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The maverick publisher who built a magazine empire

Felix Dennis
1947–2014

When the flamboyant British publisher Felix Dennis was just 3 years old, his father went out to buy cigarettes—and never came back. Dennis was then raised by his mother and  grandparents in a house with no electricity or indoor bathroom, and dropped out of school at age 15 to work as a grave digger. In those years of hardship, Dennis developed a burning but unlikely ambition: to be filthy rich. Driven by his entrepreneurial zeal, Dennis gradually built a trans-Atlantic publishing empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars, with titles including Maxim and The Week, and bought a fleet of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, luxury properties around the world, and so much vintage wine that he could afford to give it away for free at his popular poetry readings. “I love the business of business, I love the risk-taking,” he said. “Making money is the one addiction I cannot shake!”



Born in a southwest London suburb, Dennis “found his métier” at the infamous counterculture magazine Oz, said The Times (U.K.). He joined the staff as a 20-year-old—having sent the editor a recording telling him it was “the most fantastic mag I’ve ever seen in my life”—and quickly rose to become advertising manager and co-editor. He gained notoriety when he invaded David Frost’s television show, squirted the host with a water gun, and uttered a profanity that was heard live. (His mother didn’t speak to him for three years after that.) In 1970, when Oz published a sexually explicit cartoon featuring beloved children’s book character Rupert the Bear, Dennis and his two co-editors were arrested and charged with “conspiracy to corrupt public morals.” Their plight “became a cause célèbre for the hippie counterculture,” said BBC.com. John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded a protest song to raise cash for the legal defense. In court, the trio was found guilty of minor offenses. The judge gave Dennis a shorter sentence on the basis that his “older and more intelligent” co-defendants had led him astray—a slight that Dennis later used to fuel his ambition. The three were released on appeal soon after, and Dennis was “whisked away” from jail by Lennon.

Fresh from his acquittal, he founded Dennis Publishing and soon demonstrated “a knack for spotting unexploited niches,” said the Financial Times. He launched his first magazine, Kung-Fu Monthly, in 1974 after seeing scores of teenagers lined up outside a cinema to watch a Bruce Lee movie, and was among the first to spot the lucrative potential of personal computer titles. His two biggest successes were polar opposites: Maxim, at one stage America’s most successful men’s lifestyle magazine, and The Week. He bought an interest in The Week only a few months after it debuted in the U.K. in 1995 and soon turned it into his flagship brand. When he launched the American version in 2001—a time when established print titles were struggling—The Wall Street Journal asked, “Is Felix Dennis Mad?”

The success of Dennis Publishing “funded a lifestyle of unrestrained hedonism,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). Dividing his time between properties in England, America, and the Caribbean island of Mustique (where he bought David Bowie’s house), he devoted much of his life to “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll,” burning through an estimated $100 million in the process. In the mid-1990s, he even became addicted to crack cocaine. Yet incredibly, none of this significantly impaired his business sense. “I built a Nasdaq company turning over $2.5 million while on crack,” he said, referring to MicroWarehouse, a U.S.-based computer mail order firm. “You can get a lot done if you don’t have to waste time sleeping.” But his drug-induced paranoia eventually became too much, and in 1997, he went cold turkey. The tipping point came, Dennis said, when he found himself skulking around his house with a hammer, preparing to hit an imaginary CIA “bastard” coming in through the skylight. “I caught myself in a mirror,” he said, “and I thought, ‘Bastard? Skylight? There is no bastard. There is no skylight. And why I am walking around with this hammer?’”



In 1999, while recovering in a hospital from a serious thyroid illness, Dennis “began writing poetry on a Post-it note,” said The Independent (U.K.). He found it as enjoyable as any of his past vices. “Instead of taking crack cocaine, going out with whores, and boozing,” he said, “I’ll sit down alone in a room and have just as much fun, if not more.” His work was published in eight volumes, and to bolster sales, Dennis went on reading tours across Britain and America, where he would hand out French wine from his own cellar. The shows, entitled “Did I Mention the Free Wine?” were usually sold out. He was enormously proud that the author Tom Wolfe, among others, likened his work to that of Rudyard Kipling. “Nobody was more surprised than me when I discovered that I could write poetry,” Dennis said.

“Felix’s love of poetry was matched by his passion for trees,” said The Guardian (U.K.). He never married or had children, and the bulk of his publishing empire’s profits are being plowed into his $340 million plan to plant a 50,000-acre forest in England, where dense stands of trees have been largely cleared over the centuries. The millionth tree in what he hoped would be the country’s largest contiguous forest was planted last year. But despite Dennis’s many achievements—outlined in his 2006 book, How to Get Rich—he was always hungry for more success. When he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2012, he said he felt “rage, absolute rage, [because] I haven’t finished.” There was, he lamented, “still so much to do, and suddenly mortality is getting in the way. I don’t like it. I understand it, but I don’t bloody like it.”

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