Everybody loves an eccentric billionaire, with their lovable quirks, extravagances and scandalous behaviour. America’s Howard Hughes is probably the first name that springs to mind as the archetypal crackpot rich man, but for three decades, Denmark had its very own headline-grabbing, pleasure-seeking plutocrat.
He was none other than Simon Spies, the package tour king of Scandinavia who made his millions sending Danes to Spain for a fortnight of non-stop partying. Undoubtedly a gifted businessman, Spies loved to toy with the media, and more than anyone, he understood the meaning of the cliché “Bad publicity is better than no publicity.”
For better or worse, he even became a myth in his own lifetime – the stories of his incredible escapades are the very stuff of legend – as an extremely astute, successful and much loved businessman who simultaneously managed to live out the excesses of a rock ‘n’ roll star.
Nascent earnings and a Nazi error
At the very beginning of his classic rags-to-riches tale, Spies was born in 1921 and raised in Helsingør in modest surroundings. His father was in and out of mental hospitals after, as the story goes, voices in his head told him to steal money from the bank where he worked.
Not a promising beginning for the young Simon, but early in his life he proved himself to be extremely resourceful. Displaying a natural flair for commerce, he sold discarded fruit and chocolate from a pram to his schoolmates. However, his first real business venture was far from a resounding success. Buying four delivery bicycles, his bicycle-taxi business was a resounding flop and he was left with a debt of 5,000 kroner.
To pay off the debt, he took a trip to German-occupied Austria to find work. Here, he enrolled in the Nazi party, ostensibly to make finding work easier. Despite opting out of the organisation within a year, this error of judgment was to follow him for the rest of his life and ultimately prevented him from having the highest Danish orders pinned to his chest.
Conair but no Cameron Poe
Three years as a tour guide gave Spies a deep insight into an untapped potential in the holiday market. The highly respectable and hardworking youngster then founded Spies Travel in 1956, which by 1984 had become a global concern with over a thousand employees and an annual turnover of nearly a billion kroner.
The acquisition of a failing airline, Conair, in 1965 proved to be a stroke of genius: the concept of cheap package tour flights was born. Promising a fortnight of hedonism and hangovers on the sun-soaked beaches of Spain, Spies gave his customers a tantalising taste of the jetset lifestyle that he himself led. For although Spies worked hard, he played equally hard.
He was becoming a legendary womaniser and sensation seeker who would give any rock star a run for their money.
Buns for breakfast
One of the reasons for the regular-as-clockwork appearances of Spies in the gossip magazines was his apparently insatiable appetite for the fairer sex. Such stories are many and legendary: from the wild sex orgies held at his lavish, circular spaceship-like Rungsted residence, Villa Fjolle, to the more outlandish and sadistic exploits he carried out with escort girls at Copenhagen’s Kakadu bar.
A memorable scandal took place at the post-première party of the pornographic film ‘Bordellet’ (‘The Brothel’) in 1972 where, in front of the happily flashing cameras of the daily newspapers, he unashamedly had sex with one of the film’s protagonists at the Copenhagen restaurant, Husmanns Wine Bar.
Befitting of his rock star status, Spies naturally had his very own groupies, who were popularly known as the ‘Morgenbolledame’ (very loosely translated as the breakfast-in-bed ladies). They were an ever-changing group of three ladies whose provision of freshly baked bread rolls for breakfast was, as the Danish double entendre suggests, only part of the services they were expected to provide.
Not just holiday trips
By the mid-1960s, Spies Travel was sending 150,000 guests a year to sunnier climes. With his fortune ever expanding, he decided, like many of his contemporaries in the ‘60s, to do a bit of mind-expanding. No stranger to meditation yoga and Indian concentration exercises intended to heighten telepathic activities, Spies decided to plunge himself into the world of hallucinatory drugs.
This period of experimentation is documented in some detail by his friend, Jurij Moskvitin. Spies wanted to explore the ‘soul’ and was a co-founder of the decadent Psychedelic Society (Psykedeliske selskab), whose members took untold amounts of pills and drugs at exotic destinations all over the world.
This made Spies somewhat unpredictable at times, but he managed to kick the drug habit after a short stay at a mental institution in 1969. His penchant for wine and women, however, never ceased, and it was the former that would eventually take his life.
A marketing guru ahead of his time
Spies did not need to be on drugs to raise eyebrows. His trademark bushy Karl Marx beard and leopardskin slippers, fur coat and carved cane caused a stir wherever he went, as did the ongoing companionship of three nubile beauties waiting on his every need. A famous photo of the day, which burned itself into the psyche of a generation, was taken at the Royal Theatre, where the colourful cane had its very own seat.
This was in the days before image and branding had become standard business practice. Forty years later, marketing gurus gush with praise at the extraordinary business genius of Spies. His whole image breathed life into the company and gave it untold free amounts of publicity. The scandals that made headlines on the nation’s front pages only served to lengthen the queues at the travel branches.
Spies would personally turn up at the airport to wave a cheery goodbye to his own customers, heading for fun and frolics, while commiserating with his competitors’ customers on choosing the “boring travel agency!” He endeared himself to the nation by paying his tax bills with a smile. An unexpected 29 million kroner bill from the tax authorities was instantaneously repaid with a huge cardboard cheque in the style of a lottery winner, earning him immediate and immense public sympathy.
What does Simon say? Just ask!
Whether by design or chance, Spies had successfully tapped into the imagination of the Danish population. His extraordinary excesses were not only expected and eagerly awaited, but instantly forgiven. He had also been transformed into a much loved public icon through his entertaining performances on the national DR radio programme ‘Spørg bare’ (Just ask).
With his characteristic chattering voice, pithy observations and subtle understated humour, he had brought another more reflective and intellectual side to the public eye. He was, after all, the proud owner of a couple of master’s degrees. When asked on the show just what a multi-millionaire and a man who had everything would want for a birthday present, Spies replied: “I would like a globe as a birthday present − a life-sized one!”
His final one-way ticket
One of Spies’ most famous sayings is that money could not buy you love, but it could buy something that looks just like it. At the age of 61, in 1983, a clean-shaven Spies entered into his fourth marriage with a 20-year-old Spies Travel sales assistant, Janni Brodersen, after a few years of persistent flirting and courtship.
The wedding itself was a spectacular fairytale affair, featuring 3,000 guests and a towering cake that made its way into the Guinness Book of Records. But less than a year later, his liver finally succumbed to the strain of constant alcohol abuse, and the Spies Travel Group had a new owner, and Denmark a new billionaire, in the shape of young Janni Spies.
Simon Ove Christian Ogilvie Spies was undoubtedly a visionary businessman with a razor-sharp sense of opportunity. With his death, Denmark lost one of its most fascinating and colourful personalities. He was the classic self-made man who had earned the right to provoke and test the boundaries of the bourgeoisie with his extravagant and outrageous antics.
Legend of an enfant terrible
Some have characterised him as a lonely and cynical playboy, who was unable to cope with the inevitabilities of life and turned to the solace of alcohol. But in many ways, Spies was a product of the prevailing trends of the different generations he grew up in: from the austerity of the 1930s to the rebellion of the 1960s.
33 years has gone by since his passing, and it is clear that Denmark misses the spirit of its entrepreneurial enfant terrible. Books continue to be written about him, a play has been staged at Østre Gasværk, and a mainstream film exploring his lifelong friendship with fellow provocateur Mogens Glistrup is premièred in 2013.
Despite his numerous moral transgressions, Spies will always remain a cherished part of Danish history – an incredibly complex and unique character who captured the hearts and imaginations of an entire country on his own particular journey through life. As he famously said: “If you want to go on holiday with grumpy and miserable people, you should probably choose another travel agency.”