How Felix failed to find the true value in life until too late
Felix Dennis must have been one of the richest men I ever encountered, and he disclosed to me – as he did, subsequently in a book – the secret of how to get rich. The formula is simple.
"You just have to want wealth more than anything else," he said, when we met in his Soho offices a dozen years ago. "You have to want it, you have to focus on it – and be willing to sacrifice everything else for it."
The secret of riches is the same recipe for every other achievement – writing a novel, having a happy marriage, playing chess: commitment. You have to be totally committed to your aim, sometimes to the exclusion of all else.
Dennis was a billionaire magazine magnate who had been a hippie in his youth, and I had known some of his crowd at the notorious Oz magazine back in the 1970s. Actually, I was the first journalist to write about the launch of Oz by the maverick Richard Neville, an amiable Australian who came to London to promote his philosophy of 'Playpower'.
Felix Dennis was subsequently one of the gang who were prosecuted for obscenity when Oz published a schoolkids edition. Ace barrister John Mortimer (of Rumpole) fame, defended Oz and all fashionable London supported this anti-censorship cause: yet if it were published today, I think the schoolkids' Oz would be far more harshly treated.
There was a leering sequence with the cartoon character Rupert Bear, which struck me as creepy and slightly paedophilic. In the 1970s, such undertones weren't an issue, even if 'ordinary' obscenity was.
Felix Dennis was a drummer and a bohemian in those days, but what changed the course of his life was his innate marketing instinct. He was walking down a London street when he noticed a long queue. It was for a movie about Bruce Lee, the Chinese kung-fu star.
Where there's a demand, there's an opportunity for supply: having failed to make any money from various "alternative" magazines, Felix decided to produce a kung fu publication. It sold in 17 countries, and he made his first million. Dennis – who died in June – wasn't an attractive man: heavy on his feet, and rather charmless, I thought.
But I had to admire his amazing knack of forecasting market trends: he was ahead of the game in publishing computer magazines, and he made a huge fortune in America with his lads' mag, Maxim.
He also saw the potential in an aggregate magazine such as The Week, which is cheap to run – composed of excerpts from other publications put together in a slick and succinct way – at a time when bigger mags were failing.
So Felix got very, very rich by the age of 40, and when he wrote his book How To Get Rich, it came not from theory, but experience. His formula? Make getting rich your first priority; retain ownership of everything you have acquired – never hand over a single share of what is yours; hire 'clever, cunning and adept' people; and then, defend your wealth with every strategy available.
But there is a price for wealth. Maybe you have to sacrifice family and friends, he said. If your friends aren't part of your world, you may have to drop them. Being rich may mean being lonely and mistrustful – accept that.
Most people, Felix said, don't genuinely want to be rich – because they don't want to pay the price of great wealth. Accumulating and defending money takes time, commitment and cunning, too.
And Felix Dennis did pay the price of being wealthy. He got into crack cocaine and lived a sex-and-drugs hedonistic life that nearly destroyed him. Then he quit drugs and discovered, only in his fifties, that what he wanted most was to write poetry.
"Making money," he told me, "stopped me from being a poet. That's what I sacrificed. Because when you are making money you have to focus on the money."
Now, with his garages full of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, and his cellars full of fine wine, he could concentrate on writing poetry, and his first book of verse A Glass Half Full – whose publication he paid for – was talented, if not memorable.
They say it's never too late to follow your dream. Yet the New Testament wisely points out that you cannot serve two masters: and Felix had spent so much time serving Mammon that there wasn't a lot left over to give himself wholeheartedly to poetry. He died at 67 from throat cancer – when I met him he was smoking large, expensive Cuban cigars.
He also planted forests in Shakespeare's county, Warwickshire – a fine contribution to the enhancement of the environment, and, I believe, a desire to be remembered.
Childless by choice (he sold his boyhood drummer's kit to pay for a girlfriend's abortion) he yearned, nonetheless, to leave some kind of inheritance.
At the end of his life he regretted that he had no children – "no boy or girl to pass on my legacy". He also admitted that he had never really "given himself" in a committed way to any relationship.
Maybe that was because his father had abandoned the family when Felix and his brother were young, and his mother had struggled to raise her sons alone. She taught herself to be an accountant and "fought her way up" from nothing. She was heroic, he said.
Maybe his father's desertion wasn't a great template for Felix's own life choices. Or maybe his commitment to wealth creation indeed excluded so much else.