Requiem for a Rogue

The Maxim family -- and it is indeed a family, as anyone who ever worked there for 15 minutes could tell you -- lost its demon patriarch on Monday.

Felix Dennis, despite his self-described dwarfish stature, was a giant of a man. I had the pleasure of working with him for eight years, launching Maxim, Stuff, Blender, and The Week back in those heady days when people were still launching print magazines instead of shutting them down.

Felix was an editor's owner. There weren't many, back in the day, and today there are none. To launch Maxim, he essentially handed us a bag of money and said "Make the magazine you wish existed." Who does that?

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.

In later years, particularly after he sold Maxim at last, Felix retired into his poetry, his godchildren, and his wine cellar. (At his flat in London, there was a bottle on the counter with an Alice-in-Wonderland note on it reading: "You may drink from any bottle in this house except this one--it is OFF-LIMITS." I didn't dare touch it.)

And speaking of the celebrated cellar, who but Felix would decide to shift careers to poetry, correctly recognize that nobody would read a late-blooming poet's poetry unless bribed to do so, and embrace that wholeheartedly with a "Did I Mention The Free Wine?" tour?

'Twas throat cancer felled this mighty oak, first depriving Felix of his Socratic beard and the white-afro Albert Einstein shock hair he had taken to wearing on becoming a full-time poet. ("Keith," he told me once, "barbers have got quite enough of my money over the years and they aren't getting another penny.")

What else can I say? I know I'm really writing this only for the extended Maxim family, but that's okay. So in true Maxim fashion, here's a bullet-point list of fun facts about Felix.

• We produced a pilot for a magazine called Maxim for Kids, which was probably as bad an idea then as it sounds now.

• I asked Felix once, point blank, how much money was enough... at what annual income did he stop worrying about money. The answer was $250,000.

• He took out an oak forest to build his giant out-building in Stratford, a sort of ode to boyhood hero Robert Louis Stevenson that included a working crow's-nest and England's second-largest fishtank, and replanted the forest behind him.

• Then gypsies burnt the house down, so he rebuilt it, stick by stick, and replanted the forest again. Thus began his obsession with forest-building.

• Felix once made a serious, cash-on-the-table offer to outbid a Maxim staffer for his consort at a party -- offering to top whatever the guy was paying to take the girl home. She was not a prostitute, but a girlfriend, so he was rebuffed.

• At his 15th-century home in Stratford-upon-Avon, Felix taught me how to lay a hedge, that quintessential English skill. If we happen to be next to a hedge sometime I'm happy to show you.

• I don't typically like poetry, but I actually like his poems quite a bit, most especially when he bent the poetic tradition toward modern, unpoetic stuff. My favorite line, from some cautionary piece about management, is: "Overhead begs to walk on two legs."

Well, Felix would want me to quit meandering and get to the drinking, so let me close with my favorite Felix anecdote, of many. It may be wrong in some details but this is how it was reported to me...

On Mustique, the breathtakingly exclusive Caribbean millionaire's island Felix called home, he became well-known for his largesse. He built libraries, schools, and other civic projects, largely for the benefit of the relatively impoverished residents of Bequia, the sister island whence Mustique sourced its workers.

On one occasion, the opening of a donated library or municipal building or something, he donated an oversize bronze statue, on the condition that he get to design the statue himself, and unveil it under his terms. Crowds gathered on the day of the dedication, with parents bringing their kids to glimpse the great man and see the mysterious tarpaulin-covered statue unveiled. The local mayor (or whatever they have on millionaire islands) dutifully introduced the day's benefactor with an appropriate speech, no doubt quaking at what might be under that tarp. This was, after all, the man who'd loosed Maxim on the world, who'd been jailed in the Oz obscenity trials -- anything could happen.

At the appropriate moment, the workers drew back the obscuring tarpaulin to reveal the automobile-size statue, uncovering, at first... a beautiful bronze head representing one of the island's celebrated tortoises. A collective sigh of relief... and then the tarpaulin swept back further, revealing a second beautiful bronze turtle, on top of the other, locked forever in sexual congress.

It tickles me now to imagine Felix giggling for weeks around that one: on commissioning the statue, and imagining happy children crawling all over this thing for all eternity, with their parents silently shaking their heads in the background.

That, bless his heart forever, was Felix Dennis. Rest in peace.