Felix Dennis retires to spend more time with his trees

He was the art school dropout and failed rock'n'roll star who was famously dismissed as "very much less intelligent" than his co-defendants at the era-defining Oz magazine obscenity trial in 1971. Felix Dennis certainly got his own back over that, building up a multimillion-pound publishing empire that has made him probably Britain's wealthiest former crack cocaine addict.

Now the media and publishing world is waiting to see what Dennis is going to do next, after he announced he was putting up for sale overseas editions of the men's magazine Maxim, which until recently has been a money-spinning cornerstone of his empire, particularly in the United States.

Despite declining sales in Britain for so-called lad's mags - down 14 per cent, according to figures released earlier this week - the American market is still thriving, with 2.5 million sales for Maxim, which is also being rolled out as a "lifestyle" brand for bars, restaurants and furniture. The future of two other of Dennis's Publishing's US magazines, Blender and Stuff, are being reviewed, along with all other 30 overseas editions. In Britain, it would continue to publish Maxim under licence.

Although the sale might net many more millions for Dennis Publishing, its owner is already worth an estimated £715m, and hardly needs the spare cash. So what will he do with it? "I think he will spend it on planting more trees, that's his legacy, that's what he believes he has been put on earth to do," said Mike Soutar, a former editor of US Maxim and FHM in this country. "Trees and poetry,'' is the verdict of James Brown, former editor of Loaded, who knows him well.

After his recovery from both addiction and serious illness, Dennis, ever the ex-hippy, has dedicated much of his time to writing poetry - at least four hours a day according to some accounts - as well as planting trees, particularly at his large estate in Warwickshire, one of his five homes, and which he calls The Forest of Dennis.

In the past four years he has written three books of poetry, all of which have been good sellers, and given a large number of poetry readings, usually accompanied by free wine, another of his passions. He remains a big Labour supporter, although not a fan of Tony Blair.

For someone who boasts that one of his interests is "avoiding business meetings", Dennis is a remarkably successful businessman. After art school and a period in various bands, Dennis stood trial for obscenity at the Old Bailey in 1971, alongside Oz co-founders Richard Neville and Jim Anderson, over the famous "Schoolkids Oz" edition. It became a defining contest between the counter-culture and the establishment.

After being found guilty, Dennis was said by the judge to be "very much less intelligent" than the others, and given a shorter prison sentence.

Once out of prison, he founded his own publishing company and eventually made money selling kung fu magazines, and then magazines devoted to personal computers, both of which he sold on for fortunes used to launch more titles.

A period of determined hedonism ran in tandem with the growth of his company, during which Dennis admitted to a serious cocaine habit and a retinue of young women residing at his various mansions. "I would think nothing of pissing away £100,000 a day, nothing," he said in an interview with The Independent last year.

Aside from the Maxim titles, he currently publishes The Week, a successful weekly digest of news, Auto Express, Fortean Times, Bizarre and Viz, together with several computer and gambling magazines. His only regrets, he said in the same interview, were not getting into women's magazines or the national newspaper business.

Dennis's strength, say observers, is to anticipate the market, spotting trends and capitalising on them. Selling up in the US might be a shrewd move, because he believes that the market there might soon begin to fragment and decline as it is on this side of the Atlantic. Mike Soutar is confident that, at the very least, what Dennis does next will be interesting: "Dennis is very keen on finding out what is going to be next on the market, and he is very interested in electronic media. He is very entrepreneurial, but he doesn't do conventional.''

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