Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
In his own words, he was a “super-rich, white, male pornography publisher.” At his best, he was a tireless and principled defender of free speech. At his more common worst, as even some of his supporters allowed, he was also mercurial, misogynistic, sleazy, slimy, tasteless, cuddly as a cactus and charming as an eel. In December 1983, porn mogul Larry Flynt visited Anchorage -- a brief, weird trip that captivated the local populace and press but worried the State Department, FAA and FBI.
Flynt (1942-2021), the son of a Kentucky sharecropper, grew up poor and soon developed a healthy disdain for the niceties of society that got in the way of profits. After an itinerant series of occupations, including unrelated stints in the Navy and as a bootlegger, he tried his hand at running a bar in Ohio. That single bar grew into several bars, a series of strip clubs and, finally, the beginnings of a true pornographic empire with the 1974 publication of the first issue of Hustler magazine.
His publications were more explicit than competitors like Playboy, and he took risks and stances no other publisher would make. In 1975, he published paparazzi-obtained nude photos of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Eight years later, he ran a cartoon suggesting the Rev. Jerry Falwell lost his virginity to his mother. Falwell sued Flynt but lost. The First Amendment was his constant, that true freedom of speech allows the existence of offensive, even vile material. As he said, “If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, then it will protect all of you because I’m the worst.”
In 1978, serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin shot Flynt in Georgia, where the publisher was enduring one of many obscenity trials. An interracial spread in Hustler had angered Franklin, a militant white supremacist. Flynt survived but was partially paralyzed and often in extreme pain, prompting an addiction to painkillers. As a complicated person, Flynt expressed an interest in torturing Franklin but did not want him executed because he did not believe in the death penalty.
[From 2021: Larry Flynt, who built a porn empire before becoming a First Amendment champion, dies at 78]
On Sept. 1, 1983, a Soviet interceptor shot down a Boeing 747 airliner, Korean Air Lines Flight 007. The airliner was en route to Seoul, South Korea, after a refueling stop in Anchorage when it drifted into Soviet airspace and was abruptly destroyed. Everyone aboard — 269 passengers and crew — was killed, including a United States congressman, Rep. Larry McDonald of Georgia. The Soviet Union claimed the passengers were window dressing on what was really a spy mission.
As regards Flynt, KAL 007 is a seeming non sequitur except that the porn mogul, in keeping with his life of erratic behavior, decided to involve himself in the proceedings. He believed a conspiracy was in play, that the flight had purposefully entered restricted airspace to provoke a Soviet response and perhaps thus provide cover for other acts of American espionage. To prove his theory, he would also fly to Alaska, refuel in Anchorage and continue into Soviet airspace.
He provided a few more details in an advertisement, really an open letter to the Soviet Union, submitted to but not published by the Anchorage Times. “I’m trying to make a point that will be heard internationally,” wrote Flynt. “I plan to follow the flight of the notorious Korean Air Lines flight 007, whereby I ‘intrude’ 500 miles into the airspace of the U.S.S.R. ... (and) release hundreds of pigeons — a common bird meant to be on this occasion of symbol of compassion for humankind and its common need for peace on earth.” The letter began and ended with, “Don’t shoot me down.”
Officials at the FAA and U.S. State Department believed Flynt would follow through on his plan, actions that would create a new international incident and intensify tensions with the Soviet Union. The Anchorage FBI office opened a case to investigate the possibility. In a Nov. 24 memo, an agent there wrote, “FBI, Anchorage assumes Flynt’s purpose, were he to undertake this travel, would be to show that an innocent citizen would not be shot down by Soviet forces ‘proving’ that Flight 007 was in fact on a spy mission.”
At least, that is one of the reasons why Flynt arrived in Anchorage early in the morning on Dec. 1. If he had time, he wanted to investigate rumors that Marilyn Monroe was alive and living in the Yukon. He also said he would continue his flight on to Moscow, where he would deliver algae pills to the elderly and ailing Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov. The manufacturer of the pills claimed they cured everything from blindness to herpes. Cure-all claims are one of the foremost signs of quack medicines. By this time, the FDA had already raided the company once, and the pills were soon banned. During his visit, Flynt declared that he would bail out of his airplane over the Soviet Union without a parachute. On top of all that, Flynt was also running for president as a Republican and might have been hoping to conduct some fundraising in Alaska.
Three limousines, one specially outfitted to account for Flynt’s wheelchair, awaited him in Anchorage. From the airport, he traveled to the Sheraton Hotel and ensconced himself in the presidential suite. There, he held court for the three Anchorage television stations, two newspapers and one camera crew hired by Flynt to document the proceedings.
When the press conference began, the center of attention spoke from his bed, a modicum of decency provided by a fox fur blanket. Four women, none of whom were his wife, then sick in Los Angeles, accompanied Flynt on his trip north. As the interviews dragged on, two of the ladies, both former Hustler magazine centerfolds, stripped and slid under the blanket. A third woman, dressed as a nun, eventually joined in. In the background, a television played a grainy video Flynt claimed was a Ronald Reagan sex tape. His spokesman disappeared and inexplicably returned with dog food, a pineapple and a watermelon. There was no dog.
The entire affair was a farce, a joke for Flynt’s amusement. Every cringe and wince from the disgusted press corps was his reward. Bob Atwood, editor of the Anchorage Times, wrote, “In the olden days, undesirables were ridden out of town on a rail. Sometimes they were tarred and feathered first. Both are too tame for this bizarre visitor.” This attitude did not prevent him from running the story at the top of the front page.
[What was Anchorage like a century ago? A city with stark differences, but plenty of familiarities too]
Flynt’s stay in Alaska was brief, less than a day. He arrived in the morning but by that night was in a California prison. In one of his many ongoing legal issues, he had worn an American flag as a diaper in court and cursed out the judge, who unsurprisingly held Flynt in contempt. Staying in California was a condition of his release. Attempting to fly to Moscow set an unofficial record for how far such a requirement could be broken.
When the marshals arrived to arrest him, Flynt entered a private room to dress. When he emerged, he was clad in a Santa Claus suit. One of the marshals, George English, told the Daily News, “I’ve been on hundreds of arrests, but this is classic.” Flynt was still wearing the Santa suit when he appeared before U.S. Magistrate John Roberts in Anchorage.
As for the documentary crew hired to record the visit, Flynt only paid them $1,000 of the $10,500 billed services. Image Makers sued in 1985 but with little hope of recouping their lost earnings. Somewhere, there might be a tape with the film of Flynt’s Anchorage antics, perhaps buried in a closet, forgotten for all these years. Please let us know if you have this footage or know someone who might. Without the video, all that is left are the fading memories and the lesson that anything can happen in Alaska, even a combination of dog food, Santa Claus and a porn mogul.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported the year Flynt was born. It was 1942, not 1965.
Alaska Ear. “Flynt Hustled in ‘Strange Games.’” Anchorage Daily News, December 4, 1983, B3.
Berliner, Jeff. “Hustler Publisher Vows to Invade Soviet Air.” Anchorage Times, November 23, 1983, A1.
Carr, Terry. “Larry Flynt Plays to the Cameras on Bizarre Route to Arrest, Court.” Anchorage Daily News, December 2, 1983, A1, A12.
Daehnke, Kim. “The Time When Larry Flynt Came to Anchorage.” Anchorage Press, December 17, 2021.
“Flynt Back in Los Angeles After Weird Anchorage Trip.” Anchorage Times, December 2, 1983, B1.
“Flynt Postpones Soviet ‘Invasion.’” Anchorage Times, November 24, 1983, A8.
“Persona Non Grata.” Anchorage Times, December 2, 1983, A10.
Rich, Kim. “Film Company Claims Flynt Owes It $11,495.” Anchorage Daily News, February 9, 1985, C2.
Virtue, Cary. “Flynt Here to Save Soviet Chief, Find Marilyn Monroe’s Hideout.” Anchorage Times, December 1, 1983, A1, A16.