Sunday, May 02, 1999

Cincinnati vs. Flynt: The Sequel

Then and now, the opponents are intertwined, defining each other's reputations

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hustler publisher Larry Flynt handed out free copies of his magazine downtown two years ago.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        It's a little past 6 p.m. and Larry Flynt is already courting eternal damnation.

        He hears the news from a middle-aged man in a plaid sports coat who is standing outside Cincinnati's Hustler Club, ranting about the bikini-clad woman dancing in the front window.

        “Look at that!” the guy shouts at him. “You're goin' to hell!”

        Mr. Flynt, the club's owner, smiles and nods and says he'd be more than happy to remove the offending dancer.

        A few days later, the man returns to find a closed-circuit TV in the window. On the screen, in full view of everyone outside, is a live broadcast of the same dancer.

        “It wasn't exactly what he had in mind,” Mr. Flynt recalls, still laughing 25 years later. “That's when the trouble started.”

In 1977, Larry Flynt and his brother, Jimmy, were tried on obscenity charges. Larry was convicted; Jimmy was acquitted. TYhe conviction was overturned.
(Enquirer file photo)
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        Although no one really noticed at the time, it was the beginning of a relationship that would define Cincinnati and Larry Flynt for years to come.

        Conservative and radical. Dowdy and vulgar. The Queen City and the self-proclaimed King of Smut have the reputations they do today in large part because of the battles they fought decades ago over strip clubs, kinky magazines and dancers in windows.

        In a few days, they'll fight another.

        Mr. Flynt and his brother, Jimmy, are scheduled to return to Cincinnati May 10 for what they hope will be the nation's most significant obscenity trial since their last one here in 1977.

        They are accused of selling obscene videotapes and operating an illegal enterprise from their Hustler Store on Sixth Street. If convicted, they each face more than 20 years in prison.

        The latest trial is a reunion of sorts for a community and a publisher who have been bound together in the national conscience since their early duels over pornography.

        For better or worse, those legal contests became larger-than-life morality plays that transformed Cincinnati into a standard-bearer for conservative causes and Mr. Flynt into a foul-mouthed crusader for free speech.

        Each was the perfect foil for the other. And the more they became embroiled in controversy, the more they helped make each other what they are today.

        “The city and Flynt were going through all this together,” says Jon Hughes, a University of Cincinnati English professor who has studied Mr. Flynt's history here. “They fed off each other.”

A hustler in Cincinnati
        When he arrived in the early 1970s, Mr. Flynt found a city that seemed like any other. Far from squeaky clean, Cincinnati was home to a variety of strippers and shady characters who had set up shop at the bars and clubs around Walnut Street.

        Mr. Flynt decided it was the ideal place for his Hustler Club, one of several go-go clubs he owned throughout Ohio.

        At first, he fit in well. He bought some cheap storefront property and hired young women to dance for his customers. He had plenty of company.

        “He was just another sleaze vendor,” says Phil Burress, president of the anti-pornography group Citizens for Community Values.

        “I was just doing my thing,” says Mr. Flynt.

        But along the way, he forgot or ignored the unwritten rule that had allowed this cultural underground to coexist for so long with the rest of the community: Do what you want, but do it quietly.

        “It was tolerated as long as everything was very low key and not very visible,” Mr. Hughes says. “You can do anything you like in Cincinnati, as long as it's tidy.”

        And Larry Flynt was anything but tidy. He was a loud, flamboyant rabble-rouser dedicated to drawing attention to himself and his business. He put half-naked women in windows, bragged about having sex with his dancers and promoted his club with a graphic newsletter called Hustler.

        “There he was in the heart of downtown, for the world to see,” says Allen Brown, a lawyer who represented Mr. Flynt in those early days.

        It didn't take long for his club to catch the eye of then-prosecutor Simon Leis, who didn't care for Mr. Flynt or his lifestyle. An ex-Marine who saw pornography as a threat to the community, Mr. Leis was working with local conservatives to rid downtown of adult bookstores and go-go clubs.

        He got a chance to take on Mr. Flynt one night in 1972 when the club owner pointed a handgun at the ceiling of his crowded bar and pulled the trigger. Mr. Flynt described it as an accident, but others said he fired the shot in celebration after engaging in a sex act.

        Either way, the incident was a turning point for Mr. Flynt and the community. “Flynt was starting to become embarrassing,” Mr. Hughes says. “And you can't be embarrassing in this city.”

        Mr. Leis prosecuted the club owner on the firearms charge and sent him to jail for 21 days.

        “That was the start of a long-running feud between those two,” Mr. Brown says. “Si had a harboring anger over this guy. He determined (Flynt) was an expendable sleaze-bag who should be convicted of something.”

        Mr. Leis, who won't discuss the Hustler publisher, would get another chance. In 1975, a grand jury accused Mr. Flynt of providing strippers to entertain police officers, including Chief Carl V. Goodin.

        Although Mr. Flynt wasn't convicted, the case helped solidify the roles he and Mr. Leis were about to play on the national stage: raunchy rebel vs. moral crusader.

        “What a script,” says Mr. Hughes, who sat on panels with Mr. Leis and Mr. Flynt during public meetings about the cases. “You couldn't make this up. Both were tough characters. Both were tenacious. Both were very determined to do what they thought was best.”

Santa as sex object
        Mr. Flynt fanned the flames when he converted his Hustler newsletter into a glossy, full-color magazine dedicated to the most tasteless jokes and the most explicit photos he could find.

        “I wanted something for the common man,” he says. By late 1975 he had found more than 1 million of them, enough readers to challenge Playboy and Penthouse for supremacy in the market.

        Suddenly, Mr. Flynt wasn't just another smut peddler thumbing his nose at Cincinnati. He was a very rich one.

        His change of fortune didn't sit well with Mr. Leis, who complained that the magazine portrayed almost everyone — from Santa Claus to President Ford — as a sex object. “(Hustler) is printed for one reason only,” Mr. Leis said at the time. “The commercial exploitation of sex.”

        Within months, a grand jury indicted Mr. Flynt, his brother, his production manager and his wife on obscenity charges. The private war between Larry Flynt and Cincinnati was about to go national.

From bumpkin to star
        To Cincinnatians, the case looked at first like just another trial for the crazy pornographer downtown. Considering his reputation, it was reasonable to assume that if Mr. Flynt was involved, it couldn't be anything significant.

        “He was basically seen as a roustabout,” says Paul Cambria, one of the attorneys who defended him.

        “He looked like a bumpkin,” says Mr. Hughes. “People underestimated him.”

        Soon, though, Mr. Flynt's talent for self-promotion changed all that. TV networks interviewed him, college students invited him to lectures and major newspapers printed stories about him.

        But even as his quotes and quips made him a media star, the folks back in Cincinnati didn't notice much change in his behavior.

        In the late fall of 1976, just weeks before the trial, 400,000 Hamilton County residents found an “important message” from Mr. Flynt in their mailbox. The 12-page pamphlet, entitled “What is Obscene?,” argued that war was the only true obscenity.

        To make his point, Mr. Flynt packaged his article with full-color photos of decapitated soldiers and gory Vietnam battle scenes. It did not go over well.

        James Hoekstra, a long-time resident of Delhi Township, recalls his wife recoiling in horror when she discovered the pamphlet among the family's bills and Christmas catalogs.

        “What should I do with it?” she asked him.

        “Throw it in the garbage where it belongs,” he said.

        His wife, Jo Ann, proceeded to empty all of her garbage into a large box. She then taped it shut, scrawled Mr. Flynt's address on the front and took it to the Post Office.

        “We had six small children and here he is mailing this indiscriminately,” Mr. Hoekstra says now. “He ought to be ashamed of himself.”

        The mass mailing set the tone for Mr. Flynt's trial. It was clear from the first morning, when Mr. Flynt saw Mr. Leis's close-cropped hair and heavy snow boots, that his behavior would not improve.

        “Oh, my God!” he yelled, wagging a finger at Mr. Leis. “I'm being tried by a storm trooper!”

        Judge William Morrissey says the outburst came shortly after one of Mr. Flynt's attorneys, Herald Fahringer, tried to warn the judge about his client's temper. “He told me Larry Flynt is strong-willed,” Judge Morrissey recalls. “And sometimes he'll just go off like Vesuvius.”

        True to his word, Mr. Fahringer was unable to control his client's outbursts. “He was a bad boy during the Hustler case,” Judge Morrissey says. “He shocked people. Jaws were dropping.”

        Some of those who were most shocked sat in the jury box. For the 12 men and women on the panel, most of whom had never even seen a “girlie” magazine, the explicit photos were overwhelming.

        One juror, a woman who asked not to be named, said her initial reaction to the case was disgust, quickly followed by boredom. “I was just sick of looking at all those gross pictures,” she says.

        To Mr. Cambria, just two years out of law school, frustration grew as the judge repeatedly denied defense motions, including attempts to show jurors other explicit magazines available in Cincinnati.

        “We were not fondly embraced,” Mr. Cambria says.

        At the end of the trial, Mr. Leis knelt before the jury and drew a chalk line on the floor. “There's no such thing as moral neutrality,” Mr. Leis told the jury, a copy of Hustler in his hand. “To protect our community, you've got to draw that line.”

        And they did. After days of deliberations, the jurors convicted Mr. Flynt and acquitted the others. As Mr. Flynt ranted angrily, Judge Morrissey imposed the sentence: 7 to 25 years in prison.

        “I took him as a redneck hillbilly who was making money on sex,” says Judge Morrissey, now retired. “It was up to the public here to decide whether he should subsist or be run out of town on a rail. All I did was pronounce sentence.”

        Mr. Flynt spent less than a week in jail before an appeals court turned him loose and, later, threw out the conviction.

        But his relationship with Cincinnati would never be the same. He closed his club in 1978 and moved to Los Angeles.

"A very sick man'
        Mr. Flynt returned in the early 1980s, but not for long. He was in a wheelchair now, paralyzed by a would-be assassin who shot him outside a Georgia courthouse.

        His health was bad and his attitude worse. He tried to pull himself out of depression with drugs, alcohol and even a short-lived stint as a born-again Christian. Nothing worked.

        “He was a very sick man,” Mr. Brown says of his old client.

        He also was in no mood to fight with Mr. Leis or anyone else in Cincinnati. Mr. Brown says Mr. Flynt only came to town long enough to cut a deal with prosecutors: Drop the old charges against him and he wouldn't push Hustler in Cincinnati.

        For the better part of two decades, he stayed away.

        In the aftermath of the trial, the old bars and go-go clubs went out of business. Some were driven out by a more aggressive vice squad, while others just faded away.

        Mr. Leis, still leading the anti-pornography crusade, continued to make bookstores and video shops nervous about carrying explicit material. The constant threat of prosecution kept hard-core porn out of Cincinnati.

        “The intimidation continued when we left town,” says Jimmy Flynt. “The pillars of the community decided they were going to clean up.”

        Larry Flynt didn't have the energy to challenge them. Woozy on painkillers, miserable over the death of his wife, he lost interest in his business and his life.

        Even without Mr. Flynt, however, Cincinnati was changing. The Internet, cable channels and even prime-time TV began to expand the boundaries of what the community would tolerate.

        A test of that new tolerance came in 1990, when a photography exhibit by the late Robert Mapplethorpe prompted Mr. Leis, by then the sheriff, to raid the Contemporary Arts Center.

        The seizure of several photos featuring nude models and sex acts set off protests around the country. The city lost its case. “That trial gave the city a second chance,” Mr. Cambria says. “It did more than anything to make the community seem normal.”

        Soon, Mr. Flynt got a second chance, too. His new nurse, Liz Berrios, got him treatment for manic depression and convinced him to have an operation that would ease the constant pain from his old injuries.

        A year later, he asked her to marry him. “He's a very interesting man,” says the new Mrs. Flynt. “It's a colorful, exciting life that Larry leads.”

        Then Hollywood came calling with a proposal for a movie about his life: The People vs. Larry Flynt. In no time, Mr. Flynt was watching Woody Harrelson portray him on the big screen as a messed-up but well-meaning rebel fighting for the First Amendment.

        “The movie gilded the lily a bit,” says Mr. Brown, “but it was OK.”

        For Mr. Flynt, it was much more. It made him a celebrity again, big enough to hit the talk show circuit and hang out with Hollywood stars. “The last four or five years have been the best of my life since I was shot,” he says.

        Still, something was missing. He says he didn't realize what it was until he returned to Cincinnati in 1996 for the premiere of his movie. He was greeted by a cheering crowd of autograph seekers.

        “Man,” Mr. Cambria whispered to Mr. Flynt as they entered the theater. “They didn't do this 20 years ago.”

        Mr. Flynt decided the time was right to come back. So he loaded a limousine with stacks of Hustler and rode to Fountain Square to hand out free copies. When he arrived, his gold-plated wheelchair was swamped by hundreds of fans chanting Lar-ry, Lar-ry, Lar-ry.

        “You're a God, man!” someone shouted.

        “That rekindled the flame,” says H. Louis Sirkin, the Cincinnati attorney who will help defend him in the case ahead. “It energized him.”

        It also stirred up the old-line conservatives, who bristled when Mr. Flynt opened his store with a promise to sell explicit videos until he got another trial here. Mr. Flynt not only wanted to kill the old deal to keep Hustler out of Cincinnati, he wanted to fight the battle all over again.

Sex, lies and Congress
        “Larry Flynt's return is an attempt to return Cincinnati to the past,” says Mr. Burress, of Citizens for Community Values. “He came back with the intent of lowering our community standards.”

        Prosecutor Mike Allen is pursuing the case against Mr. Flynt but vows he is not on a moral crusade. “This is not a moral issue,” Mr. Allen says. “It's a legal issue.”

        Mr. Flynt, meanwhile, has been busy keeping his name in the spotlight. His latest brainstorm — a $1 million offer to anyone who talks about having sex with married congressmen — may have led to the resignation of Rep. Robert Livingston before he could take over as speaker of the house.

        He says his recent foray into politics is a worthy prelude to his trial in Cincinnati. “If I'm going to continue this fight,” he says, “what better place to do it than in Cincinnati?”

        Unlike his political battles, however, Mr. Flynt faces prison if he loses this one.

        His fate, he says, hinges on whether Cincinnati has changed as much as he thinks it has.

        It's a little past 2 p.m. and Larry Flynt is in heaven.

        On the table before him are a half-dozen microphones for TV and radio stations. Cameras flash. Tape recorders whir. Reporters stand at the ready.

        He is back in Cincinnati for yet another press conference about his new trial.

        “I'm really looking forward to it,” he says in his mouth-full-of-gravel voice.

        But why Cincinnati? someone asks. Why are you doing this again?

        Mr. Flynt considers this for a moment and smiles.

        “Well,” he says finally, “I guess I missed the place.”

- Cincinnati vs. Flynt: The Sequel
Obscenity trials highly subjective
Video technology brought porn home
The players in Flynt trial

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