Lessons From Larry Flynt
The world’s most famous porn peddler was an unpredictable and sometimes generous boss.
I once worked for Larry Flynt, but it is not what you think.
For nine months straddling the fall of 1977 and the spring of 1978, the Hustler publisher signed my paychecks. So, when a friend of mine texted me the news in February that Flynt had died at age 78 in Los Angeles, a floodgate of memories opened.
I cannot say all the memories were good, and it was not the highlight of my journalism career. My lessons learned were about life, not words. About people, loyalty and greed. I learned most of them from Flynt, without him saying a word to me.
I was an underqualified associate editor for Ohio Magazine, Flynt’s newly created “legit” publication. City and state magazines were all the rage, thanks to Texas Monthly and its copycats. This was Flynt’s foray into something different. He wanted to put out a hard-hitting magazine that would expose corruption. He plastered the state with billboards saying the magazine was going to tell the state of the state, and he hired an experienced pro to lead the publication: Tom Suchan, who had been the city editor for the Akron Beacon Journal when it won a Pulitzer for its Kent State shooting coverage.
I could not tell you what my job description was. I remember overseeing our restaurant reviews and writing a story on People to Watch in 1978, but not much else. I tossed the magazines long ago for recycling but was never going to toss the memos.
Ohio Magazine’s offices were on the first floor of the Hustler building at 40 W. Gay St. in Columbus. The building still exists—Juvly Aesthetics now occupies that same floor. Hustler’s offices were on the second story. We had separate entrances, but if somebody walked into the Hustler entrance by mistake, they would see a large picture of a naked woman hanging over the receptionist’s desk.
You never knew what you might see in the building. Photocopied pages of the upcoming issue of Hustler lined the walls of the second-floor hallways. Michael Castranova, who worked as an editor during Ohio Magazine’s early days, told Columbus Monthly in a 1996 story how he walked into a downstairs unisex bathroom only to find a naked blonde in red high heels smoking a cigarette.
Flynt was at the peak of his powers when he strutted through our offices in 1977. He usually had a bodyguard or two large, menacing Doberman pinschers by his side.
His businesses were raining money. He was selling between 3 and 4 million Hustler magazines a month. He was a media obsession before we had 24-hour news channels, the internet and social media. He made the rounds of the morning talk shows defending his magazine and his First Amendment rights. We were ordered to come into the office early and watch him on the Today show.
One fall day we were told not to report to the office. Instead, we should go to the Drexel movie theater. Flynt was front and center when we arrived.
He said he wanted us to better understand who he was, so he was going to show us two documentaries. The first was “Harlan County USA,” a 1973 film about a coal strike in Kentucky.
I still remember his exact words all these years later. “I grew up in the county next to Harlan,” Flynt said. “And we would look up to them because at least they had coal.”
The second was “Marjoe,” about the child evangelist Marjoe Ortner. Flynt at the time was flirting with Christianity and talking about being born again. He was flying around the country debating Ruth Carter Stapleton, Jimmy Carter’s evangelist sister. “She thinks she’s converting me,” he said. “But I’m really converting her.”
Neither converted the other, at least not permanently, but it was one of the best workdays I ever had. I saw two great documentaries and got all the free popcorn I could eat.
People could criticize Flynt for many things, but being cheap was not one of them. He threw a lavish Christmas party in December 1977 for all his employees. There were large bowls of shrimp and other goodies. The alcohol flowed. His pal at the time, comedian Dick Gregory, hung around and told a few stale jokes.
Flynt then stood up and announced that nobody could live on less than $15,000 a year, the equivalent of $64,474 today, so everyone making less than that would immediately receive a raise.
He did not stop there. He said that the company had had a good year, and he was going to share the wealth. Everyone would receive a Christmas bonus equivalent to 10 percent of their yearly salary. That meant $1,500 for me, the equivalent of $6,447 today.
The next week a check arrived for $150. Even a journalism major like me knew that $150 was not 10 percent of my annual salary.
I was working out of the office a few days later when I received a phone call from one of my colleagues.
“We got the rest of our money,” he said.
“The rest of our Christmas bonus.”
Sure enough, on my desk was a check for $1,350 along with a one-page memo I never threw away. In it, Flynt apologized for the delay, blaming it on high-ranking employees who disregarded his orders.
Then he underlined a sentence. “Always remember when a man gives you a weekly paycheck regardless of how little or how much, you owe that man 100 percent of your loyalty. At such time when you feel you can no longer offer your employer 100 percent of your loyalty you should quit.”
The rumor was his wife, Althea, and the CFO were not happy with his decision to increase salaries and to give the bonuses, which totaled more than $600,000, equivalent to $2.6 million today. They were worried about his mental state and his talk of cleaning up Hustler and being born again.
They were planning a coup; they would have him committed when his plane landed in Columbus. Somehow, he found out and landed in Pittsburgh. It was after that he gave out the rest of the bonuses and wrote the scathing memo.
But Althea was never involved with the plan. Columbus Monthly unraveled the mystery several years later. Flynt’s brother, Jimmy, was the culprit who convinced a probate judge to sign the paperwork to have him detained and held for a sanity hearing. Sheriff’s deputies waited for the plane that never landed.
Everything would change a few months later.
March 6, 1978, was a beautiful day in Columbus. The sun was shining, and there was the hint of hope that a dreadful winter was taking baby steps toward spring. But the office was somber when I returned from lunch. A secretary was crying; Larry Flynt had been shot, she said. He was returning to the Gwinnett County Courthouse in Georgia, where he was being tried on obscenity charges, when he was felled by a sniper’s bullet. Flynt survived, but he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
White supremacist Joseph Franklin admitted to the shooting. He said he was angered by a photo spread in Hustler showing a white woman and a black man together. He never went to trial for Flynt’s shooting, but he was put to death in 2013 for a string of killings of Black and Jewish people.
Our lives back in Columbus changed the moment Flynt was shot. Althea took charge of the company while Flynt recovered in a Columbus hospital. Boy, did she take charge. There was a memo reminding everyone lunch was one hour long and had to be taken between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. And another reminding us that the phones were for work only, not personal calls.
Hustler by now had moved its offices to Los Angeles, and Ohio Magazine employees moved to the second floor. One time, a graphic artist heard a woman scream from across the street, where her car engine had caught fire. He grabbed a fire extinguisher, ran down the stairs, crossed the street and put out the fire. He was reprimanded for leaving the office during work.
Then came the ultimate memo, five weeks after Flynt was shot. It rescinded the pay raises he had so generously announced at his Christmas party. I wrote on Larry’s original memo “The Lord Giveth” and on Althea’s “The Lord Taketh Away.” The memo wasn’t a joke to the stunned people who had gone out and bought cars and homes because of the boosted salaries.
Althea never cared for Ohio Magazine. It did not make money. Our top editor moved on, and the staff shrank. I was part of the shrinking. Flynt eventually put it up for sale. Ironically, the Wolfe family, arguably the most conservative media family in the state, purchased it. Today, it’s a family-friendly travel and lifestyle magazine owned by Cleveland-based Great Lakes Publishing. When Flynt died in February, the publication’s website included no mention of its founder’s passing.
Flynt continued to make news: public meltdowns, publicity stunts, a legal feud with the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. that went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Flynt won. Despite his vulgar exterior, Flynt became a First Amendment hero, and Hollywood came calling. In 1996, “The People vs. Larry Flynt” was released, with Woody Harrelson playing Flynt.
Over time, Flynt faded from the headlines as Hustler’s circulation declined, a victim of the internet, and his magazine would never be the porn power it once was. But his empire did not collapse. When Flynt died in February, The New York Times estimated his worth around $400 million.
A couple of postscripts. When I tell the story, people ask me what I did with the $1,500 bonus. I bought my first color television with part of it, which I fondly named the Larry Flynt Memorial TV. It worked loyally for me and then my parents for 20 years.
As for Christmas bonuses, I received many Honey Baked Hams and grocery store gift cards after that, but I would never again receive a 10 percent Christmas bonus. Not even close.