She was 33 years old when her fast, freakish life came to an end. Piteously weak, emaciated by a ravaging illness that was diagnosed as AIDS-related complex, she slipped beneath the water in the bathtub of her Hollywood Hills house. To some it seemed a sable sort of poetic justice that Althea Flynt—the brazenly debauched wife of the notorious porn publisher Larry—should meet an unpeaceful demise. Jacqueline Susann couldn't have scripted a more fitting end for a woman whose life had been so pockmarked by tragedy and excess. To some who knew her, however, Althea's death was a cheat. "She worked so hard," says sister Sherry Maynard, a Columbus, Ohio stockbroker. "She wanted so desperately to be somebody, to distinguish herself in some way."

In the end, Althea had fulfilled that dream by starring in one of the most lurid love affairs of our time, a union bizarre and mysterious to outsiders but one marked as well by mutual devotion. She was the co-publisher of her husband's lucrative skin mag, Hustler, and high priestess of his raunchy publishing empire. Yet she was also a wife of whom the wheelchair-bound Flynt would say last week: "She stood by me nine years after I was paralyzed. And she made me feel she loved me as much at the end—she kissed me goodnight the night before she died—as the day we were married."

From the first, Althea and Larry had been a wildly unconventional couple. Flynt had been married three times before he met Althea Leasure, a go-go dancer 11 years his junior who worked in one of his Ohio nightclubs. They shared both humble origins and a perverse sensibility: On the eve of their 1976 wedding, they made a celebratory visit to a New York brothel. Hustler (which began as a newsletter that promoted Larry's clubs) was born in 1974, and it was the embodiment of their shared philosophy—a mindless celebration of carnality. Willfully shocking, inventively obscene, it made them millionaires by 1976.

Althea would have a hand in every aspect of the lowbrow blue book. She once posed for a layout in the clinically explicit, spread-eagle style that has become a Hustler trademark, and she inspired the gamiest features. It was Althea who orchestrated a castration photo feature that disgusted even Hustler's jaded readers. "I always liked the sick stuff," she said. "I'm the one who always wants to do it kinkier and kinkier." In 1978, while Larry was in the throes of a born-again epiphany, he asked Althea to take over the reins of Hustler. With an annual salary that eventually reached $1.6 million, she flattered herself, in wildly improbable fashion, on being a rogue version of the Washington Post's Katharine Graham—another publisher who had followed her husband into the boardroom. "There's a kind of sisterhood," Althea observed, "between those of us who have had to take over something someone else has built."

If the magazine was shocking, the Flynts' lives were the stuff of a surreal fantasy. Like Hugh Hefner, the Flynts adhered to the sexual tenets they espoused in print. Larry had put his wife on notice that he could never be faithful to one woman, and the obliging Althea often arranged extramarital liaisons for him. In turn, Flynt encouraged her forays into lesbianism (a practice she said she abandoned after their marriage).

As Larry's wife, Althea was free to sleep with anyone she chose, but she swore that she saved herself for him. She often described Larry as her father figure, lover, best friend and mentor. He nicknamed her "Heart" and often indulged her as if she were a child.

Without warning, the couple's unlikely idyll became an ordeal of despair on March 6, 1978. Larry was strolling back to the Georgia courtroom where he was being tried on obscenity charges when a sniper's bullet shattered his spine. Flynt was losing the battle for his life when doctors suggested that it might be more humane to let him go. "I want Larry to live," Althea screamed. "I don't care if all I have is his head in a fishbowl."

A year later they moved into a $2 million Bel Air mansion once owned by Sonny Bono. Though they installed a steam room, a sauna, an exercise room and every plaything that new money could buy, the couple was imprisoned by fear and Larry's pain. Constantly afraid the unknown attacker might try again, they hired guards and even fitted a solid steel door to their bedroom.

For Althea, the shooting was a macabre echo of the loss she suffered when she was 8 years old. The fourth of June and Richard Leasure's five children, Althea had been raised in a close family. The Leasures lived on a small farm near Columbus, and they lavished attention on Althea—a tiny girl who was often sickly. However, the illusion of a happy family died the afternoon the principal walked into Althea's third-grade classroom. "I sat up real straight," she said, "you know how you do when the principal comes in...I saw that his face was white; his eyes were red. All of a sudden the teacher said, 'Althea, would you come up here?' "

Her father, an incurably jealous man, had gone on a homicidal rampage—killing his wife and two others—before turning the gun on himself. His favorite daughter would never recover from the shock. During the next eight years she was shuffled between relatives who didn't want her and a series of orphanages, and she became a rebel. At 17, she ran away for good, squandering her $10,000 inheritance on clothes and drugs, including heroin. When the money was gone, she found a job as a $90-a-week dancer at one of Flynt's Ohio clubs.

The troubled orphan was soon caught up in her new lover's bawdy dreams. "I said to myself, 'He thinks big,' " she related later. " 'And on top of it, he's a renegade, like me.' "

Flynt was her life, and after he was paralyzed by the assassination attempt, Althea descended with him into a private realm of suffering. To counter the excruciating pain from his wound, Larry inundated his system with numbing amalgams of painkillers, cocaine and alcohol. The rest of the world fell away; impotent and enraged, Larry discarded the faith that he had embraced before the shooting. He screamed in pain in the darkened bedroom for days on end, and his wife almost never left his side.

Soon Althea was experimenting with the drugs, which were kept in the bathroom safe. She kept the Hustler empire afloat, but her addiction to heroin and other drugs became increasingly obtrusive. In quick succession she had six accidents in her red Rolls-Royce. "Slow suicide," she would call it later.

Althea's physical decline began with a 1982 hysterectomy. As she grew weaker by the month, doctors finally determined that she was suffering from a pre-AIDS condition. They were unable to say how she contracted the dread virus. Larry—who had shed his drug habit after laser surgery relieved his intractable pain—sought the best medical care he could find, but Althea clearly was a dying woman unable to relinquish her multiple addictions.

By January 1986 she had become a wraith. Sunken-cheeked, hollow-eyed, she could barely lift her head from the pillow. Her scrawny arms were scarred with the tracks of years of intravenous drug use, and the carpet and bedclothes were riddled with burns from the cigarettes that she dropped when she nodded off.

Even in the shadow of death, Althea insisted on concealing the nature of her illness. According to friends, she was afraid that she would have trouble finding nurses to care for her, and—ironically—she didn't want to sully her reputation. She was reluctant to publicize her drug habit, and, said Larry, "she was concerned that people would think [the disease was] sexually transmitted, because throughout our marriage she was faithful to me."

Even as Althea made weak jokes about AIDS, she clung desperately to a long-shot promise of eternal life. With Larry, she enrolled with the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Riverside, Calif., which charges about $100,000 to deep-freeze a human body. In the end, however, even that improbable hope of being brought back to life was denied her.

Althea rallied slightly in the weeks before her death. "I was thinking we could lick this AIDS yet," says Kikumi Okino, the grandmotherly Japanese woman who is the family nurse. But death caught up with Althea at about 5:40 p.m. on June 27. The nurse found Althea lifeless in a filled bath. "I ran to Larry, who was asleep in the adjoining bedroom," says Okino. "I screamed at him, 'Althea's dead.' "

Physically helpless, Flynt nonetheless took charge, directing the tiny nurse to "drag her out however you can." Okino attempted to revive Althea, but Flynt knew it was useless. "As soon as I saw Althea's body hit the floor, I knew she was dead," he says.

The police say it was apparently an accidental drowning, but the official cause of death has yet to be announced. An autopsy was ordered and after the coroner had done his work, Flynt ruled out the possibility of a cryonic resurrection. "We weren't sure there would be enough of her left to bring back," he says.

Althea was buried on a grassy hilltop near Lakeville, Ky. with three generations of Flynts gathered at the graveside. Bob Harrington, an evangelist who had married the couple 11 years before, read the 23rd Psalm and called the deceased "a daring career woman." Sitting by the graveside in his gold-plated wheelchair, Larry tossed a single white rose onto the casket. "Althea," he sobbed, "I'm going to be so lonely without you."

  • Contributors:
  • Kathleen Maxa.