The title of former Hustler magazine editor Allan MacDonell's memoir, Prisoner of X (Feral House), sounds like an exaggeration. It isn't. A "punk rock dropout" who edited a department store's newspaper ads before moving to Hustler in 1983, MacDonell spent 20 years clambering up the greasy pole at Larry Flynt Publications. He turned around scabrous, sexually explicit content for several of the companies' magazines with the Flynt empire's egos and numerous enemies constantly banging on his door. He was on deck for some of the key free speech battles of the 1980s and 1990s, and possibly saved Bill Clinton's presidency. But he was sent packing in 2003 after insulting his boss, during a speech, at a roast. His book forces open a window into the workings of Flynt's empire and the lives of journalists for whom collecting beaver shots from aspiring models or exposing the sex lives of pious politicians are part of an honest day's work.
MacDonell, who now lives in the Hollywood Hills with "two dogs, a wife and a clear conscience," spoke via e-mail with Assistant Editor David Weigel earlier this month.
Reason: What's the connection between Hustler's sexual content and the oddball political content, like Larry's JFK conspiracy theories?
Allan MacDonell: The connection is that at Hustler we valued sensationalism, and a winning conspiracy theory must be sensationalistic. There were very few restrictions on reality at Hustler. We created an alternate world with our manufactured biographies of the models and our fake letters of sexual confessions. So a straight-faced exposé of extraterrestrials committing date rape seemed right at home.
Reason: In Prisoner of X you say that "the feature articles defined what passed for reality in the world of Hustler. The trick was to remain in that shifting sector where Hustler reality and the outside universe overlapped." Well, where do they overlap?
AM: We ran several pieces that were firmly rooted in the here and now, but that overlap wasn't enough to ground anybody in reality. The trick was in knowing that what you were doing for a living was absurd and aberrant. The common experience for almost everyone I hired was that eventually working on Hustler would come to seem like an ordinary office job. Then some outrageous event would transpire, and it would be obvious that the job was nothing like normal. It was important to always remember that working at Hustler was fundamentally unlike any typical employment. If you lost sight of the absurdity of your daily grind, then you could be knocked for a loop when one of your office mates showed up in the magazine having sex with an artificial vagina."
Reason: What was the reaction around the office when a new lawsuit or threat hit Hustler?
AM: Oddly enough, for all the shots we took at celebrities and politicians, very few fired back. I wrote the "Asshole of the Month" column thirteen times a year for an entire decade, and there was never one single lawsuit. We were relentless in mocking people who could afford the best lawyers in the country. The only threat of legal action I remember came from the makers of Swisher Sweets cigars. They were responding to a gay-themed fake ad for Swishier Sweets cigars.
Part of the credit for avoiding lawsuits goes to our legal team, which was headed by very competent attorneys. Their vetting of our manuscripts established a basic guideline for avoiding libel. If an editor exercises common sense while constructing parodies and character assassinations, these items should be effectively impervious to legal action.
The only real anxiety I had about repercussions coming from something we published was when Larry Flynt ordered up a photo set that depicted a black slave having sex with a plantation owner's daughter. In the last panels, the slave was shown being bullwhipped and boiled in a big cauldron. My art director and I expected mobs of extremely offended African American picketers outside the Flynt building, but none materialized.
Reason: Is Larry Flynt a hero of the First Amendment and free speech?
AM: For my two cents, a First Amendment activist is best judged by the use to which he puts free speech. Larry Flynt can be summed up as the man who championed journalistic rights by appearing on CNN in November 2003 to announce that he had purchased naked photos of a rescued Iraqi-war POW. Larry freely spoke of himself as a guardian hero because he had decided not to publish these private pictures of an inadvertent celebrity. This wounded soldier had done nothing to attract the exploitation of Larry Flynt and CNN other than travel halfway around the world and be placed next to death's door in service to the United States.
I guess the Founding Fathers can rest easy knowing that America is safe for Larry Flynt to puff himself up while trampling a gravely injured soldier's privacy, with the complicity of the most trusted name in news. CNN, as far as I can tell, ran the story of these photos with little or no confirmation of their existence beyond the word of loose-lip crusader Larry Flynt.
Reason: Why were so many of the people you encountered in this industry, for lack of a better word, assholes?
AM: I think we both know that the porn industry has no monopoly on assholes. Maybe there is a peculiar breed of bottom feeder that sinks to the level of porn, something like a cross between a paparazzo and a Hollywood agent. In my mind, what separates the XXX skeeve from scumbags in the entertainment, fashion, political, academic, advertising and other ego-fueled industries would be degree and quality of achievement. I mean, Representative Dan Burton can probably dial up a great table at the Palm anytime he wants, and he's addressed as 'the right honorable' or some crap like that. Is he any less creepy than some loser hanging around the mall with a camera trying to persuade 19-year-old girls to take their clothes off? For all we know, those two guys might one day be revealed to be the same person.
But seriously, sex sells itself, and the adult-entertainment industry attracts a lot of people who don't have the greatest skill sets. There are also residual holdovers of an organized crime presence. Their manners are blunt.
A half-bright person can find work at a men's sophisticate and become convinced that he or she is totally brilliant, which leads to arrogant behavior. Take me, for instance. The same syndrome is prevalent in the popular-music industry, and among people who work with models and actors.
Reason: How often did you feel guilty about something you published, like the Princess Diana parodies before and after her death?
AM: Perhaps I should have felt guilty more often than I did, but even the Princess Diana parodies fail to shame me. A former colleague reminded me that we actually did three Diana gags, two following her death. They are still funny to me, and to him. I like horrible humor. The comedians who appeal to me use material that is just as indefensible as what we did at Hustler. MTV's animated shows and South Park crack jokes that are every bit as wrong as those Princess Diana parodies. I don't expect the South Park guys to feel guilty either.
Reason: You took some heat for publishing the article on "Mayhem Manuals." Explain yourself.
AM: This is something I feel bad about, although I never could have predicted what happened. We did a story on a publishing niche that marketed how-to books on guerilla street fighting, insurgency, kitchen sink explosives, torture techniques, things like that. These booksellers seemed to be exercising the First Amendment in an interesting, controversial way, and we wanted to present to our readers exactly what these pamphlets contained.
Unfortunately, somebody grabbed a kid in the Southeast and committed one of the atrocities described in the article upon this kid. This happened within weeks after I had been promoted to the head of Hustler. The only outside heat I took for it was from a convenience-store owner in the town where the kid was abducted. He had been selling Hustler for years, and he was very upset about what happened. No one ever proved a link between the magazine and the attack, but I tend to assume the link was there. We did everything we could to assist in the pursuit of whoever did this crime to this child.
I don't feel bad about the Princess Diana parodies, but I would alter that "Mayhem Manuals" story if I could go back.
Reason: What was the motivation for scoring an interview with "the Night Stalker," Richard Ramirez?
AM: To sell magazines. The same motivation Tom Snyder, or whoever it was, had when he interviewed Charles Manson on network TV. People, especially in Southern California, were fascinated with Ramirez. The Night Stalker had been on TV and in our newspapers for a couple of years. I wanted to get close to him and look at him and see what a notorious serial killer was like. The odd thing was that he seemed almost like anyone else; similar to how working at Hustler seemed almost like a regular office job.
Reason: You recreate a number of situations where Hustlerhad the goods on a scandal or celebrity and the rest of the media followed in your wake. What was Hustler's relationship with the mainstream media?
AM: I felt a bit of scorn coming from that sector, and there was certainly some scorn coming from my end as well, as is evidenced in this interview. There were times when the media bit and followed a lure that was a complete deception, such as the notion that we had evidence of Speaker-elect Bob Livingston's extramarital affairs.
During the impeachment months, in the wake of Livingston's bluffed-out resignation, producers from the major networks would phone and ask me, "What do you have on Tim Hutchinson?" Tim was in the Senate, effectively the jury to the impeachment, which was prosecuted by the House Managers, one of whom was Tim's brother Asa. Some reporter would call me and say, "What do you have on Newt Gingrich having an affair with an aide to Representative Steve Gunderson?" Gunderson was a Republican from Wisconsin. You may remember that Gingrich kept an uncharacteristically low profile during the impeachment.
After the impeachment, if I remember correctly, both Tim Hutchinson and Newt Gingrich embarked upon new marriages. These romances overlapped with previous marriages during the impeachment hearings where the President was accused of lying about adulterous sex. That should have been news, right? It would have been compelling TV to watch Hutchinson, Gingrich and even Gunderson being given the opportunity to tell the truth about adulterous sex.
These mainstream news outlets seemed to want to cover the scandalous stories on guys like Tim Hutchinson and Newt Gingrich, stories that they had reason to believe were true, but they wanted Hustler to do the dirty work. So they gave us those hints. Too bad we weren't doing any investigative reporting. We were just waving sacks of money to lure in potential sex snitches."
Reason: During the Clinton saga you quote yourself as saying "Livingston's going to be Speaker of the House. If some scumbag has a picture of him fucking a whore, I want to see it." Talk about that. What was the philosophy motivating you to expose Clinton's tormenters?
AM: Half the country believed Clinton was being persecuted solely on the basis of a sexual indiscretion that should have remained a private matter. The other half of the country believed that the impeachment was about perjury. However, we felt that the half of the country who believed a monumental hypocrisy was at work deserved to have that belief validated.
Here's a funny thing that didn't make it into the book. The consulting firm that Larry brought in to help us with the cash-for-confession plan initially didn't want to make the phone call to Livingston's putative girlfriend. (When contacted, she hung up on us.) Dan Moldea, who was hired by this consulting firm, only called her after I insisted during a meeting with Larry Flynt.
A few years later, after I'd been fired from Flynt, I was researching a story pitch on military contractors, and I visited our consulting firm's website. Their board of advisors included the regulation ex-generals, former CIA officials and Bob Livingston. So punking Livingston was a long-shot beyond calculation.
Reason: How much credit should Hustler get for saving Bill Clinton's ass?
AM: Bob Livingston resigned the same day as the House of Representatives voted to impeach. You look at the front page of the New York Times for that day. The split of the coverage is not precisely 50/50 between Clinton and Livingston, but it's close. Let's assume the cable-news split was comparable. Livingston folding sapped the momentum of the impeachment right at the start, at a crucial moment. Maybe the credit should go to Livingston for his impeccable timing.
Reason: There are parts of your biography that could be appropriated by Bill Bennett or someone similar to warn about the dangers of pornography and sin. "Aha! You see? Smut ruined this man's life!" Did working day in and out on the content in Hustler make your life worse?
AM: Well, what ruined Bill Bennett's life? Some sharpsters once came into my office with sneak video taken at a casino. It showed a guy they said was Bill Bennett shoving token after token into a hundred-dollar slot machine and tossing back cocktails. The dude could hardly hold his big moralizing head up. I'm convinced the man at the slot machine was Bill Bennett, particularly since he was later forced to confess his gambling problem. Do we blame the Book of Virtues for Bennett's vices?
The content of Hustler, I believe, was largely benign. When I was fired, after practically twenty years' immersion in so-called addictive sexual imagery, I experienced no withdrawal symptoms, and I have had no subsequent cravings for smut. That said, the endless splayed genitals did wear on me, and perhaps clouded my outlook somewhat, temporarily.
But my life is a far from ruined. I'm married, conventionally, as happily as anybody else. I have ongoing relationships with family, friends and neighbors. The worst damage done was to my job prospects at mainstream publications.
Reason: What's wrong with someone who would work at Larry Flynt Publications for 20 years?
AM: You know, I wrote Prisoner of X addressing that very question, and the answer continues to elude me. I seem like I'm overall okay. But then, the job seemed normal at times. And even Richard Ramirez could come across as a regular guy.