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The Sultan of Schwing


It's nearly midnight, and the Manor is all but silent save for an angry breeze. Overhead, large glass panes, operated on an electronic sensor, open and close like gills of a giant halibut.

Dennis was born in Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey, an industrial district south of London, in 1947. He is the eldest of two brothers ("My brother Julian is a very regular guy -- married, with two kids," Dennis says. Julian is managing director of a Dennis Publishing subsidiary). His father abandoned the family when Felix was 2; his mother worked as an accountant by the day and went to night school. The three of them lived in her mother's house, where there was no electricity -- not even an indoor bathroom. The radio was powered with an old car battery.

Dennis says he became a feminist after watching his strong-willed mother, Dorothy Sawyer, struggle in a sexist culture. "My mother was a proper accountant, but she couldn't even get credit at the local shops because she was a woman," he says indignantly. "Even the mechanic next door got credit!"

Sawyer lives just half a mile away, in a large, tan two-story house Dennis built for her. That afternoon, when she pays an unexpected visit to his office, gruff Felix Dennis is transformed into an eager-to-please schoolboy, scurrying around to tidy up. "Well, at least you're a clean-cut, presentable sort," he says, shooting a nervous glance at me.

His father, whom he doesn't remember, was captured by the Japanese in Burma near the end of World War II. I express sympathy over his father and how he must have been treated in the infamous Japanese POW camps of the South Pacific. Dennis takes a different view.

"Do not judge people you do not understand," he snaps. "The Japanese considered it charity. They were giving the prisoners a chance to earn their manhood back."

Dennis is a born provocateur: A staunch Labour Party supporter, he'll argue the idiocy of recycling in front of a Greenpeace audience. A fiercely proud Englishman, he'll nevertheless growl that England should just drop its pretenses and become "a territory of America, just like Puerto Rico. On one condition: We get to keep our accents."

Dennis's driver, Lloyd -- an affable South Londoner of Jamaican descent -- recalls the time he was ferrying Dennis and a young financier. The financier snubbed Lloyd without so much as a nod when he opened his door, so Lloyd reflexively told the financier to learn some manners, then waited with trepidation for Dennis to get angry. Dennis, however, turned instead to his guest and calmly asked him how much money he'd made Dennis Publishing. "Five million pounds," the financier responded. "Five million pounds is nothing," Dennis shouted. "I want you to apologize to Lloyd or get out."

Dennis left school -- and home -- at 15, holing up in Harrow-on-the-Hill, a neighborhood outside London swarming with penniless young musicians. ("Elton John was just down the road, only he wasn't called Elton John back then," Dennis says.) A drummer and a singer, Dennis jammed with all the icons of the sixties blues scene -- Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, for example -- before they "achieved semi-godhood status."

"Did I play behind Rod Stewart? Yeah. But was I ever 'Rod Stewart's drummer?' Nah," says Dennis. "I'd be in the No. 2 band, and maybe the No. 1 band's drummer wouldn't show up." By day, he was on the street peddling copies of Richard Neville's influential underground magazine Oz. "Next to being in Pink Floyd, it was probably the hippest job in Britain," Dennis says.

Oz taught him a few crucial lessons: Women make terribly useful bait when the customer is a man. "I couldn't sell anything on the streets, and I couldn't understand it," he remembers. "Then one day, one of my girlfriends came out with me, and in her short skirt and white lipstick she sold about a hundred copies while I was off getting the coffee."

Oz veteran Roger Hutchinson, however, doesn't recall anyone -- in a miniskirt or not -- outshining Dennis.

"The underground press was a part of a broad social movement, and there were a lot of people who were involved in it just to sort of hang out," says Hutchinson, now a left-leaning author and journalist in Scotland. "They weren't in the 'publishing business.' Felix was. Felix knew how everything worked. Felix was one of those rare people who could have brought out a magazine all by himself. He could have written it, laid it out, sold advertising, balanced the books."

"I used to walk around in suits, much to everyone's hilarity. They were in spangles and fringes," Dennis recalls.

Dennis got his first taste of public controversy in 1971, after Oz published some dirty cartoons and its three editors -- including Dennis -- were arrested. What ensued was the longest conspiracy-to-corrupt trial in British history; it dominated the front pages for weeks.

The jury found them guilty of lesser obscenity charges -- later overturned on appeal -- but as the judge deemed Dennis "very much less intelligent" than the other two, he only served eleven days in jail. He walked out with a shorn head to find his London flat mobbed with reporters. A sympathetic John Lennon sent a limousine over to whisk Dennis away to his Ascot estate.

"I had been to Ascot before with a bunch of people from Oz to record a single," Dennis remembers. Lennon was laying down the early tracks of 'Imagine' with Phil Spector, who also helped out with the Oz recording. " 'God Save Oz' was basically 'Give Peace a Chance' with a slightly different tune," Dennis says. "Not the high point of Phil's career."

Following Oz, Dennis rolled ahead of the trends, first attempting to cash in on the underground-comics craze, then hitting it huge overnight with Kung-Fu Monthly, inspired by the Bruce Lee mania of the seventies. (Dennis would later score big coups off Star Wars and E.T., publishing special collectors' magazines.) In the eighties, he jumped on the Macintosh revolution and unfurled MacUser in Europe and a host of other niche magazines under the umbrella of what was now known as Dennis Publishing. By the nineties, he had also co-founded a Connecticut-based computer mail-order company, Micro Warehouse. He made $83 million when he sold most of his stake in 1995.

But despite his good fortune, Dennis never lost his sixties sense of outrage against what he perceives as fat, complacent, and pampered authority.

"Si Newhouse doesn't run a publishing company," Dennis snorts. "He runs a company which provides him with huge numbers of pieces of cardboard, which in Britain are called 'stiffies' and which he calls party invitations. Si knows that he is loved as long as hundreds of pieces of cardboard are arriving to invite him to whatever it is. The magazine that is producing the most stiffies is a winner."

In fact, while Si's boldfaced editors are rarely far from the flashbulbs, Newhouse himself is nearly a recluse. But Dennis is equally dismissive of his fellow émigrés. "Quislings," Dennis snorts when Tina Brown, Anna Wintour, and James Truman come up. "I am not James Truman. I don't despise Americans. I love them. I am one of them."

He does spend a lot of time with Americans, whenever he's ensconced in his midtown apartment or the sprawling, Navajo-themed house he owns on Lake Candlewood in Connecticut. He fits the tristate area in between visits to the Caribbean island of Mustique, where he now owns David Bowie's old seaside place. People who've had a rough time in the press are sometimes invited to stay, like yachtswoman Tracy Edwards, whose mast blew out in the middle of a race in the South Pacific.

After Newhouse's dollars had lured Mark Golin away from Maxim, Dennis installed Sammy, the office hamster, in the top job. It was a silly stunt, but stunts can be useful. Another rich ex-hippie, the Virgin emperor Richard Branson, also understands this. Have enough madcap, ocean-hopping balloon adventures and the press will simply paint you as a clown and only lightly take the piss out of you.

"It's been my job for many years to play the fool, because fools are always let off," Dennis says. "The Brits love the underdog. We despise success here in Britain -- just despise it."

This might explain why Dennis isn't seeking accolades. At one point, late at night, he leans in and says defiantly, "Dennis Publishing will not only refuse to be nominated for any National Magazine Award, but we will refuse to attend to collect that award. We will be down the street in a bar, communing with our readers."

That's too bad. What better revenge than to watch the New York publishing Brahmins coolly poke at their salads as the winner in the feature-writing category is announced: "Stuff magazine, for 'I Saw My Wife Get Killed By a Bear.' "


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