One afternoon in the spring of 2009, I was marking midterms in my tiny garret office at Columbia University when the phone rang. "Hello, David, it's Larry Flynt." I barely got off a shocked "Hello" when the raspy voice said: "I saw your show on the History Channel, and I have a business proposition for you. When can you come to L.A.?" Trying to be cool, I replied, "I think I'm free this weekend." Flynt told me his assistant would make the travel arrangements and abruptly hung up. In an instant, my academic career took a mighty strange turn.
Flynt owns an elegant office tower, clad in black glass, in Beverly Hills. When I exited the elevator, I was transported into a 19th-century French salon. Every inch, from floor to ceiling, is decorated in Beaux-Arts paintings, bronze nudes, and Second Empire furniture. As Flynt's assistant solemnly led me down the long hall to two imposing mahogany doors, I felt as if I was going to an audience with the pope rather than a porn king.
The doors opened to an expansive office overlooking the Hollywood hills. As soon as I took a seat in front of his hand-carved desk , Flynt got down to business. "I want to write a book with you about the sex lives of the presidents. Go back to your hotel, think it over, and let's talk some more over dinner."
My mind raced as I sat poolside back at the hotel. What would writing a book with Larry Flynt mean to my academic career? Sure, Flynt was a free-speech champion, and during President Bill Clinton's impeachment proceedings, following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he had helped save Clinton's presidency by outing the sexual affairs of House Speaker-elect Robert Livingston and at least one other Republican. But would Flynt's historic legal and political crusades satisfy my liberal academic colleagues, who might understandably be leery of the porn publisher?
Then I began to wonder if I even had an academic career to lose. I originally decided to get a Ph.D. because I love teaching. All I ever wanted was a quiet, safe, tenured job at a small, Northeastern, liberal-arts college. While I was in graduate school at Columbia, I taught seven courses per semester at the Manhattan School of Music and City College, along with my TA responsibilities. My doctoral dissertation was under contract to be published even before I defended it. On the eve of graduation, I thought I had done everything right, and that I would be an excellent candidate for a tenure-track job.
I was wrong. Each year, I applied to a dozen positions but never got a single interview. I was able to pick up a few courses at Columbia as a lecturer and kept my job at the music conservatory, but as an academic, I am a dismal failure.
My inability to crack the tenure track motivated me over the past few years to take on side work in politics and television. During the 2008 presidential campaign, I was Sen. Mike Gravel's communications director, and the next year I created and hosted a show on the History Channel about the sex lives of American presidents. My adviser, Alan Brinkley, joked that I was proof that it was now easier to get a TV show than a tenure-track job.
I don't have many regrets, but the few I do have all resulted from turning down opportunities I deemed too risky. Flynt's offer was life throwing me a curveball—the kind of experience I will tell my grandchildren about (when they are in college). I knew that if I said no, I would spend the rest of my life wondering, "What if ...?"
Whatever reluctance I still had about becoming partners with Flynt dissipated that first evening when I arrived for dinner at the Polo Lounge, in the Beverly Hills Hotel, and walked past Al Pacino; Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher having dinner with Bruce Willis and his new wife; Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes; and Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel. That was it! The kid from New Jersey turned Ivy League lecturer was going Hollywood.
From the outset, Flynt and I wanted to write an entertaining book that would be taken seriously. We were not interested in just assembling a string of juicy presidential sexcapades; we wanted to show how sexual affairs and scandals actually had a major impact on elections, foreign policy, and domestic affairs. By focusing on sex, a topic that presidential historians had long ignored, we began making connections between the personal and the political that previously had been missed.
We detailed how Ben Franklin helped save the American Revolution by seducing influential French women, and how a love affair between President James Buchanan and Senator William King aided the secession movement. We discovered that President Woodrow Wilson's girlfriend had dictated his letters to the German kaiser, and that lesbian relationships inspired Eleanor Roosevelt to become a crusader for equal rights.
Fortunately, we found the right publisher. Airie Stuart, at Palgrave Macmillan, grasped the potential of teaming up the professor and the pornographer to write a new history of the presidency. She saw how our odd mash-up was in tune with the postmodern breakdown of the firewalls between high and low, academic and commercial, intellectual and titillating. I figured that if Palgrave Macmillan got it, then my colleagues might get it, too.
Over the next year, I worked furiously, researching and writing and making bimonthly visits to LA to discuss and revise each chapter with Flynt, who turned out to be a keen student of history and a terrific editor. After a few visits, I began to understand the advantage of collaborating with a man with decades of experience editing a decidedly nonacademic publication.
Since the book came out several weeks ago, we have been on a national book tour that included a spot on C-Span at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The interviewer asked me about the reaction of the Columbia history department to my unconventional collaboration. Looking earnestly into the camera, I praised Columbia's longstanding commitment to free thought and talked about the need to bring alternative voices into the academic conversation. It was an honest and hopeful answer.
Next we moved on to a packed theater for a discussion about the book. For an hour, Flynt and I entertained more than 1,000 people with our stories. Afterward, during the book signing, a middle-aged woman said something that I'll always remember: "If only my teachers taught history like you just did, I would have been a history major." That was my career goal all along—to be a great teacher who turned people on to history. In a strange way, my failures in the academic world had helped me achieve that goal on a bigger stage.
So far my tenured colleagues have been supportive; a few are even jealous that I'm free to do something so unconventional. Freedom really is just another word for nothing left to lose. I don't know how this book will affect my academic career. My goal was to be published in The Journal of American History; I wound up being excerpted in the July issue of Hustler.
One thing is certain: When I'm an old man, I'll look back fondly on this episode, knowing that I opened a few more eyes to history and had a lot of fun doing it.