Editing Hustler: A Dirty Job Allan MacDonell Just Had to Do
Allan MacDonell does not sweat or fidget. His skin is not pasty. Though he wears tinted glasses, he is able to meet your eyes with his own, eyes that by his own reckoning used to study some 1,000 raunchy photographs a day and might also watch 20 pornographic videos a week.
Until he was fired three years ago, Mr. MacDonell, now 50, worked for almost 20 years at Larry Flynt Publications, an empire of what is known in the magazine business, with no apparent irony, as "men’s sophisticates." He has written a book about his career, "Prisoner of X," coming out next month from Feral House, in which he explains how he rose from being an assistant copy editor at Hustler, the flagship of the Flynt empire, to the very top of the masthead as executive editor, and was also editorial director of satellite magazines like Barely Legal, Chic, Asian Fever and Busty Beauties.
Among his accomplishments were shepherding into print articles like "You’re Cheating Smart: Getting Away With a Little on the Side" and a series about U.F.O. date rape, including "Alien Sex Crimes: Inside the Extraterrestrial Breeding Program."
During the period leading up to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, he also spearheaded Mr. Flynt’s 1998 campaign to expose hypocrisy among Republican congressmen by offering as much as $1 million to women who would testify to sexual encounters with them. This tactic eventually brought about the downfall of Robert L. Livingston, a Republican congressman from Louisiana and speaker-elect of the House of Representatives, who initially confessed to adulterous affairs and then, after trying for a couple of days to cling to his position, resigned from the House.
In fact, while in New York to promote his book on the Howard Stern radio show, Mr. MacDonell admitted recently that Hustler did not have much evidence against Mr. Livingston, beyond a few tips and rumors. "It was mostly just guile," he said.
Mr. MacDonell (who pronounces his surname the Scottish way, with the accent on the last syllable) guessed that he was the Flynt employee with the longest continuous tenure, but said that N. Morgen Hagen, who interrupted his own career with a sabbatical, had probably put in more years over all.
Mr. Hagen was Hustler’s copy chief, responsible for such stylistic niceties as the decrees that as a noun and as an adjective, porn was to be preferred over porno, and that a vulgar term for fellatio should be printed as one word, not two.
As for Hustler’s other employees, Mr. MacDonell said they were mostly a revolving cast of the kind familiar at any magazine: young, talented people who had no clear career path but were eager for a chance to write.
"If you can write this stuff in a way that’s interesting, you can make anything interesting," he said, adding that aside from a few sleazes, like a cartoon editor who was eventually prosecuted for sexually abusing his daughter, the staff was in many ways more ordinary than one might imagine.
From the book one concludes that the Hustler office, rife with politics, jealousy and back stabbing, was an office much like any other, except that the boss, the mercurial and impetuous Mr. Flynt, happened to be fond of wearing a bejeweled platinum vagina on a chain around his neck.
"When we were hiring, we looked for people who would be comfortable with the material," Mr. MacDonell said, referring to Hustler’s explicitness. "But we didn’t want them to be too avid."
In the book Mr. MacDonell writes that he wound up working for Mr. Flynt more or less by accident. He was living in Los Angeles with his first wife, and thinking quickly one day after she caught him in the bathroom with a copy of Hustler, uttered an inspired version of the time-honored line about reading the articles while not looking at the pictures. He wasn’t just reading them, he said; he was studying them to learn how to write for Hustler, and eventually he did just that.
His departure from Hustler was in a way similarly accidental. For a while, he said, he had grown increasingly irritated with certain aspects of his job — especially watching pornographic videos — and after 9/11 he also grew frustrated at Mr. Flynt’s insistence on embedding a writer, whom Mr. MacDonell calls Features in the book, with the troops in Afghanistan.
"This wasn’t just a stunt anymore," Mr. MacDonell said. "I felt the guy was really in danger."
Mr. MacDonell said he had begun to "imperil" his own job but was reluctant to quit flat out. Instead, in a scene recounted at some detail in the book, he says that at a celebrity roast for Mr. Flynt he "unconsciously tapped into a raging undercurrent of resentment" and went way too far in making fun of his boss. Mr. Flynt later forgave him, or seemed to, but the reconciliation lasted only 16 days.
In a telephone interview Mr. Flynt said he had heard about the book but had not read it and denied he had been offended by the roast. "That’s ridiculous," he said. "I’m the King of Slime. How could anyone say anything that would besmirch my reputation?"
He said he fired Mr. MacDonell because, as Mr. MacDonell admits in the book, business was off, and added, "We had lost half our circulation, and at that point I felt I didn’t have any choice but to revamp."
Today, Mr. MacDonell said, his feelings about his former employer are complicated, but he continues to admire Mr. Flynt as a First Amendment champion, a groundbreaker of sorts and someone who gave his staff a great deal of creative freedom.
"I don’t know what Larry feels about me now," he said, "but we were buddies for a long time. Working for him I got to do things I would never have got to do. I saw the inside of a life I was curious about."
But in the three years since leaving, Mr. MacDonell said, he has experienced no "withdrawal symptoms" and has seen only one pornographic video. He and his second wife, Theresa McAllen, a clothing designer, have a "very conventional marriage," he noted.
They met roughly 12 years ago on a blind date, and when she heard where he worked, she was a little hesitant, he said, but quickly got over it because "she’s incredibly secure with herself." Mr. Flynt attended the wedding, he added, and after meeting that notorious pornographer, Mr. MacDonell’s mother-in-law, a devout Roman Catholic, said he was so charming he reminded her of Ted Kennedy.
Mr. MacDonell still misses being at a magazine, he said, and he wouldn’t mind working at another one someday, though, with his résumé, he doesn’t imagine that that’s about to happen right away. Now that "Prisoner of X" is done, he is working on some screenplays and has an idea for a book-length expansion of an article he once wrote for Hustler: "Creeps: Why Women Love Us."
"I know some stuff," he said. "I look at Dr. Phil and I think, ‘I know as much as he does about a relationship.’ "