DUSK WAS falling when the Lear jet left the Ohio airport and the Lord began talking to Larry Flynt. With Ruth Carter Stapleton seated nearby, Flynt fell to his knees, his thick hands clasped in prayer as the jet headed for the West Coast.
The feeling began as a warm, tingling, powerful sensation. Flynt could feel a slightly medicinal taste rising from his throat. He was frightened but outwardly calm as the vision appeared: a man laughing heartily and calling himself Paul stood with Jesus Christ.
"I promised to give up my wife for Him," Flynt said. "I promised to see myself castrated, too look down and see myself with no sexaul organs and look up and say, 'Yes, God, it's okay, if that's Your will, that's fine.' I spoke in tongues. There were animals eating at my neck, like baboons and monkeys, gnawing at me. He told me my calling: to bring peace on earth. And He told me there had been a distortion of His Word, which confirmed my thing on religions but only one God.
"Then I had to pray for my wife, Althea - He was taking Althea away from me, a natural death or an accident - oh, how I had to pray. Then I asked Him about Lenny Bruce and I got the feeling Lenny was in hell so I prayed and prayed and prayed for Lenny. But it seemed like He only reached down and picked up half of Lenny. I remember saying something like 'Did you get him, did you get all?' and then I looked very close up at Jesus and He was holding Lenny in His arms . . ."
It lasted for hours.
It is evening, two weeks before Christmas, and the founder of Hustler magazine has decked the halls of his Columbus mansion with boughs of holly. Dozens of poinsettias and holiday floral arrangements fill his Tudor home. Outside, a grand fir tree is hung with oversized candy canes and lights that are reflected softly in a blanket of snow. Inside, Larry Flynt is rearranging his life according to the dictates of God.
The food in the kitchen's two refrigerators has been replaced and is piled in the garage for the help to take home. Gallons of fruit juices (from black cherry to papaya) have been purchased at Flynt's orders, part of a cleansing diet a new Christian friend has prescribed. Yogurt overflows the shelves. Organically grown vegetables and fruit are due to arrive by plane; the Flynts will begin the new diet in several days, when they complete the special fast recommended by comedian Dick Gregory.
Flynt is spending less time at home than usual. After announcing his conversion the weekend before Thanksgiving, he began crisscrossing the country in his private jet. He spent the next weekend with the President's sister in Fayetteville, North Carolina (with a side visit to Plains), met with Chuck Colson and Harold Hughes, talked by phone with Johnny Cash. He named his wife publisher of Hustler and - between editorial conferences at a resort in Colorado Springs - he struck up a friendship with right-wing fundamentalists calling themselves Christian Patriots. With mich good humor he began calling the new Larry Flynt "the eight wonder of the world."
His conversion was greeted with skepticism by some who felt Flynt had a clever plan to enrich his bank account (expected 1977 profits from porn: $30 million). At the White House - where Jimmy Carter's inauguration began an era in which secularized Americans learned anew about born-again experiences - staffers had suspected Flynt was socializing with Ruth Carter Stapleton for purposes of publicity. But with his bizarre conversion, some began to speculate that she might be pursuing him to help finance a religious center she planned near Dallas.
But Flynt was embraced by others who believe, as Williams James wrote in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience , that "even late in life, some thaw, some release may take place, some bolt be shot back in the barrenest breast, and the man's hard heart may soften and break into religious feeling."
In the beginning there was Brother Bob.
New Orleans' gift to the evangelistic circuit is Bob Harrington, the self-appointed "Chaplain of Bourbon Street," a fast-talking, expensively dressed minister, as handsome as a movie idol with his cleft chin and gray, carefully coiffed hair. Flynt met him in the summer of 1976 when Harrington agreed to a Hustler interview. Both men are from the South, both share a Baptist heritage. Both are fast-movers, masters of the art of philosophy one-liners ("Next to God" said Harrington, "the strongest word in the Bible is 'go'; you can't spell good or gospel without it"). And he recognized the other as a superb pitchman for his particular product.
Flynt stayed in touch with Harrington, though he admits that before his conversion he considered the preacher more of a show business act than a God-fearing man. For Harrington, the first clue to Flynt's softening came in the late fall of last year, when Flynt bought Harrington a $155,000 motor coach the size of a Greybound bus.
"That's when I knew something was happening," Harrington says, "because the Bible says a man's heart is where his treasure is."
Harrington uses the coach (he doesn't like the term "bus") for touring. On board is a double bedroom, a kitchen with everything but a dishwater, a living room, bathroom and plenty of luggage space to carry the "Success Sacks" he peddles at rallies. Harrington likes the luxury appointments, such as the stereo tape deck, and notes that the huge coach is "as easy to steer as my Mark IV."
Flynt credits Harrington with "planting the seed, putting me through boot camp," but it was the quiet persuasion of Ruth Carter Stapleton that nurtured his sudden growth toward God.
The two met through Joseph Wershba, a producer for CBS's "60 Minutes." Wershba had produced segments on both Stapleton and Flynt, and he thought the two charismatic personalities might mesh. Flynt was in Los Angeles last September when he called Stapleton at her North Carolina home; she asked him to join her for dinner the next night. A tight schedule made it impossible, Flynt responded, and he suggested an alternate date and place. But Stapleton was leaving for Europe and couldn't change her plans.
"You know the nice thing about people like you and me, Mr. Flynt?" she said slyly. "We can do anything we want to do."
It was the kind of bravura Flynt admired. The next night he joined Mrs. Stapleton and her husband Robert, a veterinarian, for dinner at their country club. Larry and Ruth talked late into the night, he challenging her to convince him that his two skin publications, Hustler and Chic, held women up to ridicule. For two more months they met when their schedules permitted. Flynt's conviction in Cincinnati on charges of organizing to commit the crime of selling obscene literature had given him a kind of notoriety; he was in demand by universities and the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] defend himself, and he [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the debate as he waited for [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of his appeal.
I thought I was looking for social ," Flynt says. "And I looked everywhere for the answers. I knew my convictions would be overturned, and it wasn't that I was looking for respectability. But I was getting blamed for every social ill that society embodied and I'd only been around a couple years and society had been around for 200. So I thought, maybe I'm a symptom, but I'm not the cause.
Monday, November 28, 1977. Mr. and Mrs. Larry Flynt are going on vacation.
Ten days earlier, in a church in Houston, the 34-year-old Flynt had offered a spontaneous confession to a congregation that had invited Stapleton to worship with its members that Sunday. Two days before that, Flynt had called her late at night, excited about a change he felt approaching in his life. They traveled the South together that weekend, ending up at the Braeswood Assembly of God church, where Flynt spoke. Neither would comment to the press, and they left the next morning for Columbus, then for Colorado where Stapleton had another speaking engagement.
It was on that flight to Colorado that Flynt had his vision of the Lord and the man he would later learn was the apostle Paul, no slouch in the sudden conversion department himself. (It was Paul, of course, the "Pharisee of the Pharisees," who was en route of Damascus to arrest some of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth for possible trial for heresy when suddenly he fell to earth, blinded by light; Christ spoke to him and he was immediately converted. Flynt identifies closedly with Paul, delighted that a sinner so notorious could become one of the apostles.)
Now, after a hectic Thanksgiving, with the press and earnest Christians pursuing him, the Flynts and Ruth Carter Stapleton are flying once again to Colorado to escape. (The President's sister will continue on to San Francisco in the Flynt jet.) Althea Leasure Flynt is exhausted, wary of the change in her husband, who at this moment wants to buy her a retreat in the Rockies. Waiting to meet them at the Alamosa, Colorado, airfield are several Christians, including an insurance salesman with a "TRY GOD" tie clasp.
"Oh, no," says Althea, "they're going to try to convert me."
She is not far from wrong. But she falls asleep at the home of one of her husband's new-found friends, as they discuss the Scriptures long into the morning hours.
Tuesday, November 29. Prospects for a vacation home near Alamosa appear dim, and Flynt orders his pilots to return from San Francisco, pick him and his wife up and head for Colorado Springs. Flynt likes the state: its motto, he notes, is "Nothing Without God." And Alamosa is at the foot of a mountain range called the Blood of Christ.
Flynt has been noticing a number of coincidences since his conversion. He is pleased that his initials, L.C.F., are the same as the phrase "Lord Christ, the Father." And the initials of Lenny Bruce - whose iconoclasm Flynt always admired but who took on a new importance after his vision - were the same as the first letters of the phrase "Lord Behold."
Air controllers all over the country recognize Flynt's $2.2 million, Israeli-built Jet Commander. They call it the Pink Panther or the Pepto-Bismol plane. Flynt named it DREAMS DIE FIRST, the title of the new Harold Robbins novel about a publisher who finds success by breaking the bounds of good taste in the girlie magazine biz. Flynt chose the plane's color mindful of the origin of his fortune; in his trade, running explicit photos of genitalia is called "going pink." The jet's interior is teak and suede, with a telephone, bar, and bathroom. At about $700 an hour to operate, with a cruising altitude of about 40,000 feet, it beats taking the bus.
In Colorado Springs, Flynt checks into a $300-a-day suite at the resort hotel, The Broadmoor. At the hotel's top-of-the-line restaurant the maitred' supplies a house tie ("Have you got a pinke one?" Flynt asks with a smile). Over caviar, fish and glasses of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Flynt hints at the faith of several Christians he is flying into Colorado Springs the next day. They are, he says, Christian Patriots, which are to Christians what American Patriots are to Americans: willing to die for their God and country.
"Part of my calling," Flynt says, "is to enlist more Christians to become Christian Patriots."
Wednesday, November 30. Not until the evening does Flynt find time to change from his pajamas into street clothes. He ignores the three-page, typewritten list of media requesting interviews provided by his home office. Instead, he spends the day dashing from one phone in the suite to another, talking with Chuck Colson, who first met Flynt at the start of the week at National Airport. Then he calls Colson's mentor, the former senator from Iowa, Harold Hughes; the two arrange to meet. He summons crucial Chic staffers from Los Angeles and Hustler editors from Columbus; they are to hold editorial meetings the next day with Althea. Private jets are dispatched to other parts of American to bring in the Christian Patriots late that evening.
It's not much of a vacation, but Flynt's energy seems boundless. And his wife and aides are than kful to spend an entire day in the same city.
Thursday, December 1. Heavy snow and freezing temperatures greet the pink jet in the Iowa City airport. Waiting at the passenger gate is Brother Bob Harrington, impeccable in a dark suit, gray vest, scarlet Yves St. Laurent tie, and gold draped everywhere, around his neck, around his wrists . . . his gold cufflinks are engraved with quotations from the Scriptures.
"God wants you to have the very best of everything in life," says Harrington, who provides a quip for any occasion: as Flynt ducks into a bathroom before facing the local press, the preacher notes, "Even when you're saved, you have to make pit stops."
"Ruth said I could have all her lines," cracks Flynt. "Can I have some of yours?"
"You can have any of my lines," Harrington says. "Nothing is original, just rearranged."
Flynt has come to Iowa City to attend a "Think Positive Rally" at which Harrington will speak (along with Bert Lance, Paul Harvey and others). The coach is waiting outside the terminal. An engraved plaque near the door reads: "This luxury executive coach is provided for Bob Harrington, The Chaplain of Bourbon Street, to travel across America and make people feel good. Larry Flynt, Publisher, Columbus, Ohio."
Inside, Harrington's golf clubs lean against a sofa. Seated in the rear of the living room area is a born-again Christian who had not attended the airport press conference - Harold Hughes, the former Iowa senator. He and Flynt huddle during the ride into town, while Harrington steers the coach through narrow, icy streets.
"One thing about this baby," he says, "is that when you stop, everybody stops. They hate you, but they don't move . . . there are some bridges wider in America because Brother Bob passed through them . . . the way you know when you're hitting a car is, first you hear the sound of metal against metal . . ."
When they arrive at the site of the rally, Flynt and Hughes stay alone in the coach for two hours. Before he leaves for an evening event in Texas, Hughes invites Flynt to visit his home on Maryland's Eastern shore.
Later in the day, Harrington interrupts his religious motivation speech to introduce Flynt to the crowd of several thousand people. For ten minutes he speaks without notes and receives polite applause. Afterwards several people approach him privately to wish him well.
At the airport, the pink jets has engine problems. A part will not arrive from Philadelphia until the next day. Flynt leases a Lear jet from a firm in St. Louis that charges $2000 to fly the Flynt party back to Colorado Springs in the middle of the night.
Friday, December 2. Flynt learned of the Christian Patriots through a pamphlet with an orange cover. A friend gave him the booklet after a relative had claimed to have been cured of cancer with the help of the information it contained. The pamphlet describes a saliva and urine test that can supposedly pinpoint upcoming diseases in the body and indicate necessary dietary changes for disease prevention. Flynt has flown the pamphlet's author and friends to Colorado Springs. Unfortunately, the person who devised the test is in jail in California on charges of practicing medicine without a license. Flynt will eventually guarantee his $40,000 bail and secure his release.
At a morning editoral staff meeting, the orange booklet becomes an occasion of contention.
Flynt tells his staffers he intends to consult with sex education and religion experts in New York about Christian ways to present nudity.
"There will be a rabbi there and a . . . what's that religion that starts with an 'E'?"
"Episcopalian," someone volunteers.
". . . right, an Episcopalian priest. But I don't want you to think I'm going to sit down withbiblical scholars and let them run the magazine. I'll use them for reference. If I have any questions, I'll just fall right down on my knees and ask Him [God] what to do."
To begin with, says Flynt, there will be no more photo spreads of women by themselves - sex must be presented in a "natural, healthy way" with a man included in the feature. The cartoon character Honey Hooker will simply be called Honey and will portray a woman "coping with society's neuroses."
Then Flynt pauses and looks at his employees with slight impatience.
"Look," he says as He stands and passes out copies of the orange booklet. "I want you to go to your rooms and read this."
"What about [WORD ILLEGIBLE] . . ." begins his wife Althea
"I can't, not now," says Flynt. "Look, I want to go to your rooms and read this - there's no use talking about something when you don't know what we're talking about."
Minutes later the staff returns and refuses to take the saliva and urine test. Their argument: it isn't part of the terms of their employment and their free will is in question if they are made to take the exam.
But the day ends on a pleasant note: Althea Flynt, who had spent the previous day with a salesman scouting real estate by helicopter, found a $275,000 wood and glass house in Evergreen, Colorado. Flynt buys it for her as a Christmas gift.
The whirlwind conversion of Larry Flynt at 40,000 feet in the sky was followed by a confessional session. Flynt, Stapleton says, was "doubled over in deep agony" as he admitted to heinous sins. As memories came to him, Stapleton recalls, "Larry would say, 'Yes, Lord. I'll give that up. You know, spiritual surgery is worse than physical surgery because you're awake."
Flynt talks willingly about the "gutter" years following his escape from the rural Kentucky town where "the biggest industry was jury duty." He lied about his age [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] the Army and Navy [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] in Ohio. A chain of [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] to a newsletter which [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] magazine. Flynt married [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] four women before his [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] two years ago to Althea [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] who continued to select for her husband's pleasure women she thought he might like to bed. (Curbing an enormous sexual appetite, Flynt admits, is one of the tougher commandments by which he must now abide.) His marriage to Leasure came at a time when Hustler became a financial success and his future as a wealthy publisher seemed assured.
"Getting through the eye of the needle wasn't easy," Flynt now likes to say, "but now that I'm here, I'm going to have some fun feeding lions to the Christians."
The gospel according to Flynt is still in its formative stages, but at its heart is a feeling that all devout men worship the same God, whose Word has been distorted in practical application. Flynt intends to turn his corporation into a non-profit company to publish an illustrated Bible and to produce a spiritual and religious "Roots." He thinks ignorance about human sexual development is a fundamental cause of violence and other symptoms of a sick society. His task as he sees it: to address those beliefs in his magazines while still pleasing both his new Christian friends and his several million readers. One feels he may take the same basic approach to religion that he took toward sex.
It's a big job that calls for a big airplane, one on which Flynt can both live and work, the way Brother Bob does on his coach. So aides are scouring the world for a Boeing 727. For old time's sake, the outside will be pink, while Flynt hopes to decorate the interior cabin with religious symbols from around the world. A prominent place on a wall will be given the oil painting that he carries everywhere, presented to Flynt by Stapleton: a portrait of Jesus laughing.
In the days following his vision, Flynt shared characteristics of Christians before him who had similar radical conversions. In 1902 William James listed some of those common experiences, including a sense of well-being and harmony, a feeling that even the most commonplace of things and experiences are infused with a special beauty, and a "sense of perceiving truths not known before" that borders on mysticism. That last point has led to a change in his diet, courtesy of the orange pamphlet he presses on friends, as well as a change in political thinking, aided by the political tenets of the small Christian Patriot movement. Family and friends, considering the abberant politics with which Flynt has begun to identify, fear a deeper change in his personality as well.
"I asked him what these Christian Patriots were," said Harold Hughes, who had Flynt for dinner at his Maryland home in early December. "Just the name is a bit frightening - I can't see anything in Christ related to that. I tried to get him into the Scriptures, to shut up, to stay away from television, radio and the press and get into the Word."
Late last month Flynt paid $200,000 to place full-page ads in the nation's major newspapers calling for a three-day prayer vigil to cure Senator Hubert Humphrey of cancer; the day after the ads appeared, on December 19, he considered checking into the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas for some tests.
"Larry," observes Hughes, "should let God take care of the world."
Althea Flynt began studying the Bible shortly after she resigned herself to her husband's conversion. Stapleton says that once, while Althea was reading aloud a complicated passage filled with new names and a dizzying list of "begats," an impatient Flynt said, "Now, Althea, who's screwing who here? Put it into language I can understand!"
The expletive is unusual. During his vision of Christ, Flynt says God told him it wasn't the language one uses as much as the attitude with which one uses it that determines if it is sinful. Moments later, as he shared his experience with Stapleton, he uttered a profanity.
"He knocked me right down to my knees again," Flynt recalls. "And He looked over His shoulder and walked away. I thanked Him, and I had to start praying all over because I used a word when it wasn't necessary."
When he had finished praying, as the plane approached its destination, Flynt remembers the dark sky growing bright.
When he was a youngster, Larry Flynt suspected he would become either a gynecologist or an evangelist. Time will tell if he will come as close as to the latter as he did to the former. But he understands the public significance of his startling conversion.
"The world world," he says quietly in a private moment, "is watching for me to fall from graces."