Publishing mogul Felix Dennis has led a rich, rakish life. But the drugs and dollybirds have been replaced by verse and the vine, as ADAM LECHMERE discovers.
Felix Dennis is what Damon Runyon used to call a ‘rich millionaire’, in the sense that cream is rich – plump, opulent, lavish.
Take this exchange. Felix: ‘I can only drink Cristal. It’s the only Champagne that doesn’t give me acid reflex.’ Me: ‘Really? I can never drink enough Cristal to find out.’ Felix Dennis (merrily): ‘Well, I can.’
Infamous for the Oz trial, which saw Dennis and others prosecuted for publishing obscene material in their 1970s counterculture magazine, now twenty-five million people a month read one of his magazines. His company Dennis Publishing owns Maxim (the biggest-selling men’s magazine in the world), grown-ups’ comic Viz, news digest The Week, a stable of computer magazines, American music mag Blender, boys’-toys monthly Stuff, and many, many more.
Felix Dennis spends half the year at his mansion in Mustique and the other half in a splendid manor house which sits in 4,500 acres in the village of Dorsington, outside Stratford-upon-Avon. He also owns properties in London, Manhattan and Connecticut. All have cellars, maintained by a full-time sommelier.
The 56th wealthiest man in Britain is smallish, bearded, pot-bellied, dapper in a waistcoat and neat suede shoes. He’s got tiny feet and a rollicking laugh. He wears the oddest pair of bifocals: very thick tortoiseshell frames with a hefty bar across his eyes. They look like the sort of thing Gandalf’s optician might prescribe. To stretch the metaphor, he’s a Puckish sort of figure. You imagine he might worship Pan and caper naked with those woodland spirits – dryads, nymphs and satyrs – whose merriment has a darker edge.
In fact, Felix Dennis and trees go back a long way. He had an epiphany in Soho’s Golden Square when he was in his 20s, when he saw its four ‘sentinel trees’ as if for the first time. ‘From that moment on, I was obsessed by trees,’ he has written. ‘Nothing in the world gives me greater pleasure than to lay hands on the bole of a young sapling.’ This love of trees has culminated – in typically ambitious fashion – in the Forest of Dennis, a project that aims to plant a 30,000-acre forest of broadleaf trees in the heart of England.
But back to capering, of which Felix has done a lot in his time. He’s had 14 mistresses at once, according to Melvyn Bragg. He was addicted to hard drugs 10 years ago. He tells me he was on a bottle of Remy Martin a day.
‘When you take drugs all you want is a jolt, and you get that from a balloon of cognac,’ he reveals.
Now he’s more of a homebody. With his French girlfriend Marie-France and his wines, he’s a slightly lonely figure. He’s excellent company, much-loved in the village, and he has 22 godchildren. But his playrooms, tellingly, are empty.
Felix Dennis has written a best-selling poetry collection, A Glass Half Full, and next month he tours with a second volume, Lone Wolf, (visit www.felixdennis.com for details). I suspect it’s a bit of a comedown after the glory days. The poems, after all, are more Pam Ayres than Byron. What happened to all the beautiful women, I enquire?
‘I haven’t got the stamina I used to have. If I’m not taking narcotics and not messing around with six beautiful girls, I have to have something to do. Poetry fills that gap.’
Which brings us to wine – also a wonderful gap-filler. How much does he spend on his cellar? ‘Not that much. Twenty, twenty-five grand?’ He calls his accountant. ‘Forty-five thousand! Christ almighty. I had no idea it was that much.’ (An email arrives two days later to say it’s actually £50,000).
The cellar is small – a couple of hundred cases – and every bottle is colour-coded. Red for leave well alone, yellow for drink soon, and green for drink now.
All the greats are there. As well as the Cristal, there’s Pétrus 1982 (and another 10 cases of other vintages), and all the top names: Grange, Burgundy (DRC, Echezeaux from Drouhin, Meursault, Montrachet), Vega Sicilia, Cheval Blanc, Gruaud Larose, Pichon Lalande…
His cellar-book is meticulous, with jolly tasting notes: ‘Wait if possible. Ha! Ha!’ (the 1970 Taylors). ‘Nathalie’s favourite. More!’ (Meursault Louis Latour). ‘Just wait’ (1988 Richebourg, Domaine de la Romanee Conti).
Felix Dennis favours the Old World. ‘I’m tremendously old-fashioned. Ninety per cent of the wine I drink is French. I think you have to go a hell of a long way to beat a top-flight château which has been kept in decent condition for 20 years.’ He says he once ‘ran screaming from the room’ when given a Chilean wine.
Leave aside the global publishing empire, and the rakish excesses, Felix Dennis likes to give the impression of never doing anything for himself. His merchant makes the wine decisions: ‘It’s immensely simple really. Just buy a decent wine, put it in your cellar and drink it when people who know more about it tell you to.’
He even has someone to drive him round the lanes in the pony trap I spot in the driveway. Does he ever take the reins himself? ‘Good God no. I sit beside the driver, who knows what he’s doing.’
But what Dennis can do is savour the fruits of a luxurious and decadent – now decanted – life.