Larry Flynt
Larry Flynt; drawing by David Levine


The People vs. Larry Flynt, which opened on Christmas Day, is the story of a free-spirited entrepreneur who dares to flout every canon of piety and taste. Though his irreverence is ratified by an enormous commercial success, he is persecuted incessantly by hypocritical bluenoses, convicted of absurd charges, imprisoned for contempt, and paralyzed by a would-be assassin’s bullet. Confined to a wheelchair and in constant physical pain, he sinks into drugs, despair, and near-madness, but he never quits, and in the end his perseverance is rewarded by a unanimous Supreme Court victory in a suit brought against him by the most sanctimonious moralist of the day. Through it all, he is sustained by the great soul-love of his wife, a woman who has overcome poverty and abuse through indomitable spunk, but she dies tragically on the eve of his triumph, and his moment of vindication is made bittersweet by the memory of the more precious thing he has lost. Still, thanks to this man’s determination to stand on his rights when all around him, even his attorney, were ready to give him up, we live in a freer country today.

Well, this is certainly one way to tell the story of Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine and the victor in the famous Supreme Court case of Hustler v. Falwell. “It’s a Capra movie with porn!” is the reaction the movie’s screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, say they got when they first pitched the idea to Columbia Pictures, and they were able to attract an exceptional team of filmmakers who evidently shared the sentiment, including the director Milos Forman, who had not made a movie since 1989, and the producers Oliver Stone, Janet Yang (who produced The Joy Luck Club), and Michael Hausman (who produced Silkwood).

Larry Flynt is played by Woody Harrelson as a charismatic, “gotta be me” good ol’ boy who just happens to love the ladies, and who, no matter how much he is made to suffer for it, is incapable of inhibition or deceit. His wife, Althea, is played by the rock star Courtney Love—the personal choice for the part, Forman has let it be known, of Mr. and Mrs. Václav Havel. The emerging young actor Edward Norton is Alan Isaacman, Flynt’s straight-arrow attorney, and small parts are played by James Carville (against type) as Simon Leis, the Cincinnati prosecutor who got Flynt convicted, briefly, on pandering, obscenity, and organized crime charges, and Donna Hanover, the wife of Rudolph Giuliani, as Ruth Carter Stapleton, Jimmy Carter’s evangelical sister, who got Flynt converted, also briefly, to Christianity. The real Larry Flynt himself appears in the role of William Morrissey, a Cincinnati judge who once sentenced him to seven to twenty-five years in prison (he served six days). Falwell is convincingly impersonated by Richard Paul.

Everyone is in top form, the screenplay has adapted Flynt’s story beautifully to the standard three-act biopic format (he’s up, he’s down, he’s up), and the courtroom scenes are both plausible and entertaining, which is an extremely rare coincidence in motion picture history. The movie is naturally laced with nudity, obscenity, and tastelessness, but it is all, as it were, in the best of taste. Apart from fleeting glimpses of a few well-known images, such as the notorious Hustler cover picturing a woman being fed into a meat grinder, nothing remotely repulsive or titillating is ever seen. The story may be smutty, but the film is so clean it practically squeaks.

The movie was screened in October at the close of the New York Film Festival, and the immediate response was enthusiastic. Frank Rich, in The New York Times, called it “the most timely and patriotic movie of the year,” and his column was subsequently reprinted, unabridged, in advertisements for the film. Since October, however, there has been a small backlash. The Times itself ran a long story by Nina Bernstein headed “A Hero of Free Speech? It’s Not So Simple,” in which prominent liberals such as Cass Sunstein and Burt Neuborne, a former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union who has a small part in the movie as Jerry Falwell’s attorney, criticized the film as one-sided on the free speech issues. The New Republic ran an article by Hanna Rosin which criticized the film as one-sided on pretty much all the issues. “This Christmas,” as she put it, “pond scum is intellectually chic.” And Gloria Steinem, who was herself once vilified in the pages of Hustler, complained in an Op-Ed article that The People vs. Larry Flynt celebrates a man whose magazine published brutalizing images of women.

There are several distinct questions here. The first has to do with the verisimilitude of the movie itself. It is not impeccable. Alexander and Karaszewski, in their introduction to the published screenplay, admit to a few emendations. Contrary to what we see in the movie, they confess, Alan Isaacson was not Flynt’s attorney in all his cases. Nor were the editors of Hustler the same group of people from the start. In real life Flynt used many lawyers and fired his editorial staff regularly. The screenwriters argue, reasonably, the need to avoid confusion in a picture meant to cover fifteen years of a man’s life. But there are many episodes in the movie that depart from even the account Flynt himself provides in An Unseemly Man, an autobiography published to accompany the film.


In the opening scenes of the movie, for instance, we are shown ten-year-old Larry—“bursting with Huckleberry Finn industriousness,” as the screenplay puts it (I think they mean “Tom Sawyer industriousness”; Huckleberry Finn was distinctly not the industrious type)—peddling moonshine in his native backwoods Kentucky. But Flynt never sold moonshine. When he was sixteen or seventeen, he tells us in An Unseemly Man, he made some money driving liquor from a neighboring wet county into the dry county where his family lived—also illegal, but a good deal less winning and adorable. In the movie’s account of Flynt’s first meeting with Althea she seduces him within three minutes right in his office (“So how come you haven’t tried to ball me?” she says), and they have sex there until he pleads exhaustion. The autobiography, by comparison, is positively chivalrous. Flynt asks Althea out after work (“She was coy about it,” he reports) and they spend much of the night just talking. In the movie Althea proposes marriage to Flynt after a bout of group sex in a hot tub; in the autobiography, they are driving along somewhere together in a car.

In the movie Flynt is initiated into the business of “adult” publishing by a local printer who explains that he can’t just print photographs of naked women without some sort of text as a legal “beard.” But this story does not appear in the book, nor is there any suggestion there that it was ever Flynt’s intention, in launching Hustler, to publish only photographs of naked women, or that he was naive about anything except the amount of work involved in putting out a magazine. And when Althea dies, by drowning in a bathtub, the movie has Flynt alone with her in his bedroom, tragically unable, because of his paralysis, to help her or to get help. In the book we learn that there was a nurse present, and it was she who discovered the body.

Then there are those facts of Flynt’s life, magazine, and legal adventures that are simply elided. Hanna Rosin points out, for instance, that viewers are not told that Althea was actually the fourth of Flynt’s five wives, or that Flynt has fathered five children, none of whom have lived with him, or that Hustler routinely runs cartoons lampooning black people and prints pictures of naked 300-pound women, women with penises, diarrhetic women with feces running down their legs, and so on. The legal history is similarly selective. Viewers would not know, for example, that Hustler v. Falwell, decided in 1988, was not Flynt’s first encounter with the Supreme Court. In 1984, the Court heard arguments in a suit against Hustler by Kathy Keeton, who was the girlfriend of the publisher of Penthouse, Bob Guccione, and whom Hustler had portrayed in a cartoon suggesting that she had contracted venereal disease from Guccione. As the justices adjourned, Flynt, whose request to represent himself in oral arguments had been denied, shouted from the audience, “You’re nothing but eight assholes and a token cunt!” He was promptly arrested, though the charges were eventually dropped. In a movie whose director has claimed that “the hero [is] the Supreme Court of the United States,” this would seem a relevant episode.

If completeness and verisimilitude were the standards, of course, no movie or novel based on “real-life” events would ever pass the test. A movie isn’t supposed to reproduce the facts; it’s supposed to dramatize them, and the question for the viewer is substantially the same in the case of a movie claiming to be based on historical events as it is in the case of a movie that concerns a topical subject but is otherwise fictional. It is whether the essence of the movie experience somehow squares with, or “gets at,” the essence of lived experience. It’s a mistake, I think, to assume that what we’re meant to be “getting at” in The People vs. Larry Flynt is the real Larry Flynt. That is the way the filmmakers have sometimes talked about what they’ve tried to do, and the movie does have a biographical structure. But this is mostly because it is much easier to get people interested in seeing a movie about an issue than a movie about a person. What matters isn’t whether the real Larry Flynt is a smut peddler with a heart of gold or merely a smut peddler with a wheelchair of gold, something that is probably indeterminate anyway. What matters is how we are led to think about the phenomena with which Larry Flynt’s life happened to intersect in the period covered by the movie, which runs from 1972, when Flynt was operating a string of striptease clubs in Ohio, to 1988, when the Falwell opinion was handed down—that is, pornography, the religious right, and First Amendment law.



The emphasis of the movie is almost entirely on First Amendment law, and especially on the legal matter at issue in Hustler v. Falwell. On the subject of pornography, The People vs. Larry Flynt seems to have nothing more to say than that it’s a harmless amusement which some people have a taste for and some people don’t, and that people who try to suppress it are a good deal more dangerous than people who produce it. On the subject of the religious right, the movie regards Jerry Falwell as a smug pomposity, but it is careful not to cast him in a particularly lurid light—a treatment it reserves instead for Charles Keating, who, before he became famous through other endeavors, was a vigorous anti-pornography crusader, and Flynt’s real-life nemesis in Cincinnati back in the 1970s.

This emphasis on the law rather than the pornography is arguably warranted by the fact that Hustler v. Falwell was not an obscenity case; it was a defamation case. The fact that Flynt was the publisher of a raunchy magazine had no bearing on the legal issues involved. The case arose, as practically everyone knows, from a parody of a Campari ad. Campari used to market its product with advertisements featuring celebrities who spoke, in a mock interview format, about their “first time”—meaning their first drink of Campari but suggestive of their first sexual experience. In 1983 Hustler published a parody of this ad that featured Falwell, who was made to disclose that his “first time” had been with his mother, and that the memorable event had transpired in an outhouse. He was also made to admit that he often preached while drunk. The piece was listed as “fiction” in the table of contents, and underneath the ad, in small type, were the words “Ad parody—not to be taken seriously.”

Falwell sued in United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, his home state. His complaint listed three grounds for recovery: invasion of privacy (that is, the appropriation of his name and face for commercial purposes), libel, and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. After a raucous trial—featuring a surreal deposition of Flynt, who, heavily medicated and in prison on an unrelated contempt citation, began by giving his full name as Christopher Columbus Cornwallis I.P.Q. Harvey H. Apache Pugh and proceeded to offer, over Isaacman’s objections, a considerable quantity of uncensored and self-damaging testimony—the jury found for Flynt on the invasion of privacy claim (since the appropriation was not made for purposes of trade) and the defamation claim (since no one could be expected to believe the ad), but for Falwell on the third count, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and it awarded him $200,000 in damages. The verdict was upheld on appeal in 1986, and the case went before the Supreme Court in the following year, where, in a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, the emotional distress judgment was finally reversed.

It would be misleading to say that Hustler v. Flynt extended the scope of First Amendment speech protections. What the Supreme Court did, essentially, was to preserve the scope that already existed, which it did by rejecting an effort by the Appeals Court to allow a public figure, absent a finding of libel, to recover on a claim of emotional distress. The Appeals Court had conceded that Falwell’s defamation claim was ruled out by the landmark case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), which held that a public official cannot recover damages from a newspaper for libel unless he proves “actual malice” on the part of the paper, and by the subsequent decision in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967), which extended the rule to cover “public figures” generally. The constitutional logic in these cases involves the concept of “breathing space”: the Court felt that the press requires some leeway in matters of fact if public debate is to be uninhibited, as the First Amendment presumably intends it to be. Public figures are people who, although they do not hold public office, have made themselves participants in public debate, a definition that clearly applied to Falwell. (An effort to extend the protection to cover the unintentional defamation of private citizens in stories relating to matters of public interest was rejected by the Court in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. [1974].) But the appellate court did conclude that a public figure’s claim of emotional distress could survive a failure to prove “actual malice” under the New York Times standard. So long as Hustler acted recklessly and with an intent to inflict emotional distress (as Flynt essentially conceded it had), Falwell was entitled to damages.

The Supreme Court regarded this as an attempt to make an end run around New York Times. The lower court decision meant that a public figure who cannot establish that he has been defamed can still argue that he has been distressed. In rejecting this theory, Rehnquist drew an analogy between the Campari parody and a political cartoon. It is in the nature of satire and parody, he said, to wound, and “in the world of debate about public affairs, many things done with motives that are less than admirable are protected by the First Amendment.” If Falwell had been a private figure—or, presumably, if the communication of the insult had been private—there might have been a tort. But in the public realm the Constitution washes the insult clean.

The classic analysis of Hustler v. Falwell is by Robert C. Post, in an article which appeared in the Harvard Law Review in 1990 and which is reprinted in his recent book, Constitutional Domains (1995). The case, as Post demonstrates in penetrating detail, represents a collision between two types of legal claims—a claim of personal injury, or tort, made by Falwell versus a constitutional claim of free speech asserted by Flynt—which represents in turn a collision between two radically different theories of civil society. Falwell sued on the basis of the so-called dignitary torts: defamation, invasion of privacy, and emotional distress. We allow individuals to recover damages for these injuries to their dignity not because we wish to chill or restrict public debate, but because we wish, on the contrary, to foster that debate by punishing expressions that have no purpose except to wound or intimidate other speakers. In the case of the infliction of emotional distress, the standard for determining when speech becomes tortious is the standard of outrageousness, which is, necessarily, a community standard. Behavior is outrageous, as the second Restatement of Torts helpfully explains, when “the recitation of the facts to an average member of the community would…lead him to exclaim, ‘Outrageous!”‘ On this standard, Hustler’s Campari ad parodyclearly crosses the threshold of justiciability.

Flynt’s defense against Falwell rests, as Post sees it, on a different theory. The First Amendment law on which Flynt relied posits a realm of “public discourse,” populated by “public figures” like Falwell and Flynt and using media like Hustler (and The New York Times), in which community-based norms of civility, such as its notion of outrageousness, do not apply. In extending First Amendment protections, the Court has generally argued that in a diverse society, a society of many values and tastes, one man’s outrage is another man’s sincere opinion. The realm of “public discourse” is thus not only characterized by an immunity from liability for giving offense; one might even say that it is defined by that immunity. The paradox is this: by extending the protections of the First Amendment we seek to insure the fullest possible participation in the democratic determination of communal norms and values, but we simultaneously prevent ourselves from using those norms and values to regulate expressions which we consider, as a community, to be detrimental to public life—expressions intended merely to distress, to silence, or to offend the sense of decency of other people.

Post has put his finger on what is unsettling, for many people, about the opinion in the Falwell case, and on what is also unsettling, for many people, about pornography of the kind Flynt has made a fortune purveying; and the conflict he articulates is what accounts for the liberal backlash against The People vs. Larry Flynt. In celebrating the constitutional triumph, the movie seems oblivious to the cultural damage. The movie has an easy time of it by virtue of the fact that the plaintiff in Hustler v. Falwell was a man regarded by many Americans, and by most liberals, as a self-righteous and meddlesome proponent of illiberal policies—as a slightly dangerous man. But Falwell’s views and personality are irrelevant to the constitutional issues in his suit, and one can put what is at stake in those issues much more starkly by asking whether, if the butt of Hustler’s parody had been, say, Martin Luther King, Oliver Stone and Milos Forman would have made a movie about it.

The question the Falwell case poses (as Post analyzes it) is whether a principle of free speech can be devised which is firm enough to protect dissident and unpopular opinion but not so inflexible that it also protects hate-mongers and speech bullies—people who shout racial epithets or who (as pornographers are said to) represent other people in demeaning ways that effectively silence them. Many intelligent people, in the years since Hustler v. Falwell was decided, have tried to formulate such a principle, although the task seems doomed by the impossibility of coming up with a general standard that would allow courts to parse unerringly the difference between racial epithets and flag-burning, or between Larry Flynt and Robert Mapplethorpe. Protect, in the name of public debate, one type of speech offensive to some and it is hard not to protect all; this is the conclusion arrived at, after considering various alternative theories, and with some regret, by Post. For people who have concluded that the social costs of a general protection of speech are smaller than the social costs of a more frankly judgmental and discriminating approach, Hustler v. falwell (or even the hypothetical Hustler v. King) is an easy case.

But reduced to legal terms in this fashion, the really significant things in most actual cases—the things that make the issues matter to us in the first place—tend to get lost, and this seems to be what has happened in The People vs. Larry Flynt. The anthropology of the story is a lot more interesting than the jurisprudence. For what is notable, as a cultural matter, about most speech cases is the symbiosis of the two sides. Orthodoxy depends upon heterodoxy to set its limits, victimization requires persecution, bad taste is defined in opposition to good taste: the observation is perfectly banal, but it is precisely what drops out in a legal analysis. In legal terms, Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt represent opposed interests, each out to destroy, or at a minimum to chill, the other side. But in cultural terms, the Falwells and the Flynts are mutually reinforcing. They acquire their definitions from each other, and what is fascinating about Falwell and Flynt is not that they ended up in court together, but that they arose together, they fell together, and their worlds constantly interpenetrated one another—were, at bottom, the same world.


The first issue of hustler appeared in 1974. The magazine became successful, and world-famous, in the following year, when it published a five-page photo spread of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the nude. The pictures had been taken by an Italian paparazzo with a telephoto lens who had staked out the Greek island of Skorpios, where the Onassises had a house. The pictures had been offered first to Playboy and Penthouse, the established journals in the field, but Playboy and Penthouse turned them down (exercising scruples they would soon find good reasons to abandon). Flynt bought the photographs, he claims in his autobiography, for $18,000, and the issue of Hustler in which they appeared sold a million copiesin a matter of days. It was the perfect combination of titillation and personal violation, and once Flynt got his hands on the formula, he never let go. By the end of the decade, he was selling 2.5 million magazines a month.

Now the distinctive thing about Hustler is that it was not Playboy. This is a point that gets made in The People vs. Larry Flynt, but made in the wrong way. The filmmakers stress the fact, which is undoubtedly correct, that Flynt deliberately set out to create a magazine for downscale readers. Playboy was a self-proclaimed lifestyle magazine. It accompanied its photographs of partially clad and unclad women with articles on fashion, high-end audio equipment, and expensive cars, and with fiction by big-name writers like Vladimir Nabokov, essays by serious commentators like John Kenneth Galbraith, and interviews with noteworthy figures like Buckminster Fuller. Flynt’s initial insight was that the typical consumer of nudie pictorials was probably not realistically in the market for high-end audio products (or Campari, for that matter). So he set his sights on the sort of reader for whom solemn interviews with noteworthy figures represented the height of pretension—the sort of reader who would get more pleasure seeing such people lampooned than reading their ruminations. Playboy would have interviewed Jerry Falwell; Hustler stuck him in an obscene parody. It’s important to see that “fancy” aperitifs were being sneered at right along with Falwell.

All very democratic, but it leaves out a more significant point of contrast, and that has to do with the partially clad and unclad women. Playboy published its first issue in 1953, and in spite of its liberated attitude toward sex, it was in its attitude toward women very much a magazine of that decade. Playboy women were naked, but they were in every other respect as inaccessible and chaste as nuns. They were women who had been somehow reduced to flesh and elevated to sanctity at the same time. They represented some fantasy of Fifties bachelorhood: girls you could sleep with and respect at the same time. These women were upstanding, clean, and miraculously free of guilt. They had perfect breasts in the same sense that they had perfect teeth. There was no hint that they had any sexual ambitions of their own.

The mass-market pornography of the so-called “sexual revolution,” the pornography that emerged in the late Sixties and early Seventies and flooded into bookstores, newsstands, movie theaters, and ultimately video outlets, was based on a different premise. It has become common to talk about pornography as the representation of male dominance and female submission, as sending the “message” that women were put on earth for the sexual gratification of men. This is roughly the way it is described, for example, by Catharine MacKinnon and other feminists who advocate censorship, and the description tends to be adopted even by people who reject MacKinnon’s legal arguments.

But mass-market pornography was not based, in the beginning, on the image of the sex-driven male. It was based on the image of the sex-driven female. The pop ideology of sexual liberation was that, contrary to the lesson taught by centuries of moral conditioning, women enjoyed sex as much as men, and in the same way as men were imagined to enjoy it—that is, actively, promiscuously, and without guilt. Most of the sexually explicit films of the era that achieved the status of cultural chic were about women in search of sexual pleasure: I Am Curious (Yellow) (1968), Deep Throat (1972), The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), and the soft-core Emmanuelle films, which began in 1974.

These movies were produced entirely for the delectation of men, of course, and when Linda Marciano, the star of Deep Throat, emerged a decade later to reveal that she had performed in that movie under duress, she exposed rather dramatically the extent to which the voraciously promiscuous woman of the sexual revolution, despite all the popular rhetoric about “free love” and “no double standard,” was just another male fantasy. In the early Seventies, though, when Flynt was entering the sex business as the owner of a striptease club in Dayton, that rhetoric was at its height. Commercial sex—striptease clubs and pornographic movies and magazines—was understood in many minds as the natural consequence of the frank acknowledgment that men and women both enjoy sex. This is the view of the sexual revolution adhered to by the makers of The People vs. Larry Flynt—that Flynt was just being honest about a subject made shameful by prudes and hypocrites. And it is why they went out of their way to remake Althea Flynt.

Who the real Althea was is probably beyond recovering. The Althea of Flynt’s autobiography is the one woman he meets with whom he can share something besides sex, and he makes it rather clear that good sex was not the basis of their relationship. But good sex is the basis of their relationship in Forman’s movie, which imagines Althea as the very type of the female sexual athlete and aggressor of sexual revolution iconography. That Larry and Althea are sexual equals—that equality is precisely the lesson Althea comes into Larry’s life to teach him—is emphasized in a number of scenes, most notably one (not in the screenplay) in which Larry smacks Althea, early in their relationship, and she warns him never to hit her again. But in fact the real Althea admitted that Flynt beat her, and she was once quoted in Hustler explaining that “I don’t see anything wrong with a man striking a woman. In fact, many women are turned on by it.”1

Getting this wrong means missing the whole point of Hustler’s accomplishment. Hustler was not, in the tradition of Playboy, about sex as play or about sex without hang-ups. It was about sex as a kind of violation. The nude photographs of Jacqueline Onassis epitomized the magazine’s sensibility. When that issue of Hustler appeared, the governor of Ohio, Jim Rhodes, was caught buying a copy at a newsstand, and this indiscretion became widely reported, much to Flynt’s delight. The episode is presented in the movie, where it is played as another proof of the fake prudery of official culture. Rhodes wants to see the pictures, but he is ashamed of it, and this is portrayed as an example of the sort of hypocrisy men like Larry Flynt dare to expose.

But it is not hypocrisy. It is natural to want to see pictures of a famous woman naked, and it is also shameful, since the pictures violate her privacy in the most flagrant way. The itch to see the pictures is completely bound up with the sense that it’s wrong, the sense that the itch itself is somehow personally debasing. Far from constituting another step toward a more honest and egalitarian sexuality, this association between sex and guilt, between (as Althea was made to say about being beaten) pleasure and degradation, was a throwback to the world before Playboy. The sexually liberated woman became a slut who needed to be exposed and punished. Larry Flynt put the shame back into sex.

Jerry Falwell was on the same mission, and the parallel is less superficial than it may sound. Falwell’s relation to the sexual revolution of the Sixties was, on a certain level, exactly the same as Flynt’s: he, too, hoped to exploit the sense of sin and shame that the advent of free love had supposedly made obsolete. Falwell would have been no more imaginable without Playboy, and everything that had followed from it, than Flynt would have been. They were both sexual reactionaries. The intertwining of the world of televangelism and the world of sex magazines was, in fact, one of the most remarkable phenomena of the period covered in The People vs. Larry Flynt. The movie does a wonderful bit with one of the weirder examples of this intertwining—the friendship that developed between Ruth Carter Stapleton and Flynt. It is perfect Forman material, and he handles it with delicate and understated patience. And Hanover is very fine in highlighting the eroticism of their encounters without losing the aura of earnest spirituality that seems to have suffused them throughout. But this is as far as the movie goes toward illuminating the sexual-evangelical nexus.

Falwell emerged on the public stage, after all, when Jimmy Carter, then running for president, confessed in an interview in Playboy to having sometimes felt “lust in my heart.” Before Carter’s confession, Falwell had been known mostly in the neighborhood of his native Lynchburg, Virginia, where he had established an immensely successful ministry, at the Thomas Road Baptist Church, and where, in 1971, he had founded Liberty Baptist College. Most of his preaching had been directed against alcohol and drugs, but after seeing the national attention he attracted by his public criticism of Carter (who had, of course, identified himself as a born-again Christian), Falwell changed his targets to abortion, homosexuality, and pornography.

Carter’s election in 1976 suggested to many people that outspoken conservative Christianity was a way for even a Democrat to win elections, and in 1979 a group of conservative political and religious figures asked Falwell to head an organization named, by the conservative activist Paul Weyrich, the Moral Majority, whose mission was to mobilize Christian voters on behalf of Republican candidates. The Moral Majority took considerable credit (with what justification remains a matter of dispute) for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and although Reagan was careful not to associate himself personally too closely with Falwell, he was also careful not to dissociate himself publicly. So that when Hustler ran its ad parody, in 1983, it was not firing off a random attack on someone who had strayed accidentally into its line of fire. The ad was part of a campaign against Falwell, who had already been honored as Hustler’s “Asshole of the Month.” For Falwell was not only the personification of the sort of officious sanctimoniousness Hustler’s readers were supposed to enjoy seeing ridiculed; he also was a man in a position politically to damage the commercial empire of Larry Flynt. Falwell and Flynt were each other’s devils, but they were also each other’s raisons d’être.

By 1983, Falwell had an empire of his own. He had, in fact, two empires, a ministry and a political organization. The core congregation of Falwell’s ministry was the church in Lynchburg, which had 17,000 members in 1983 (up from thirty-five when Falwell took it over, in 1956). But Falwell also had a television program, “The Old Time Gospel Hour,” which was carried weekly on 373 stations—more than any other televangelist of the time. By the early Eighties the program claimed to have 25 million viewers, and was bringing in $1 million in contributions a week. Fundraising was, in fact, its main activity, so much so that, as Frances Fitzgerald reported, five of every seven dollars raised was spent just to keep the show going. When the Moral Majority was formed, it started its fundraising drive, which was dedicated to re-establishing traditional values by support of conservative political candidates, by using the television program’s mailing list, and brought in $2.2 million in the first year. The ministry’s newsletter, the Journal Companion, was turned into the political organization’s newsletter, the Moral Majority Report, which was sent to 840,000 homes with a readership estimated at 3 million. More than three hundred radio stations broadcast Moral Majority commentary daily. In 1983 the organization claimed 4 million members, which is probably an exaggeration, but which indicates the scale on which Falwell conceived of his operations at the time.

When the Campari ad appeared, in 1983, Falwell was quick to sue, but he was also quick to turn the ad to financial account. He sent out two mailings under the aegis of the Moral Majority to members and “major donors,” requesting funds to “defend his mother’s memory,” and a third letter to 750,000 viewers of “The Old Time Gospel Hour.” The mailing to the major donors—there were 26,900 of them—included copies of the ad, with eight offensive words blacked out. The letters raised more than $700,000 in thirty days. When Flynt learned of them, he countersued Falwell for copyright infringement—for reproducing the ad. He lost this suit, but he made his point, which was, of course, that Falwell was so far indifferent to the reputation of his mother as to disseminate to thousands of people who had never seen it the parody that traduced her.2

Who received these appeals? Falwell’s constituents, like the constituents of all the televangelists who flourished in the 1980s, were generally downscale. They were not well-off, and they tended, in the words of an official of the National Council of Churches, which paid close attention to the phenomenon, “to be somewhat alienated from mainline America. They feel they are on the short end of things, that they haven’t gotten what others have.”3 The profile of Falwell’s audience, in other words, apart from the obvious difference, was remarkably similar to the profile of Hustler’s audience—a circumstance beautifully illuminated in an event which took place while Flynt and Falwell were in the midst of their legal war over the Campari ad parody.

In 1986, Alan Sears, the executive director of the Meese Commission, which had been set up at the direction of President Reagan to examine the issue of pornography, wrote a letter, on Justice Department stationery, to twenty-three companies accusing them of being “major players in the game of pornography.” The letter gave the companies three weeks to respond, with the implicit threat that they would somehow be exposed in the Commission’s final report if they did not. Among these companies were 7-Eleven, Rite-Aid, which is a drugstore chain, and Kmart, which owned Waldenbooks. All were accused (Sears based his letter on testimony before the commission by another fundamentalist crusader, the Reverend Donald Wildmon) of retailing Playboy, Penthouse, and other sexually explicit magazines. The effect on the magazines was devastating. 7-Eleven convenience stores, which are not ordinarily the source of goods for upscale consumers, were in fact the major outlet for Penthouse, and sold 20 percent of all copies of Playboy. The companies buckled—since, clearly, they were also patronized by many shoppers who regarded pornography as sinful, and who could be expected to be susceptible to suggestions of a boycott.

Although Penthouse and several other plaintiffs ultimately got a federal court to rule that Sears’s letter constituted unlawful prior restraint, “the damage,” as John Heidenry says in his forthcoming account of the sexual revolution and its aftermath, What Wild Ecstasy, “had been done. The removal of Playboy and Penthouse from ten thousand stores across the country, including the mammoth 7-Eleven and Rite-Aid chains, sent the circulations of both magazines plummeting.”4 Hustler was one of the magazines affected. The incident, Heidenry goes on to point out, was not an isolated case of extremist pressure on mainstream taste; it reflected a shift in mainstream tolerance of pornography as well. In 1986 Time magazine reported that 63 percent of women and 47 percent of men now believed that pornography led men to commit rape.

But the demise of the culture of anything-goes sexuality coincided with the setback of the culture of televangelism, and by the end of 1987, when Hustler v. Falwell was finally argued before the Supreme Court, Falwell’s empire had become as marginalized as Flynt’s. The reason was the PTL scandal, which was, fittingly, played out in the twin worlds of religious broadcasting and adult magazines. The scandal began when Jim Bakker, the host, with his wife Tammy Faye, of the television program of the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club, was accused of having committed adultery by a church worker named Jessica Hahn, who claimed Bakker had deflowered her, and of having used several hundred thousand dollars of PTL money to purchase Hahn’s silence. The ensuing inquiry into PTL’s financial affairs disclosed an elaborate bilking scheme, and in the uproar, Bakker asked Falwell to take custody of his ministry.

Falwell agreed, and his magnanimity proved his undoing. Falwell’s constituency was Baptist; Bakker’s was Pentecostal, and the suspicion quickly arose that Falwell was principally interested not in saving PTL but in dissolving it in the interests of folding its viewership—in 1987 the program was said to reach over 12 million homes—into his “Old Time Gospel Hour” ministry. Falwell denied the charge, but it was repeated continually, and the light thrown by Bakker’s indictment and conviction on the whole practice of fundraising through religious broadcasting (by 1987, “The Old Time Gospel Hour” was reported to be spending twenty-six minutes of every half hour pleading for money) ended by crippling the national credibility of televangelists like Falwell.

Hahn, meanwhile, went on to pose twice for Playboy, the second time following plastic surgery subsidized by Hugh Hefner himself. (Her claim to have been a virgin when Bakker slept with her has been pretty thoroughly discredited.) In 1988, a year after Hahn’s pictures appeared in Playboy, Penthouse revealed that another prominent televangelist, Jimmy Swaggart, had paid a prostitute to pose for him, in a hotel room, in provocative postures he told her he had seen in adult magazines. And a year after that, Penthouse published an interview with a protégé of Bakker’s who claimed to have served as his “male prostitute.”

The sexually explicit magazine industry and the televangelist fundraising industry were, in short, working on opposite sides of the same street. They knew each other’s business better than anyone else in America did. So it is not surprising that when Falwell sued Flynt over the Campari ad, the lawyer he chose to represent him was Norman Roy Grutman, a man who had risen to prominence as the principal attorney for Penthouse. Falwell knew Grutman well. He had met him back in 1981 when he was suing Penthouse for running an interview with him without his permission. Grutman had attracted attention on that occasion by referring publicly to Falwell as “Foulwell,” but he won the case—and got a new client in the bargain. Flynt has, understandably, a good deal of fun with this irony in An Unseemly Man, but the filmmakers never mention it. They may have felt it was the kind of detail that would spoil the simplicity of the legal drama they wished to present, but it is a detail that touches the heart of the cultural moment their movie is about.

This Issue

February 6, 1997