“Name’s Leasure, rhymes with pleasure,” was Althea Leasure, fourth wife and first love of Pornography Baron Larry Flynt, manner of introduction. Although many view their love story as a chronicle of depravity, it was nevertheless an against all-odds romance.
In Anna Karenina Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This proved the case with Althea from Marietta, Ohio, in 1953, who endured a waking-nightmare childhood.. At age eight, along with her siblings, she was placed in a Catholic orphanage in Xenia; she ran away at fifteen, claiming the girls there (likely including herself) were subject to sexual abuse. She became an emancipated minor and barely survived but for a $10,000 stipend from her father’s insurance policy, which evaporated into splurges for clothes and heroin.
In 1971, in a variation of Rick’s lament, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world she walks into mine” Jimmy Flynt, who worked at his brother’s seedy club, Hustler, on Gay Street in downtown Columbus, hired the attractive brunette as a stripper and exotic dancer. He fired her a month later as at seventeen she was underage and had launched a series of expletives at a customer who voiced his displeasure at being chewed out by the girl.
The following day Larry rehired Althea as he had seen her dancing and was captivated with the girl eleven years his junior. He sensed a kindred spirit: they shared humble origins, x-rated speech and an insatiable libido. Their proudest boast was they were always ready to mount anything-animal, vegetable or mineral. When he approached her with the proposition he wanted a rendezvous at the Howard Johnson Motel she explained, “You’re not the only person who has slept with every woman in this club.” Rather than be turned off, Larry was smitten and the two became joined at the hip (as well as other parts).
Larry launched the Hustler Newsletter to promote his club which marked his foray into publishing. When the Cincinnati printer looked at the newsletter, he thought it equivalent to the first two syllables of ‘Cincinnati’ and suggested the raunchy pictures be accompanied by text, in Playboy fashion. Althea and Larry were unyielding; they felt visuals were far more titillating than words. Their newsletter blossomed into Hustler Magazine and an enterprise destined to put both the go-go dancer and Larry at the center of a pornographic empire.
Five years later Althea proposed to her beau in a post-orgy hot-tub, and despite three failed marriages, Larry accepted. They quickly reassured each other, (in a far cry from Love Story’s, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,) that love didn’t mean monogamy. On the eve of their August 1976 nuptial, they made a celebratory visit to New York’s most exclusive brothel where they treated themselves with its most desirable women.
Larry filled positions in his new magazine with a Kentucky redneck entourage and at his helm was the love of his life. She had a hand in every aspect of the lowbrow blue book and on one occasion, far more than her hand. Hustler’s first centerfold featured Althea wearing only stockings and a flower-girl white hat. One of her Hustler cartoons featured Dorothy in a foursome with the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and Toto. Althea explained her antithesis of tasteful layout, “I’m the one who always wants to do it kinkier and kinkier.” However, it was the coup of a naked Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis picture, surreptitiously snapped on a Greek island, which caused America to take note of this skin magazine and helped make the priest and high priestess’ coffers runneth over.
Throughout their meteoric rise the couple enjoyed countless partners but emotional intimacy was exclusive. Larry was not permitted to kiss any other-that would be cheating. In a violation where his wife caught him breaking her one carnal sin with a Hustler model she “damned near broke my ribs, punching and kicking.” Althea, for her part, gave up other partners, both male and female. She described him as her father figure, lover, best friend and mentor. He nicknamed her “Heart” and indulged her every whim.
The Flynt’s surreal world was a subjectively enviable one: Larry, son of a Kentucky moonshiner, was a multi-millionaire with a ten-story office building overlooking the Hollywood sign and a twenty-room Bel Air mansion formerly owned by Sonny Bono, lavishly renovated for the Duke and Duchess of Raunch. Larry possessed power, renown and a wife who loved Larry for Larry. However, he still felt a void, and in 1977, through President Carter’s evangelical sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, became a born again Christian. Althea first got wind of his religious aspirations when expletives were replaced by the word ‘epiphany.’ Her immediate response was anxiety how the conversion would impact their tabloid child, “God may have walked into your life but $20 million a year just walked out.” While Larry was in pursuit of Jesus, Althea was left with the reins of running Hustler. She became one of the country’s highest paid female executives with an annual salary of $1.6 million and likened herself to Katherine Graham, another wife who had followed her husband into the boardroom. Unlike Mrs. Graham in her designer power suits, however, Althea wore leather dog-collars and swigged from a bottle of Jack Daniels. The following year Althea’s role as executive and Larry’s pursuit of the moral high road came to a screeching halt.
Along Larry’s rise from fifth generation Kentucky hillbilly to pinnacle of porn, he made legions of enemies, and spent many a day in courts fighting obscenity charges. In the film The People vs. Larry Flynt his character defends his magazine, “For those who think the vagina is obscene, don’t complain to me-complain to the manufacturer.” His philosophy was sex is natural, “The church has had its hand on our crotch for 2,000 years.” He felt it his mission to loosen that grip.
In 1978, during a trial in Georgia, he was shot at close range by a sniper, leaving Larry paralyzed from the waist down. Larry was losing the battle for his life when the doctors suggested it would be more humane to let him die. Althea- forced into the same position as Mrs. Hawking, (though the juxtaposition of the two women makes one’s mind reel,) screamed, “I want Larry to live. I don’t care if all I have is his head in a fishbowl!”
The Flynt’s merry-go-round lifestyle, astride surreal sexual horses, had the plug pulled. Beside himself in physical and emotional agony, he retreated to his Beverley Hills estate, a ghost-like paraplegic, confined to a 14 karat gold-plated wheelchair, a gift from Althea. His legs and feet were dead, along with his legendary libido. He stated, “My manhood’s been stripped from me in the prime of my life. I’m all mind now. That’s all I got left.” However, he was also left with Althea, who was true to her marriage vow ‘for better or worse.’
With the unknown assailant still at large, the Flynt’s agony was compounded with paranoia and they installed a 500 pound protective steel door in the entrance of their bedroom which came to resemble a Gothic chamber of horrors. Larry likened his physical agony to standing up to his thighs in a vat of boiling water with no reprieve. His days and nights consisted of screaming in agony. Althea, the helpless Greek chorus to her husband’s anguish, refused to sleep in another room. The shooting was a macabre echo of the devastating day when she was eight and her father, fuelled on a jealousy-fuelled homicidal rage, had shot her mother, her mother’s best friend and her grandfather until he had turned the gun on himself.
As an antidote to the pain Larry took to self-medicating and his medicine cabinet became an arsenal of drugs, both legal and otherwise: morphine, cocaine, Quaaludes, marijuana and whatever his wife could get her hands on. In solidarity, Althea joined him drug for drug and the couple were reduced to a narcotic fog. The once bursting with energy Larry became a nodding zombie and Althea became an emaciated wraith; her cocaine habit alone cost $20,000 a week. Her only consolation was Larry was once more an avowed atheist, believing a benevolent God would not have visited him with such Job-like sufferings after embracing the Lord.
When Larry converted from born-again to porn-again, Hustler pushed the envelope to even further depths. Eventually, a doctor found a method to cut off sensory receptors to his spine and the pain subsided. However, he was still hooked on a dizzying array of opiates. He insisted on going cold turkey which led to a month of crippling depression so severe he contemplated suicide. He stated, “I swear I wouldn’t be here if Althea hadn’t practically beat on me, screamed at me to hold on, that we were over the worst and practically home free.”
Althea remained a committed Florence Nightingale and continued her vow to be monogamous. She explained, “I’m not a saint or an angel. But Larry is my man, and half of him is good enough for me….He’s already got some feeling down there. If anyone can become potent again, he can. And if he can’t, that’s O. K. too.” Larry marveled at her fidelity which persisted though he felt he had been reduced to a useless shell and could no longer perform. Larry admitted he would not be as steadfast when he stated if she were the one upstairs paralyzed he would be downstairs screwing the maid. Althea said of the sexual double standard that she enjoyed making her husband happy, and knew he would not be if he were monogamous.
She also proved loyalty on a financial plane. When Hustler underwent a drop in circulation and money crunch as a result of Larry’s evangelical episode and attempted assassination, Althea sold the chinchilla-lined red Rolls-Royce she had won after a bet she could make better Sloppy Joes than any of his previous wives. With such an incentive, even the most domestically-challenged could concoct one hell-of a Sloppy Joe. She also sold the pink company jet purchased from Elvis Presley’s estate.
In a role reversal, it became Larry’s turn to be the devoted companion when his spouse was reduced to ‘a useless shell.’ Althea’s continuous weight loss was diagnosed as AIDS related; when the press announced she had caught it from her heroin habit Larry defended his wife by swearing she had always used clean needles. He insisted she had contracted the disease from a blood transfusion during a hysterectomy-which left him bereft they would never have a child. In desperation, they enrolled in a bid to deep-freeze her body till a cure had been found. On a June evening in 1987 she left their bed for a bath and when the water never stopped running Larry, confined to his bed screamed for his nurse, Kikumi Okino, who discovered Althea’s ravaged, lifeless body.
Althea Leasure Flynt was interred on a grassy hilltop in Larry’s family cemetery. Bob Harrington, the evangelist who had married the couple eleven years before, eulogized Althea as ‘a daring career woman.’ Sitting by the graveside in his gold-plated wheelchair, Larry tossed a single white rose onto her casket and sobbed, “Althea, I’m going to be so lonely without you.” Then he watched as his wife was interred in the Kentucky blue-grass, as the dirt covered his Heart.