Obituary: Felix Dennis, 1947-2014
Maverick publisher and poet who planted a forest in Warwickshire
With his extraordinary energy, roistering humour and "cackling laugh", Felix Dennis was one of the most colourful characters in the British media, said Marsha Rowe in The Guardian. Having become famous as one of the editors of the counterculture magazine Oz, he went on to build up one of the most successful independent media companies in the world. In business, he could be ruthless, and even, by his own admission, amoral: he loved to win, and he loved making money (his chief interest, he once said, was making "f****** loads" of it). But Dennis, who has died aged 67, was no careful conserver of his wealth. Along the way, he gave millions away, to good causes and hard-luck cases, and blew even more on "sex, drugs and rock'n'roll". He once claimed to have "pissed away" £100m on wine, crack cocaine (which he boasted of smoking from a hand-blown glass pipe), and parties where "naked hookers" catered to "my every whim". His aim, he said, was simply to "have a bloody good time filling the gap between being born and dying".
Felix Dennis was born in southwest London in 1947. His father left when he was three, and he and his brother Julian were often cared for by their grandparents, who lived in a "two up, two down" with no hot water and a tin bath in the coal shed. His mother, however, was determined to better the family, said The Times: she went to night school, trained as a chartered accountant, and elevated her sons into the middle class. Dennis passed his 11+, only to be expelled from his grammar school; at 15, he dropped out of art school to join an R&B band. Thereafter, he worked as a grave digger in Harrow and a window dresser on Oxford Street before finding his "métier" in 1967, when he read the first copy of Oz. Entranced, Dennis sent a taped message to Oz's editor, Richard Neville, saying it was the "most fantastic f****** magazine I've seen". The tape was later used in a BBC documentary – and Dennis subsequently turned up at Oz's offices demanding a fee. Instead, Neville gave him a handful of magazines and said he could sell them and keep the proceeds. Dennis sold them, came back for more – and was soon not only co-editing Oz, but running its business side.
In 1970, Oz produced its Number 28 "schoolkids" issue, put together by children and featuring images of a priapic Rupert Bear. Its editors Neville, Dennis and Jim Anderson were arrested on obscenity charges. In the run-up to the trial Dennis added to his notoriety by becoming the first person to use the c-word on live television. (His mother didn't speak to him for three years after that, and even he conceded he had behaved "abominably".) In a much-criticised summing up, Judge Michael Argyle described Dennis, then 24, as the "least intelligent" of the three; and when they were convicted, he was given the lesser term. All three were cleared on appeal, but according to Neville, Argyle's words continued to ring in Dennis's ears – with a "galvanising" effect.
Before long, Dennis had founded a company with Dick Pountain (production editor on Oz) to publish underground comics. None made money – but in 1974, Dennis was in Soho when he noticed a queue of teenagers outside a cinema. He asked what they were going to see, and was told "the chink who beats people up": a Bruce Lee film. With his unerring eye for a trend, he immediately launched Kung-Fu Monthly (styling himself as the publisher, Felix Yen). It sold to 17 countries, and was even translated into Cantonese. "Coals to Newcastle didn't come into it," he observed. In the 1980s, he was one of the first to spot the potential of the personal computer market: Dennis Publishing's early computer titles included PC Zone and MacUser; and in the 1990s, he was quick to crest the "lads mag" wave with Maxim (strapline "Sex, Sports, Beer, Gadgets, Clothes, Fitness") – a publishing phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic. He also acquired a magazine that could be described as Maxim's polar opposite: The Week. Defying the naysayers, he launched a US edition of The Week in 2001.
A millionaire by the age of 35, Dennis bought properties all over the world – from the Caribbean island of Mustique to Warwickshire, where he commissioned 50 life-size statues for his "Garden of Heroes and Villains". (Those encapsulated in bronze included William Blake, T.E. Lawrence – and Dennis himself.) He also lavished money on fine wines, a 60-a-day cigarette habit, and numerous women. Then, in the 1990s, he discovered crack, the "most wonderful drug ever conceived". He insisted it was good for business – "I never slept for five years. You can get a lot done if you don't have to waste f*****g time sleeping" – but it nearly killed him. "I found myself wandering around the house with a hammer, thinking when the CIA come in that window, I'll be ready," he recalled. He kicked the habit in 1999, and took up poetry, which he found similarly absorbing. "Instead of taking crack cocaine, going out with whores and boozing, I'll sit down alone in a room and have just as much fun, if not more." He produced seven volumes of poetry, and went on several tours. Acknowledging the difficulty of getting the public to readings, he named these: "Did I mention the free wine?" He also published How to Get Rich, a bestselling and surprisingly honest account of the traits required to become seriously wealthy.
In addition to poetry, Dennis's other great passion was for trees. In the 1990s, he began buying up land around his English estate and planting native broadleaf trees on it. This evolved into the Heart of England Forest Project, which aims to create a contiguous 30,000-acre forest across Warwickshire and beyond. Last year, while fighting throat cancer, Dennis planted its millionth tree; he was accompanied by his long-term lover Marie-France Demolis. It was to the forest that he left the bulk of his £500 million fortune, including the company that bears his name.