and read a statement that took credit for the shooting because “Flynt exploits women.” Time magazine received a letter from the group that read:
“Marked for Death by FIRE. Flynt didn’t listen in time. Will you? We are putting on notice all pigs who merchandise women. We are going to exterminate all the publishers who teach men to rape, slash, and strangle us.”
An anonymous letter to the New York Times read: “During a recent visit to Houston, Texas [redacted] arranged for a hit on publisher Flint [sic] because he was “foolin around with my sister.” Kind Regards, Concerned Citizen.”
The file also included a news article in which the district attorney of Gwinnett County, where the shooting took place, speculated that Flynt’s shooting resulted from either an internal struggle within Hustler or mafia involvement in the porn industry. He believed the shooting had happened in Gwinnett County so it could be “blamed on some redneck from Georgia” while obscuring the real motive.
Years after the attack, Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist serial killer, took credit for shooting Flynt, claiming he was angry after seeing a biracial pictorial in Hustler. Franklin also admitted to having shot civil rights figure Vernon Jordan. While Franklin was never tried for shooting Flynt and was acquitted of civil rights charges in the attack on Jordan, he was convicted of numerous killings and attacks on Black people and Jews, and was executed in 2013.
When mercenary Mitch WerBell died of an apparent heart attack in 1983, rumors spread that Flynt had him killed.
Years after WerBell’s death, investigators in Los Angeles claimed to have uncovered a plot in which Flynt paid him $1 million to assassinate Frank Sinatra, Bob Guccione, Hugh Hefner, and Walter Annenberg, according to news reports at the time. The plot was foiled when Flynt’s assistant stopped payment on the check. WerBell, who once developed a sophisticated weapon silencer dubbed “whispering death,” died suddenly a month later. A witness in a later murder trial testified that Flynt’s brother-in-law admitted he and Flynt slipped a powerful heart relaxant into WerBell’s drink not long before he died.
The FBI took the rumors seriously enough to review WerBell’s autopsy report and death certificate. According to an FBI affidavit, the doctor who signed the death certificate stated that the cause of death was congestive heart failure due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The bureau ruled that WerBell’s death was not suspicious.
What’s In a Name?
In a transcript in the file from one of numerous court proceedings involving Flynt, the Hustler boss went on a long diatribe about his family history, explaining that his surname was originally Flintstein and that his ancestors hailed from Denmark. Later, a family feud caused a schism over the name, with some adopting Flynn, others Flint, and, eventually, his grandfather opting to spell it as Flynt. That particular hearing devolved into chaos soon after, with Flynt being hit with a contempt citation after threatening to have the judge arrested.
I Think We Should Talk
On Jan. 25, 1984, Flynt sent a letter to the White House by certified mail addressed to an “Attorney for President Reagan” whose name was redacted, stating simply: “I think we should talk. Sincerely Larry C. Flynt.” The letter was passed on to the FBI.
According to an entry in the file, around the same time, Flynt called the White House switchboard and said he had come into possession of sex tapes featuring President Reagan, then-White House legal adviser and later U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, and Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver. The bureau looked into it as a possible extortion attempt but concluded that the tapes, if they existed, were likely forgeries.
I’ll Kill You On One Condition
In the years after Larry Flynt was shot, he continually received death threats. Some were the rantings of the unhinged; some contained vague threats to burn the magazine’s offices down; and others threatened “This time, we will finish the job.”
As a matter of course, Hustler forwarded the letters to the FBI. In each instance included in the file, the bureau declined to investigate, usually because the letters were unsigned. But in one case, in 1988, Hustler received a particularly menacing missive that included the sender’s name and address (which were redacted) and the writer’s fingerprints. The writer, who took issue with two cartoons in a recent issue that featured racist portrayals of Black characters, warned:
“If I am ever in a position to carry out my desire, I will line each person that’s associated with Hustler, starting with Larry Flint [sic] all the way down to [redacted] and I will blow your motherfucking brains out. Men. For the women I have something much better. I will get my .22 and strip each one naked and nail you to a cross and empty my .22 into your pussies. Then I would get my 12 gauge shotgun and put the barrel right on your forehead and pull the trigger and yell: ‘I’m a n***er!’”
Despite the clearly identifying information contained in the letter, the bureau declined to even go to talk to the writer. Federal prosecutors wrote that the matter lacked “prosecutive merit because the threat in this case was conditional.”