Obituary: Felix Dennis
Astute publisher behind 'Oz' and 'The Week' for whom hedonism proved no bar to making a fortune
Published 06/07/2014 | 00:00
FELIX DENNIS, who died aged 67, was Britain's most colourful media mogul; a former jail bird, crack fiend, serial womaniser and sometime poet, he built a publishing empire worth hundreds of millions of pounds.
Dennis became notorious in 1971 as one of three defendants in the Oz obscenity trial. Issue 28 of the underground magazine was edited and written by schoolchildren, and the montage of Rupert the Bear and Gipsy Granny having sex led to Dennis, Richard Neville and Jim Anderson being prosecuted for obscenity and conspiracy to corrupt the morals of the young.
The judge in the case, Michael Argyle, famously observed that Dennis was "very much less intelligent" than his co-defendants and sentenced him to a comparatively lenient nine months in jail, which was quashed within a week by the appeal court, which detected 78 misdirections to the jury.
But the insult stung and, in proving the judge's assessment of him wide of the mark, Dennis went on to make a fortune out of what he called "scrabbling around in the leftovers" of publishing. He had a genius for anticipating the market, spotting trends and capitalising on them.
He was one of the first to spot the potential of personal computer magazines, which in turn funded the 1995 launch in Britain of Maxim (strap-line: "sex, sport, ladies, beer, skittles"). He launched the magazine in America, to derisive sneers, but hit a gold mine: it was soon selling 2.5 million copies a month.
A raft of lucrative publications followed, including The Week, a jaunty digest of press coverage from the previous seven days. Where established magazines went under, The Week proved a money spinner.
It funded a lifestyle of unrestrained hedonism. After making his first million, Dennis discovered crack cocaine.
"With crack, you want to have as much sex as possible, or go as crazy as possible with as many other people doing exactly the same. It is absolutely sensational," he said.
There would often be "13 or 14 girls in the house, for three days at a time, and none of them ever put their clothes on". Dennis once vowed to "die by an overdose of crack cocaine with an 18-year-old perched on top [of me]".
However, he believed crack triggered a hypothyroid condition in 1999. He kicked the habit, went cold turkey and took up poetry instead. In launching himself as a modern-day Kipling, Dennis paid Hutchinson to bring out his first volume, A Glass Half Full, in 2002. He then embarked on a nationwide tour and the book shifted 10,000 copies - colossal for poetry.
There was no end to Dennis's eccentricities. He built a "garden of heroes" featuring, among others, life-size bronze statues of Charles Darwin astride a Galapagos tortoise and Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair. Naturally, Dennis himself also featured.
Felix Dennis was born at Kingston-upon-Thames in May 27, 1947. In 1950 his father left his mother and went to Australia and Dennis and his younger brother were sent to live with their maternal grandparents.
When the first issue of Oz was published in 1967, Dennis sent a message to the editor Richard Neville proclaiming it was "the most f***ing fantastic mag I've ever seen in my life". When Dennis turned up on the magazine's doorstep apparently penniless after selling his drum kit to pay for a girlfriend's abortion, Neville persuaded him to sell copies of Oz on the King's Road. Dennis later joined the magazine full-time as advertising manager and then co-editor.
After Oz folded, he joined forces with Dick Pountain. They launched Cozmic Comics, a series of underground comic books, none of which made any money. One day in 1974, Dennis talked to some teenagers and discovered they were queuing (at 9am) to see "the Chink who beats people up" - a Bruce Lee film.
Thinking there might be money in it, he founded Kung-Fu Monthly. He went on to sell millions of copies in 17 countries, starting what would become the Dennis publishing empire. By the age of 35 he was a millionaire.
Dennis was fond of making generous, if capricious, gestures. When he read that the Compton Homies, a cricket team made up of former gang members from Los Angeles, had had to cancel a tour to Britain after a sponsor pulled out, Dennis phoned them up and offered them $50,000.
But in January 2012, Dennis was diagnosed with throat cancer. On his website he described not being able to drink undiluted wine - "a sad development considering the cellar I've laboured to build". But he also confessed to loneliness amid his riches. "I have never properly surrendered to love myself and sadly, doubt I ever will. To do so would require a kind of courage in which I suspect I am deficient."
He never married, but had a long relationship with Marie-France Demolis, a French hairdresser he met at a party.