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The Sultan of Schwing

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Loaded was the proto-read, but FHM, which launched nine months before Maxim in England, quickly became the biggest sizzler. Felix Dennis, controlling owner of Maxim, wasn't going to let that happen here. And it hasn't. Maxim is the front-runner, and the copycats are already mewling by the screen door: There's the homegrown competition like Gear and Manifest (something like a black Maxim). And more Brit wit is on the way; a U.S. edition of FHM is scheduled to hit in the year 2000, and some think that Loaded can't be far behind.

The magazine-world Establishment never tires of dismissing Maxim as a"Cosmo for boys" -- which is perfectly fine by Dennis. Cosmopolitan, the happily trashy service bible for the blue-eye-shadow crowd, is a juggernaut, with a circulation of almost 3 million. Both GQ and Esquire sell fewer than a quarter of that many copies.

"I've never understood why men buy so many fewer magazines than women," says Dennis, who hired a woman -- American Clare McHugh -- as the first editor of Maxim in the U.S. "But then, we weren't doing magazines for men the way publishers have done magazines for women. Now that we are, men are buying them."

Competitors here are showing grudging respect -- and hopping the train. First stop: Esquire's "Triumph of Cleavage Culture" issue. "In England, four or five of those 'lad' books took the country by storm," Esquire editor-in-chief David Granger observes. "But now their influence over there is starting to wane, and newsstand sales are falling off. However, I do think we're in for a few years of that 'lad book' influence in the United States.

"There's a good side to this," Granger adds. "They're enticing people to read magazines. On the negative side, it encourages some magazines to get stupider."

Perhaps the ultimate gesture of recognition came when the two-year editor of Details, Michael Caruso, was fired, and Mark Golin, late of Maxim, was installed in his chair. "James Truman talks about Maxim incessantly," says one ranking Condé Nast editor. "He tells all his editors to read it. He likes the fact that it has a sense of humor but isn't mean-spirited. He thinks it's the wave of the future."

Officially, of course, that's not the word over in Times Square, where Condé Nast has just relocated its offices. When asked if Maxim's average reader was really 30 years old as Maxim executives maintain, Condé Nast president Steve Florio erupts with a five-second cackle worthy of a Cosby Show laugh track. Florio then says he -- and everyone else at Condé Nast -- is declining to comment on competitors like Maxim.

Maxim has become the 800-pound three-toed sloth hanging from the ceiling in the Grill Room at the Four Seasons. "I have struck a chord beyond my wildest dreams," says Dennis. "I don't see why Maxim can't sell 3 million copies -- I don't think there is any conceivable top on this."

With that sort of outlook, it's no surprise that this spring, Dennis Publishing launched a second publication called Stuff, a bi-monthly, Maxim-style magalogue displaying all the blast-furnace barbecues, lightweight chain saws, and electronic body-fat analyzers the modern man needs. A leisurely amble through the first three issues of Stuff turns up these highlights: "50 Things Women Don't Want You to Know" (No. 50: One out of every 100 has an extra nipple); a feature on the health benefits of junk food; and a how-to piece on making moonshine. Even the most high-minded prig has to admire the service pieces: Where else are you going to read that if you wrap some pepper in a Kleenex and wave it under your girlfriend's nose at the point of climax, you'll give her the same thundering orgasm that some guys get from autoerotic strangulation? Dennis maintains that in some outlets, Stuff -- edited by Cockney import Andy Clerkson, 32 -- is already outselling Maxim on the newsstand.

Like Hugh Hefner before him, Dennis has realized it's sex that sells. An added bonus: Maxim, which contains acres of skin but no nudity, is legal for the South Park demographic. "Maxim has no 15-year-old readers," Dennis deadpans. "And there is no drug problem in America, and the president would never tell a lie."

Anyway, nudity is looking pretty passé. "Sports Illustrated outsells both Penthouse and Playboy with its swimsuit issue," notes Gear's Bob Guccione Jr., a child of the seventies porn revolution and a Dennis admirer. "Men don't want to see women pulling their vaginas apart as if they've lost a contact lens down there. It's just not" -- he pauses -- "news. It was news when I was growing up. But now, in the post-herpes, post-aids age, guys want to put the brakes on that kind of thing. Guys want more mystery."

Dennis himself sees a future beyond skin mags; he may be going after the smart set soon with a Stateside version of his news-review magazine The Week. Aimed at The Economist's demographic, it's sort of a smart encapsulation of the week's big stories. "It's up to 55,000 paid subscribers in Britain," says Dennis, "which is sensational. You ought to try living in a country of 60 million, mate."

It's pretty tame stuff, but then, so is Dennis's own sex life these days. He may have three personal assistants -- one of whom helps him schedule time with his ten girlfriends. But he isn't nearly as much of a lech as he was twenty years ago. There are no longer any girls in their early twenties hanging around, for example. "Most of the women I see, I've been seeing for a very long time -- some of them for more than ten years," Dennis says. "I encourage them to have boyfriends and to get married. I even go to their weddings."

The presence of an alpha female in the Dennis household also keeps things reasonably subdued: the olive-skinned, French Alps-reared Marie-France Demolis has been Dennis's main companion for thirteen years.

"She spends a lot of time with me in various homes," says Dennis. "And if I do turn up with somebody Marie-France doesn't like much, she won't hesitate to let me know. So to that extent, there is compromise."

Demolis is unfazed by this arrangement. "What it is, is what it is," she says, laughing. "It's quite unusual, but it's not hard to live with. And it has its rewards. Felix is a very generous, very compassionate man."

"People are always asking, 'Would you have three or four together?' " says Dennis. My answer to that is, Not as often as I'd like!" He laughs heartily. But in truth, that isn't going to happen anytime soon; Dennis claims he stopped practicing penetrative sex before he ever heard the word aids. "Maybe I just got too fat and got tired of jiggling," he says.

Indeed, Dennis's Manor is more Never-Never Land than Playboy Mansion. The office nests atop a private studio where stray Les Pauls lean against drum kits. Dozens of snapshots are tacked to a bulletin board in the kitchen, all testament to a life lived at Marshall-stack volume: There are male friends on tropical beaches, clowning and mugging, and plenty of female friends sunning themselves -- often topless. In one photo, Dennis, nude except for a raincoat and hiking boots, is flashing the camera; a shred of a Post-it note covers his crotch.

But it's at Highfield, his Treasure Island-themed "leisure center" -- a $7 million behemoth of an out-building constructed from 700 British oaks some 100 paces from the main house -- that men can really be boys. The only palm trees in Warwickshire rise from the center of the Vegas-like pool, the spot where, after much rumination, Dennis ultimately decided against adding a working volcano. Rising up toward the vaulted oak ceiling is a series of catwalks, staircases, and crow's nests -- too dicey for most adults to negotiate. (At one point, he mentions the prospect of a late-night swim. "I didn't bring a suit," I tell him. "We don't use them," he says.)

Downstairs, there's an Art Deco-style screening room with leather overstuffed chairs that would pass muster with Jeffrey Katzenberg. Next door is the gym, with a fully-stocked bar lining one wall: There's nothing like a pint after a torture session on the treadmill.

"Maybe I identify with Stevenson's young hero, Jim Hawkins, who also didn't have a father," Dennis says of the book Treasure Island, claiming it's a far more complex work than most people realize. "I like the ambivalence of Long John Silver. By the end of the book, he's brave, wicked, and good, all at the same time." Dennis, who never attended university, can scarcely discuss a Pamela Anderson photo shoot without quoting Montaigne, Dorothy Parker, or Kipling.


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