I worked for Larry Flynt once, but it’s not what you think it is.
For nine months, between the fall of 1977 and the spring of 1978, Hustler-Verlag signed my paychecks. When a friend wrote to me in February that Flynt had died in Los Angeles at the age of 78, a floodgate of memories opened.
I can’t say all memories were good and it wasn’t the high point of my journalistic career. My lessons were about life, not words. About people, loyalty and greed. I learned most of it from Flynt without him saying a word to me.
I was an underqualified associate editor for Ohio Magazine, Flynt’s newly created “legitimate” publication. City and state magazines were all the rage thanks to Texas Monthly and its imitators. This was Flynt’s foray into something else. He wanted to publish a powerful magazine that would expose corruption. He plastered the state with billboards saying the magazine would inform the state and hired a seasoned professional to run the publication: Tom Suchan, who was the city editor for the Akron Beacon Journal when it won its Pulitzer Kent State shooting coverage.
I couldn’t tell you what my job description was. I remember overseeing our restaurant reviews and writing a story about People to Watch in 1978, but not much else. I threw the magazines for recycling a long time ago but never wanted to throw them away.
The Ohio Magazine offices were on the first floor of the Hustler Building at 40 W. Gay St. in Columbus. The building still exists – Juvly Aesthetics is now on the same floor. Hustler’s offices were on the second floor. We had separate entrances, but if someone accidentally walked into the Hustler entrance, they would see a large picture of a naked woman above the desk in the reception.
You never knew what you might see in the building. Photocopied pages of the upcoming issue of Hustler lined the walls of the hallways on the second floor. Michael Castranova, who worked as an editor in the early days of Ohio Magazine, told Columbus Monthly in a 1996 story how he walked into a unisex bathroom on the first floor only to find a nude blonde in red high heels holding a cigarette smoked.
Flynt was at his best when he strutted through our offices in 1977. He usually had one or two large, menacing Doberman pinschers by his side.
His businesses poured down money. He sold between 3 and 4 million Hustler magazines a month. He was a media obsession before we had 24 hour news networks, the internet, and social media. He made the rounds of morning talk shows defending his magazine and his First Amendment rights. We were told to get to the office early and see him on the Today show.
One autumn day we were told not to report to the office. Instead we should go to the Drexel cinema. Flynt was up front and in the middle when we got there.
He said he wanted us to understand better who he is, so he wanted to show us two documentaries. The first was Harlan County USA, a 1973 film about a coal strike in Kentucky.
I remember his exact words many years later. “I grew up in the county next to Harlan,” said Flynt. “And we would look up to them because at least they had coal.”
The second was “Marjoe” about the child evangelist Marjoe Ortner. Flynt then flirted with Christianity and talked about being born again. He flew across the country discussing Ruth Carter Stapleton, Jimmy Carter’s evangelistic sister. “She thinks she will convert me,” he said. “But I’m really converting them.”
Neither converted the other, at least not permanently, but it was one of the best work days I’ve ever had. Saw two great documentaries and got all the free popcorn I could eat.
People could criticize Flynt for a lot of things, but being cheap wasn’t one of them. In December 1977 he organized an elaborate Christmas party for all of his employees. There were large bowls of shrimp and other goodies. The alcohol flowed. His then-buddy, comedian Dick Gregory, stayed around telling a few stale jokes.
Flynt then stood up and announced that no one could live on less than $ 15,000 a year, which is now $ 64,474, so anyone who earned less would get an immediate raise.
He didn’t stop there. He said the company had a good year and he would share the wealth. Everyone would receive a Christmas bonus equal to 10 percent of their annual salary. That meant $ 1,500 to me, which is the equivalent of $ 6,447 today.
A check for $ 150 arrived the next week. Even a major journalist like me knew $ 150 wasn’t 10 percent of my annual salary.
A few days later I was working out of the office when I received a call from one of my colleagues.
“We have the rest of our money,” he said.
“The rest of our Christmas bonus.”
Sure enough, there was a check for $ 1,350 on my desk, along with a one-page memo that I had never thrown away. In it, Flynt apologized for the delay and accused senior officials of disobeying his orders.
Then he underlined a sentence. “Always remember when a man gives you a weekly paycheck, no matter how little or how much you owe that man 100 percent of your loyalty. At a moment when you feel that you can no longer offer your employer 100 percent of your loyalty, you should quit. ”
It was rumored that his wife, Althea, and the CFO were not happy with his decision to raise salaries and give out the bonuses, which amounted to more than $ 600,000, which is $ 2.6 million today were. They were concerned about his state of mind and his talk about cleaning up Hustlers and being born again.
They were planning a coup; They would sign him when his plane landed in Columbus. Somehow he found out and ended up in Pittsburgh. After that, he spent the rest of the bonuses and wrote the devastating memo.
But Althea was never involved in the plan. Columbus Monthly solved the puzzle a few years later. Flynt’s brother, Jimmy, was the culprit in convincing a probate judge to sign the papers for arrest and sanctioning. The sheriff’s deputies waited for the plane that never landed.
A few months later everything would change.
March 6, 1978 was a beautiful day in Columbus. The sun was shining and there was a hint of hope that a terrible winter was taking small steps towards spring. But the office was bleak when I got back from lunch. A secretary was crying; Larry Flynt was shot, she said. He returned to the Gwinnett County Courthouse, Georgia, where he was charged with profanity when he was hit by a sniper bullet. Flynt survived, but he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
White supremacist Joseph Franklin admitted the shooting. He said he was upset by a photo in Hustler of a white woman and a black man together. He was never tried for Flynt’s shooting, but he was killed in 2013 for a series of murders of blacks and Jews.
Our lives in Columbus changed the moment Flynt was shot. Althea took over the running of the company while Flynt was recovering at a Columbus hospital. Boy, did she take command? There was a memo reminding everyone that lunch was an hour long and should be taken between 11:30 am and 1:00 pm. Another memo reminded us that the phones were for work only and not for personal calls.
Hustler had now moved his office to Los Angeles and Ohio Magazine employees were moving to the second floor. Once 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 while at work.
Then came the ultimate memo, five weeks after Flynt was shot. It canceled the raise he had so generously announced at his Christmas party. I wrote about Larry’s original memo “The Lord Giveth” and about Althea’s “The Lord Taketh Away”. The memo was no joke for the stunned people who went out buying cars and houses because of the rise in salaries.
Althea never bothered with Ohio Magazine. It didn’t make any money. Our top editor went on and the staff shrank. I was part of the shrinkage. Flynt eventually put it up for sale. Ironically, the Wolfe family, arguably the most conservative media family in the state, bought it. Today it is a family-friendly travel and lifestyle magazine from Great Lakes Publishing in Cleveland. When Flynt died in February, the publication’s website made no mention of the founder having passed away.
Flynt kept making news: public breakdowns, publicity stunts, a legal feud with Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. that went all the way to the Supreme Court where Flynt won. Despite his vulgar appearance, Flynt became a First Amendment hero, and Hollywood called. 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, a victim of the internet, declined and his magazine would never be the porn force it once was. But his empire did not collapse. When Flynt died in February, the New York Times estimated its value at 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 TV with a part of it that I affectionately called Larry Flynt Memorial TV. It worked loyally for me and then for my parents for 20 years.
As for Christmas bonuses, I got lots of honey-baked hams and grocery store gift cards afterwards, but I would never get a 10 percent Christmas bonus again. Not even close.