Larry Flynt reappeared this month in the national spotlight when he called a press conference to announce that he had offered $1 million to L.A. lawyer Robert Steinberg for videotapes of Vicki Morgan, the slain mistress of the late multimillionaire Alfred Bloomingdale. Flynt said he planned to run photos from the tapes, which allegedly show Morgan sexually disporting with government officials, in Hustler. Steinberg later heatedly denied any such deal, after Flynt claimed he had reneged on the agreement. While the existence of the tapes was called into question, the episode indicated, if nothing else, that Flynt was back in business after a 1978 attempt on his life. This is an account of the bizarre world that he and his wife, Althea, have lived in during those years of obscurity.

Behind the heavily guarded gates of his 20-room Bel Air mansion, Larry C. Flynt, publisher of Hustler, the nation's most vulgar and controversial girlie magazine, sits in a gold-plated wheelchair, a ghostly pale and paunchy paraplegic. White, unscuffed high-top sneakers and perfectly pressed jeans emphasize feet and legs that are dead. Inoperative also is Flynt's once legendary libido: The pornographer who wallowed in sex, the obsessive fornicator with at least 15 women a week, is now impotent. "Sex means nothing to me anymore," he admits. "My manhood's been stripped from me in the prime of my life. I'm all mind now. That's all I've got left."

Left for dead five years ago on the dusty pavement of Lawrenceville, Ga., where he was on trial for obscenity, Flynt barely survived two high-powered rifle shots from close range by an unknown attacker. "I'm hopeful that this case will be solved soon," he says somewhat mysteriously. The shooting was hardly a surprise to Flynt or anybody else. Although personally likable, he had been reviled for the calculated tastelessness that had made him rich and famous as the publisher of Hustler. Flynt shocked readers with a gynecologist's-eye view of his nude centerfolds. He created a furor by running telephoto shots of a naked Jackie Onassis sunbathing in Greece. Many cartoons and features were blatantly racist, bigoted or putridly scatological, offending practically everybody. But the formula brought him 1.3 million readers—and $30 million annually.

Nevertheless, shortly before he was shot, Larry decided to change his ways. He credited President Carter's evangelical sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton (PEOPLE, July 4), with helping him to find God and become a born-again Christian. "I was sincere," he insists. "I was determined to clean up my life and dump the magazine. I became celibate. I told my wife, 'Honey, I've got to purify myself.' I even became a vegetarian. I apologized publicly to women for treating them as pieces of meat. But whoever shot me didn't care and would be damned glad to know how much suffering he's caused me."

Suffering may be an understatement. "We've been to hell and back," says petite, dark-haired Althea Flynt, Larry's wife of seven years, his fourth. "And not many who saw what we went through ever expected us to make it round trip," her husband adds. For almost four years, until last November, the couple were sealed behind the 500-pound protective steel door guarding their bedroom, which became a Gothic chamber of horrors.

"Imagine standing up to your thighs in boiling water," says Larry. "From the moment I was shot, that's what it was like for me, unbearable pain with no letup." His days were spent writhing and screaming, praying and crying. Helplessly Althea watched her husband's sufferings but refused even to sleep in another room. She has been his devoted companion since the day he hired her in 1970 to be a go-go dancer in his Columbus, Ohio nightclub. Althea, who is 11 years younger than the 40-year-old Flynt, was 17 at the time, a runaway from an orphanage. (At 8, she shockingly had been left homeless when her father killed her mother, her mother's best friend, her grandfather and then shot himself.) She summoned battalions of doctors and screamed at them to do something. "They told me the pain was imaginary," she says bitterly.

Three years ago, in desperation, the Flynts turned to drugs. Larry was administered Dilaudid, a morphine-like painkiller, and quickly became addicted. Althea joined him in a narcotic fog. "It was my only way to stay close to Larry. I was lonely and in pain myself from watching him suffer," she says.

Althea spent a fortune keeping them freshly supplied with cocaine, Quaaludes, downers, uppers, sleeping pills and marijuana from street sources and unscrupulous doctors. Larry became a nodding, pain-racked zombie; his wife, hooked on cocaine, lost 30 pounds. Both Flynts were hospitalized four times from drug overdose. "We were committing suicide together, the slow and terrible way," Althea said.

Periodically Larry would tear up Althea's phone book, which listed her drug contacts, or order doctors to stop supplying her. Last summer Althea tried to withdraw $250,000 from their joint bank account to buy cocaine but was stopped when a bank officer, noticing her drugged appearance, phoned Hustler's attorney. Larry ordered his squad of round-the-clock bodyguards to throw his wife out of the house, and he filed for divorce. "It was the only way I knew to save her. I figured I was already dead."

Yet after only a few weeks they couldn't stay apart, and Althea came back. At that point Flynt was thinking of trying to find a doctor who would take the extreme measure of cutting his spinal cord to end his pain. He would lose all motor functions, including control over his bladder and bowels. But last November a doctor told him of an operation being performed at Duke University in which sensory nerves leading to the lower extremities were cauterized, leaving both the spinal cord and the motor nerves intact. Says Flynt: "When I arrived there, the surgeon asked, 'Where have you been? We've been doing this operation for seven years.' "

The operation was successful; Flynt was relieved of his pain. But there was still the problem of his drug addiction. Althea had undergone private treatment, but Larry ignored medical advice and insisted on quitting cold turkey. Coming off drugs led to a month-long depression so severe that he almost committed suicide. "I swear I wouldn't be here if Althea hadn't practically beat on me, screamed at me to hold on, that we were over the worst and practically home free," says Larry. Gradually the depression sub-sided. By mid-January he began reappearing at Hustler's posh offices in L.A.'s Century City.

The Flynts moved to Los Angeles shortly after the shooting, purchasing their mansion from singer Sonny Bono for $2 million, to which they added $3 million in renovations to make it a showplace for the Duke and Duchess of Raunch. Instead, with Larry's attacker still at large, they live in a guarded prison patrolled by dogs and a vigilant security detail. Aside from family and close friends like Dick Gregory and Grace and Harold Robbins, they receive few visitors. Mostly they spend their time reestablishing command over the 235 employees of the Flynt publishing empire.

"I'm not a saint or an angel," says Althea, who in 1975 posed nude for Hustler and is frank about her bisexuality. "But Larry is my man, and half of him is good enough for me." Larry is incredulous at his wife's loyalty. "Why she continues to stay, I'll never figure," he says. "I'm just a useless shell. I can't do anything for her."

Indeed, their relationship has been anything but conventional. On the night before they married in 1976, Larry and Althea went together to New York's most exclusive brothel, where they both treated themselves to the most beautiful women they could find. And for the five years they lived together before their marriage, as well as for two years as man and wife before Larry was shot, Althea willingly served as her husband's procurer. "I'd steer the girls to him," she admits, "but I had one rule. He wasn't allowed to kiss any of them. That was intimacy I reserved for myself." Flynt recalls one violation. "She found me kissing one of the Hustler models and damned near broke my ribs, punching and kicking." Althea is frank about operating on a double standard. "I enjoyed making Larry happy. I knew he could never just be satisfied with one woman. But I've been faithful to him all these years because he's the only man I want."

Last week the Flynts sat together in the downstairs wood-paneled den and discussed with a visitor how they are coping with Larry's disability. It is only now—drug-and pain-free—that they are coming to grips with the reality of a starkly different life together.

"I have no zest for life anymore," Larry admits. "I came out of this ordeal an atheist. I'd gladly die tomorrow, except I know it would make Althea desperately unhappy. But damned if I know why." His wife bristles. "Larry and I don't have to talk very much; we know each other too well. I know when he's feeling guilty about me. But he's a terrific fighter. He's already got some feeling down there. If anyone can become potent again, he can. And if he can't, that's okay, too."

"But you're a healthy 29-year-old woman," her husband protests. "It's unnatural. I couldn't do what you're doing. If you were upstairs, bedridden and paralyzed, I'd be downstairs screwing the maid. I'm worried about you, honey. Being celibate for so long is gonna warp your personality. I wouldn't want to find you fooling around with the house staff, but you can sure as hell find somebody else."

To a direct question, Althea admits that she's brimming with sexual tensions. "I fantasize a lot, and when those fantasies get very heavy, they're kinky and filled with violence for the rage inside me for what's happened to Larry and me." "Well, see, you're proving my point," Larry insists. Instead of taking a lover, Althea says she finds release from tensions by going dancing at New Wave nightspots. Larry's wealth apparently is not at the heart of her loyalty. For years she has been the highest-paid woman executive in the U.S., earning $800,000 a year as co-publisher of Hustler. Both her husband and Hustler executives credit her with saving the magazine after Larry was shot, when the combination of his born-again cleanup campaign and high spending caused a drop in circulation and a money crunch.

Althea sold off the chinchilla-lined red Rolls-Royce Larry gave her after she won a bet from him that she could make better sloppy joes than any of his previous wives. She also sold the pink company jet purchased from Elvis Presley's estate—and made Hustler as scabrously raunchy as ever.

Even so, Larry is planning to make his magazine still raunchier. He's advertising in the Hollywood trade press to pay $1 million to any top television or film actress who will pose—gynecologically—in the pages of Hustler. He claims to have four willing candidates. He will soon begin producing porno videotapes. He says the first will feature an 18-year-old medically certified virgin who will be deflowered in front of the cameras. "She was holding out for the right man," Flynt says, "but the right price won out."

Why is Flynt doing this? Typically, he takes a moral stance to defend practices nearly everyone else finds socially leprous. "I'm determined to push my First Amendment rights as far as I can," he says. "My hope is that I will finally test the First Amendment in the courts in a way that once and for all the issue will be settled for all time. That's all that's left for me. I've got all the money I'll ever need."

Later that night, while Flynt showed his visitor through the endless rooms and corridors of his two-story mansion, a young and pretty girl in a thin nightie suddenly ran out of a dark bedroom to embrace him. For a startling moment she seemed to personify the former lusty life of the porno publisher. "Goodnight, Daddy," she said, kissing him. It was his 14-year-old daughter.

At the front door of his home, Flynt paused. "It hurts me that I'll never have a child with Althea," he said. "I have four kids—at least, that I know about—ranging in age from 18 to 10, and I tell all of them that no matter what, they must never, ever admit to anyone that I am their father. Their lives will be safer that way and more peaceful, too."