Bad-boy publishing mogul Felix Dennis shares his secrets with us. Or does he?
May 29, 2008
by Jon Fine
The late afternoon sun hits the lake outside Felix Dennis'
Connecticut cottage in a particularly picturesque way, but the
60-year-old serial media entrepreneur and founder of Maxim is
oblivious to it. He's swaying back and forth in his living room, eyes
closed, fingering an air guitar to a CD that's replaying one of his
performances at the Mustique Blues Festival. Loudly.
I'm collapsed in a chair by the fireplace. I think I'm supposed to
join in, but I don't. I can't. We've had three and a half bottles of
wine since I arrived here for a simple Sunday lunch. Then Dennis
moved on to postprandial Scotch. I didn't. I couldn't. Standing
upright could get complicated. Judging from the tapes, at this point,
simple speech is pretty complicated.
I'd come to interview Dennisan eccentric tycoon even by the
standards of "eccentric tycoons"about his career in media and the
upcoming publication of How to Get Rich, a rather engaging and blunt
self-help book. As defined in his text, "rich" starts at a total
asset value of $30 million. Dennis puts his own wealth between
$400million and $900 million; the London Times pegs it around $1.5
billion. His estimate would be higher were it not for his prodigious
spending. In the book, he invents the statistic, Lifetime Spending
Total, or, naturally, LST. His own, he says, is "eye-watering"in the
hundreds of millions of dollars.
Some background on the squat, bearded Dennis: He was briefly jailed
in his native England in 1971 after losing an obscenity trial
concerning his counterculture magazine, Oz. He grew up in a house, he
writes, in which straitened circumstance sometimes required using
torn newspapers as toilet paper. In his fifties, he became a
published poet. He openly admits to having spent several years
overindulging in crack cocaine. He has written what must be the only
self-help business book that contains sentences such as: "If it
flies, floats, or fornicates, rent it. It's cheaper." (Dennis is
unmarried and proudly non-monogamous.)
And, oh yeah, he recently confessed to murder. In his last major
interview, which appeared in The Times of London in early April, he
shocked the reporter by saying he had once pushed a man off a cliff.
When the journalist asked in a follow-up interview if he had done it,
Dennis said, "It's a load of hogwash. I was drunk," and he withdrew
the confession "unconditionally." Still, his remarks reverberated,
and his sub- sequent statements didn't help. In a lecture delivered
to students at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
later that month, which I attended, Dennis said no one had bothered
to check the date the Times published its pieceApr.1, he said, (as
in April Fools'). Actually, the story ran on Apr.2, and the interview
itself took place in late 2007a fact that I, and other reporters,
noted the next day. In our interview, Dennis now says that the story
was published online on Apr.1, although I can't find any evidence
that it was. "The story speaks for itself. Mr. Dennis spoke for
himself. The reporting provides the full context of his comments,"
said a Times spokesman.
I am perfectly happy to believe that Dennis concocted his tale for
the sake of shock, or outrage, or something. All the same, I made
sure that several people knew where I was lunching in Connecticut.
Dennis made his pile in an old-fashioned way, by starting and selling
ink-on-paper businesses, generally in corners shunned or overlooked
by more established publishing houses. (His first big success
piggybacked on the kung fu craze that erupted after the death of
movie star Bruce Lee, publishing Kung-Fu Monthly in multiple
countries.) He's most famous in the U.S. for the lad magazine Maxim,
which he sold last year, along with two other mags, for what was
reported to be around $240 million. But more of his money likely has
come from computer magazines, which he began publishing in Britain in
1978, and from his share in computer retailer MicroWarehouse.
Dennis still owns more than 50 titles in Britain and Australia,
including the interesting electronic-only, downloadable magazine
Monkey. The technology offers a much richer experience than digital
translations of magazinesphotos become videos, that sort of thing.
But Monkey plows terrain immediately familiar to Maxim readers. (The
man himself gleefully describes it as "an idiot magazine for young
idiots to whom I am immensely grateful.") He also owns the news
digest The Week, which is published in the U.S. and Britain. An
edition for Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong comes this fall,
and Dennis is mulling Indian and Canadian versions as well. In his
New York offices, he brags, are 15 to 20 empty desks to be filled by
employees of his next venture, about which he keeps mum as to both
topic and time frame.
He's more expansive when not discussing expansion, and especially on
the topic of how to amass staggering sums. Among his chief maxims:
Prune overhead regularly; team spirit is for losers; pay yourself
just enough to eat; and hire others to do the day-to-day. His most
crucial point: "ownership isn't the important thing. It's the only
thing." Dennis counsels readers to sell early, a guideline he admits
he's often failed to follow. (It's widely believed he's passed on
bigger offers for his American magazines. Dennis refuses to discuss
any offers for those properties.) He's also pretty frank about the
collateral costs of getting rich, in time and relationships with the
people closest to those who seek serious fortune. His own pursuit, he
writes, "led me into a lifestyle of narcotics, drink, and consolatory
His is a get-rich-quick book, in fact, that warns off all but those
who want monstrous wealth very, very badly, as Dennis did. He makes
it amply clear, in the book and in conversation, that the sheer
animal instincts and appetites that made him so fearsome a
competitor, so smashing a success, extracted a heavy toll. Even at
his age, they sometimes still do.