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Ice Station Larry


Paul Cullum

Heres to Daddy Claxton, may his name forever stand

And always be remembered in the courts throughout the land

Now his earthly race is over and the curtains round him fall

Well carry him home to Dixie on the Wabash Cannonball.

-- Roy Acuff

For roughly two years, from the summer of 1994 to the spring of 1996, I had the signal pleasure of working for LFP, i.e., Larry Flynt Productions – pleasure in the sense of having seen active combat and survived unspeakable carnage, with the freedom to dine out on those experiences for the rest of my life.

I was the Managing Editor of Film Threat Magazine – “We are the mammals who eat the dinosaurs’ eggs!” – the clearinghouse for all things film geek, in those last few moments before the Internet rendered such enterprises a growth industry.

Larry had recognized in Film Threat founder Chris Gore a like-minded sensibility, one that could terrorize L.A.’s single-industry town if hyper-capitalized, and so he offered a tiny suite of offices in a glass tower at the corner of Wilshire and La Cienega and turned the hooligans loose on Hollywood’s power mongers, who were the real pornographers after all.

The bi-monthly Film Threat had a budget of $5,000 per issue, all in – staff, articles, office supplies – so I was forced to subsidize my income as a copy editor. My high-minded principles prevented me from working on such porn titles as Beaver Hunt, Barely Legal, or the workhorse Hustler, and so I opted instead for the fetish digests like Modern Gun, Fighting Knives and something we affectionately referred to as “Celebrity Death Watch.” Overseen by a woman named Linda Cauthen (we secretly referred to her as “Linda Coffin”) these were one-off, standalone memorial tribute issues dedicated to show-biz icons who, based on our careful actuarial calculations, could reasonably be expected to pass away in such a time frame as might justify the investment.

Having been frozen out of self-respecting bookstores and newsstands (the all-night mega-stall at Cahuenga and Sunset notwithstanding) Flynt had cobbled together a distribution apparatus that comprised virtually every porn arcade and liquor store in America. As such, he was uniquely situated to target a particular demographic, one susceptible to bad judgment born of strong drink or curdled desire, just as certainly as the gangsters and proto-fascists at American Media (National Enquirer, Star) had ascertained how to leverage incipient hunger and the impulse sugar buzz of the supermarket checkout aisle to reveal untapped strains of schadenfreude and grievance. I was responsible for large chunks of our Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and George Burns commemorative volumes. At the end of the day, I felt altogether better about myself.

Born in the Shadow of the Peabody Coal Company

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Larry Claxton Flynt, Jr.— presumably the same Claxtons whose lineage Roy Claxton Acuff, just across the state line in Maynardville, Tennessee, appropriated for his third verse of “The Wabash Cannonball”—was born in the coal hollers of Magoffin County, Kentucky, the same despoiled backdrop as the Butcher Holler of Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (song and movie) and the Muhlenberg County of John Prine’s “Paradise.” My friend John Patterson, who was a Flynt minion for roughly the same period I was and (spoiler alert) authored the “Letters to Hustler” column (before becoming a beloved film columnist at the Guardian of two decades standing) summarized this biography succinctly: “Larry Flynt was born in the shadow of the Peabody Coal Company, and adopted wholesale its approach to both human resources and the environment he inherited, as well as the raw materials of his profession.”

Just before I got there, Larry had sold multiple commercial real estate holdings in Beverly Hills and purchased the Great Western Bank Building at 8484 Wilshire Blvd. in which to house his empire – primarily, I’m convinced, because of the large sculpture of John Wayne on horseback that graces the entry plaza. Car-pooling in from our hipster redoubt of Los Feliz every morning, then turning at its crest onto La Cienega, this 10-story, 225,000-square-foot black barrel-shaped tower at the bottom of the hill, just catching the morning sun, looked exactly like the conning tower of a giant submarine rising out of the lower depths of Beverly Hills. We nicknamed it “Ice Station Larry.”

This was also when Larry bought his first Gulfstream jet, and around the time it was announced in the trades that The People vs. Larry Flynt finally had been greenlit, after a long dormancy, and despite a rumored budget shortfall of $10 million. It’s tempting to see this as the sudden impact of what was diagnosed as manic depression, although I asked director Milos Forman once if Larry had kicked in a big chunk of the budget himself, and he said no. But he might as well have.

Surreptitiously conducting interviews without an option on Larry’s life rights, Forman told me that he and the film’s screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, received a phone call from the man himself. (At least I think it was Forman; 25 years later, the provenance is a little murky, and Milos, like they say in Hollywood, is no longer with the project.)

“This is Larry Flynt,” came that signature elongated drawl – if you’ve ever heard William Burroughs speak, that’s pretty close. “I understand you want to make a movie about me.” After some vague attempt at a noncommittal answer, followed by an uncomfortable pause, he said, “Well, I guess you better come and see me.”

The three of them dutifully showed up at Ice Station Larry and were escorted to his private office on the 10th floor—essentially, the entire 10th floor, done up in that special Clampett Revival-meets-Palace of Versailles interior design style that we christened “Larry XIVth”—authentic Tiffany lamps and flea-market knockoffs co-existing side by side. After keeping them waiting a suitable amount of time, Larry was wheeled in by an attractive female attendant. Implacable in his gold-plated wheelchair (having been gunned down by a white supremacist sniper in Lawrenceville, Georgia during a break in his 1978 obscenity trial) he settled in behind his massive desk while they awaited the wrath of God.

Instead, he told them, “I’ll answer any questions you want to ask me. In addition, I’ll open up my archives and you can look through any of my papers you want. You can call anyone who knows me and interview them, and if they won’t talk to you, you tell me and Ill call them and tell them to talk to you.”

They sat waiting for the other shoe to drop. Larry nodded and the woman wheeled him away, and they were escorted out. Down in the parking lot, they were practically giddy: Had they just hustled one of the legendary hustlers? It wasn’t until the Oscars, with Larry Flynt seated on the aisle, being welcomed by host Billy Crystal, that they realized what they had created was a form of Renaissance portraiture. Whatever stories they told about him, they could never be worse than the ones he told about himself. And he would be remembered in their romanticized version forever.

The Man Who Loved Women. (Sort of. Two of Them.)

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Larry Flynt was the most misanthropic person I think I ever met. And that’s not just because he killed Film Threat right before the premiere of The People vs. Larry Flynt, no doubt assuming—correctly—that we were plotting some unauthorized takedown, incapable of not biting the hand that fed us. He liked Althea, his former employee and fourth wife, a woman whose life story was so volcanic it required Courtney Love to play her in the movie. (They once filmed a re-creation of the Kennedy assassination at Dealey Plaza using rented limos, replete with Althea scrambling out over the trunk.) And he apparently liked Suze Randall, the first female staff photographer at both Hustler and Playboy. After that, it was a pretty steep drop-off.

Old-timers there told of how when Althea was still alive (she died of a drug overdose in 1987), and profits fell below an acceptable level, the two of them would scan the salary list of executives, peel the high-earner off the top and summon him to their office, then fire him on the spot. This was presented as some kind of sport, Althea reportedly cackling, “We had that guy shitting in his pants, man!” (This and all the anecdotes related here are either secondhand or burnished in memory, so take them with a grain of salt.)

Flynt offered anyone the opportunity to succeed – exuding a kind of class-averse populism – but he would happily chop your head if you failed. My crew saw him as the Roger Corman of journalism, enabling those who would later stairstep to greatness, but that might have been aspirational on our parts. Novelists Jerry Stahl and Lydia Millet came before us, and the Big Brother crew came after. This was Big Brother the skate magazine, not the totalitarian game show, and it launched Spike Jonze, Johnny Knoxville and the Jackass brain trust.

We made do with the likes of Futurama writer Dan Vebber, Pandora showrunner Mark Altman and Dominic Griffin from The Real World. There also seemed to be an equitable distribution of men and women in staff positions, and I certainly saw none of the future #MeToo-style behavior that characterized, say, the Chicago Tribune. But for all that, the work environment was fairly acrid, if not outright toxic. Jay Babcock, an editor at Sci-Fi Universe (with which we shared a suite), and someone I later wrote for at Mean and Arthur, posted a similar observation on Twitter:

I worked inside Larry’s empire on non-porn titles for three years, 1995-98. He was a tacky, cruel tightwad who hired well, offering gainful employment to at least three generations of smart, extremely witty misfits and bohemians, whose talents he dutifully and heartbreakingly squandered.

You’d talk to him once in a blue moon, whenever he made a point to wheel through and ask you how it was going, but he was a ubiquitous presence in the Hustler offices (which I was perched just outside of), and particularly what we referred to as “the Hall of Shame.” This was a conference room dedicated to the presentation of “girl sets,” those featured model layouts that appeared multiple times in each hardcore publication every month, all grouped by title and pinned to the walls, so that Larry could bask in them and accurately judge whether they rose to his rarefied standards.

Some mornings, summoned to the back shop on a production matter or to deliver page proofs, not yet fortified with coffee or industrial resolve, you might unwittingly catch a glimpse of this out of the corner of your eye, or be drawn to peek inside even as your conscious mind told you not to, much as you might a traffic pileup on the freeway, and then be suddenly pitched into a swirling sensorium of autonomous vagina, lapping seas of the stuff, as it caught you in its thrall and you slipped inexorably into its immutable vortex. Every job has its challenges.

America's Nether Regions

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There was another anecdote I heard, also possibly apocryphal, which has stayed with me and seems to speak to a higher truth. At some point, long after Hustler’s breakout success and its uneasy adoption of a corporate patina, Larry was persuaded to commission a marketing survey of magazine subscribers, in the interest of formulating an advertising strategy. Perhaps in the spirit of all working narcissists, who imagine the universe constituted in their own image, he had assumed his ideal reader was like him -- rural, blue-collar, come from the working poor – even as he had systematically removed all of those conditions from his own life.

Except that the survey revealed the opposite: The average Hustler reader was middle- to upper-middle-class, financially better off than average, with expendable income. For them, its sniggering misogyny and abject vulgarity was a feature, not a bug. Larry Flynt himself never lost or even muted his rabble-rousing politics; he remained an unrepentant, fire-breathing radical to the very end, less Roosevelt than Robespierre. At the height of the Clinton impeachment, he forced the resignation of an incoming Republican House Speaker with the threat of publishing embarrassing photos—less outraged by the man’s politics than his hypocrisy—and he remained locked in mortal combat with televangelist Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority for a quarter of a century.

But his enduring genius was this silent demographic, which he alone recognized and insisted upon -- perhaps even before it recognized itself. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of it.

Larry Flynt died Feb. 10 at his home in the Hollywood Hills. The cause was reported as heart failure.

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Paul Cullum has written for the L.A. Weekly, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Review of Books, Salon, Slate, Daily Beast, Arthur and hundreds of tiny subversive magazines that pay preposterously little.

The Presidential Run

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Dirty Old Man ::: The Fugs

Dirty Money ::: Antibalas

Big Titties ::: Black Oak Arkansas

Hustler ::: 50 Cent

John Wayne ::: Madison Cunningham

Pictures of Lily ::: The Who

Centerfold ::: The J Geils Band

The Old Dope Peddler ::: Tom Lehrer

Dirty Magazine ::: Bree Sharp

Mean Mr Mustard ::: The Beatles

Wabash Cannonball ::: Roy Claxton Acuff