No one who ever met Felix Dennis could ever forget his laugh; an explosive expression of extraordinary energy and love of life that punctuated his every anecdote and seemed to come from somewhere below ground.
One of the most colourful characters in the British media, the publisher of The Week passed away yesterday at the age of 67 having frequently joked of his previous flirtations death.
After surviving a period of crack cocaine addiction, a critical thyroid illness and an operation for throat cancer, Dennis – who was briefly jailed in 1971 after the landmark obscenity trial relating to satirical magazine OZ – died on his Warwickshire estate in the company of his partner Marie-France Demolis.
He had given great thought to his legacy, which will extend across the worlds of ecology, visual arts, poetry, international education and magazine journalism. His greatest achievement, he believed, was the 2,500-acre Heart of England Forest. It was the equivalent of “five Hyde Parks”, he would say. Dennis personally planted the millionth broadleaf tree, an oak sapling, in September.
His Dennis Publishing empire, spanning 35 media brands including Auto Express and Viz, will come under the ownership of the Heart of England Forest charity and its profits will be used to plant more trees.
Dennis, who made his final fortune from the £121m sale of the international men’s magazine brand Maxim in 2007, split his time between his English manor house and the Caribbean island of Mustique, where he owned Mandalay, an Indonesian-style villa which he bought from David Bowie.
Never reclusive, Dennis was a regular singer at the Mustique Blues Festival and - in his capacity as St Vincent & The Grenadines' Honorary Consul in Warwickshire - recently brokered a deal to give every secondary schoolchild in the country a new laptop. He hoped that the project, which included support from computer giants Microsoft and Acer and finance from the Venezuelan government, would encourage similar initiatives in the developing world.
Dennis, who grew up in relative poverty in suburban London, employed 70 personal staff and traversed the grounds of his 600-acre estate on a Segway. He commissioned more than 50 bronze life-size statues, carefully positioned in a “Garden of Heroes & Villains”. One, of Lawrence Arabia on his favourite camel Jeddah, was visible from his kitchen table, silhouetted before the sunset.
Other bronzes depicted The Beatles, William Blake, Thomas Paine and – at the centre of a swirling maze made from yew – Dennis himself, dressed as a schoolgirl and waving a copy of OZ at the time of his conviction.
For all his subterranean laughter, Dennis was a serious man, a science obsessive and a digital pioneer. He was a disillusioned former Labour donor who published books on how to get rich. Over a bottle of his favourite Pouilly-Fume on the terrace of his Soho pied-a-terre, he once told me of the “endless” mistakes he had made in his business career.
During one spell in hospital, 13 years ago, he began writing poetry on a post-it note. The poem was the first of more than 1,500. His work – which revived old techniques including sestinas and sonnet cycles - was popular and he recently published his eighth volume of verse.
Audiences flocked to see him, reading his rhymes in his big tortoiseshell spectacles and flamboyant scarf. “How many poets do you know – and I know I am boasting – who can put 800 people in a theatre, charging £20?” he would ask. “Give me one that lives!”
Cancer got Dennis in the end, but he was laughing to the end about his perilous state of health and unerring ability to make money. Like Felix himself, the “Did I Mention the Free Wine? The Cut-Throat Tour” was a roaring success.