Terry Maher competed against Chrissy Skase as a finance hack in the early 70s and has followed his career right to the grave.
I was a journalistic contemporary of Skase’s in Melbourne in 1970 but I worked more against him than with him. We never really liked each other when he was on The Sun News-Pic and I was on The Age covering the same finance round but you can put that down to the natural competitiveness of the trade we were in.
We had a vehement dislike of each other when he was running Qintex and I was writing about him for The Australian Financial Review and The Sunday Herald in the late 1980s.
In fact, both the first and last time I met Christopher Skase (he hated being called Chris) he refused to talk to me. I never got invited to any of his big parties and I never lost any sleep about it.
However, I was stunned this week when not one death notice appeared in either The Herald Sun or The Age to commemorate the passing of one of the most infamous names in Australian history.
Surely, his parents or his sister or his old school or his old journo colleagues could have paid for a few lines to wish him well with his new career move or to at least commemorate some of the finer points from his life time of considerable achievement.
No, there were no tributes paid to Skase in the death notices in the papers from his home town at all (when Melbourne gangster Alfonso Gangitano got blown-away a few years back there were pages and pages of death notices running for a full week). This in itself is a remarkable achievement for Skase. He was, of course, all over page one, and inside, and generating enough airspace on talkback radio to keep Rehame in profits for a decade.
He wrote his own epitaph: “Too good to be true”. Now, no-one seems to believe that he even existed let alone died.
But the urban myth of the life and crimes of Chris Skase will live forever. It will start with the “Pixi Tells Of Heartbreak” interview on 60 Minutes and in The Australian Women’s Weekly (which will be freely given in exchange for a cheque for US$200,000).
Then will come the October release of the “Let’s Get Skase” movie (inspired by a Andrew Denton radio gag). It will reach its apex when Crikey (or some other disreputable publisher) gets his grubby hands on a copy of the Skase book “A Postcard from Majorca” and publishes it.
Other movies and other books will follow. You can expect “Christopher Skase: The Musical” by 2005 at the latest. Pixie (how can you take anyone with a name like that seriously) will play herself. And Tom Cruise (in high heels) will play Christopher and The Spice Girls will play the daughters.
As you can see, it is easier to make fun of the Skase myth than to feel the frightening terror of its reality.
That all came back to me today as I re-reed Lawrence Van Der Plaat’s 1996 book called “Too Good To Be True: Inside The Corrupt World Of Christopher Skase”.
Van der Plaat (VDP) was a Kiwi who started bonking George Frew’s daughter, Alexandra, in London in the late 80s when she was an 18-year-old going to an English finishing school and so he got to meet the folks and became an insider in the Skase bunker on Majorca.
VDP’s kiss-and-tell book has a chilling start, which I though was most over-dramatic at the time. The setting is his London flat in March 1993 just after he had a monumental falling-out with young Alex and the Skasemeister and all his files and documents had been stolen.
“Suddenly an explosion broke the moment’s silence, the tortured sound of splitting wood as the metal bolts tore through the reinforced timber frame, 05The hardwood door flew open as I reached it and two men burst in, 05I fell backwards, landing heavily as both men came down on top of me. One held my legs as the older of the two sat across my chest, his stubby fingers closed around my throat as he pushed my head sharply back against the hall floor. I glared up into the distorted face above me but recognition brought cold comfort, they were Skase’s security men.
“You know who sent us,’ he growled. ‘If you ever give evidence against him or talk to the Press you’re finished,’ he was still short of breath. ‘We’ll find you, wherever you go, we’ll find you and come and get you. He’ll have you taken out, you understand? This is your only warning.’ I nodded slightly.”
In his book, VDP does not name the man who threatened him that day. But on page 14 of today’s Sunday Herald Sun there is a picture of a man with stubby fingers and a distorted face who claims to be Skase’s former bodyguard. VDP says in his book that when he first met this particular bodyguard: “he took a stool next to me and began polishing the barrel of his hand gun. What a poser, I thought. In only a few years time I would get to know XX a little too closely for my own comfort.”
This would all be hilarious melodrama if not for my reading of the last par of David Elias’s Chase-for-Skase story in The Age on Saturday:
“However, Van der Plaat, the man who dared to throw some light on the world of Christopher Skase, has vanished. His publishers, Pan MacMillan, in Sydney say he returned to London and they have not heard from him since the book came out in 1996. His lawyer in Brisbane says he has tried without success to make contact over recent years.”
The only thing scary about Christopher Skase when I first met him at the Melbourne Stock Exchange at 357 Collins St in 1970 was the length of his sideburns and the lapels of his shirts and suits.
Chrissy (he’d really hate that) was what we called “a journalist” from day one. (One of our in jokes at the time was that “a reporter” had only one suit and “a journalist” had two. Lachlan Drummond, now a senior partner at CS First Boston in Sydney is still called “Two Suits” in respect of his humble beginnings as a financial journalist.)
On first impressions, Chrissy was a bit of a poon when I first clapped eyes on him. He was this tall, angular, awkward youth (a bit like Stephen Mayne really) with a Beatle haircut with mullets growing over our foreheads and ears rather than the back of our heads, which was a later fashion for people who still have hair.
He was at the company announcements desk, which was on the same level as the trading floor, but a floor below the public gallery where the newspapers had their separate offices. I was running The Age’s stock exchange bureau and he was the new boy from The Sun News-Pic, who shared an office with The Melbourne Herald at the opposite end of the public gallery from The Age office.
In those days, the two Melbourne morning dailies had a healthy rivalry over what was left from the day’s financial news after The Herald had done five editions of news and quotes from the day’s trading.
Although The Age was the paper of record for the Melbourne financial community, The Sun (except for a short period when The Age had an afternoon newspaper called Newsday) always had a running start to their evening deadlines because of The Herald’s excellent lead-in work.
But where I had a bunch of gormless youths under me to cover the bourse during the Poseidon mining boom, The Sun was staffed by superlative tabloid professionals who would frequently hang us out to dry with pithy pars while we Age reporters wallowed in filling the broardsheet’s broardacres with waffle.
The Sun’s finance editor at the time was Des Keegan (he was the man who hired Skase when he walked in off the street one day to ask for a job), a bloke called Trevor Sykes (a Croweater who came from general reporting rounds to become the greatest financial journalist and historian that Australia has ever seen), John Byrne (now a mining entrepreneur who once shared a house with Skase in Clara Street, South Yarra), Robert Gordon (who went on to edit Truth and TV Week) and another new guy called Terry McCrann.
I think it was McCrann who finally introduced me to Skase at the company information desk. Like me he was wearing a grey stock exchange badge that said he was “Press” and allowed us to go on the trading floor (and trade directly with the dealers without having to ring up brokers’ offices with buy and sell orders) but when I first saw him that day in 1970 he was new and not talking. Maybe he was shy.
That’s about as close as I got to Christopher Skase as a working journalist. I don’t remember him ever coming to the pub and bragging about his scoops and sharemarket coups with the rest of the boys. We must have gone on assignments together but I can’t remember him ever having a great scoop or even being a big trader on the trading floor like the rest of us during the halcyon days of the Poseidon mining boom when even the lift boys were trading shares.
I find this fact strange. We were both born in 1948. He went on to become a billionaire share trader and I’m still pumping out financial journalism to keep the wolf from the door (hint, Stephen, hint). He only spent 4 years in journalism and I’ve spent nearly 40.
Lawrence Van der Plaat finishes his book on Skase with this one lonely sentence that doesn’t apply to me: “This book closes the final chapter on the Skase saga for me”.
I continued to run into, and run over Skase, for the next 30 years. But never in the flesh.
The last time I saw the man/myth alive was in 1987. It was in a lift at the Rialto Tower on the corner of Collins and King Streets. I was coming down from the Victorian Club on level 41. He got on a few floors below at the McIntosh Securities office.
I didn’t notice him at first but I’m sure he noticed me. (He would say that, wouldn’t he – Ed.) Again we didn’t talk. Maybe I was the shy one this time.
That year he had taken Qintex from a $325 million company to a $2,000 million company. I was the daily sharemarket gossip columnist for The Australian Financial Review. I was having great fun taking the piss out of Chrissy nearly every second day for his “baby blue” conspicuous consumption and his total inability to return calls from an old journalistic maaate.
I didn’t recognise him at first, because he looked so different from the skinny young newshound who I hadn’t seen much of for last 17 years. He looked immaculate with his blow-dried dark brown coiffure, his designer suntan, his Hermes tie and his Armani suit. I looked like a journo slob, which is what I was. But I was a Financial Review journo slob and I was not backward in coming forward with people who would not return my calls.
I wrote about him the next day being sighted with his best “baby blue” suit on, coming down empty-handed from the McIntosh office where he had taken his Qintex begging bowl in search of funds for this takeover or the other. It was a totally fatuous piece that didn’t get me into his good books and I had missed my chance to ever speak to him again.
However, he did speak to my editor at the time, Alan Kohler. Kohler is in the same ballpark as Trevor Sykes when it comes to the pantheon of great Australian financial journalists but we always had a tempestuous relationship (I think I resigned three times and he sacked me twice when I was on the Review) and we always had full and frank discussions.
Anyhow, Alan said that Christopher had said, that Terence Maher should get of his back. I didn’t get to the Financial Review until about 10-years after C. Skase had left the building but when I arrived, in the mid-80s, I was told I had his old desk. I never believed that my new work station was ever sat in by Senor Skase but where I was seated was roughly where he was seated in Little Collins Street Fairfax office when he arrived in 1972 from The Sun News-Pic.
My seating arrangements at The Financial Review gave me a strange affinity to the man/myth – but I never got off his back.
When Skase launched his $1.7 billion bid for MGM/UA in 1989 I was still on his case but by this stage I was deputy business editor of The Melbourne Sunday Herald and Murdoch was also bidding for MGM. This probably gave Skase and his PR flack, Peter Sawyer, a good excuse not to talk to me.
While not apologists for Christopher Skase, Terry McCrann and Trevor Sykes now say we should all get off his back because he is dead and all the money is gone.
That may, or may not, be but I am not comfortable about many aspects of Chris Skase’s life and crimes – including the circumstances of his death.
Lawrence Van der Praat has this lovely line in his book about when Senor Skase returned to Majorca from a Swiss health clinic in Davos in August 1992 with a piece of paper saying he was “too ill to travel”. VDP recalls the day with poignant clarity:
“That afternoon he set about a celebration. As the gathered entourage drew around the great oak table under the loggia in the gardens of La Noria, he announced jubilantly, ‘There is no way the fuckers are going to get me now’, and celebrated with a case of his favourite champagne which had been smuggled, along with many others, from the provisions stored on Mirage III.”
Good luck to you Chris, you have finally become a real journalist!
I just want to know how you went through eight-months of chemotherapy for cancer and didn’t lose a hair on your head?
Then there is the this thing about your son-in-law, Tony Larkin, telling us how to do our jobs.
Here is what he told us on the day of your funeral last week:
“We know that 20 million people think we’re fucking arseholes and we’ve got what we deserved. But that’s because of the way the media has covered this. You have been lying to Australians for 10 years. I know you have got a job to do and your editors tell you what they want, but not one journalist has ever done some real investigative work into what really happened with the money.”
Ouchy! Well Tony, if you promise not to punch my head in, I will tell you what Lawrence Van der Plaat said about you in his book because I happen to know that you just look at the pictures and mouth the words:
“Tony had met Amanda (Argenti/Skase) at a McDonald’s restaurant in far north Queensland and had pursued her across Australia. He could be charming, and although he was ‘one of the lads’, he was both down-to-earth and humerous. But he had also known exactly who Amanda was when first approached her, 05”
“Tony Larkin accompanied me to California (October 1992), to film a promotional video for the fundraising. After a big night out on the town, he sat in on the first meeting the following morning with the local architects to get an understanding of the layout of the land he was about to film. Characteristically, within ten minutes he was asleep, slumped on the board table, where he remained undisturbed. Worse was to come.
“Tony had an unfortunate habit of relieving himself while asleep after he had been on a drinking session, and had even mistaken his wife Amanda’s dressing room cupboards for the bathroom after a big night. Sometimes he couldn’t even make it up out of bed and just sat on the edge and pissed over the floor. Amanda had taken to locking her cupboards and sleeping with towels in the bed, but this was only a partial defence against Tony’s behaviour, which caused tension at the Casa de Pollo (the former chicken coop where Tony lived with Amanda Skase at La Noria).
“Tony slept soundly during the meeting and as it wound up he awoke with a start. The architects left the boardroom and as I prepared to leave Tony seemed reluctant to get up. He looked up apologetically and said, ‘I’ve just pissed on the floor, must have been while my lights were out.’
“Tony had dropped what seemed like a few litres all over the woollen carpet, and it was starting to give off a pungent odour. I had to smuggle him out of the boardroom, pass the receptionist and into the hire car, which I had hurriedly returned that afternoon. The architects were too polite to mention the incident.”
Well Christopher, I hope you sleep in peace without Tony Larkin lying beside you. Is he your successor or is he just pissing in your pocket?