by Bruce Handy
n the spring of 2001, as he was putting an end to his second marriage, Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor of New York City, moved out of the mayor’s mansion and for the next few months bunked at the home of Howard Koeppel, a friend and political supporter. Also sharing the apartment was Mark Hsiao, Koeppel’s longtime boyfriend.
Six years later, with Giuliani now one of the leading Republican candidates for president, his interregnum with the Koeppel-Hsiaos has drawn the interest not only of suspicious conservatives but also of Larry Flynt, who, not a conservative, has made a good living off of traditional male needs as the founder and publisher of Hustler magazine (not to mention Barely Legal, Backdoor Babes, and the 21 other publications he owns, along with a Hustler video company, a chain of Hustler strip clubs and sex-toy stores, and a small Hustler Casino in Gardena, California). Flynt has granted me an audience—I’m not bragging; it’s not hard to get Flynt to talk—in his office on the 10th floor of the Flynt Publications building, in Beverly Hills. “Let me ask you something,” he says in a voice that might best be described as a slurred croak. “As mayor of New York, would you live in an apartment with three gay guys?” Flynt’s facts aren’t entirely in order, but his train of thought won’t be derailed. “I’m not gay,” he continues. “I don’t hate gays. But I don’t want to live in an apartment full of them. They’ll bitch and cry and all. That doesn’t bother Giuliani. It doesn’t bother Giuliani to put a dress on to do Saturday Night Live. I don’t trust him. I don’t think he’s electable.”
Um, I ask, what exactly is he trying to suggest? That Giuliani, famous for his three marriages—to women—and for his taxpayer-subsidized philandering, is in fact one of the political world’s most successfully closeted homosexuals? “I don’t know whether he’s gay or not,” Flynt replies with a hint of exasperation, “but I’m saying, if you got four friends, all gay, living in the same apartment, how are you going to know which one’s gay? I’m surprised no one’s even asking that question. Why do you break up with your wife and move in with gay guys?”
As you are no doubt well aware, America is enduring yet another election cycle, and Flynt, as he has done sporadically over the last three decades, is working hard to insert himself into the middle of it. What that mostly entails—aside from making calculatedly outrageous statements (see above) to Larry King, Geraldo Rivera, and other talk-show hosts—is offering cash bounties to women and men who are willing to dish verifiable dirt on the sort of politician who campaigns on family-values platforms by day and strays from his or her spouse by night. (Or evening, afternoon, or morning.) The immediate goal is a Flynt press conference where said dirt is revealed, followed by more talk-show appearances, and, eventually, an exposé in Hustler between photos of pudenda. The larger goal, Flynt contends, is exposing hypocrisy. For this reason, he insists, he goes after only politicians whose voting records are at odds with their private conduct. “Hypocrisy is the greatest threat to democracy,” he is fond of saying, though it should be noted that democracy probably couldn’t exist without hypocrisy, unless people are going to be out of the loop. Flynt takes the subject so seriously that he says he is working on a book—his third—to be titled Politics, Porn & Power: An Intimate Look at Sexual Hypocrisy and Its Impact on American Politics.
At this point in his career, Flynt is arguably the greatest student of the American underbelly since J. Edgar Hoover. Dirt digging and checkbook journalism are passions he first indulged during the mid-70s heyday of naughty congressmen Wilbur Mills and Wayne Hays, whose careers ended when they were found, respectively, in the company of an Argentinean stripper and a blonde secretary from his office who famously couldn’t type. In 1976, Flynt was inspired by those scandals to take out an ad in The Washington Post offering an up-to-$1-million reward to anyone who could provide “documentary evidence of illicit sexual relations with a Congressman, Senator or other prominent officeholder.” Nothing much turned up, at least that became public. (Flynt does have a McCarthy-like habit—or maybe it’s Barnumesque—of insisting he has ripe, drippingly scandalous goods he can’t quite show yet.) A few years later, Flynt published pictures of Representative Larry McDonald, a Georgia Republican, in bed with a mistress; alas, this scoop was undercut in 1983 when McDonald was killed as a passenger on Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which was shot down by the U.S.S.R. when it strayed into Russian airspace
Flynt finally hit a jackpot in 1998 during Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings, when a second million-dollar offer in the Post turned up evidence that Bob Livingston, a Republican congressman from Louisiana who had just been elected Speaker of the House, had had a string of extramarital affairs. Alerted that Flynt was about to go public, Livingston tried to get in front of the story by admitting that he had strayed, and then resigning. This remains Flynt’s biggest scalp to date, though he denied himself the pleasure of publishing the particulars of Livingston’s extracurriculars after Livingston’s wife, Bonnie, called him up and begged him not to, pleading that her family had been harmed enough.
Flynt has always had a beef with moralists—that goes with his professional territory—but the rise of so-called family-values politics, epitomized by the Republican Party’s promotion of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, particularly incensed him. To some eyes, it also legitimized him. “Everyone wanted Clinton’s head on a platter,” he tells me. “They all wanted him, even some of the loyal Democrats. And I thought, Here’s a guy who hasn’t done anything anyone else hasn’t done, including the lying about it, because people lie about sex more than anything else. They lie to get it, they lie about it.”
Flynt offers these comments from the far end of a vast football field of an office that might be euphemistically described as “over-decorated,” what with its floral carpets and chintz, its Tiffany lamps (some real, some not), its huge arrangements of fake flowers, its brocade drapes, its green walls hung with gilt-framed reproductions of old-master paintings (some clumsy, some less so). If Belle Watling, Rhett Butler’s favorite madam, had been asked to redesign the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this is what she might have come up with. The one surface devoted to masculine clutter is Flynt’s big wooden desk. It boasts photos of the publisher with Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Jesse Jackson along with novelty paperweights, documents, dirty magazines, and a DVD of Not the Bradys XXX, a pornographic parody of The Brady Bunch produced by Hustler Video. Flynt, seated low and hunched in his famous gold wheelchair (he was paralyzed by a 1978 shooting), is dwarfed by his surroundings. His hair is a slightly more natural shade of Donald Trump orange, his mouth is often slack, and his eyes can have a deer-in-the-headlights look, but his conversation is sharp, and mischievous energy plays across his face, along with a puckish grin, whenever he’s about to get off a good line, which is often. Think of Dennis the Menace animating Jabba the Hutt—which is a mean comparison, I know, but pulling one’s punches isn’t part of the Flynt ethos.
In muckraking terms, 2007 was a very good year for Flynt. In July, his investigators broke the first actual news amid the media frenzy surrounding the escort service run by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the so-called D.C. Madam, who is being prosecuted in federal court on racketeering and money-laundering charges. Having gained access to Palfrey’s phone bills, Flynt’s investigators—competing against reporters from ABC News and other outlets that also had the records—discovered a series of calls from Palfrey to Senator David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana who had made abstinence-only sex education a signature issue and is prone to calling heterosexual marriage “the most important social institution in human history.” Like Livingston (whose House seat Vitter had won in a special election in 1999 after the Speaker-elect had resigned), Vitter tried to pre-empt the news, issuing a statement before the story broke in which he confessed, vaguely, to “a very serious sin.” At a press conference a few days later, he said he’d been forgiven by both his God and his teary wife, the second of whom was standing beside him, but also denied “those New Orleans stories”—long-standing rumors, some of which had already surfaced in the Louisiana press, linking him to prostitutes in his home state.
That set Flynt up for a second score when, in September, the publisher held a joint press conference in his office with Wendy Ellis, a retired New Orleans prostitute who claimed to have had extensive professional dealings with Vitter; she backed up her story, which her lawyer had approached Hustler with, by passing a polygraph examination that Flynt paid for. “It was just a pure sexual relationship, you know,” Ellis told the gathered reporters about her alleged client. “He would come in, do his business—he was a very clean man, I do have to give him that much—two to three times a week, for four months.” Flynt, who had paid Ellis an undisclosed sum for her story, tried to put matters into perspective at the press conference: “It’s not a question here of muckraking and exposing the perverts. It’s more than that. It’s trying to maintain honesty in government.” In furtherance of this goal, the January issue of Hustler features nude photos of Ellis, taken on a couch in Flynt’s office. She, for one, has nothing to hide. (Except her price for coming forward. “That’s a personal matter between me and Hustler,” she told me, though she acknowledged that her posing for the magazine was from Hustler’s point of view non-negotiable.)