Lisa vs. Larry Flynt

The other night I went to see a preview of the new Milos Forman film The People vs. Larry Flynt. It's a good movie. It's got God and sex and romance and tragedy and struggle. You know--I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats. But I'm no critic, and this is no film review.

I am, however, familiar with Mr. Flynt. I remember when he got shot, when his courtroom escapades made headlines. And I've seen copies of Hustler over the years. I didn't laugh or cry, but they, too, were always better than Cats. I walked away from the movie about Flynt feeling that this obese Ohio porn pioneer was really a piece of work. Obnoxious, silly, crass, funny, offensive, a mutant visionary with balls of brass.

In short, a Classic American Hero.
Which is pretty much what the movie wants you to think. My friend Lisa Jenio is not so wild about Larry. She worked for him from 1994 up until a few months ago. ("I started on Valentine's Day," she told me. "It was very romantic.") Lisa was an associate editor and editor for four Flynt sex rags:

Pure--"It was a big scam. It was supposed to be by women for men, but there were no women working on it, which was one of the reasons they hired me."

Barely Legal--"I'd study Sassy and write in the voice of an 18-year-old girl, but about sex."

Chic--"It was supposed to be a classier version of Hustler."
And the dirty old granddaddy of them all, Hustler, where, among other duties, she wrote the "Hot Letters" column. (Sorry to burst any bubbles, boys.)

Awhile back, I visited Lisa at the Larry Flynt Publications headquarters in Beverly Hills. 90210, actually. She showed me the massive wall display of Flynt publications, ranging from Modern Gun to Shaved Orientals. I saw her nondescript office, which looked out upon a stucco apartment building and a yellow fire hydrant. Then we went out to lunch.

I didn't get to see Larry gliding through the halls in his gold-plated wheelchair, and I glimpsed only one woman wearing a skirt that terminated above the knee. Not exactly the halcyon Hustler glory days of loud polyester suits, hot tubs lighted by crystal chandeliers and skin, skin, skin depicted in the film. Lisa came aboard a little late in the game to taste any of that. But still, she worked for Larry Flynt.

New Times: Why'd you take the job?
Lisa Jenio: I only took it because I wasn't getting enough freelance copy-editing jobs, and I needed the money, though it paid absolutely nothing. Which is one of the reasons I think Larry Flynt is kind of a crumb, because he doesn't pay industry-standard salaries. He mostly gets kids fresh out of school to copy edit who have no experience, so they don't complain about the tiny salary [$22,000]. But I always thought it'd be temporary, and I thought it'd be kind of interesting and kind of funny to work on a porn magazine. It was, but by the end of six months I was completely bored out of my skull. But then I got promoted.

NT: What was so boring about it?
LJ: I don't think Hustler's that interesting to read even once, but when you're a copy editor there, you have to proofread, and check it in the final stages. So I'd be reading the articles and the girl copy [the supposedly autobiographical text accompanying "model" layouts] and the video reviews like five or six times.

NT: Was it a professionally run place?
LJ: Yeah, it's just like any big business. But I think they make a lot of poor decisions there, especially in terms of employee morale. Larry instituted a dress code that really pissed off a lot of people, because Larry Flynt is supposed to be not like corporate America, having arbitrary rules. It was no jeans, sneakers, tee shirts, combat boots or open-toed sandals, and men had to wear jackets and ties. This was right around the time that IBM and other huge companies started to relax their dress codes, and that's also when we started to hear about the movie; he was bringing Milos Forman and Woody Harrelson around. I think he really wanted to impress people.

Also, you weren't allowed to hang up anything personal on the walls of your office. We weren't allowed to hang up bulletin boards because they were ugly; then we had to move our desks so no electrical cords were showing. And when we moved into this building in Beverly Hills, he bought the building and the parking garage, but we weren't allowed to park there. We had to pay $70 a month.

NT: Ouch.
LJ: These things aren't really that big a deal, and some of it's kind of funny. Like last year there was no Christmas bonus. Not that a company is obligated to give you a Christmas bonus, but it's kind of depressing to be told that you're not getting one because there's no money, when your boss is going around in his private plane and buying all these antiques.

NT: Antiques?
LJ: The thing is, he's still like a hillbilly, but he has money, so he buys these hideous antiques. These gaudy gilded chairs and things, and he puts them in the office. He has four floors in the building that he bought in Beverly Hills, and the top floor is where he has a living area. He gutted the whole place and redid it so it looks like a museum.

But the two floors that I was on, the editorial floors, he ran out of money, so he didn't totally redo the floors, but he still put the furniture in. He had blue/gray carpeting and off-white walls--just the most generic office, picture that--but there would be these chairs that look out of the Age of Innocence, and these oil paintings in the big gilded frames and these naked-lady statues everywhere.

In the lobby directory of the building he bought--named the Flynt Building--the listings are all him: Flynt Publications, Flynt Distribution, Flynt Aviation--in other words, his plane--and two or three other Flynt things. It was so ludicrous. It was just so he could have his name there five or six times. And on his flagpole, he has the American flag, and the California flag, and the Flynt flag, which is purple with "LFP" in gold letters.

NT: No Flynt crest?
LJ: I guess his crest would be the vagina medallion he wears around his neck.

NT: What was the office reaction as the film began to take shape?
LJ: Well, Larry's been obsessed with this movie ever since it was in the beginning stages because the one thing he doesn't have is respect. He has a business and a plane and a building and a mansion, but he thinks he doesn't have respect from the American people, and he thinks he's going to get this from the movie.

By the time I got a script, half the people in the building had read it, and within a short time everyone in the building had read it. Somehow Larry found out that scripts were circulating, and he sent this rabid memo around saying how dare we read it, it was none of our business, and if he found out for sure anyone who had read it, they would be fired on the spot.

NT: Was the script good?
LJ: I don't know that anybody really liked the script. It may have changed since the draft we saw, but I thought it was kind of choppy. It seemed like a series of blackout sketches from Love, American Style.

NT: When you were promoted, you began writing "Hot Letters." Was it a difficult transition?

LJ: Well, I didn't know if I should take it, because I hadn't written for so long, and especially, how was I going to write porn? But the thing was, after copy editing it for six months, it's like learning a whole different language. So it was kind of good discipline, as far as writing, to write these letters, because it was so narrow.

NT: What did your editor think?
LJ: At first he said they weren't raunchy enough. I actually wrote an entire letter and had only one sex thing in it, and that was masturbation. As time went by, it never got easier, but it got smoother.

By my second pair of letters, my editor loved them. It's real easy to get the knack of how to do it. I can't explain it, but you just get kind of immersed in the subject matter. You're surrounded by sex and bare breasts and things all day long.

But I don't actually think any of my Hot Letters were sexy. I think they were more weird, and I'd try to be funny. I think the readers probably didn't like them very much. I mean, there was a lot of graphic sex. The third letter I wrote, my editor really liked; I remember the title, "Brown Eye Girl." I did it in a girl's voice, and that was really fun to write, and anal sex is so funny anyway, and I just tried to make it as gross as I could. But I don't think it was something that a guy could whack off to, and that's the idea. I don't think I ever wrote one that was whack-off material.

NT: Did you get any reader response?
LJ: The only letter I ever saw was, well, one day I was really fed up, and I named the couple Darren and Samantha Stevens [the fictitious couple from TV's Bewitched]. So this guy wrote in saying, "If the letters aren't going to be real, at least pick real names." It was kind of funny, because he understood the fact that the letters were all fake, but he wanted to be able to suspend his disbelief more easily.

NT: Was your Hot Letters predecessor a man?
LJ: Yes, but he was gay. After that he wrote girl copy, and it's supposed to be in the girl's voice. Then that got turned over to me, too.

NT: Did you make any real effort to invent a voice that would correspond to the look of the model? [A sample of girl copy, from the December '94 Hustler featuring model "Sheena" posing on a remote beach: "Places this primitive aren't for everyone," declares the headstrong nature lover, sliding giving flesh against the rocky terrain. "Here, the only electricity available comes from hand-to-skin friction!"]

LJ: Oh, I had fun with that. I would just look at the setting and look at the girl and come up with a name for her. I'd just use really dopey names, like Jessica. You know, names that guys like. They couldn't be named Edith or anything like that. They always had to be Tracy and Stacey. But I was allowed to be a little more creative when I went to Chic, because that was like the nicer version of Hustler. I actually named one Catherine. I wouldn't have named anyone Catherine for Hustler.

NT: You also were responsible for the "Beaver Hunt" feature [where readers send in their own nude photos]. What was that like?

LJ: That's a great job. That'll depress you. I had to sift through the mail and pick out a bunch of decent ones, pick a variety so there weren't too many blonds, or too many women in the same position. That sort of thing. There were so many women that were so fat, or had no teeth or were obviously drug-ravaged, it's hard to imagine they would want to be seen naked. But there's something admirable about that, too: "Well, I'm fat, and I'm hot."

NT: Did you see Flynt in the office much?
LJ: I saw him a lot, but I only talked to him maybe three times. The first was when he was bringing Milos Forman around, and I was introduced to him. Then a week later he came in again and asked me who I was. I was the editor of Chic [at the time], the editor of one of his magazines, and he had no idea who I was. He didn't seem to be all there. To be fair, maybe he just didn't care. I guess he knows what's going on, but he definitely has his priorities.

NT: Does he have an inner circle of employees, the way the film depicts?
LJ: Well, his girlfriend works there; he fired someone and made her talent coordinator. Which is gathering the naked chicks. Her prior experience is she was his nurse.

NT: What does he actually do now?
LJ: He approves the covers of all the adult magazines, and he picks out all the cartoons, which is a big selling point, even though they're racist and not funny. He definitely strikes fear into people [in the office]. He's kind of a larger-than-life character. He wears, like, pink pimp suits and he rolls around in a gold wheelchair, and he rides around in a white stretch limo with a naked woman painted on the side.

NT: So what do you feel is his talent?
LJ: It was he didn't give a shit about his public image. He didn't care if he had to spend a few months in jail. He really likes porn, he really likes sex and he just went with that; he's really focused on it.

NT: What were your female co-workers' attitudes toward Flynt's publications and their readership?

LJ: One woman I knew who worked at the Hustler Digest--after it folded, she worked in one of the more mainstream Flynt magazines; she worked at Modern Gun. Actually, she preferred the porn to the gun stuff; she found it disturbing. But most of the women, we all thought it [the porn] was funny. But I like porn, so I didn't have any kind of contemptuous attitude toward the readers, whoever they might be.

NT: Do you have any take on what it was like to work for Flynt in his heyday versus now?

LJ: I think probably in the '80s it was pretty cool to work there, because you could feel like you were taking down the establishment working there. Maybe there was a feeling among the people who worked there that they were really doing something worthwhile, it was more than just a job.

NT: Are you going to see the movie?
LJ: Oh, yeah. I'm going to wear my "Larry Flynt for President" tee shirt.
NT: Do you think you'll have any sense of pride after seeing the film?
LJ: No. It was just a job. And not even a good job.

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