Madam Flora not all she seemed

By Rachel Francis

Flora Mackenzie counted some of Auckland's biggest names as clients. Photo / Supplied
Flora Mackenzie counted some of Auckland's biggest names as clients. Photo / Supplied

Since prostitution was decriminalised, brothels have opened in every suburb. But for 40 years, one woman flouted the law by running the country's most notorious bordello in exclusive Ring Terrace. In her new book, Rachel Francis tells the tale of Flora MacKenzie.

In an industry filled with passionate people who aren't shy about giving their honest opinions, it isn't often that you encounter a personality no one can speak badly of. I spoke to ladies of all ages whose recollections of Madam Flora were tinged with fondness and delivered with smiles on their faces.

Impressions were always the same: that she was consistent, firm but fun. This Madam knew how to have a good time, and how to run her business smoothly and efficiently, with just the right measure of discipline required for the working ladies.

* * *

Flora's parents were extremely wealthy and her father, Sir Hugh Ross MacKenzie, was chairman of the Auckland Harbour Board.

Flora was a talented seamstress and her work was recently included in a book along with other great New Zealand dressmakers. There had been whispers that she ran her "illegal racket", as it was considered back then, from her workshop, Ninette, on the corner of Vulcan Lane and Queen St in Auckland, but this was never proven.

Being a milliner and seamstress to the highly moneyed and deeply influential of Auckland society was a huge part of Flora's life. Question anyone who knew Flora and their memories of the immaculate dresses and gowns she turned out are almost as glowing as the ones of her days as a Madam.

Flora was able to conjure up images of a gown in her head and then just draw the pattern.

Flora sold Ninette around 1958 or 1959 and moved into 17-19 Ring Terrace, St Mary's Bay. She was in her mid-50s and bought the villa intending to establish a boarding house.

Ring Terrace had been a block of flats and she divided it into just two flats. The first tenants were two nice, young, professional girls. They did freelance secretarial work and, of course, needed a telephone. In those days, Post & Telegraph, as they were known, would keep people waiting up to six months for a phone. So the girls asked Flora if they could give her number to their clients.

The girls weren't bringing clients back to the flats, which is why Flora wasn't quite sure what they were up to. But she started to get clued up and confronted them. She indicated she had no problem with what they were doing, but that from now on she expected a commission. And that's where it all started.

* * *

Rob Houison lived along the road from Flora's "house of ill repute".

"I used to go over - I knew what was going on there, and I just loved seeing these lovely girls. I was about 17 or 18."

He remembers the big old villa on top of the cliff overlooking St Marys Bay, before the Harbour Bridge was built underneath. There was a wonderful enclosed verandah, with heavily brocaded curtains, at the back of the house, where all the girls would sit.

"I met a girl who used to work part-time at Flora's, and she became my first wife, Nancy. I wasn't at all worried that she had been a working girl."

Rob became Flora's right-hand man, confidant and handyman.

"She presided over things in a very quiet way," says Houison. "She'd sit in a big chair, with the phone by her side, and her dogs beside her."

Girls would ring up wanting to work for Flora, but she'd always insist on the girls coming to see her for an interview. "She'd take them through to the other room and have a quiet talk to them."

Rob says she would turn to a couple of the guys who might be there having a whisky and say, "I'd like you to meet so-and-so who's just started here. Now, who's going to be the first to show her what a wonderful house we have?"

She would occasionally throw lavish dinner parties for select clients. "She'd make the most beautiful gowns for these girls.

"Two or three other girls would be dressed up as French maids and they would serve the food. After dinner, anything could happen."

* * *

Margaret (not her real name) was 18 when she and her friend replied to an ad in the paper.

"We didn't know what to expect: we were innocent," she recalls. "We knocked at the door and out comes this lady, all doo-dahed up. She said, 'oh, it's doing men. You give the money to me and I'll pay you girls a wage'."

In those days, if the Madam took the money off the client, she was procuring. If the lady took the payment, and the client was a cop, she'd be arrested and the Madam would plead ignorance.

"Of course, we were petrified at first. I remember, with my first client, I sat on the end of the bed, looked at the guy and said, 'aren't you going to get undressed?'

There were about eight bedrooms available for use, each equipped with a shower and blessed with a fabulous view over the harbour. There was a revolving musical bed that was the talk of the town. Clients would ask for the bed specifically. 'There were mirrors on the ceiling," she laughs. "You could watch yourself go round."

* * *

If people were drunk, Flora would think twice about entertaining them. And she was very anti-drugs.

Payment? "I think it was £6 and she took a pound. When the girl came out of the room, she had the money and she would just give the whole lot to Flora," Rob says.

The casual but respectful vibe started to go south when one particularly irksome cop, known as the Weasel, began making his presence felt. He was forever trying to catch Flora out, so she had a massive iron grate erected over the door so the girls could check who was coming in.

"Most of the clients were very well-known businessmen, local politicians, mayors, QCs, barristers, bank managers."

The biggest scandal came in 1968 when the Truth newspaper set up a camera in a neighbouring villa and photographed all the licence plates in the streets. They didn't publish names but they did publish the licence plates, according to Rob. "Flora was filthy over that," he says.

Flora's greatest downfall was not brothel-keeping but drinking.

On the two occasions that Flora was imprisoned, she was sent to Villas 4 and 11 at Kingseat psychiatric hospital, the wings reserved for people with addictions.

After she was released from Kingseat, the courts insisted the Salvation Army visit her on a regular basis. But, as always, Flora was one step ahead. Her milkman, who was a lifelong friend, injected Chivas Regal into a bottle of Madam Flora's milk.

She made a cup of tea for her guest from the Sallies, then opened a fresh bottle of milk, pouring herself a large glass and consuming it with relish. The visitor left, pleased with a job well done.

* * *

''Flora was anybody's grandma," says Rob. "She was the matriarch. She never raised her voice. I never heard her swear in conversation."

Rob got to know the private Flora, too. Her private bedroom was "done in white silk. It was class and style".

And next to the bed was a clue to the inner Flora: A picture in a plain silver frame of a guy in an Air Force uniform.

It was her fiance, she told Rob. "They got engaged, he went off to war and never came back. Battle of Britain, apparently."

She told him: "I've never been interested in anyone else. You may not believe it, Robert, but I am a virgin."

This heartbreak has often been used to explain away Flora's heavy drinking, although, again, some of this may be more myth than reality.

She was regularly imbibing, though, her strange personal poison: Complan [liquid meal replacement] and whisky. "She loved the whisky. But she was always as sharp as a tack. If she was an alkie, it never showed."

Houison reiterates what we all know: That a lot of the parlours nowadays are full of uni students who don't want a large student debt.

And what would Flora have thought of that? "Everybody's grandmother" would have probably raised a whisky and Complan and said: "Good on you, girl".

Edited extract reprinted with permission from Naked Truth by Rachel Francis (Penguin NZ, RRP $35).

- Herald on Sunday

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