August 02, 1993 12:00 PM

CAN YOU IMAGINE LARRY FLYNT, THE NOTORIOUS porno publisher, backing a demure new magazine on maternity fashions? No? Well, neither could Kathie Lee Gifford. Pregnant with her second child, she agreed to appear on the cover of the fall issue of Maternity Fashion & Beauty. Only after the photo session did she discover, to her horror, that the publisher of the quarterly was also the much celebrated publisher of Busty Beauties, Barely Legal and, of course, Hustler.

Given her wholesome image as Regis Philbin’s sidekick on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, Gifford was appalled at the prospect of sleaze by association. She won’t even discuss the contretemps, but her attorney, Ronald Konecky, made her point. “She agreed to appear in a photo session that deals with maternity clothes,” he says. “When we found out about Mr. Flynt’s ownership, we tried to have her not be associated with the magazine or with the cover. Obviously she is disappointed and distressed about this.”

Gifford’s distress led to more than a dozen phone calls between her reps and the editors at Maternity. “Kathie Lee Gifford did the May cover for Longevity, which is owned by [Penthouse publisher] Bob Guccione,” says Linda Arroz, editor-in-chief of Maternity. “She was in a provocative pose on the Longevity cover as opposed to the innocent one on our cover.”

Flynt, whose $100 million empire includes 30 magazines, among them such sober publications as PC Laptop Computers and Camera & Darkroom Photography, scoffs at the notion that his name on the masthead will keep women from buying Maternity. “People are so naive,” he says in a Vito Corleone whisper with a hillbilly twang. “If they thought I was going to put something in the maternity book that’s going to offend someone, that would be ludicrous. It costs millions to launch a magazine that size.” Still, that Flynt touch is there, particularly in a section on breast feeding in the first issue named “Booby Trap.” Maternity’s former publication director, Debby Eden, insists that that title is no different from those in other women’s magazines. “Only because it’s a Larry Flynt publication,” she says, “is it considered provocative.”

At 50, Flynt is a nightmare version of the American dream come true. Born into an impoverished Kentucky family, he never completed high school. He scrounged a living running go-go clubs in Ohio in the mid-’60s and began publishing a two-page newsletter called Hustler, which he soon expanded into the magazine that made him a multimillionaire. His life took a dark turn in 1978 when he was gunned down by a would-be assassin and paralyzed from mid-thigh down. (Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist currently serving life sentences for four racially motivated killings in Utah and Wisconsin, has been linked to Flynt’s shooting but has not been brought to trial because officials are troubled by inconsistencies in the evidence.)

By Flynt’s own admission, he and his fourth wife, Althea, became drug addicts during his pain-filled recovery. Now confined to a gold-plated wheelchair, Flynt spends much of his time in his eight-bedroom Mediterranean mansion in the Hollywood Hills, and he vividly recalls the terror of those days. “You’d better believe that a lot of drugs have flown through this body. I was detoxed three times.”

In 1987, Althea, 33, who Flynt says is the only woman he ever loved, drowned in their bathtub after doctors diagnosed her condition as AIDS-related complex, probably resulting from IV-drug use. He is still troubled by that loss and sometimes calls others by her name. Last year he started a romance with a former nurse, Liz Berrios, 33, who now oversees his care. But Flynt, who has four children by his first three marriages, won’t be proposing anytime soon. “This may come to haunt me,” he says of Berrios, “but she’s not my type. Every woman I run into I try to measure by Althea, and I haven’t met anyone who could even shine her shoes.”

Flynt’s personal struggles haven’t kept him from battles in the public arena. In 1983, Flynt ran a parody ad in Hustler suggesting that evangelist Jerry Falwell had sex in an outhouse with his mother. Not a pretty picture, but the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled it wasn’t defamatory and turned Flynt into a champion of free speech. “In all your junior high and college civics books,” he proudly points out, “my case leads the class as the most important First Amendment issue since Ulysses.”

Flynt and James Joyce make odd bedfellows, but so do Maternity and Busty Beauties. Undaunted, Flynt presses on with his new publication. “The question of Larry Flynt publishing a magazine for women can be answered only by the women who read the magazine,” he says. “Anybody who hasn’t read it and wants to criticize it, I don’t want to waste my lime talking to them.”

MARK GOODMAN

LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles

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