Publishing baron, billionaire philanthropist, best-selling author, drug addict, intellectual, Bruce Lee fan, internet renegade, rock singer, genius poet, copious wine drinker, whoring titan, and scary but lovable boss Felix Dennis died over the weekend in his home in England after a few years battling rotten, rotten cancer. If they say cats lead nine lives, Felix surely did – he just happened to lead them all at once. He died in his sixties, but there were 540 years of living packed in them.
I knew things weren’t going well when, in his last letter, he rather abruptly said not to expect another one.
Felix hired me to helm Stuff in 2000, after I’d been booted from Men’s Health amidst murky circumstances. He didn’t want to hire me, after a stunt I pulled the day or two after I was fired as editor in chief from the Rodale ab-crazy publication. I was able to get to my last issue’s editorial letter as it was going to press, remove a few paragraphs and replace them with one or two stating that I had been oddly fired, and why. Felix was suspicious that I was a bomb thrower (he was right – I had just thrown one, with glee), but my new publisher Andy Clerkson convinced him to try me out.
It was the beginning of a tumultuous but gratifying relationship. The high point: Felix calling me Darth Vader in a major paper. This from a damn criminal, perhaps murderer. He also called me a c*nt, on a number of occasions, but he said it with love, as only Brits do.
Immediately we understood our relationship – Felix yelled at me, and I listened. He respected unconventional people as long as they did the work – as he had done. He was a madman who loved drink and drug, but he knew how to make money, and also knew when the money would run out. He knew when to hold, and to fold. Which is why he made so much damn money, enough to buy an entire forest. (Felix is a true greenie – buying millions of trees to preserve them; while proudly expressing his gentle skepticism toward the global warming panic: I argue he did more for the planet than gasbags like Al Gore who used fear to silence real science, and make money to fund his jet-setting lifestyle).
Felix liked my work helming Stuff, but he also hated it. “It was a funny piece, but you shouldn’t have done it,” he said about one Maxim piece incorporating sex acts and Ikea assemblage. He respected creativity and brains, but also judgment – which as a recovering crack addict, he sometimes lacked. He gave me ideas every week, which I sometimes used, and sometimes didn’t. The classic Stuff back page, with the singular creepy stuffed or wooden animal, and a caption – was his creation. My stunt with a group of little people disrupting a publishing conference, which got me fired – was not. You can look that up somewhere. But getting fired once, was only – once. There would be more.
I have specific memories of Felix I will share with you now:
-Him, a billionaire, on his hands and knees cleaning up my office space – disgusted by my stacks of papers, toys, coffee cups and bottles. In front of my staff, he cleaned my desk and surrounding turf spotless. I don’t think an owner of a billion dollar company ever did that before. Or will ever do, again. Felix did that, insulting me along the way. I think he enjoyed the spectacle of it far more than he hated the labor.
-Him, allowing his fellow Brits to hire me once again, after being fired by him, a year earlier. I was now editing UK Maxim, where I tore it apart, remaking it from a generic, unfunny lad mag, into a bizarre head trip that offended its core audience used to beers and babes, and not my gay comic strips and existential illustrations of death and dying. As I was hired, he told me, bluntly, “This is a bad idea.” And as predicted Felix fired me again, and shut the mag perhaps in part to make sure I wouldn’t return. “You were fired, and you stay fired,” he would say to me, many times.
-Him, dragging me into a New York bar, armed with a stack of onion skin paper, each one with a typed poem he had written over the previous year. See, one morning, like millions of people, he woke up, thinking he was a poet. Unlike those millions of people however, he actually became one. A great one – reviving the rare art of rhyming. He was so good his poems are considered among the classics, found in anthologies – and he counts Tom Wolfe among fans. This, after starting this obsessive hobby maybe 5 years ago. He went on poetry tours that offered free wine, and I went to a few. They were a gas. His books contained CDs of himself reciting his verses, which my mother adored. It was her favorite CD for a while, till she lost it. That night at the bar, he gave me a poem, called “the Fool,” with a note that said it was meant for me – but maybe he was being nice. It’s a glorious thing.
Listen to him read it out loud, right here.
By the way, I wrote this one.
-Him, lending me his apartment in New York, for my honeymoon. My wife had never been to America – and her first night was in a ridiculously lavish pad complete with every luxury known to the wealthy. It was an amazing gift, one he might have wrote off – but still. It was pretty awesome, not just for me, but for her. Which mattered more.
-Him, before firing me the second time- having me picked up in his Phantom in central London, then driven to his office where he berated me for hours. And for what? Publishing a feature on Paris Hilton. He felt that it was misogynistic, but also opportunity-destroying – for he wanted her to do more magazines covers – and I had ruined it with my anal sex jokes. I had met Paris years before (In perverse circumstances – she was quite the extrovert back then), but it didn’t matter. It was the worst dressing down I ever had, but afterward, I still had my job, he said, “hanging by a thread.” He repeated that. I can still hear the voice. The tone. The gravitas.
(Felix and I argued over how many times he fired me – I say two, he says three, but the fact that we could argue about it without any animosity was extremely sweet. He let me do what I wanted, and when I went too far, he warned me. And when I kept going too far, he would warn me again. And when I went really too far, I was gone. Hell, I can’t blame him – it’s his business. And my motto has always been: if you aren’t working to get fired, then you aren’t working.)
-Him, asking me to compile a book of odd stories culled from his great magazine, the Week – hundreds of these tales, while I was “away” in L.A, pitching TV shows and putting on a play about women in bathrooms. It came to a few hundred pages. And he lost it. Never published. Four months of work, I did drunk and desperate. I only realized later he did this to keep me busy. So I didn’t return and wreak havoc on his other publications, or kill myself by running into Sunset Blvd traffic. In England they call this “gardening.”
-Him, doing Redeye, and then all of us going drinking nearby – with the host seating us at a drab table next to a group of loose-tied stockbrokers. When Felix ordered the first bottle of champagne (at $500 a pop), we were moved immediately. He knew how to grease a palm without greasing a palm. We moved and we talked for a few hours about television, and our lives. He was genuinely interested in your plans, even if his were more interesting.
Redeye original Bill Schulz was with us, the once acting-editor of a new magazine that never made it, its working title being “Maxim for Kids.” Yes, there was an actual plan for such a horrid thing. After having Schulz work on it months – Felix came to his senses and torpedoed it. He might even deny it now, in the afterlife, but it was his idea from the start. We all thought it crazy – but Schulz worked on it anyway, until the publication was shot in the back of the head and buried in a field.
I could get into the drugs and hookers, but other people will. And that’s too easy. Yep, he had a brothel of sorts – and I might have seen the inside of it once, or maybe I just thought I did – I cannot recall. Most of my time spent in men’s magazines were a blur, spent in smoky pubs, slippery bathrooms and nondescript hotel rooms, full of regret over something I now cannot remember.
Felix should be remembered by the impact he had on countless lives.
When I think of these stories, I realize how much they are, selfishly, about me. Perhaps that’s because Felix allowed that to happen. He was a catalyst for your own adventure, while creating a magnificent one of his own.