Remembering Felix Dennis, in the words of those who worked for him
Felix Dennis, the chairman of the company that owns The Week and Mental Floss, a noted poet, and a colorful figure who lived what can only be described as a very full, very rich life, died at age 67 on June 22. He had been battling cancer. Felix made a fortune in the magazine business, showing an uncanny sense of what people wanted to read and when. And to the people who worked at those magazines, he remains a larger-than-life figure. Here, they remember Felix, in their own words:
"One of the first times I met Felix was at an early Maxim staff gathering. I told him I was an assistant editor, 'one of the little people.' He said that really, the little people were the ones he should get on his knees and bow down to because we were putting the magazine together every month. So I jokingly said, 'Well, get on your knees then.' Always the showman, Felix Dennis got on his knees in the middle of the party and bowed his head to the floor at my feet. He had my 'little people' loyalty from that day on." —Amy Spencer, former assistant editor, Maxim
"I was a relatively new employee of Dennis Publishing, still recovering from the wave of Maxim's success, when I was among a group invited to join Felix at Keen's Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan. Keen's is a very old institution that still has a very strong gentlemen's club feel to it. They still allowed smoking at that time. Also in attendance, coincidentally, was Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani was just beginning to implement his city-wide smoking ban, and Felix was still an avid smoker. It didn't take long before I witnessed a nervous Giuliani being accosted and chastised by Felix — with cigarette in hand — about his "bloody ridiculous" smoking policies in the city. Who says grassroots democracy can't work?" —John Lounsbery, technical director, TheWeek.com and MentalFloss.com
"When NYC banned smoking in workplaces in the late 1990s, Felix's response was simply, 'Let me know what the fine is.'" —David Cherry, co-founder of Blender and former GM of Dennis Interactive
"I still remember sitting with my friend Keith Blanchard and Felix while Felix recounted a long story that took place in the early '70s. In Felix's telling, Phil Spector tried to kill Felix ("Literally KILL me") because Felix brought Spector the wrong soda while in the studio with John Lennon as Lennon recorded a solo track. We wrote it off as more Felix Dennis hyperbole (the attempted murder over a soda, not the recording session, which was par for the course for Felix in the early '70s). Six months later Phil Spector was charged with the murder of his girlfriend." —Steven Kotok, CEO, The Week and Mental Floss
"At the height of Maxim's enormous popularity in the U.S., we hired the hottest ad agency in the country to do a positioning campaign for us. On the day of the creative pitch, they sent their best copywriter to New York to present the work. Felix insisted on being in the meeting.
The presentation was at lunchtime and Felix had numerous bottles of white wine placed on the conference table, of which he freely partook. Each time the agency guy showed another version of the campaign, Felix laughed his belly laugh, raved about the work, and insisted the copywriter have a glass of wine, which he respectfully declined.
After this had gone on for over an hour, Felix insisting again and again, the copywriter finally stopped the meeting and explained that he'd quit drinking six months ago, was really trying to stay on the wagon, and could Felix please stop asking him to have a drink every 15 minutes. After a second of awkward silence in the room, Felix burst out laughing, told the agency guy that he was awesome, poured himself another glass, and the meeting picked right up where it left off. I miss Felix Dennis." —Rob Gregory, former group publisher at Dennis Publishing
"After putting his glass of wine on my desk and drilling me about my next step in life, Felix said, 'Blake, you've got to sit down in front of a mirror with a glass of wine and figure out WHAT YOU BLOODY WANT.' The profundity probably gets lost in translation, but Felix was right. It was time to make a decision…and I did." —Blake Maciel, operations manager, The Week and Mental Floss
"For an early issue of Maxim, a dozen women went to Felix's Manhattan apartment (while he was in London) to drink and share crazy sex stories that would become a feature article for the magazine. In Felix's home office there was a drawer with a crazy note on it about how if we opened the drawer he would know that it was opened. And he would know who opened it. And we would be in enormous trouble. Or something like that. I remember tip toeing out of the office backward with my drink a little freaked out. He was a wonderfully particular man, which is probably why he was so wondrously successful. I remember the then-president of Dennis Publishing arranging pencils on Felix's desk in a very specific way — and another day when the pencils couldn't be found and panic ensued. I liked having a larger than life boss that we were all a little scared of." —Leslie Yazel, former associate editor, Maxim
"So I had this crazy, dream-like opportunity to vacation for a week at Felix's home in Mustique. Before leaving we received a packet of information — rules and such about the private island, the staff that would be taking care of us, and other such mind-boggling details. But the most important item on that list, as highlighted by its author, was the requirement that my husband and I each bring a book for Felix's library. We were given a list of books to choose from, much of which were summer reads and New York Times best-selling thrillers. I thought it odd that this billionaire wanted these books for his own personal library. Surely he could just order them on Amazon? But all was made clear when we landed in Mustique and were given a tour of the island.
The library wasn't a couple of shelves in his living room. It was an actual structure filled with an actual librarian and shelved sections for kids, fiction, non-fiction, and more. Felix had the library built for the island, its visitors, and inhabitants. And his generosity didn't stop there. Felix built new homes for the people and families that lived and worked on the island. In his own breathtaking home, his basement game room — which was crammed with pinball machines, an air-hockey table, darts, a drum set, and too many toys to actually play with in one week — was open to the neighborhood children who could come and go as they pleased. Felix was an intimidating figure for many reasons, but that unfathomable vacation revealed not only his generous heart but also his sense of home and community. Felix was an incredibly savvy businessman and entrepreneur, but he also invested in those he believed in — from Mustique to midtown Manhattan — and wanted to see them happy, prospering in their own right." —Lauren Hansen, multimedia editor, TheWeek.com
"Early on in my career at Maxim, Felix had flown into town and forgot his winter coat. It became my task to shop the market for shearlings in a range of styles and sizes that would suit Felix. As is typical at magazines, staffers often expect a fashion editor to 'score' goods for them at deep discounts or as freebies, but Felix surprised me. I didn't know quite what to expect when I wheeled into his corner a rolling rack with almost $50,000 worth of beautiful shearlings, but it took him less than 10 minutes to select the one that suited him, and then he reached for his checkbook and asked how much. I told him it was $7,500. 'I'll take two,' he said. 'And if they have a smaller size, I'd like the other one for my mother.'" —Stan Williams, former fashion director, Maxim
"I remember one sweltering day when I had met Felix in his London office. I found him in an impeccably pressed Savile Row suit, tie and polished shoes, but sitting in his underpants.
'It's too damned hot,' he roared gruffly before cracking his trademark broad smile and getting down to business. Felix always led from the front and encouraged us all to have fun while making money." —James Tye, chief executive, Dennis Publishing UK
"August 2000. L.A. The heat was sweltering. After three months of planning, three days of build out, and over $1 million spent in production, we successfully converted the then-rundown Farmer's Daughter's Motel into the Maxim Motel for a night of wild debauchery. The motel featured 21 themed rooms, including Kiss midgets, Sailor Jerry's convenience store, Bikini Bandits, a room completely covered in edible cheese, a high stakes poker table (hosted by an old guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt I met in passing on a bus in Vegas just weeks before), and a tattoo parlor. Insanity. Every single detail had been considered — even the room towels and ashtrays were branded with 'Stolen from the Maxim Motel.'
Marilyn Manson, most of the cast of That 70's Show, Carmen Electra, Fred Durst, and pretty much every Hollywood B list celebrity of that era attended. We partnered with Yahoo to live stream the event — and these were the days before anyone really had enough bandwidth to enjoyably watch online. That didn't even matter because the local press coverage was so intense the days leading up to the event that people were lined up by the thousand trying to get a look inside.
The band the The Cult just started their first song when the L.A. Fire Department shut the party down. Firetrucks were everywhere blaring their sirens. Helicopters swirled overhead shining their spotlights down as police locked arm in arm, sweeping across the party to push the guests outside. I pulled down a security fence to distribute sponsor gift bags to the swarming crowd and was soon ticketed for inciting a riot. The party (including the mayhem) lasted all of 45 minutes. $1 million seemingly wasted. I was sure I'd be fired (that would happen two years later), but the national news couldn't stop talking about "the bad boys of Maxim" (led by quite a few awesome girls). Felix was furious when he called the next day to berate me. Before hanging up he screamed advice that I've heeded many times since, 'Kim, if you're gonna f--k up — F--K UP BIG!'" —Kim Willis, former director of marketing, Maxim
"Like all Brits I have ever met, Felix would have preferred to be a rock 'n' roll musician, but being a magazine editor, for him, would have been a close second. I was editor-in-chief of Maxim for four years, and I swear during that time Felix was about as jealous of me as I was of him.
When he had an editorial idea, he would politely suggest it, and be okay if it were rejected — he insisted it be judged on its own merits. The only exception was Maxim coverlines: He insisted on owning one of these every month, whether anyone else saw the brilliance of his concoction or not. His best coverline was: 'Xena Like You've Never Seen Her,' which really only works with a British accent. His worst was 'Gestalt and Batteries,' a piece on sex toys, and a questionable pun in just about every way a pun can be questionable." —Keith Blanchard, former editor-in-chief, Maxim
"I first met Felix in 1993. We'd pitched our CD-ROM magazine idea to Tony Elliot (Time Out), and he said, 'This looks expensive — you should talk to my friend Felix.' About a week later there was a call at 9 at night: 'My name's Felix Dennis. I hear you are looking for money. I'm getting on a plane tomorrow, but if you can get to my apartment tonight, I'll hear your pitch." Over at least four bottles of wine, it appeared he liked the basic idea, but wanted to see a demo. The next day, first-class tickets to London appeared at my illegal basement East Village apartment (I'd arrived from Australia with high hopes, a backpack, and someone's phone number about six months earlier), and we spent the next week frantically assembling a (mainly) working version of the concept and a 'business plan.'
The trip was surreal — my first (only) first class flight, met by a Rolls Royce (pink) at Heathrow, put up in a hotel suite, then brought to Felix's office on Goodge Street mid-afternoon the next day. Fortunately, Felix had just had a new Mac installed (one of the first with a CD-ROM drive), and he was in a good mood (this was near the peak of his crack habit). Our 2 p.m. appeared to be his first meeting of the day.
The first thing he did was skim our 'business plan' for less than a couple of minutes, then threw it back across the table. 'You know this is total bullshit? Show me the thing.' He was entranced by our manga article — we'd bootlegged some Akira footage — and within an hour we had a handshake deal. "OK, I'll fund it." He then proceeded to take us around to the Dennis UK offices and introduce us to Alistair Ramsey (MD) and Ian Legget (CFO), saying "These are the people I'm giving $3 million." Both of them attempted to talk him out of it, while we were in the room. He was adamant that he'd given us his word. The six of us then went to an unmarked restaurant in Soho with three tables and Picassos (which seemed to be original) on the wall. "Bring whatever's good — just keep the wine coming".
After dinner, in a happy daze, I wandered London until 9 a.m., then flew back to New York and quit my job. Ultimately the deal was a Felix triumph — he got the trademark on the name, we got salaries and a small percentage of profit — and Blender never turned a profit: It was a money-losing masterpiece. I think it ended up costing Felix about $14 million, but it gave him a team in NYC which formed the backbone for his launch of Maxim three years later, and the name was revived for the print magazine and formed part of the package he sold to Quadrangle. I'm proud to have been on the masthead of the first few issues of the print magazine as 'Spiritual Advisor.'" —David Cherry, co-founder of Blender and former GM of Dennis Interactive
"Having just begun at The Week in the summer of 2009, I received a note from my supervisor informing me that I'd have to work from home during Felix Dennis' upcoming visit. The memo stated that 'one of his dictates is that the project room must be empty (so that he could potentially launch a new magazine at any given moment).'" —Danny Groner, former managing editor, TheWeek.com
"I was Maxim's first event director. Together with some of the most talented people I have ever worked with, we helped to build what became "the Maxim party." From the Super Bowl party to the Hot 100, Felix gave us the freedom to try new things and push the envelope. Although he was never too directly involved in the events, his spirit drove them. It was his vision that brought the pages of Maxim to life and made it a phenomenon. I did my best to try to bring that spirit to life in the often wild and in some cases, legendary, parties that we were fortunate enough to produce.
A toast to you Felix and your spirit. You were one of a kind." —Dan Parente, former event director, Maxim
"Scene: Sitting in the Bricklayers Arms in London in 1997.
Felix: 'Would you like a pint?'
'Yes, a pint of Guinness, Thanks.'
'How are you?'
'I'm alright, thanks, but having a bit of a rough few months for various reasons.'
At which point Felix bellowed, 'Find yourself a girl and take her to my house in Mustique. It was built by David Bowie, you'll like it. It's got a yacht, private plane, everything, I'll pay for it all.'
He lived like a Roman emperor. I will miss him." —Andy Turnbull, former creative director, Dennis Publishing U.S.
"One time an email went around saying that if we would like to meet Felix, he was currently downstairs signing his book. We all wanted the chance, so we went down and lined up. It turned out he wasn't just signing them — he was selling them. And his trusted staff lined up to pay £5 for a copy and a chance to meet the man. And the new book? How to Get Rich." —Matthew Sullivan-Pond, U.S. advertising director, The Week
"Back when I was interim editor of Maxim, he wandered into the office and started yelling at Dave Hilton. I'd been forewarned about his temper. He'd arrived to talk cover lines, and I had prepared some suggestions for that month's issue. Finally he and I settled down, he ordered his driver to get a 12-pack of Corona, and we sat down to talk cover lines. (It was around 9 or 10 p.m.) I'd heard he liked poetry and fancied himself a connoisseur, and somehow we got to talking about poets and poetry and not cover lines. Poetry anthologies came up and I mentioned, hoping to impress him, that I owned about 39 of them. He replied that he owned 635. Hmmm, I thought suspiciously, and decided to take it one step further. A week earlier I'd bought a poetry anthology for $5, from a street vendor, titled The Rattle Bag, edited by future Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. I figured Felix had surely never heard of it (since I hadn't until I bought it). Did he know it? I asked. Yes, of course, Felix replied, and they've got a sequel! he all but shouted excitedly, called The School Bag. Did I have it? No, I answered shame-facedly, and of course I'd never even heard of it. A week later, a copy of The School Bag, inscribed to me by Felix, arrived in the mail. That was typical Felix — generous, competitive, and most of all thoughtful." —Jack Heidenry, former interim editor-in-chief, Maxim
"Felix to some. Mr. Dennis to me. Not because he demanded it, but because I felt he commanded it. Waiting, in the NYC office for his first arrival. Everyone scurrying, almost panicked. The Maverick from across the pond was going to arrive.
I entered his domain. He tested me. Harsh but kind at the same time. I knew in an instant he was a kind soul. Our relationship had begun. Throughout his appearances he would scream, 'How the f--k can you make a proper cup of tea from a microwave!'
Kettle and tea set bought within the next hour on my lunch break. Problem solved." —Alexis Phillips Lounsbery, Felix's former U.S. assistant
"Felix had a million and one great stories to tell. But it wasn't only his stories that were great, but the performance he gave as he told them. Once, Felix told my astonished friends and I the story of how he was at the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle. Now, he didn't just tell us the story. He showed us. He acted out every punch, swing, foot movement, and sound effect. All like a skilled boxer! This was just this past March. Always a performer." —Sara O'Connor, executive vice president - consumer marketing, The Week and Mental Floss
"So my husband and I were lucky enough to meet Felix while we were on a sailing trip in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. We stopped by Mustique, and spent the night at his home! Loads of eating and drinking ensued. This was right before Felix was diagnosed, so he was going full tilt and had seven or eight dinner guests. He held court for hours. I lost track of how many bottles of champagne were opened before we even approached the dinner table. Paul and I were seated by his staff on either side of Felix. It was a great night.
Fast forward to last winter, right before I got married. The sales and marketing team threw an impromptu party for me here, and Felix happened to be in the office. He joined in for just enough time to give his two cents — "I don't understand why you're going and f--king up your life, getting married. You at least better not be changing your name." — and to throw back a glass of champagne. Obviously, super flattering." —Allison Hudson, director of sales, Mental Floss
"When Felix bought Mandalay [his home in Mustique] from David Bowie, it came with all contents. However, after the sale, it turned out that Iman had a specific painting she had intended to keep. David Bowie asked Felix if he could have it back. 'Sure — if you buy the whole house with it," was Felix's response. He asked us to make a CD-ROM game — Mandalay Mystery — an interactive tour of the house that ultimately revealed the painting at the bottom of the infinity pool. I'm not sure whether it was ever delivered to Mr. Bowie." —David Cherry, co-founder of Blender and former GM of Dennis Interactive
"My life has been deeply entwined with Felix's companies, having essentially grown up working for Stuff, Maxim, Blender, and The Week on and off since 2000. When I would hold my women's art group meetings in the conference room at Maxim after hours, I would defend where I worked and emphatically declare what a radical Felix was. Although our paths did not cross much, some of my favorite moments are when he rolled a dumpster into the Maxim offices and went on a tirade of how messy people's desks where, chatting with him about Chateau Talbot wines, wondering where that cigar smoke in the ladies room was coming from, and the fact that through his companies I met some of my closest friends." —Loren Talbot, photo editor, The Week
"One of the last times Felix was in the U.S. office, I joked with Steven Kotok by asking why the English tea only came out was when Felix was in town. At this point, Felix rounded the corner and Steven said, 'Hey Felix, this English guy is trying to steal your tea.' Several hours later, I was tapped on the shoulder. It was Felix offering to make me a cup of tea, and it was a bloody good one, too." —Matthew Sullivan-Pond, U.S. advertising director, The Week
"I had started as an intern, and word was going around that Felix would be back in the office soon. I had the sense he could be an intimidating guy, and he was. He had this thunderous voice, and you could hear him raging even behind closed doors. The first time I saw him he was dressing down the entire office for being slobs, probably rightfully so. So I was a little nervous to have to meet him. I remember walking past him for the first time. He looked over, his face softened, and he winked at me. It's a pretty small thing, but it really just took me aback. He suddenly seemed so genial and warm. It completely undercut this image I had of him. When I did actually meet him, I just had this sense of ease, and it became apparent that this man could make your day with something simple, like a wink." —Chris Curth, senior digital commerce manager, The Week and Mental Floss
"The first time my life intersected with Felix we were headed to a pub quiz at our favorite watering hole on the Lower East Side. I really hadn't taken a proper measure of the man, and didn't have the requisite fear and reverence of him that everyone else seemed to have. As it turned out, Felix was the moderator for this pub quiz, and the Dennis Interactive team was up against two other teams, one being Maxim and the other a name I didn't recognize. We were absolutely killing the other teams. Felix then began to recite the lyrics of his revered Bob Dylan. Having spent my life in music, I recognized the lyrics immediately but had the nerve to buzz in and attribute the lyrics to Burt Bacharach just to get the old man's goat. This filled Felix with rage. He responded, 'F--k off.'" —Chris Phoenix, former director of Dennis Media Group
"No mere mortal, Felix Dennis would spit fire and make it rain money. We were in awe of him, wanted to be him, and were so very, very grateful to be part of the Dennis family, because — counterintuitively given the beer-babes-gear subject matter — a family is truly what Dennis Publishing U.S. felt like in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We loved him and will miss him." —Deborah Day, former editor-in-chief, Dennis Publishing U.S. websites
"I had won runner-up employee of the year every year (except for one) during my time from 1999-2005. Having always been the bridesmaid and never the bride, Felix one day said he would extend a personal invitation to me to visit Mandalay anyway. I never thought that I would take him up on it. Three years later, in 2008, I had given up my vow to be a bachelor and met the woman of my dreams. I emailed Felix, who I imagined wouldn't remember me, and asked if we could, perchance, get married at his estate on Mustique. His immediate response, much to my surprise, was, 'What dates do you want to go?'
Let's just say I gave my bride-to-be her dream wedding. She had, during her childhood, seen an article about the man who purchased David Bowie's estate on a faraway island called Mustique, and dreamt most of her life about visiting it. She remembered this article and when I told her where were going to be married, she nearly fainted.
This was a life changing event. This was generosity that knew no bounds." —Chris Phoenix, former director of Dennis Media Group
"I had a chance to meet Felix on my second week with the company, while I was in the kitchen making coffee. He came in and was furious for some delay with a piece of mail he was expecting through FedEx. I was trying to be nice and make a good impression, so I said, 'Don't worry, it will be here eventually, it'll be fine.' He turned back to me and declared, 'No no no, there is no mercy when it comes to business. This company would have never grown if I was nice to all the people who don't do their job. I will teach them a lesson.' Then he smiled and added, 'But it was nice of you to say that, have a brilliant day.' —Maja Misheva, software developer, TheWeek.com and MentalFloss.com
"Felix once went on a long tangent suggesting that no one in TheWeek.com's competitive space had managed to own comics-style animation. He saw a real opportunity to have an animated character — perhaps a talking pair of spectacles, or an anthropomorphous phone booth, he mused — that would putter around the homepage and deliver a barbed take on the news of the day. At first I chuckled to myself and thought he was crazy. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a kind of brilliant idea.
We never went ahead with the chatty glasses cartoon. But part of me wishes we did. Because like so many things Felix dreamed up, it might have been great.
Though I didn't know the man well, I think this total lack of intellectual inhibition was perhaps the secret ingredient to Felix's success and charm. He was never afraid to expound on his arguably crazy ideas — and as he guided many into becoming reality, it quickly became obvious to everyone who called him mad that he was actually wildly brilliant. That's how I'll remember Felix — crazy like a fox." —Ben Frumin, editor-in-chief, TheWeek.com
"One night, when I was heavily pregnant with my first child we closed down the office together. 'How are you getting home?' he asked. 'Subway,' I replied. 'Nonsense! You're coming with me. My driver will take you home.'
It was coming up on his birthday and I acknowledged it. He wanted nothing to do with it. 'Silly f--king tradition.'
I told him that he was thinking about it all wrong. It wasn't some celebration about his birth but a story of survival. 'This world is filled, with disease, accidents, murders. You shouldn't think of it as a celebration of yourself as much as a celebration of surviving another year with the odds against you.'
He looked at me. It registered. 'I never thought of it like that.'
I arrived at my apartment on 90th Street. As I exited his limo I thought, 'Did I as the student just teach the master something?' It was a feeling of pure delight.
How terribly I now wish he had another birthday." —Alexis Phillips Lounsbery, Felix's former U.S. assistant
All images are courtesy FelixDennis.com