Source of Photo: Cinemania Article "The Real Althea" [broken link]. Photo from the private collection of Larry Flynt. The article is at the bottom of the page
Entertainment Weekly January 10, 1997. Movies Section: Sidebar
In 1970, 17-year-old Althea Leasure walked into Larry Flynt's Columbus, Ohio, girlie bar to take a job as a go-go dancer. Flynt took one look at the runaway with her voluptuous figure and scarred psyche and saw, as friend Roger "Ollie" Brooke remembers, that she was already "something special to him." Still, neither could guess that the meeting would spawn one of the most unconventional and tender love stories in tabloid history.
That relationship, captured in The People vs. Larry Flynt, brought out the best and worst in the couple, who were married 11 years before Althea's AIDS-related death in 1987 at age 34. "The initial attraction was physical," remembers Brooke, a former Flynt bodyguard who also ran his clubs. "Then they found out how much they had in common. She was the love of his life."
Yet for the free-spirited Althea--who was eight when her father shot her mother and then himself, leaving her to be shunted between relatives and finally placed in an orphanage--Flynt, fresh from his third marriage, represented even more than someone to love. "I said to myself, 'He thinks big,'" she later recalled. "'On top of it, he's a renegade, like me.'" As Flynt often says, "She was a true soul mate."
When Flynt started Hustler in 1974, he named his wife, who posed for the magazine's first life-size centerfold ("Name's Leasure, rhymes with pleasure"), copublisher. Friends credit Althea, who eventually drew an annual salary of $1.6 million, with saving the blue book when Flynt wanted to revamp it during a brief 1977 religious awakening. Privately she cracked, "God may have walked into his life, but $20 million a year walked out."It was the bisexual Althea--as a wedding gift, Flynt treated her to a woman at a New York brothel--who came up with some of Hustler's most outrageous concepts ("I always liked the sick stuff," she said). To keep her husband happy, Althea procured sex partners for him, getting upset only if he kissed them. "Had she tried to stop that part of his life," says Brooke, "she knew she'd have lost him."
"She was very determined to be her own person,"says Althea's sister, Sherry Maynard, a Columbus stockbroker. "I don't think she or Larry really cared which label you put on them, as long as they were okay with how they felt about themselves. Althea was against prejudice. And if anything drove her, it was that she would prove to the world not to be judgmental."
Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt, now available on home video, portrays the famed pornographer (played by Woody Harrelson) as an outrageous rebel, and his doomed mate, Althea Leasure Flynt (played by Courtney Love), who succumbed to an AIDS-related death in 1987 at age 34, as his equal. The fiery, dark-haired Althea may have been a 17-year-old stripper who had just blown her $10,000 inheritance on clothes and drugs when she walked into Flynt's Columbus, Ohio, girlie bar in 1970, but within eight years, she was savvy enough to oversee his $100 million empire.
Here, Althea's older sister, Sherry Maynard, a stockbroker, and Roger "Ollie" Brooke, the bodyguard who ran Flynt's nightclubs, recall the real Althea in all her complexity.
CINEMANIA: Sherry, you've said in the past that your sister "worked so hard. She wanted so desperately to be somebody, to distinguish herself in some way." How do you think she'd feel about having a movie made about her life with Larry?
SM: I think Althea would enjoy it very much. It was a real struggle with Larry, and with the First Amendment. Althea believed in the rights of the individual to pursue life as you choose it. And she went through a great deal. So I think a movie telling a lot of the story would make her very happy.
CINEMANIA: She ran Larry's businesses for seven years while he recuperated from his shooting and dealt with his addiction to painkillers. She also talked him out of shutting down Hustler magazine during his brief religious conversion in 1977, saying, "God may have walked into his life, but $20 million a year walked out." Roger, you were around for some of that.
RB: Yeah, she didn't think it was good business sense, and she told him that if he shut it down just because he had enough money to live on, that he would be hurting all the families and people that depended on him for money. Larry is a very caring person, so he understood that. Althea was highly intelligent. She was the magazine's first life-size centerfold. She was 5'6" and very well built, with a voluptuous type of figure. Now, she could be vindictive. She was dominating, not actually of Larry, but of other people under her. I don't know if you want to say "clever" or "cunning," but she was unbelievably sharp. The job that she did-she didn't do it because she was Larry's wife. She did it because she did it very, very well. She had more ability than she thought. Larry educated her.
CINEMANIA: Sherry, what drove her, you think?
SM: I think she just wanted to prove some things to the world-how things are not exactly what they are, herself included. She was against the prejudice and stereotypes, and if anything drove her, it was that she would prove to the world not to be judgmental. We were allowed a lot of freedom as children, and our mother encouraged us to be all we could be. Even in the worst of circumstances.
CINEMANIA: What was Althea like, growing up?
SM: She was a very determined child. She almost died of pneumonia when she was two, and she became very precious to us. She was tiny, but very spirited, and always very strong. She was going to be her own person.
CINEMANIA: What was it about Larry Flynt that appealed to her?
SM: His strength and sense of humor. He's very based in reality. And he understands people. I think Althea was basically like that herself.
CINEMANIA: Were they soulmates?
SM: Absolutely. He loved her very much. Althea had a difficult disease, and he was very loving and tolerant, and wanted her just to have the best of everything. He was very sweet to her, and he coped very well with that.
CINEMANIA: Roger, what was the initial attraction there, you think?
RB: The initial attraction was physical. Then they found out how much they had in common. She was the love of his life. There was never any love in his life other than her. He had [three] other wives, and he did kind of love them, but when he first saw Althea, he knew that she was something special to him. That relationship was so complicated and intertwined. I mean, she used to get women for him. That was a fact.
CINEMANIA: Why would she do that?
RB: She understood how Larry was. I would say Larry was as close to a male nymphomaniac as you can get. I've known him to have sex with four women in one day, repeatedly. I never got over his sexual prowess. There were a lot of parties where there would be four, twelve, fifteen people involved. And had she tried to prevent that, she would have lost him. It was a way of life. Quitting would have been like stopping breathing. I distinctly remember one time, she was pouting and upset, and Larry was laughing. He'd been having sex with this other girl, and he'd kissed her too much like it was a personal kiss. Now, Althea didn't mind him having sex, but she did mind him kissing her like he meant it. Because that was too much like real intimacy.
CINEMANIA: Do people generally have the wrong idea about Larry and what he's about?
SM: Oh, I don't know. He's such a complex and brilliant person, as was Althea, that I don't know if they do or not. Because he has his light and dark side, and with people like that, it's really hard to put them in a box and label them. And I don't think they really cared which label you put on them, as long as they were OK with how they felt about themselves.
CINEMANIA: Sherry, Althea was eight when your father killed your mother in a domestic dispute. After that, she was shuffled between relatives and orphanages. How did that event shape her personality?
SM: It was a horrible tragedy. But it's been sensationalized, and articles always represent us as these poor, illiterate people. I've had to sort out a lot of things, myself, about my parents. I look at them now, and I see that my father was very handsome and charming-just a brilliant man. He definitely had problems-his upbringing wasn't the best. And my mother was a wonderful, nurturing spirit, very strong. Of course, our father leveled the ultimate abuse. But she had a sense of tremendous perseverance against all odds, to take care of her children with an abusive husband, and still be nurturing to us. So they gave us a lot. Althea got her intellect from our father. She was also extremely creative. You can judge the way she used that creativity, but our mother was, as well.
CINEMANIA: What went wrong that day?
SM: It was a long time coming. Today, we would call it codependency, and alcoholism. My father was a very authoritative person, and he wanted to control my mother in every way. Finally, the very thing he feared happened: He lost her. She no longer wanted to be married to him. She had matured. She grew. And she said, "I don't have to do this any longer." And he couldn't handle it. Just like with O.J. Simpson. [Nicole] was crying out for help, as my mother did many, many times. And it just wasn't there.
CINEMANIA: Has the press exaggerated Althea's lifestyle, or made her out to be something she wasn't?
SM: Probably not that much. You know, when we live outside ourselves, we reach out for a lot of things. I don't think she ever truly owned her own magnificence.
CINEMANIA: In 1985, Althea got sick with AIDS. Flynt believes she contracted the disease from a blood transfusion during a 1983 hysterectomy, insisting she always used fresh needles in shooting drugs. He also says she was faithful to him during their marriage. But Angie Bowie, David's ex, disputes that.
RB: I don't know. Her maiden name was Leasure. She used to say, "It's Althea Leasure-rhymes with pleasure." And the reports about her bisexuality are certainly true. You've got to remember, we lived a different life back then. And Larry thought that was great. For her 21st birthday, he took her to a big whorehouse in New York and treated her. She got a woman for herself for her birthday. And I think he would like to watch her with another woman.
CINEMANIA: Was Althea's bathtub death an accident, or was it more conscious than that?
RB: Everybody wants to say that she drowned. But I think it was just heart failure. The doctor said she wouldn't have lived through another month anyhow.
SM: I think it was an accident, although philosophically, I don't know if it was or not. She was dying of AIDS, and she was in a very weakened condition. She weighed only 80 pounds, and had a lot of different drugs in her body. She was worn out, and I think she just gently left us. That's about all I can say. Except that we miss her.
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