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.”