The black-and-gold JPEG invitation arrived in my inbox back in June, miraculously dodging the spam filter. "You and a guest are invited to join us as we celebrate our 40th anniversary."
It was from Hustler magazine.
Not the kind of invite most academics receive, coming from a publication that dubs itself "Hardcore Since '74" and "For the Rest of the World." There will be no panel discussions or no plenary sessions at this affair.
Roaring 20s outfits were encouraged for the July 26 bash -- fitting for a fete at the neo-Gothic Park Plaza Hotel just off Wilshire Boulevard near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles's Westlake area. Initially an Elks Lodge and now trumpeting itself as "legendary," the hotel boasts of being designed in the 1920s by a "renowned art deco architect" named Claud Beelman.
It's doubtful, however, that either the Elks or Beelman could have imagined that, some nine decades later, the hotel would be the scene of celebration for Larry Claxton Flynt, a figure truly legendary for simultaneously pushing the buttons and boundaries of sexual expression in the United States while fighting key First Amendment battles against the likes of Jerry Falwell, the late Moral Majority leader.
The 1988 case of Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, in which Flynt scored a unanimous victory before the U.S. Supreme Court protecting an ad parody that suggested Falwell lost his virginity with his mother in a fly-infested outhouse, is what makes programs ranging from The Daily Show to South Park possible. He's also fought important, but far lesser known, federal court fights for press access to U.S. military operations in both Afghanistan and Grenada.
Flynt, as it turns out, didn't end up exercising his First Amendment rights and giving any speeches during the soiree. But he does offer up a few choice words in the publisher's opening statement of the just-streeted 40th anniversary collector's edition of Hustler:
I am proud that I've been able to bring you Hustler Magazine every month for 40 years. It hasn't been easy and it never will be. To all the people who tried and failed to stop me, I got a middle finger for you. To everyone else, let's keep this party going!
For the more image-inclined Hustler devotees who skipped past that textual content of the 40th anniversary edition, there's a photo spread featuring Belle Knox, the Duke University undergraduate who made headlines in early 2014 because she's paying her way through that elite institution by working in porn. Just as Knox challenges stereotypes about women who earn their livings on the backs and knees, so too does Flynt test our beliefs about what is and is not sexually normal.
It was, for example, an explicit interracial pictorial called "Butch: A Black Stud and His Georgia Peach" featured in a 1975 issue of Hustler that got Flynt shot and left him paralyzed from the waist down back in 1978 in Lawrenceville, Ga. His assailant, an avowed racist named Joseph Paul Franklin, confessed while serving time on death-row for murder to shooting Flynt. In November 2013, Franklin was put to death in Missouri by lethal injection, with the anti-death penalty Flynt garnering coverage at the time for wanting to spare Franklin's life.
I've known Flynt now for some dozen-plus years now, having met and interviewed him multiple times during that period -- and at Hustler's Beverly Hills offices just two days before the fortieth anniversary party -- about First Amendment issues and the government's regulation of adult content. For a man with an eighth-grade education from Magoffin County, Ky., Flynt's utter command of constitutional issues, ranging from free speech and privacy to same-sex marriage and the death penalty, probably is stunning to those who have never met him. But when the First Amendment is the only thing that stands between you and jail, you have to know your rights and clearly Flynt knows his well and fights for them.
Flynt, wearing an off-white linen suit, rolled into the party in his famous gold-plated wheel chair a few minutes before the official start time of 7:00 p.m. He was accompanied, as always, by his wife, Liz, and a bodyguard.
They were quickly greeted by two white-gloved, flapper-dressed women carrying long, over-sized cigarette holders and wearing champagne skirts -- large hoop-like aluminum frames, each holding more than 50 glasses of bubbly. "Have a glass of champagne, on me," one cooed in pun-intended fashion. Jay Gatsby, eat and drink your heart out.
Flynt, after surveying the set up that he told me cost $500,000, ended up forsaking most of the night's festivities. Instead, he patiently sat at a table near the dance floor, shaking hands with a seemingly endless stream of people who cued up to pay tribute and praise the host, as his security detail kept a watchful eye.
Belle Knox wasn't there, but at least two dozen other women and several men from the talent side of the industry worked it -- pole dancing in various states and stages of body paint, posing for photos with guests and carnally cavorting on black-velvet, bed-like stages in a secluded outdoor courtyard. There even was a peep show for voyeuristic guests, who could peer through eye-holes cut into a wall at two (and, later I'm told by a friend, three) stars.
Never have so many smartphones shot so much video and so many not-safe-for-work photos this side of Las Vegas.
Madison Scott was there, working a cage in what was christened the "S&M Bondage Suite." Scarlet Red, the "cover honey" for the fortieth anniversary issue, was there too, both in the flesh and in LED lights on a screen of the football stadium variety that projects her cover visage.
The party broke up around 11:00, early by Los Angeles standards but perfectly timed for a magazine that hasn't lost its edge at middle-age. For Flynt, the event was just another milestone -- an expensive one, at that -- on a long, litigious and controversial road from Kentucky and Ohio to Beverly Hills and, at least for some, status as a First Amendment hero.