The Sultan of Schwing

It’s nearly 8 p.m. at Tammany Hall, a new midtown bar that is uncrowded except for ten young traders and investment bankers who have slipped into their casual-Friday outfits a few days early. Old friends from the Street, they’ve decided to get together for a little informal beer bash and talk golf, Hamptons shares, and Internet start-ups.

Suddenly, the party is interrupted mid-Heineken by a couple of amiable men in Italian suits with a stack of magazines, an open-bar tab, and a barrage of questions: “Have you read Maxim? Do your buddies on the Street read Maxim? Are these the longest legs you’ve ever seen on a woman?” Copies of the latest issue, with TV’s Michelle Williams cooing on the cover, are passed around.

But these guys don’t need to be told about Maxim – the read Wall Streeters admit they’re rolling up inside their Journals. “It’s Playboy for normal people,” offers a tall investment banker, 32, who’s been hooked since he stole an early issue out of the backseat of a car-service Lincoln.

Who knew that men needed a magazine to answer those burning questions that tend to come up between the seventh and eighth holes: Can you really get a Ferrari for a hundred bucks at a police auction? What are the odds that the 19-year-old nymphet in your chat room is really a hairy, 47-year-old ex-con named Otis? Is the buzz you get sipping absinthe really so Peter Max that it’s worth the brain damage?

The suits hovering around the bar tonight are Lance Ford, Maxim’s publisher, and a few buddies in search of some real live Maxim readers to see how they’ve taken to the magazine’s “beer and babes” formula. The traders aren’t complaining. After all, Maxim’s picking up the check.

Ford knows what the industry is saying: The soft-porn-pinup covers, gross-out photos, and down-and-dirty articles on bedding argumentative women are written for “men who not only move their lips but drool when they read” (as rival editor Art Cooper of GQ put it delicately).

But Maxim is already delivering 950,000 readers every issue to advertisers, outdistancing mighty GQ and venerable Esquire (which each promise 650,000) and Details (which guarantees 475,000). Bolstered by these glad tidings, its execs now find themselves on a mission to prove that Maxim’s average reader does not, in fact, command the deep fryer at Burger King. According to an independent MRI study conducted this spring, Maxim’s median reader is 30 years old and earns $62,000 a year.

“Sixty-two thousand? That sounds low. At least for the guys I know who get it,” says a 27-year-old equities trader at a prestige investment bank, effectively making Team Maxim’s evening. “Five years out of school, the average is more like $125,000 to $225,000.”

Trader No. 2, an Ivy League graduate, tries to express the magazine’s appeal in terms everyone gathered around the bar can understand. “You know how in college there’s always a sorority that has this certain attitude like they’re untouchable, they have this image they have to exude? And then there’s this other one – they’re just as cute, but you can always jump their bones if you want to? Well, Maxim is the other sorority. They think like you think – they just want to party.”

Against all odds, Maxim has already proved itself a success. But somehow, it’s not quite enough. Stone Cold Steve Austin is “a success.” Internet porn is “a success.” What Maxim wants now is far more of a long shot – it wants to be a cultural force, a Ms. for red-blooded testosterone-sozzled males. In other words, Maxim wants America to respect it in the morning.

Maxim founder Felix Dennis, British press tycoon and professional bad boy, insists he has come to America – more precisely to East 49th Street, where he spends a good part of the year in a two-bedroom near the United Nations decorated with erotic Oriental art – to remind us of the openness and passion that once made this country great. He wants to be our spiritual guide through this neurotic age of sexual wimpiness and aids fear. The Iron John drumbeat-in-the-forest thing didn’t work, and Dennis thinks he can help man find himself at his most elemental. Not surprisingly, New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd has already weighed in on the Maxim phenomenon. “Let’s not talk about Bill Clinton. He is so over,” she recently declared. “Let’s talk about dirty magazines.”

“It becomes difficult after a while to keep on saying that Maxim is produced by morons for morons,” Dennis is saying.

It’s a rain-dusted afternoon at the Old Manor, Dennis’s 1,000-acre South Warwickshire estate, a 90-minute drive from London in his cobalt-blue stretch Rolls. The house is only a few miles away from Stratford-on-Avon, which somehow seems appropriate: Felix Dennis is a character better suited to the pages of Shakespeare than to those of Forbes. Like the Bard’s great comic rogue Falstaff, Dennis is a robust creature of appetites whose foghorn personality could shake plaster from the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal. He’s got the moist, saddish hazel eyes and the fleshy, bearded jowls of a loyal and friendly basset hound, but in person he can be as unpredictably volatile as a Rottweiler that hasn’t had its breakfast.

Maxim is the 800-pound three-toed sloth hanging from the ceiling of the Four Seasons. “I have struck a chord beyond my wildest dreams,” says Dennis.

Dennis is circling his office, a glassed-in second-story offshoot of his tastefully appointed fifteenth-century farmhouse. As always, he’s clutching a Silk Cut cigarette in his fist and a cordless phone in the other, managing the impossible – to look like a sultan dressed in a gray-fleece sweat suit. His publicist in New York, Drew Kerr, has called him with the equivalent of a transatlantic high-five: The second-anniversary issue of Maxim, wrapped in a mylar bag and containing an NC-17-worthy “50 Sexiest Women in the World” bonus booklet, is selling out so quickly that it’s already available on eBay for $10.

Dennis can’t wait to trumpet the news in a press release. But first, he wants a quote from Wal-Mart or some other big American retailer illustrating how the sales of this issue stack up historically. He finally finds one executive at a large American chain who says it’s flying off the stands like no magazine he’s seen since Penthouse dropped Vanessa Williams’s infamous lesbian-themed photos on Reagan country in 1984.

That will not do.

“We don’t use the P words around Dennis Publishing,” Dennis says ominously, referring to Playboy and Penthouse. Dawson’s Creek bonbon Michelle Williams may have complained that she “felt like a piece of meat” during the photo shoot for the blistering, come-hither cover of Maxim’s July-August issue (right before Mike Soutar, an amiable, 32-year-old Scotsman, took the helm). But Dennis is careful to point out that Maxim shows bare nipples only in its Italian and Greek editions.

It was the British “lad mags” of the nineties – Loaded, FHM (For Him Magazine), and Maxim – that kicked a Doc Martens heel into the gut of the traditional men’s titles. Gone were the Côte d’Azur fashion spreads, the how-to-fold-a-pocket-hankie pieces, and the quasi-literary hagiographies of buffalo-necked footballers. In went the pints of Fullers, the affordable gadgetry, the D-cup soft porn delivered as steadily as the London Sun tabloid’s daily “Page Three” girls.

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.

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.’ “

The Sultan of Schwing