LOS ANGELES -- She was 33 years old and married to the most famous pornographer in America and she died, nine days ago, in her own bathtub. The coroner has the case. FLYNT, ALTHEA LEASURE. There is a file in an office somewhere, awaiting reports. "Tissue studies," the man from the coroner's office says. "Toxicological tests. No trauma noted."
Courteous, the man from the coroner's office; dispassionate, friendly. Dressed probably in a sport coat, with tie. He would have bored her. At the offices of Hustler magazine, where the most recent issue lists Althea Flynt's name as copublisher next to a photograph of what appears to be a construction worker pulling the undergarments off a passing waitress, she used to spend an hour at a time in the mail room so that she could listen to the tapes an 18-year-old clerk had brought in. The music was new wave, or punk, and the mail clerk wore pointy boots and put grease in his hair to make it go different directions.
This was interesting; this was vigorous. Althea Flynt came to work sometimes in leather dog collars, or bangled chains that ran from the hole in her ear to the hole in her nostril, or contact lenses done as bull's-eyes, so that you looked her in the eye and saw concentric circles of black and white.
There are photographs of her, hair slicked high and black, eyebrows plunging the length of her forehead, leathers unzipped to the navel. There are photographs of her wearing a business jacket and turtleneck sweater, or a prim red dress with high-heeled shoes; there are photographs in which the needle marks blotch clear and dark the length of Althea Flynt's arms, and there are photographs also, large ones, that unfold. What Althea Flynt wears in those pictures is stockings, and a hat. The hat is straw, white, with a floppy brim, the sort of hat that might be worn by the flower girl at a summer wedding.
"She is a true Scorpio woman," reads the magazine copy under the photograph of Althea Flynt in a straw hat. "She loves sex." The magazine was published by Larry Flynt, who was married to Althea Flynt when she died, and who bought her interesting gifts, like a furnished home in the Rocky Mountains, or the call girl of her choice at a New York brothel. Larry Flynt has published in his magazine what might be regarded as extremely personal references to a lot of people, including Jacqueline Onassis, Jerry Falwell, Santa Claus, the pope, and ladies who volunteer pictures of themselves, like "Sunshine, 24, a secretary from Elkhart, Texas." That is Larry Flynt's line of work. The magazines he owns are worth, by the estimates of one corporate officer, approximately $25 million.
He lives in a white house above Hollywood, the house in which Althea Flynt died. A long line of thin Italian cypresses, each trimmed to a formal point, marks the last roadside curve before the driveway to Larry Flynt's house; at the driveway there are bright summer flowers, dahlias and marigolds, and a black limousine.
It is not, by Los Angeles standards, a particularly imposing house. A Hispanic maid emerges, smiles, takes the business card. A German shepherd puppy bounds across the driveway, followed by a pleasant-looking teen-age boy. The sprinkler system begins watering the dahlias.
When the business card comes back it is in the hands of a young man, his blond hair combed and hanging to his shoulders, wearing an expensive shirt and gray pleated pants. With great courtesy the young man says, "He's, um, indisposed." A telephone number has been written on the back of the business card, next to the hand-printed letters L. FLYNT. "But he says to give you this number, and if you'll call him later, he'd be happy to talk to you."
Some hours later, Larry Flynt is still indisposed. He is indisposed the next morning. He is indisposed the next afternoon. In the evening he is thought to be indisposed, but then Larry Flynt comes to the telephone, and his voice is slow, and slightly indistinct.
He says he has not left the house since Althea Flynt died.
"I don't think -- the full impact -- has had a chance to settle in," Larry Flynt says.
He says that when his wife died, she had AIDS-related complex, ARC. He says, although ARC is not usually considered terminal, that she was dying. He says she knew she was going to die, that her physician said she would probably not live longer than a year, and that he and Althea Flynt had considered cryonics, the freezing of human bodies, so that she might be thawed sometime later when a cure was found.
He says the autopsy unfortunately rendered cryonics impossible. He says he believes Althea Flynt drowned, and that the drowning was an accident. Althea Flynt had friends who think she could have committed suicide in that way, that this was a woman who could have decided to die and then deliberately drowned herself in her bathtub, but Larry Flynt says he believes that she was thin and sick and fell asleep in the bath water.
"She would have left me a note," Larry Flynt says.
It is Wednesday afternoon as Larry Flynt talks into the telephone. On Sunday he is to bury his wife, in Saylersville, Ky., where Flynt says his grandparents are buried. When he lived in Ohio, before Larry Flynt was as wealthy a man as he is today, he had a large Tudor home in Columbus -- across the street, it was frequently noted, from an expensive private girls' school -- and in the basement of the Tudor was an arrangement of straw and chicken wire that Flynt installed, he told reporters, to remind him of the log cabin he lived in before he grew up and became an American businessman with an extremely large income and a pink Lear jet.
The burial site, Larry Flynt says, is a family plot. "Everybody has their own graveyard there," he says. "Did you know that?"
He says he is not sure how things will go now, without Althea Flynt in the house. He has been a paraplegic since 1978, when someone shot him in the abdomen while he was on trial in Georgia, charged with publishing obscenity, and for the last nine years they lived together, the paralyzed pornographer and his wife, who liked fettucine and leather dog collars and often made her own suggestions for his magazine, like a cover photograph of a woman wearing a black latex hood over her head.
People say they loved each other very much.
"I've got a lot of company, so I really haven't had time to think about that," Larry Flynt says. He is speaking of the house, of the time now without Althea Flynt, of how he believes it will be.
"We were very close," Larry Flynt says.
They were photographed together much of the time, the smiling man in his gold-plated wheelchair, and the dark-haired woman leaning in over his shoulder, her eyes sometimes hidden by long straight bangs. When Larry Flynt ran for president, in a period whose sheer madness exhausted some of his own employes, she appeared on camera with him sometimes. Here is one video: He wears a T-shirt bearing a large obscene reference to the Olympic Games, and she sits at his feet, wearing overalls and a fiercely androgynous haircut.
He says something needling to her. She looks up fondly, and makes a suggestion about what she will do if he keeps talking like that. The suggestion involves decapitation and feces, and one does not wish to elaborate beyond that, but then Althea Flynt asks Larry Flynt if he will paint the White House black once elected to the presidency.
What Flynt replies is not entirely suitable for transcription here either -- much of their campaign videotaping, in fact, falls into that category -- but it is a reference to body parts. It is body parts, notably female ones, whose public and generally unadorned display made Larry Flynt one of the more successful magazine publishers in the United States. "Hustler readers," Larry Flynt said in an interview 11 years ago, "are used to getting it told to them just like they would hear it at a neighborhood bar."
Althea Flynt was his fourth wife, and because she married him in 1976, she was the only wife to join Larry Flynt in his rise to celebrity. She was a go-go dancer when she met him; she had come to work in one of Flynt's Ohio nightclubs, and he says he had to fire her so that she could wait until her 18th birthday to begin working.
She had come, according to all the accounts about her, from beginnings so awful that there is an apocryphal quality to the story: orphaned at 8, she said, when her father murdered her mother and her grandfather and her mother's best friend. Her father killed himself afterward, the story goes, and Althea was sent to orphanages that she described in a 1978 interview as being faintly Dickensian places where girls with moxie were sent into isolation.
"They put you in a bare room with dirty floors and a single mattress that was stained and filthy and stank," she told an interviewer from New York magazine. "I still remember the smell. They put a pot and a roll of toilet paper in the room. Then they locked you in."
She ran away. She got work in one of Larry Flynt's clubs, which he describes as being enterprises a little like the Playboy clubs, and set in various Ohio cities. What he liked about her, he says, was "her innocence -- her sort of childlike behavior. And at the same time being a very shrewd intellectual."
It was the Hustler clubs' newsletters that eventually grew into the magazine whose principal publicity tool became its sheer offensiveness. If dirty-minded teen-age boys were left to commit their nastiest fantasies to four-color paper, the pages they produced would look like the milder passages from Hustler; here was a publication that brought pornography to the liquor store newsstands without benefit of airbrush or gauzy lens. There was a lot of scatology in Hustler, and there were jokes about necrophilia and sadomasochistic takeouts and undressed women so literally reduced to meatlike status that some of Flynt's better-known photo layouts hung the models off large butcher's hooks.
Larry Flynt ran all of this, first from Columbus and then from Los Angeles, and Althea Leasure Flynt ran it with him. When they were interviewed in Columbus she would show the heart-shaped bathtub he had installed for her, and when asked about their sex life they would make reference to nonpossessive relationships, and when Larry Flynt 10 years ago made his celebrated conversion to Christianity, it was Althea Flynt who took over the Hustler operation while her husband pursued the Lord.
"God may have walked into your life," Althea Flynt was reported to have said, after her husband's intriguing alliance with evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton, "but $20 million a year just walked out." There was a lot of speculation about precisely how the message of Christ was to find its way into the covers of the reborn Hustler, but in March 1978 Larry Flynt was shot and the religious conversion abandoned. The gunshot left him in what he later described as unendurable pain, and Flynt retreated to his bedroom and spent three years experimenting with drugs that would make the pain go away.
Althea Flynt retreated with him, according to a 1983 magazine article by the Washington writer Rudy Maxa, who had befriended the Flynts. The drugs were methadone, marijuana, cocaine, sleeping pills, morphine, a morphinelike painkiller called Dilaudid. Althea Flynt's cocaine addiction alone was costing $20,000 a week, Maxa wrote, and both Althea and Larry Flynt overdosed at least four times.
In Maxa's article he wrote of visiting Althea Flynt in a Los Angeles hospital, where she had checked herself in to try to overcome the cocaine addiction. "I visited her twice and found a gaunt woman with hollow eyes and open sores that would not heal," he wrote. "She looked at least a decade older than her 26 years."
Timothy Leary, who was one of the people Althea Flynt befriended in Los Angeles, says her flamboyance was memorable.
"Purple and green hair," he says. "She was a wild person, but there was always a social, or political, or dissenting, or underdog quality to her -- almost a crusade ... There's no question she was a bright, shrewd, intellectual, surviving creature. Or she never would have moved up the way she did."
In the headquarters of Larry Flynt Publications, where Hustler is one of nine publications that emerge from the same suite of unremarkably appointed offices, Althea Flynt kept for herself a single large glass-walled room. There were periods of time, particularly when Larry Flynt was running his odd and manic 1984 campaign for the presidency, when Althea Flynt used this office to play the publisher's role with great vigor. A French provincial desk filled one corner of the room, but Althea Flynt preferred the sofa, which was also where she took her naps. She drank Jack Daniel's straight from the bottle she kept inside a wooden globe, and when she saw how an idea ought to be laid out in the magazine she was insistent on it -- more stubborn than her husband sometimes.
Her greatest passion, the thing she wanted most deeply and never finally got, was for a magazine called The Rage. Althea Flynt invented this magazine; Larry Flynt Publications was supposed to back it, and when it appeared, The Rage was to offer a kind of monthly voice to the forces of new wave and punk. Punk make-overs would appear in this magazine, secretarial young women or long-haired young men transformed step by step on camera into something more appropriate to the nightclubs Althea Flynt was frequenting.
The magazine would run baby pictures of Boy George, or Mick Jagger. The artist Ralph Steadman would design an entire alphabet to be used in layouts. Andy Warhol might be commissioned to do Yoko Ono as a geisha. Althea Flynt imagined Prince look-alike features, or leather fashion spreads, "to be shot," as one memorandum proposed, "with male models tearing girls' leather clothes, thus transforming clothes from chic to semi-punk."
"She was fabulous," says Angela Bowie, the author and actress who worked briefly as the celebrity editor for The Rage. "She was extremely stylized -- she had a very good art director's eye." Althea Flynt followed stand-up comics, paid particular attention to little-known but flashy new artists, and read with great appetite, Bowie says. "A devastatingly smart woman."
The magazine never saw its first issue. Larry Flynt was spending enormous amounts of money during his presidential campaign, and part of the fallout was The Rage; the disappointment, Althea Flynt's friends say, was enormous.
"It was her chance to get away from pornography, which she was sick of," says an employe who knew her as well as anyone in the Flynt offices. It was not a moral queasiness that had come over Althea Flynt, the employe says, but rather the sense that nearly a decade of her husband's ventures had exhausted her; that " 'everything we could have done we've done, and I'm getting tired of it,' " the employe says.
That, apparently, was when she became ill. She told this friend that the disease was AIDS. "It was almost like a joke," the friend says; she told him in a grim and entirely straightforward voice, and wondered aloud whether she had contracted it from drug use or from sex with a bisexual man.
"I really think she kind of welcomed it," he says. "It was like, live fast, die young ... She was kind of laughing about it, and thinking exactly how she got it."
She stopped coming much to the Flynt offices, but six months ago she came in for a visit, her employe friend says. She told him she was obtaining drugs from Mexico, something expensive and of uncertain legality. She said she was gaining a little weight back, but simply looking at her left him shaken. "She looked near death," he says. "The skin was real drawn and dark. Her arms were extremely thin and long. They almost looked like bones."
Althea Flynt made an appearance about two months ago, at a party for some Flynt company department heads. The party was at the home, the smaller and less imposing place that Larry and Althea Flynt bought after they declared that their grand Bel Air place was too big and too hard to live in. Another friend from the magazines watched her that night; she showed him the house and told him how much she had disliked the big drafty mansion.
She was smoking a lot, her friend says. Her voice was low. She smiled around the company employes; it seemed to her friend that for a while Althea Flynt was enjoying herself, making conversation, keeping herself alert. She went to bed early. Her friend thinks she weighed about 85 pounds that night. "Brittle," he says. "I would say she looked brittle."