Posted by: Jon Fine on May 30, 2008
My column this week, which you can find here, is about legendary magazine entrepreneur Felix Dennis. Preparation for this column necessitated reading his self-help book How To Get Rich (the US edition of which comes out in June) and interviewing Dennis at his Connecticut lake house over a long Sunday lunch in late April. Lunch with Dennis, a wholly charming and generous host, primarily consisted of snacks, sandwiches, and three and a half bottles of wine. (There might have been dessert. I mean, it’s possible.)
Fortunately, the interview was taped.
Beginning today, this blog will publish a series of excerpts from that interview, which covered topics ranging far and wide. Among them: the media world of today and yesteryear, politics in the US and the UK, entrepreneurial opportunities in the 21st Century, and his well-documented past bad habits.
In today’s episode, which took place a couple of hours into the lunch, Dennis discusses the murder confession he disclosed, and subsequently retracted "unconditionally," in his last major interview, which appeared in the Times of London on April 2. (Read that article here.) All interview excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity.
BusinessWeek: I have to ask one question.
Felix Dennis: (half whispering, pointing towards an adjacent backyard) It’s Joe, my neighbor. He’s trying to get his barbecue going. It should be hilarious!
BW: I’ll just be blunt. Have you murdered anybody?
FD: I’m not speaking about that question. I’ve said everything I had to say about it. You heard it at the thing [a lecture he'd just given to students at Columbia University]. You read that the story was hogwash. The only additional information I will give you is that I spoke to the editor of the Times four times on the telephone before he printed the story. He accepted the story was hogwash. He said, ‘I know it’s hogwash.’ I said, ‘fine. Then you must do what you’re going to do.’ Then he prints it on the front cover and buries the ‘hogwash’ three-quarters of the way down the article in one paragraph. I leave to history to judge the responsibility of the newspaper of record in England whose editor in chief calls me and says ‘I know this story is complete rubbish and hogwash.’ I understand—and he used this phrase, not me—that this is a storm in a winecup. I love it. So this is a storm in a winecup.
[Note: Over the course of multiple phone calls and emails, The Times of London strongly denied many aspects of this account, including that Times editor James Harding ever said the story was ‘hogwash.' Additionally, a spokesperson noted in an email that it was Dennis who uttered the phrase ‘a storm in a wine cup,’ and pointed out that the story did not run on the front page, although the front page did have a brief teaser for the story directing readers to it. Another spokesperson said “The story speaks for itself. Mr Dennis spoke for himself. The reporting provides the full context of his comments.”]
BW: But why say. . .
FD: Wait. Wait a minute. ‘This is a storm in a winecup.’ I said, ‘so James’—and that’s his name, James—‘then you must do what you wish.’ Then he prints the story and buries his, what do you call it, his safety net three-quarters of the way through in an immensely long story. So the story is only this: Why did the newspaper of record in Britain print on its front cover—the newspaper of record, we are not talking about the [New York] Post--a story and a headline which it knew was rubbish from the beginning to the end. I leave you to answer that question. And I will not comment upon it. And I’ll say no more about this matter. I’ve said everything I had to say about it.
BW: I will ask one final question about it.
FD: You can ask it but I won’t answer it.
BW: Do as you wish. Why say such a thing to a journalist?
FD: Have you ever drunk 5 bottles of wine? I think I could get you to say just about anything you wanted.,
BW: I don’t think I would have said that.
FD: I think I could have got you to say it after five bottles of wine. After five bottles of wine, you probably could have said anything. I had this vague idea. I knew it was coming out around when it would come out. I thought it would be great! A great sort of April Fool’s prank. And maybe it was, or maybe it wasn’t. My books have sold off the shelf. And also they know one thing. I never sue journalists. I employ journalists. I employ too many of them. I don’t sue journalists.
BW: Other people have not had that issue.
FD: I am not suing journalists. I employ too many. So, I must take the lumps. If it’s known by News Corp [which owns the Times of London] that I don’t sue journalists, where’s my defense? Well, the answer is you’ve got no defense! (Laughs) I could change that policy. But I am not going to change that policy. That said, if you live by the sword, you (expletive) die by the sword. My mother, I must say, called me up, and said--
BW: --“what the (expletive)?” Uh . . . Well, she probably didn’t say it like that.
FD: “--April the first. I knew you were doing—“
BW: Felix! It didn’t run on April 1st.
FD: It came up on the Internet on April first. On the web it was up on April the first. [Note: As I mention in the column, I can’t find any evidence that it did.] It appeared in the newspaper on April 2. My mother lives, as many 90-year-olds do, they live on the on the Internet.
BW: My grandmother doesn’t.
FD: Well, some of them. My mother lives on the Internet. And, April the first comes up, and she (several seconds of giggling) “. . . just an ass. You are an ass! This is not funny!” No. She thought it was really funny! (laughter).
So, that’s how you should treat it. (More laughter.)
The media, entertainment and marketing worlds continue to shapeshift on a near-daily basis, as new forms arise and old assumptions erode. Where is it all going? No one really knows. But on this blog BusinessWeek’s media writers Tom Lowry and Ron Grover promise to provide ample helpings of scoop, provocation, and sharp analysis as they track and annotate this constantly changing terrain.