At Oxford, Denton got his first taste of journalism as the editor at the famous Isis, once home to Graham Greene’s and Evelyn Waugh’s writing. (Journalist Jason Pontin, who worked under Denton at the magazine, remembers him as “profoundly talented” and “kind of bitchy”.) He also began to fall in with the circle that would come to supply nearly all of his interests and connections. Denton ran with students from Balliol and Christ Church colleges, the great ivied incubators of prime ministers and Parliament members. A 1999 Observer story, written by a friend of Denton’s named Simon Kuper, tried to coin a term for the group: the Young Chiefs. The nickname didn’t stick, but the article survives as a fascinating document linking Denton to a whole slew of future Labour leaders: Ed Balls (economic adviser to Gordon Brown), David Milibrand (likely next leader of the party), Yvette Cooper (M.P.), and so on.
After Oxford, many of the Young Chiefs, including Denton, flocked to the Financial Times, and Denton, who spoke fluent Hungarian, found himself in Budapest, at the age of 23, covering the fall of Communism as an FT stringer. It was, as he likes to say, all downhill from there (strategic self-deprecation is a Denton trademark). Once the romance of covering a revolution wore off, the big story was Western investment; in place of coups came mergers and acquisitions. This prompted the first in the series of Denton’s self-reinventions. Fascinated with the mechanics of banking, he fashioned himself into a financial muckraker.
“Our ethics policy? To publish the real story,” Denton has said. He was referring to an item about nude pictures of Brett Favre.
He was dogged to the point of becoming an office joke and legend at once. John Gapper, Denton’s editor at the FT, recalls a meeting with a Barings bank source who had brought in a folder full of sensitive documents but wouldn’t let the paper keep them. Denton just grabbed the edge of the folder, pulled it out, and absconded with it (he says he figured the source wouldn’t tell because he wasn’t supposed to talk to him). He also had a knack for identifying and feeding his targets’ needs until the interaction took on at least a semblance of win-win. “Nick attacked things from ten different angles,” remembers a publicist for a major investment firm, who became a Denton informant. “He got into the bankers, PR people, auditors, lawyers, until you had to talk to him just to get your side across.”
Denton wasn’t especially interested in writing as a craft divorced from fact-finding, but the proper career path dictated that he pen a book. So he did, with Gapper as the co-author and a banker named Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who had brought down Barings, as the subject. Denton slaved away on All That Glitters for months, hunting down obscure paperwork and telling details. A friend remembers how happy Denton was the night he found out Leeson’s computer password (Superman).
Despite Denton’s deep understanding of Leeson’s world, All That Glitters didn’t have a big impact. “A lot of the book was spent explaining the mechanics of how banks work. I presume—because like everyone else, I haven’t read it,” deadpans Kuper. (Books seem to be Denton’s Achilles’ heel. Ten years later, The Gawker Guide to Conquering All Media famously sold 242 copies in its first month.)
As Denton’s writing career stalled, his entrepreneurial drive revved up. In 1998, he and two friends started a company called Moreover.com, a media-monitoring service that predated Google News. Retrofitting his social talents to business purposes came naturally. “When the rest of us didn’t know what we were doing, he was buying distressed real estate in East London,” says a friend, “and hosting dinner parties at 27.” The building, a five-story former tea warehouse in a rundown section of Clerkenwell, cost about Ł160,000. Denton made it into a New York–style loft, an oddity in nineties London and a hint of his growing obsession with America.
Denton’s parties, then as now, drew a crowd slightly more bohemian than he was. He tried on an eccentric image—tooling around London on a Vespa, putting out ancient penny-store candy for guests—before hitting upon the Warholian mix of aloofness and approachability he maintains to this day. To those peering behind the party-host persona, he appeared shy, vaguely depressed, sensitive, and prone to opening up when you least expected him to. He was also still in the closet. A gay friend, who spent almost a year trying to figure out Nick’s sexuality, describes “this mini-wall in front of him.” The big pronouncement never came—Denton’s coming out was a matter of widening circles—but he appears to have fully inhabited his sexuality only in the States.