News: Flynt: The Sequel?

The notorious porn publisher rolls back into town for another episode of Cincinnati vs. Larry Flynt

May 13, 1999 at 2:06 pm
Jon Hughes/

Jury selection in the case against Larry Flynt and his brother Jimmy—who are accused of selling harmful material to a juvenile—began May 10.

They are two patient punk rockers. Sitting on the Hamilton County Courthouse steps, bathed in the summerlike sun, Jason Staley and his friend Shaggy wait for Larry Flynt.

They've brought signs in his defense. They hope to shake his hand. On May 10, the start of a second obscenity trial of Hustler publisher Flynt and his brother Jimmy, the site of the notorious 1977 obscenity trial that first gained the brothers national attention, Jason and Shaggy clearly have chosen their sides

"I don't think it's right that they are trying to run Larry out of town," says Jason, holding up his "Free Larry Flynt" sign for all to see. "They just don't want the Hustler shop next to the Aronoff Center and all that yuppie crap."

While Shaggy's Elvis watch plays "Love Me Tender," both buddies prepare their sound bites, ready for whatever camera crews are willing to put them on film.

"Larry needs to run for mayor," Shaggy says. "With all the new powers the mayor's going to have, can you imagine the things he could do?"

It is a subdued circus that's surrounded the courthouse for Flynt: The Sequel — Day One.

The singing cowboy, a man strumming his guitar dressed only in black cotton briefs and a cowboy hat, gains the most notice. His support for the Flynt brothers seems sincere. Although it's apparent the cowboy really is interested in gaining some free TV publicity.

It's the start of what one local TV station already has dubbed "The People vs. Larry Flynt 2." And it's apparent that all it takes to get some news coverage is an early morning serenade on the courthouse steps in one's underwear.

Inside, on the courthouse's third floor, beyond a corner-storelike shingle that reads: Judge Patrick T. Dinkelacker, the flash of photographers' bulbs light up the Flynt boys with a paparazzi fury. Under the ornate courtroom's gold and white ceiling, brothers Larry and Jimmy look like choir boys off to Sunday services. They clean up so well. Larry is a poster boy for old boy's club elegance. A dark banker's striped suit. A blue silk tie.

His brother Jimmy struggles to play fashion catch-up. Jimmy is the type of luggish Joe that would make the most expensive designer duds appear wrinkled. Cinched around his thick neck, a floral tie punctuates the room's Queen City club atmosphere with a splash of tawdry color.

For now, room 370 is more chapel than courtroom. An endless murmur of quiet whispers among a posse of dark Merino wool. Man-of-the-hour Dinkelacker explains the day's agenda: jury selection.

Flynt and his brother Jimmy, manager of Hustler Books Magazines & Gifts, are charged with 15 counts of obscenity and corruption, including selling harmful materials to a juvenile.

But before the lucky (or not so lucky depending on who you ask) jury pool of 65 people file into the room, the flash of the photographers' bulbs go non-stop. It's the type of media glare that's bound to become a familiar sight. Ready or not, Larry Flynt is back in town, arriving late May 8 for an extended stay, expected to last six weeks.

In a city where the only local celebrities are TV news anchors and the most tawdry news bits belong to those same news anchors who weave across Interstate 275 with drunken abandon, Larry Flynt's return makes it clear just how little excitement there is in Cincinnati.

For now, the tribe of photographers, a blur of sport shirts and beer bellies, keep circling their targets. Five boys with their expensive toys whirling around Flynt in a spirited dervish. Flynt's gold wheelchair shines, even its tires look freshly washed.

And for Larry himself? Well, he always seems to spring to life under the glare of media attention. Flynt — he of the pinkish flesh, jug ears and close cropped red hair — is flesh-and-blood character. He is a man-sized little boy with the face of some Archie comic-strip character, perched atop a wheelchair-bound man's body.

Facing the media crowd of pencil pushers, picture takers and notepad carriers, Dinkelacker asserts his authority. It seems that there is a space problem. No room for the reporters — at least not all of them. So tables and chairs have been gathered outside the courtroom doors in the hallway. Only the city's two daily newspapers and a Court TV correspondent are allowed inside the courtroom during jury questioning. At the start of the trial, seats are first come, first served.

"If you have a problem with that," Dinkelacker says, "we can talk about that later."

But until the jury pool arrives, the media get to stay inside and watch. Cell phones are plastered to the ears of Flynt's legal posse. Camera lights bounce off his wheelchair. Louis Sirkin, Flynt's lead lawyer — a swell, elegant guy dressed in a light gray suit — scans the room intently. I swear I've seen Sirkin before. Now, I remember, Sirkin looks like Richard Dreyfus playing gangster Meyer Lansky in that recent cable TV movie.

The buzz of hallway activity punctuates the room's silence every time the door opens. Flynt's wife, Liz Berrios, sits quietly near the back of the room — the room's one example of elegant class, despite the burly, blue-suited bodyguard at her side. TV news cameras inch closer and closer to Flynt's face, making his pink flesh even pinker.

In the corner sits an empty black leather chair, waiting for the butt of the Court TV correspondent to take its place.

It's evident that times have changed since Flynt's last courtroom appearance here in 1977. A Hollywood movie based on that Cincinnati trial met critical acclaim.

Flynt made political news as President Clinton's unexpected ally, running an October 1998 ad in The Washington Post where he offered up to $1 million for information on sexual affairs of members of Congress.

Things seem to be even more Flynt friendly here in Cincinnati. The Enquirer's courthouse reporter chats with Flynt like some old friend. They're all laughs and smiles, as if they're discussing some good-looking stripper that came by the hotel room the previous night. The basic fact is that Flynt is a likable man. It's something the reporter needs to share with his superiors before their negative editorials begin to unfurl across the city on a daily basis.

After the photographers tire of snapping the Flynt boys' pictures, following their every slight gesture like some Hollywood celebrities, they move throughout the room, aiming their lenses at the prosecutors and the judge.

When you think about it: If The People vs. Larry Flynt had been a successful movie at the box office, this trial would be a sequel waiting to happen. Woody Harrelson and his real-life brother Brett Harrelson would need to reprise their roles as Larry and Jimmy Flynt. Randy Quaid would make a perfect Dinkelacker. And for Sirkin? Well, who else but Dreyfus?

Outside in the hallway, a march of grade school students pass by on a courthouse tour, oblivious to the nearby buzz. A piece of white paper is taped to the door: "Jurors Only — No Other Persons Beyond This Door by Order of the Court."

So Flynt's bodyguards pace the corridor, appropriately, talking about movies.

"Do you remember that Peter Sellars movie Being There?," one asks. "Sellars played that guy Chance the gardener, and when he was really talking about gardening everyone thought he was talking about diplomacy."

Potential jurors snake down the hallway like kids waiting in line for the new Star Wars movie. It's just another form of entertainment — the Flynt circus, something that feels distant from any cool mission to carry out justice.

The jury pool is an oddly skewered cross section of Hamilton County. They're mostly white and mostly old. A rather conservative collection of jeans, sweatshirts and Barnes & Noble book bags.

Today, on a day when the trial lurches into motion with a deliberately slow pace, one wonders: Is Larry Flynt about to renew his 15 minutes of fame courtesy of the Cincinnati spotlight?

So far, the outside media glare is disappointing. Only one TV satellite truck is there. The local news affiliates stand ready. The buzz and activity have more to do with the summerlike temperatures than anything relating to Flynt. A white tent, lights and camera are set up for Court TV.

Back inside, more and more jurors are being dismissed. They leave the courtroom, looking down at the floor and walk away silently. One older woman can't contain her enthusiasm.

"Whew!," she says, all smiles and grins. "I didn't want to be on this jury."

Someone needs to tell her that she's about to miss one wild party. ©