Archive for April, 2008

Actors, Celebrities

A close encounter with George Clooney

The Times, April 5, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

George Clooney’s easy banter and high-brow films have made him the thinking person’s heart-throb. But what do we really know about him? Ginny Dougary has a close encounter with a most elusive superstar

George Clooney is a guys’ guy, a gays’ guy and, obviously, a ladies’ man. It’s not just the looks and the voice, the irony (a slanting sense of humour not generally shared by his compatriots), the charm, the political awareness and unphoney compassion – an American who isn’t an embarrassment to America; it’s the whole package. He must be too good, surely, to be true?

The Clooney effect is even more astounding. You can attract your own little fan club just by announcing that you are off to interview him. My taxi driver, the most bloke-ish of South London blokes, got unusually excited: “George Clooney! Even I fancy him, and I’m heterosexual.” A gay female friend announced that she would cross the line for a night with him. Editors expirated; acquaintances asked if they could touch my hand as though they could press Clooney’s flesh, by long-distance osmosis, when he brushed mine; friends were beside themselves with envy. Mentioning his name at Heathrow and LAX airports was an “Open Sesame” for instant upgrades. On my return, I watched a documentary about a sex change ex-paratrooper whose first woozy words on coming round from her final op were: “Get me George Clooney’s number.”

I was not immune to the Swoon, and started off by klutzily knocking over my tape recorder. He agreed that this was not my best move, setting the relaxed, jokey tone of the rest of our fiercely negotiated time together. Later, I find myself blurting out that it’s funny looking into those dreamy brown eyes (when you’ve just seen them magnified on the giant screen, there is the odd moment of unreality as you gaze into them face to face). “Yes,” he grins, “they are dreamy, aren’t they?”, as though they were something quite separate from himself.

Is it ever hard being “a lurve object”? “Yes, yes, that’s me, don’t you think? Once you meet me, though, it’s not so fun, is it?” Mass giggles. “Too old and too grey.” But does it become tiresome being fancied by everyone or is it endlessly marvellous? “Well, you know, people have been nice to me most of my life. I mean, fairly kind. But there was a time when compliments about your appearance were used to make it sound as though you weren’t bright, in some way – so much so that you almost wanted to avoid them.

“But you get to an age [at 46, he’s closer to 50 than 40] when you’ll take any compliments you can get – you know, ‘Yeah, thanks’ [a casual, molasses drawl] – so when people are trying to be nice, I’m never bothered.”

People may have been “nice” to Clooney before ER but it was that television series that led him to becoming an international heart-throb at the age of 33. He admits that he was suddenly catapulted into a different stratosphere of attention, because “ER was so huge. In America, with hits like American Idol, they’ll say, ‘Twenty million people watched it!’ But we averaged 45 million. It was such a giant hit that the focus had to be on certain people and things.”

ER’s “certain person” was careful not to emulate other stars of mega TV hits, most notably David Caruso in NYPD Blue, who was released after one season of a four-year contract to pursue a film career, which failed to take off. In contrast, Clooney honoured his five-year contract without once demanding a pay rise, even as he was almost single-handedly contributing to its enormous viewing figures, which cemented his reputation as a man of honour who valued such sturdy virtues as modesty, integrity and reliability.

Post-ER, his first critically acclaimed venture was Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film of the Elmore Leonard thriller Out of Sight – with the famously sexy scene of Clooney’s bank robber spooning Jennifer Lopez’s US marshal in a car boot. The following year, he talked himself into getting a leading role in the first of his political films, Three Kings, which takes place during the 1991 Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein after the end of the first Gulf War. In 2000, he displayed a talent for comedy in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers’ resetting of The Odyssey in Thirties Mississippi, as good ol’ boy chain-gang escapee Ulysses Everett McGill.

Fast-forward, via The Perfect Storm and Ocean’s Eleven blockbusters, to 2006 when Clooney received an embarrassment of Oscar nominations – the first person to be shortlisted for best director and best supporting actor for two separate films (he was also nominated for best original screenplay). He lost out for best director (for Good Night, and Good Luck, his atmospheric black and white Fifties film about TV journalist Ed Murrow’s battles with Joseph McCarthy) but bagged best supporting actor for his role in Syriana as a bearded, overweight – he gained three stone for the part – CIA agent caught up in the shifting moral eddies of the Middle East.

A few days before meeting the Swoon, I managed to catch up with him in Michael Clayton – he lost out to Daniel Day-Lewis for best actor (There Will Be Blood) in this year’s Oscars – and felt that in this portrayal of a flawed and troubled hero, he was digging into deeper psychological territory as an actor. There is a key scene when a shell-shocked Clooney runs across a mist-shrouded field at dawn to look at a trio of horses whose stillness matches his own. I confess he looked so very forlorn that it made me feel quite maternal, and he laughs and says: “Give me a hug.” (And, no, incredible though the Swooney Fan Club finds it, I did not.)

The new film Leatherheads, the first offering from Clooney’s production company, Smoke House, is a romantic comedy about the early days of America’s pro-football league in 1925. Clooney directs and stars as team captain Dodge Connelly opposite Renée Zellweger as a sharp-talking ambitious reporter, Lexie Littleton, who is dispatched by her editor to do an exposé on Connelly’s prize signing, an alleged boy wonder war hero – Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford.

It has the Clooney charm and farce and appeal – it is very good-looking, for a start, drenched in rich colours – but doesn’t strike me as an instant classic in the mould of the golden oldies such as The Philadelphia Story, which inspired its creators. Clooney recently admitted that Zellweger had been “a little bit” of a girlfriend and I would say there is a little bit of screen frisson between the two – a loaded dance, a romantic although rather chaste kiss, lots of zingy repartee. I particularly liked a couple of the lines, such as the one Lexie lobs at Dodge – “How quiet it must be at the Algonquin with you in Deluth” – but wondered how much of the film’s audience was likely to be even dimly aware of Dorothy Parker and the round table of New Yorker wits.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “There’ll be somebody who picks up on it. Having grown up working in television, what all the networks say is, ‘Well, no one will get it.’ When we did the pilot for ER, the NBC executives literally turned round to the head of Warner Brothers and said, ‘What did you do with our $3 million? There’s too many stories. No one will get it.’

“And the truth is – when you think of the shows that have been hits over the years – that people are smart. M*A*S*H and Seinfeld and Taxi are all smart shows.”

Despite all Clooney’s love action with the opposite sex over the years – one ex-wife, decades ago, a string of girlfriends, none of whom has lasted for longer than three years – there have been persistent rumours about him preferring men. I had read about a website called “George Clooney is gay, gay, gay” and the fabulous, practically Wildean insouciance of his response: “No, I’m gay, gay…” “The third gay, that was pushing it,” he completes his quote, looking fleetingly pleased with himself.

The truth is that Clooney has a habit of playing up to the gay rumours. When I ask him about the film company he used to run with Soderbergh, Clooney’s response is: “Steven and I broke up.” Sifting through the cuttings – which despite their bulk are remarkably sparse in terms of fresh content, with the same slender details endlessly recycled – there is a distinct thread of playful campness. Way back, he was asked about an episode of his life when he brought girls back to mess around with him in his boudoir (a bed in a buddy’s cupboard) and his jocular riposte was: “I’m certainly out of the closet now.” During the ER years, asked about what might unfold in the next series, he referred to one of his male “colleagues” thus: “I think Noah [Wyle] and I become lovers on the show. Last season, you could see the longing glances across the room.” When he and some of the Ocean’s Eleven cast were invited to leave their handprints outside Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre, he said: “If I had to be on my hands and knees with three other guys, I can’t think of three better guys to do it with.” Well, excuse me, but frankly how could you not think, “Hello, sailor!”

While some of our own local sex gods also enjoy teasing the press and the public about their various proclivities – Russell Brand and David Walliams instantly come to mind – it is highly unusual for an American film star to set the cat among the pigeons in this way. On the subject of pets, Clooney’s longest relationship has been with his beloved Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, Max, the actor’s constant companion – until his recent demise – for 18 years. According to newspaper reports, Max was even allowed to share Clooney’s bed in the rare gaps between his owner’s human relationships. If any of Clooney’s girlfriends could have been persuaded to go for a menage à trois, they might still be around.

When I say that I’m not going to ask about his sexuality, obviously, Clooney – as relaxed as it is possible to be – says: “That’s all right, you can.” Most people say that you’re so right-on that you won’t dignify the question with a concrete response… “Because then you denigrate the people who are [gay],” he agrees. “Also, I remember when there was a whole story about Richard Gere and the truth is that he handled that as best as he could. He didn’t want to say, ‘I’m not something,’ because it’s somehow insulting to other people.

“You know, people can think whatever they want. I live my life and have a great life and I’m not worried about what people in that world think.”

Later, he mentions “some actor” who introduced the subject of Clooney’s preferences recently, “and it was the funniest thing”. Er, what? “You’re talking about me being gay…” Which actor? “Some actor in a London paper brought it up. I can’t remember who it was but they were really tearing into me and I was, like, ‘Wow, that was strange.'” Sorry? An English actor said that you were gay? “I don’t know if that was what it was – maybe they were just saying that I was an idiot, I can’t remember.”

The unmemorable English actor, I later discover, is Rupert Everett, who had lambasted Clooney for his Ocean’s films, describing them as “a cancer to world culture”, and rammed the knife in even further, saying: “He’s not the brightest spark on the boulevard. He’ll be president one day. Mark my words, if he’s straight [Everett is a very out gay], he’ll be president.”

It is when we talk about the forthcoming presidential election that Clooney really hits his stride. On almost any other subject –which may explain that meagre sense of him in the cuttings – his charm acts as a sort of shield, creating a series of cul de sacs. His favoured response to any question that is remotely personal is to come back with a wisecrack, rather like the banter of an English public schoolboy, but more beguiling – so that you don’t instantly recognise it as a withholding device.

He admits to being a bit of a bloke himself – a bloke with a Peter Pan complex, with his train sets and model airplanes and motorbikes. When I’d read about his pranks – which he still likes to play, he says – my heart rather sank. There’s nothing debonair about leaving your calling card in your host’s cat litter tray (my sons thought this was hilarious, but they are teenagers) or borrowing friends’ cameras at parties to take photos of your naked bottom. His favourite clip on YouTube is of a monkey sticking a finger up his arse, smelling it and passing out.

Even his wedding, to actress Talia Balsam, sounds like a joke – with a ceremony conducted by an Elvis impersonator in a kitsch Las Vegas chapel. Three years after the couple’s divorce in 1993, Clooney himself sounded a bit worried by his prospects, saying: “The problem is kind of image. As you get older, that image isn’t cute any more – not like when you’re 18 and going out with a bunch of girls. When you’re 40 and you do it, it’s kind of sad.” I mention his current gorgeous girlfriend, Sarah Larson, a waitress turned reality television winner, and ask him how many months – “She’s, uh, I think she’s 29 years old, actually” (see, he’s quick) – before mumbling that they started dating in August.

Clooney has referred to his own immaturity, saying that even though he was 28 when he got married, he was probably too young for that commitment, since actors tend to be less grown up than the rest of us. He has often said that he has no desire to reproduce, but is that partly because fathering a child would deprive him of his own extended boyhood? He responds, inevitably, with a gag: “Don Cheadle [Ocean’s Eleven, Hotel Rwanda] came up with a very funny line when he introduced me at an awards ceremony, saying, ‘George Clooney doesn’t have kids because he doesn’t want the competition.'”

I read him Philip Larkin’s famous anti-parenthood anthem (“They f*** you up your Mum and Dad”), which he finds very funny, as a way of asking him about his own childhood. He says: “Oh, I had a great childhood. I’m really, really close to my parents and talk to them all the time. But they were Catholic and very strict. I was always being grounded and being told to be in by seven. Grace at the meals and all that. But I was also a child of the Sixties and Seventies, with all those movements that were going on – civil rights, women’s rights, the drug counter-culture, the sexual revolution – which were interesting to me.”

Apart from Max the pig, Clooney’s longest relationships have been with eight buddies he’s known for 25 years. He says that he does, on the whole, prefer to hang out with “the guys” than with women. When he’s not making films or getting involved in humanitarian causes – he and his father, Nick, a former television news anchor, travelled to Sudan and Chad to make a documentary about genocide – or entertaining guests in his villa on Lake Como, the actor likes nothing better than to play basketball and kick back with his pals by drinking beers and watching sport on TV.

He sounds horrified when I ask whether the gang of eight are all actors. “Noooo, noooooo, noooo. One sells real estate, one’s a lawyer at Warner Brothers, one’s a writer-producer, one’s a security guard in Italy. Only one is an actor. They’re a great touchstone when things really take off…” And you could become a bit of a wanker; do you know that word? “Yes, I know it very well [a look of mock befuddlement], I’ve heard it a lot lately. I don’t understand why.

“What happens is that sometimes people can be too nice to you and say, ‘You’re really brilliant,’ and your buddies will go, ‘Oh, he’s a real genius,’ and they’ll just cut you up. They’re never mean, just funny. We’ve worked very hard for a long time to make sure that the most important thing is that we’re still all around for each other.” This sounds slightly odd when you consider that six of the eight have wives and children but, hey, this is Hollywood.

We had talked earlier about Clooney’s dismay at the way news is increasingly presented as entertainment. He cited a grotesque example of a boy who drowned during some dramatic floods and a producer’s decision to jazz it up with the Doors’ Riders on the Storm. Even Diane Sawyer – who, naturally, turns out to be a friend – plays the emotional card too much for my taste. So I tell him I’m going to attempt to ask him a serious question now. “OK, I’m ready.” This is my Diane Sawyer moment. “I’m ready,” he looks nervous. Do you ever worry about lonely old age? “I [sniffs, pretends to get tearful]… no, actually, I was joking about this with my Dad – about getting old and dying alone, you know, and my Dad was, like, ‘You die alone! That’s what you do, basically. Whether you’re married and have kids or whatever, you die alone.’ So he defends me a lot. And I have a great world. I have a great family and great friends.”

Do you get depressed? “Sure, I get depressed sometimes. But then if you drink, you know, then it’s fine.” No, no, drink can exaggerate depression. “Hahahahahahahah. Not if you’re Irish!”

I mention the references to Clooney’s drug use in his youth – dropping acid and eating magic mushrooms – and comments by his late aunt, the singer Rosemary Clooney, about his dark circles and wild lifestyle. “Oh, I didn’t know that she said that. That’s funny. I was mellow compared to my friends. Certainly it was a different time in terms of drugs in general, but, you know, I never had an issue with it. It was just casual use.”

Rosemary Clooney had her own “issues” with prescription drugs and wrote about her addiction and subsequent confinement in a mental hospital. It was her illness that dissuaded Clooney from taking any pain medication when an accident on the set of Syriana led to him suffering severe back problems and short-term memory loss. He still gets headaches but other than that he has recovered pretty well. “They gave me a tub this big, you know,” he extends his hands. “And you take one and it feels pretty good and you take two, and it feels better, and the next day two doesn’t do it. They’re incredibly addictive.

“There are so many people in this town who are or were addicted to it. They pass them out like M&M’s out here. They really alter your personality. It’s like a bad drunk. It takes you away from who you are, which in Rosemary’s case was a really fun person, but she went through a time in the early Seventies when she was truly hung up on prescription drugs and she wasn’t fun to be with. You were always aware that might be in your genes, so you stay away from them.”

Since Clooney has been outspoken about his support of Barack Obama, I wonder whether he agrees with the view that the Clintons have been fighting dirty. “They have upped the ante and have made it difficult if they were to have a dual ticket so, yes, I suppose that means in some ways they have.

“But, at the end of the day, not too much damage is done – it’s probably nothing more than he would have gotten from the Republicans – so it might as well come out now. I think it would cause an awfully big rip in the Democrats if he isn’t the nominee.”

Was it an easy choice for you? “From the very beginning.” Why not her? “First of all, it wasn’t ‘not her’, it was him. I’m a friend of Bill and Hillary’s and I like her very much, but Barack Obama is that person who comes around very rarely. He’s just spellbinding.”

He mentions that he was talking recently about the state of America with his father – the only reason that Clooney doesn’t mention his mother is that she hates being talked about, but she’s a former beauty queen who was also mayor of Augusta – when the Clooneys Snr and Jnr decided that all was not doom and gloom.

“My father and I were saying that we’ve been lucky as a country historically. When we needed a constitution – something which has to be really well-handled – we had Thomas Jefferson. Then we had a civil war, which could have destroyed the country, and there was Lincoln. With the Depression, we had Roosevelt. The Cuban missile crisis was the closest we’ve ever come to a nuclear holocaust and there was Kennedy. These are some of the greatest leaders of our time, and then we had 2001 and got unlucky. And, listen, I can’t believe that Bush is an evil man – I just think he wasn’t equipped. But maybe 2001 or September 11 wasn’t that moment – although they were two of the biggest moments in our country’s history – but now that our economy is in the tank, our face across the world is probably at its most blemished, our country has been assailed, the fact that we don’t necessarily adhere to the Geneva Convention… maybe in terms of that moment when you absolutely need someone to lead, not manage the country, maybe it’s now.

“Because here’s the thing that’s sort of astonishing. Even at the time of the civil rights movement or Vietnam – when kids actually had something to lose – they still didn’t show up at the polls. But you know what? They’re voting right now like you cannot believe. So maybe this is that moment where, for the first time in our history, kids are going to understand that they have to take the reins of our country and that may be why Barack Obama is around right now.”

Time’s up. I try, unsuccessfully, to coax Clooney into doing a duet with me and warble those lines from O Brother – “Let’s go down to the river and pray” – but he says that his voice is so bad that they cut it out of the movie. “My father, he had an album. My aunt, she could sing. My mother cannot sing at all. She screwed it up for me.” Well, I say, as he is walking out of the door, I’m sure I’ll see you again one day. “Yes, you will,” he pokes his head back and does the Swooney grin, “because I’ll be your stalker.”

* * *

Leatherheads is released nationwide on April 11

News

The need to share a dark secret

BBC News, Friday, 4 April 2008
– Julian Joyce

Multi-millionaire poet and publisher Felix Dennis has retracted a drunken murder “confession” made to a newspaper journalist.

But even if Mr Dennis’s words turn out to be – as he says – “a load of hogwash”, how unusual is it for genuine murderers to risk their freedom by sharing their secrets?

According to the Times, Mr Dennis – one of the original founders of the counterculture magazine Oz in the 1960s and now a publisher with an estimated £750m fortune – confessed to a murder “about 25 years ago”, in order to protect a woman.

After several bottles of wine were shared, he told writer Ginny Dougary: “I’ve killed a man… pushed him over the edge of a cliff.”

Read the entire story on the BBC site >>

News

Did maverick magazine mogul Felix Dennis murder a man 25 years ago?

Daily Mail, 3 April 2008

‘I killed him,’ Dennis told interviewer Ginny Dougary from The Times at his Warwickshire mansion. ‘That’s all you need to know.’

Read the entire story at The Daily Mail >>

News

Felix Dennis: ex-addict, poet – and murderer?

The Guardian, Thursday April 3 2008
– Esther Addley

He has been jailed for obscenity, overcome an enthusiastic addiction to crack cocaine, and become a best-selling poet. But has he also killed a man? That was the dramatic claim made by the multimillionaire publisher Felix Dennis in a newspaper interview published yesterday, a statement he has since retracted, describing it as “a load of hogwash”.

The publisher, who has amassed a personal fortune estimated at £750m through a global publishing empire that includes Maxim, The Week and Viz, made his apparent confession in an interview with the journalist Ginny Dougary, which was published in the Times.

Read the article at The Guardian >>

News

The fine art of extracting an interview bombshell

The Guardian, Thursday April 3 2008
– Stephen Moss

‘I once killed a man.” It’s not a bad headline to put over an interview – in this case the estimable Ginny Dougary’s interview with Felix Dennis in the Times yesterday. Her paper obviously thought it was pretty good, too, as it slapped a photograph of the millionaire publisher on the front page with that quote underneath – a plug doubling as news.

The interview explained how, in the course of a five-hour meeting and after “drinking a number of bottles of excellent wine”, Dennis had confessed to once pushing a man over a cliff because he was abusing a woman Dennis knew. “Weren’t ‘ard,” Dennis is quoted as saying. Later, on the phone, he retracted his story – “It’s a load of hogwash. I was drunk. I withdraw it unconditionally” – but Dougary decided that vino probably was veritas and published the first version.

Read the entire article at The Guardian >>

News

Murder, she wrote

The Guardian, Monday April 7 2008
– Ginny Dougary

When Felix Dennis ‘confessed’ to Ginny Dougary that he had killed a man, the interviewer faced a decision: file the sensational exclusive or fast-forward the tape. She has no doubts that she made the right choice.

My phone was pretty busy in the after-math of the publication of my interview with Felix Dennis, in which he confessed to killing a man; a “confession” that he later retracted. What colleagues on other newspapers wanted to know was whether the story – the publisher claimed that 25 years ago he pushed a man off a cliff – was true and why the publisher talked about such a thing in an on-the-record interview with a journalist.

Most questions were answered in the piece and it is clear that the Times went to great lengths to ensure that it behaved responsibly and fairly with such a sensational revelation. As a champion of free speech – he is still most famous for the Oz trial, which centred on that very issue – it would presumably have gone against the grain for Dennis to attempt to suppress something he said in an interview. He did write the next day suggesting that I “forget about one particular episode”, but nothing at that stage more heavy-handed.

What is the correct way to behave when an interviewee tells a journalist something that he or she is likely to regret when it is published? I have been interviewing the great and the good for the past 16 years, and there have been a number of occasions when their revelations have become newsworthy.

Back in 1994, the former chancellor Norman Lamont let rip with an attack on the then prime minister John Major and his comments duly appeared in the Times. The fallout lasted for months. Five years later, Michael Portillo, another Tory former minister, talked about his homosexual past. In recent months he has referred to that interview, and his suspicion that it lost him the leadership of his party.

An interview with Martin Amis, conducted a year or so ago, has been picked over in recent months because of the comments he made about Muslims, and he now finds himself having to rebut charges that he is a racist in every interview he does.

Sometimes the consequences are short-lived or even amusing, as when the author Jeanette Winterson told me about a stint in her youth when she had sex with ladies from the Home Counties who showed their appreciation by presenting her with Le Creuset casserole dishes. (Rather delightfully, it was the Domestic Goddess, Nigella Lawson, who suggested that it might be fruitful to ask Winterson about this.)

After the Lamont experience – when he made some of his more extreme comments over lunch and later claimed that they had been off the record – I decided that I would never again allow a subject to attempt to shield themselves behind the cloak of unattributable quotes. This has frustrated some people who long to offload their bitterness or secret agendas but don’t wish to expose themselves in the process. In other words, they want to use a journalist to create waves without getting wet themselves.

This was not the case with Dennis. One of the joys of interviewing him is that you can ask him anything and he will not be fazed. However, for the interviewer – as I have discovered – this is not without its pitfalls.

When I started out in this profession 30-odd years ago celebrities were less precious about the interview game. There didn’t appear to be rules then and agents did not wield the kind of power they do now. So if a journalist wanted a lengthy interview with the subject – and the subject found you good value – you could get almost unlimited access. The prevailing line now is that you can sum up a person just as easily in a one-hour encounter, which is often the maximum time that an editor can bag for his or her writer. This is absurd, of course, but most of us, increasingly, have no option but to settle for it. There are still exceptions.

When I flew to Detroit, a couple of years ago, to interview the crime writer Elmore Leonard, I spent the whole day with him and then had dinner with him and his wife, followed by a visit to a jazz bar that lasted into the early hours. I have spent a week with Imelda Marcos in the Philippines; 10 days with Cherie Blair in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is tough on the interviewee, because it’s hard to project a certain image of yourself while under constant scrutiny for such a length of time. All of this is to give some context to Dennis’s revelation (over a five-hour interview, followed by dinner).

Janet Malcolm wrote a book in 1990 called The Journalist and the Murderer in which the opening line was: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Sometimes when you are sent off to interview a famous person you do have your own agenda – usually when there is something generally known (or thought to be known) about the subject which they have up until this point not declared publicly.

In these circumstances, the interviewer is employing whatever legitimate resources are at his or her disposal to elicit information. This does not seem, to my mind, “morally indefensible”, particularly when the subjects are seasoned politicians or individuals who have been in the public eye for a long time and are absolutely aware of the rules of the game.

But I wanted to interview Felix Dennis for no other reason than that he is colourful, flamboyant, rich and powerful, and has been outspoken already about his louche past.

Some weeks before our encounter, I was asked to write a piece about the pitfalls of interviewing, in which I wrote: “Most celebrities these days are too fearful of letting their guard down to have a drink with their interviewer. If you are lucky enough to get a good scoop out of such an encounter, unsympathetic commentators may assume that the interviewer has plied their subject with alcohol to exploit the poor vulnerable creature. This is irritating but also nonsense. Revealing interviews, in my experience anyway, have come about because the interviewee finds it a relief to vent or unburden themselves.”

This could be one reading of the Dennis interview – another is that he was simply trying to shock. Although he did suggest that I might want to forget his “confession”, it is striking that he did not put this more strongly. It is entirely in keeping with his character that, having made such a shocking claim, Dennis would almost be embarrassed to deny it. However, in a subsequent telephone conversation with me, Dennis did deny the story, blaming it on the wine; five or six weeks later, in one of his notes to the editor, he remembered that he had also been on medication at the time.

There is no rule book about how to deal with such a bizarre turn of events. To my knowledge, no public figure – and certainly not one with such an extensive knowledge about the way the media operate – has ever insisted on telling a journalist that he has killed someone.

Another question I have been asked is whether I liked Dennis. That is easy to answer. I had more fun with him than in almost any other interview I can think of – and even in our subsequent dealings he has, for the most part, been the very model of grace under pressure. Indeed, one of the reasons why I tried to get him to retract his damning words during the interview was that I felt oddly protective of him – aware, however heedless he seemed to be about the implications, what their impact might be upon publication.

What I was not prepared to do – and it would be an odd sort of journalist who would not adopt the same position – was to participate in a charade of pretence, where something that was said could be conveniently unsaid afterwards. An on-the-record interview, after all, is exactly that.

In the published article, there are many compelling explanations as to why Dennis erupted in the way he did – including his own. But as for the question that may still linger, there is only one person who really knows the answer, and it certainly isn’t me.

Celebrities

Maxim publisher Felix Dennis: ‘I’ve killed a man’

The Times April 2, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

The Oz trial defendant who is now a billionaire publisher with an empire that includes Maxim and The Week talks about poetry, whores, his past addiction to crack cocaine and the time he killed a man – a confession he later retracts

Felix Dennis is brilliant, aggressive, generous, ruthless, and quite possibly a bit mad. I don’t mean mad as in “crazeeeee”, eccentric, “zany”, although all these apply, but in the other sense of not being possessed of an entirely sound mind.

How this squares with him being one of the most successful self-made entrepreneurs in the world – worth between $400 and $900 million net (£750 million according to the Sunday Times Rich List); five homes; three estates in Mustique (where he spends half the year), Connecticut and Warwickshire; fancy cars; private jets; thousands of acres of land, including his vast, ever-expanding Forest of Dennis; a legendary wine cellar; a personal retinue of more than 50 staff; libraries stuffed with first editions, all specifics helpfully passed on to the readers of his own bestselling (of course) book How to Get Rich – is another matter.

But what sane person – a magazine publisher, no less, even if he were on medication, would tell a journalist (of all people) on the record, even after drinking a number of bottles of excellent wine, that he has killed a man? Dennis is such good company and a wonderful host that it feels bad- mannered to repeat his astonishing claim, but if this was a strange flight of fantasy – and in vino it’s not always a case of veritas – to pretend that you have killed someone, is a very questionable form of either humour or braggadocio.

This bombshell came towards the end of a long interview in the conservatory of his Warwickshire home – almost five hours of taped conversation – at a point when I did not think it possible to be shocked by anything Dennis could say. We had covered: publishing in this country and the US, religion, marriage, hookers, wine, trees, politics, bonobo monkeys, his sex and crack cocaine addiction, the environment, poetry, the Oz trial, prison, his mother, his late estranged father, childhood and death, to name but a few of the topics. Before even the first bottle had been drained – a lovely 1996 Chablis – it was clear that there was almost no detail that Dennis felt shy about sharing.

He told a story about how he spent three years attempting and failing to save the life of a young prostitute “who could walk around naked as easily as if she was dressed to the hilt and had that insouciance which only comes from tremendous beauty with a kind of rabid intelligence… I could not bear that this orchid was going to be flushed down the lavatory with the dead chrysanthemums.” But flushed down she was: “Heroin. I was enraged. You know, I. Do. Not. Fail. I was absolutely determined because rich men can do anything. We rule the world and we can do anything. There is nothing beyond us. But this turned out to be well beyond me.”

This business of rich men feeling that they are gods is something of a running narrative. Dennis says that he has been scarred and damaged by his crack years – although he doesn’t say how – “but, you know, when you get too much money and you’ve never had money before, where does the training come from? Well, you’ve got none. So it’s the usual dreary afflictions of people who suddenly get too much money.”

Before we met, I watched Dennis in a number of television interviews. Even as he was clearly having a ball with Melvyn Bragg there were moments when his ricochet of laughter, coupled with a strange glint in his eye, went on for just a fraction too long for comfort. More than that, there was something haunted about him, which may sound melodramatic but was even more striking in person. Perhaps it has something to do with the scars he refers to. Possibly you can’t experience the excesses of 14 naked hookers catering to your every whim – however enjoyable that might have been at the time, and Dennis said it was very much so – without being spoilt in some deep way. He also drove himself mad with the amount of crack cocaine he consumed in those days.

One of the arresting aspects of the crack years is that Dennis was able to restrict his addiction to the weekends. “It was only ever two or three days at a time,” he says. “A long weekend, then straight back to work and nothing for five days.”

Just as he will drink only the finest wine and has all manner of oenophile paraphernalia, Dennis was punctilious about the quality of his supplies and kit. “My equipment was of the absolute finest, and I got to the point where guys were blowing glass vessels for me because I discovered that it worked better with different types of glass vessels,” he says. “I was literally a crack connoisseur.”

When he talks with a measure of domestic pride about how his 20-odd pipes would emerge scoured and sparkling from the dishwasher, I burst out laughing – and Dennis looks a bit hurt. “Well, it is domestic, sorry,” he says. “Because that’s where it becomes disgusting, when it looks all dirty, and there was none of that.”

He took up crack cocaine in earnest in 1995, the same year he launched Maxim, his hugely successful men’s magazine. Two years later, while still deep in his addiction, Dennis took the high-risk decision to unleash his older lad mag (average age of readership is 29) on the American market – cocking a snook at more toney competitors such as Esquire and GQ, with the latter’s editor responding loftily that Maxim appealed to men who “not only move their lips when they read, they drool”. If so, it transpired that there are legions of drooling men around the world. Maxim swiftly established itself as the market leader in America, outstripping the sales of GQ, Esquire and Details combined.

Whatever throne Dennis believed he sat upon, he is certainly the king of this particular strand of publishing – with Maxim’s claim to be the largest men’s magazine brand in the world (35 editions in 45 countries, an international readership of more than 17 million, etc).

Last year, he sold his US magazine operation, including Maxim, for a reported $240 million – but hung on to his American edition of The Week, launched with plaudits from Tom Wolfe and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of all the magazines in his empire – Dennis Publishing owns more than 50 titles, mainly bloke-ish: cars, computers, gadgets, men’s lifestyle, and Viz – the one closest to his heart is The Week, a sharply edited distillation of current affairs and good writing from the British and foreign press.

Dennis says that perhaps the reason why he’s never taken the decision to have children is that he would have been an appalling thrusting father and given his offspring Napoleon complexes: “You’re going to conquer the world whether you like it or not.” With so many sexual conquests, can he be sure that he has not unwittingly fathered any Dennis juniors? “One or two,” he says. “There are several claimed.” Wouldn’t he want to see them? “That’s never really been a part of it. All they [the mothers] ever really want is money to bring them up, which is fine.”

Still, I ask him whether he ever feels sad that he didn’t have children that he could claim as his own. “When you lack courage, that’s what you get,” he says. “In the end, you get what you deserve… you know. But I do have 22 godchildren and I’m delighted with all of them.”

I spent a great deal of the interview trying to get Dennis to talk about his mother, who lives on the Warwickshire estate. She sounds a formidable and impressive woman and if anyone has the power to frighten her son, my guess is that it’s her. He says this is nonsense: “I’ve never been frightened of my mother – from the age of 7, I was the alpha male in the house, taking the spiders out of the bath.” In his book, he jokes (but it’s a revealing joke): “My mother will not be pleased to read about herself in this book. But hey! I’m 59 years old. A man has to stand up to his mother sooner or later. Right?”

He tells me, when we’re discussing his imminent death (he believes he will die before he reaches 70) that “I sometimes think the only reason I’m hanging on is so my mother goes first.” In 1999, nearly two years after quitting his crack habit, Dennis almost died when his thyroid packed up “and everything else seemed to pack up working at the same time”. This is when he took up writing poetry, from his hospital bed, which he believes saved his life. He swears he hasn’t got a terminal illness, when I ask him how he can be so sure that he won’t be around for much longer, and says the reason he knows is that “although this sounds tremendously like boasting, I live at two or three times the speed of ordinary mortals. And I will die young, my dear.”

The reason he adores women, he says, is because he was brought up by a very unusual woman. “I adore my mother because she had the courage in the 1950s to walk away from a man, and to divorce him.” When I say that I thought it was his father who had left the family when Felix was 2, he says: “Well, he went to Australia to create a life and I don’t know what happened and I don’t want to know because I’m totally loyal to my mother and I don’t wish to know the other side.”

Dennis’s mother – whom he doesn’t mention by name other than to call her Mrs Sawyer, from her second marriage to David Sawyer, an engineer on Concorde – brought up her two small boys on her own in an era when divorce was frowned upon. He remembers a poor childhood – although he didn’t know it at the time – but a happy one, all living in his grandmother’s two-up, two-down terraced house. And then, seemingly overnight, his family became middle-class and Dennis can still recall showing his younger brother, Julian, the new-found joys of the light switch.

His father did try to get in touch with him but Dennis refused to respond. When I ask him if he would have gone had his father asked for him on his death bed, he says he would “because what I did was wrong in the first place. Nevertheless, if you knew the sacrifices my mother made to bring up my brother and me, the difficulties she had to overcome to become a chartered accountant by going to night school, and the appalling things she had to face, you too would have been tempted to become partisan.

“But I had even been thinking that I ought to go over – when my aunty, his sister, called me up and said, ‘Your father has died.’ It was the first time I’d heard anybody use the words, ‘Your father’.”

I wondered how important his wealth was to him. Had he never married, for instance, because he was worried about his millions being taken away from him? “No, that’s never been the consideration,” he says. “I could always make more money. There’s one very simple reason I’ve never married and that’s because I’m not monogamous. I just don’t get it.”

Does he believe that women are as non-monogamous as men? “The short answer to that is ‘yes’ – I don’t think it’s true. I know it’s true.” And you don’t mind if your principal partner has other partners? “Good God, no. I’ve occasionally been discommoded because somebody I was seeing maybe at that time was busy seeing someone else, but the correct word is ‘discommoded’. So, well, I just wasn’t seeing her that night.”

One moment we’re talking in a relaxed way about the whys and wherefores of sexual fidelity and the next… Felix Dennis is telling me he’s killed someone. Listening to the tape, it was as though he had suddenly flipped into being another person. His voice changes, grows darker and deeper and cockney – but there’d been a bit of that before, prompting me to tell him to stop staring at me as though I were the enemy.

So I am wittering on about the spirit of the Sixties, and Dennis interrupts with a growl: “Except for one thing. That if they’re in trouble [his women], if they’re harmed or threatened… God help the person who’s threatening them.” God help them, he keeps repeating. What follows are excerpts from a transcribed tape of our interview.

He looks so intense that I ask him whether he’s ever fought with a man over a woman. “I’ve killed a man,” he says. What? “I’ve killed a man.” What do you mean, you’ve killed a man? “I killed him.” Does everyone know you’ve killed a man? “No, and they’ll never find out, either.” Are you kidding me? Are you winding me up? Where? In what country? “I killed him. That’s all you need to know. I killed him.”

Oh Felix, you’re having me on. “No.” Promise me. Swear to God… “He hurt her and I told him to stop and he kept on.” What did it feel like, then? “He hurt her.” What did you do? “Pushed him over the edge of a cliff.” In the Caribbean? “Don’t matter where it was. He wouldn’t let her alone. She told him to stop. I told him to stop. Many people told him to stop. Wouldn’t stop. Kept on and on and on. Made her life a living misery: beat her up, beat up her kids, wouldn’t let her alone, kept on, kept on – weren’t even his kids, so in the end, I had a little meeting with him, pushed him over the edge of a cliff. Weren’t ‘ard.”

Are you sure you want to be telling me this? “Don’t care. Anybody harms one of mine… if they harm one of mine, they’d better know what they’re doing. And they’d always be warned. I wouldn’t attack anybody without reason. I’ll attack nobody without reason. Without trying again and again to bring this thing to a much more satisfactory and sensible, more rational conclusion. But if they keep harming one of mine, then I have no option.”

What decade are we talking about? “About 25 years ago.” Crikey, I say, I’ve never met somebody who’s killed someone before. I pushed and pushed Dennis to retract this story – saying how much less awkward it would be for both of us if he did – but the stubborn man refused to budge. So in the end, we carried on with the interview for a bit, and warbled a few duets – we were particularly proud of our version of Little Feat’s Willing, so much so we sang it three or four times, and all thoughts of pushing people off cliffs evaporated in the revelries. When I eventually got home – after shepherd’s pie in his rather cosy 16th-century home, cooked by his lovely and forbearing Marie France, whom he describes as his “beloved” and “the companion of my heart” – I was touched to see that Dennis had secreted the Little Feat CD in my bag.

The next day, he sent a note by e-mail thanking me for a really enjoyable afternoon and evening but suggesting “you should forget one particular episode I recounted to you after the third or fourth bottle in the conservatory”.

The rest of the note was about Keats and his attempts to concentrate his poetry now on “mining feeling and experience” rather than focusing on form. His trees were also mentioned – he told me the attraction was watching small things grow – which he felt we hadn’t covered: “I’ll be planting 280 new acres of native broadleaf trees this winter in my Heart of England forest project. Next to writing poetry, trees and the planting of them ranks alongside the thrill of the chase in making money in business for me.”

What can be made of this? I have puzzled over it a great deal. Dennis quit crack cocaine, in November 1997, on his own (and has never, he says, slipped back into drug abuse since). “I went cold turkey because when I want to I have quite exceptional will power.” Can you remember what you went through? “No, I suspect I block things out. I know it was difficult,” another manic laugh.

He has no time for Narcotics Anonymous because of its religious affiliations and, in his case, he says that his liking of wine has not led him back down the slippery path. Is it possible, I wonder, that drinking heavily – even if it is no longer a bottle of Rémy Martin a day – can somehow flip the mind back into the sort of delusional state Dennis experienced on crack cocaine? Could this explain his outburst and the way he seemed to transmogrify into another character?

Another explanation for his aberrant behaviour is set out in a letter to the Editor which arrives months after the interview. In this he explains that his doctor has only just reminded him that at the time of the interview he was suffering from a form of anaemia and thyroid imbalance. His doctor had prescribed him Prednisolone and Carbimazole which, with generous lashings of wine, can cause mood swings, severe exaggeration and a kind of manic or psychotic behaviour.

So what is the correct way to behave when the subject of an interview is on medication but still tells his interviewer something about his life or exaggerates an episode that he is likely to regret when it is published? I have been interviewing the great and the good for this newspaper for the past 18 years, and there have been a number of occasions when certain revelations have become newsworthy: Lord Lamont of Lerwick’s bitterness towards John Major, Michael Portillo’s admission of homosexual encounters as a young man, Jeanette Winterson’s recollections of being paid in Le Creuset saucepans for saucy encounters with ladies from the Home Counties, Martin Amis’s comments about Muslims which have been construed in some quarters as racist, Lord Tebbit’s mischief-making observations about David Cameron and Gordon Brown (as Thatcher’s heir), the late Benazir Bhutto’s thoughts about death.

But the interview with Felix Dennis is of a completely different order, and, indeed, probably unprecedented. There was no killer question to put to him, let alone any question of killing. I had absolutely no idea about an episode, however exaggerated, in his life when he may or may not have pushed a man over a cliff. So it came to me as a complete shock when he imparted the information.

One of the attractive aspects of the man is that he commands huge loyalty from his staff and former employees. Gill Hudson, who edits the Radio Times and was the launch editor of Maxim, had nothing but praise for her former boss but did say (not knowing what he had told me) that he would say anything to shock.

Most revealing interviews, in my experience, have come about because the interviewee finds it a relief – at some level – to vent or unburden themselves. But I didn’t really get that impression with Dennis, although I certainly did feel that he was haunted by something. He is not keen on armchair psychology but did say at one point, when we were talking about addiction, that “I suppose everything is to do with psychology and psychiatry in the end.”

Could it be possible that the unpleasant man that Dennis talked about did exist, and that the publisher would have dearly liked to expunge the individual – maybe even threatened to do so, and had a fight with him, but the medication he was taking caused him to believe that what he would have liked to have done actually took place? Is it simply a case of him confusing fact with fiction? In the interview, in a different context (communing with a whale) he refers to being in America at that time (25-odd years ago) and being “out of my box – God knows what I had been taking, I can’t even remember – but everyone else had collapsed.” This was long before his crack cocaine habit – when he admits to becoming delusional – but it’s safe to assume that he was indulging in some pretty wild recreational drug use even then and who knows what this might have led him to believe occurred.

While it is hardly exceptional for journalists to interview their subjects over a bottle of wine, the encounter with Dennis involved rather more bottles of fabulous vintage wine than is customary. He is, after all, famous for his excellent cellar and many journalists, as well as members of the public (his poetry tour was called “And Did I Mention the Free Wine?”) have sampled his generosity. In one of his recent notes to the Editor, he referred in a friendly way to “both of us behaving like schoolchildren who have got at the sherry cupboard, singing and carrying on”.

Felix may think it exceptional to sing with an interviewee. But I have to say that, as a self-professed singing nut, I often encourage my subjects, where at all possible, to burst into song. My duet with Imelda Marcos doing My Imeldific Way was a stunner. And as for the sherry cupboard, only Dennis was in charge of the keys.

In the circumstances, perhaps it would be too much of a loss of face for a multimillionaire with a Master-of-the-Universe complex to retract the story but when I told Dennis on the phone, prior to publication, that we would be including the section about him killing a man, ultimately that is exactly what happened. “It’s a load of hogwash – I was drunk,” he said. “I withdraw it unconditionally.”

Dennis is probably still best known for something that happened to him in 1971: the school kids issue of the counter-culture magazine Oz, which led to the legendary obscenity trial at the Old Bailey when all three defendants were jailed, despite the best efforts of a young defence lawyer called John Mortimer. Dennis was given a shorter jail sentence than Richard Neville and Jim Anderson, on the ground, according to the judge, that he was “very much less intelligent than the others”.

If there are scars from his crack addiction, the memory of his fortnight in prison has also never left him. He was in Wormwood Scrubs banged up with murderers and rapists whose initial thought was that the Oz trio had been “interfering with kiddies”. There was a National Front “geezer” – Dennis is in hard-man cockney mode – who kept saying “I can’t f***ing stand guys that mess with kiddies and that.” They were rescued by an Irishman who slung across his copy of a tabloid and said: “These ain’t fucking perves, you arse, these are political prisoners. Read that, you c***.” Their in-cell reprieve was granted when the news filtered through that John Lennon, the working-class hero, was marching in the streets to free The Oz Three.

But until that moment, it was “really really nasty,” not least to find himself befriended by genuine paedophiles who claimed him as a fellow soulmate. He learnt how to make a lethal weapon out of a packet of cigarettes, some Swan Vesta matches and a bar of soft soap, and in the psychiatric hospital rented a telescope concealed in the wooden leg of an inmate to ogle a woman – five minutes for a cigarette – taking her clothes off in the tower block opposite.

When I ask Dennis, towards the end of the interview, whether he thinks his mother is proud of him in this new calm era of his life, he looks shocked: “I have absolutely no idea because my mother and I do not have the kind of relationship where I would ever dare ask her and she would never tell me if she was,” he says. “And I would be disappointed if she did.”

I never did get to see his Garden of Heroes, an avenue lined with lifesize bronze statues of various different figures: Charles Darwin on a Galapagos tortoise, Bob Dylan with Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry and – between Stephen Hawking and Oscar Wilde – a young Felix Dennis circa Oz, which suggests that even he thinks this is how he should be remembered. I did have a walk around his ritzy leisure centre, a cross between Disneyland and Hugh Hefner’s playmates den: lots of wood and buccaneering pirate accoutrements. Dennis himself rarely goes there but he built it for his guests and friends, just as he regularly offers his Mustique residence, formerly owned by David Bowie, for free holidays to his employees.

He told me that for years he wanted the epitaph on his gravestone to read “Everything. Full stop. All the time. Full stop.” So what has it been changed to now: everything in moderation? “No, no, no, it won’t be that either because I’m not a hypocrite. I think the bottom line is that I’ve always known that I had no time and that I wanted many strands to my life. I could not bear just being a publisher or a planter of trees or just being a mad hedonist. I’m immensely greedy and I want it all. I’m just trying to have a bloody good time filling in the gap between being born and dying. So – you can accuse me of anything else but if you call me a hypocrite, I shall get cross.”