Leila MacDonald, the real estate agent with the Midas touch, lives in a lovely and enormous old house with a very pretty garden in Epsom which you can go and have a nosey through today.
Hers is one of the houses open to nosey parkers for the Barfoot & Thompson Home and Garden Tour to raise money for the Starship Foundation. So, being a nosey parker, I wanted to go and have an advance look - at the house and the garden, and at her, because she has a formidable reputation.
She came to what I thought was the front door but which she said was the back door and opened it and the handle fell off. "That's a good start," she said, not at all bothered either by the start or by the handle falling off. Tony could put it back on. Tony was doing the garden. He does most things including washing the windows because she is too busy. The three of us went for a tour of the garden. There was a shady patch where she said she couldn't get the lawn to grow. Oh, get rid of the lawn, I said, bossily, and plant it up with white hellebores. How many? she said. I thought about 30. She thought about 15. We had a negotiation. She won. I asked, later, if she was bossy. She said, "I don't like bossy people." She is not bossy, then, but she is direct.
She bought the house, which was built in 1865, 35 years ago, for about $100,000, she thinks. It was in a terrible state and she couldn't find her husband, Angus (he died eight years ago and you can tell she still adores him) to tell him, so she just went ahead. He said: "How are you going to pay for it?" But he didn't mind, really, because they both loved old things and, she said, he could see too that it was a beautiful house. The really nice thing about it is that it feels happily scuffed and lived in. She has stuff everywhere: Vintage toys and hundreds of family photos and vast vases of flowers from the garden, dropping petals. There were forget-me-nots in the garden, spilling out on to the paths, and roses and aquilegias and euphorbia and cornflowers, all jumbled up. She goes for abundance over fashion and she has a flair for it. She has stopped collecting antiques for the moment because, she said, she's run out of space. Also, the Royal Ironstone china she collects is almost impossible to get now. This could be because she has most of it. She must have as much china as the Queen, I thought, but didn't say because I didn't want her to give me one of her looks.
I did say that living in the same house for 35 years wasn't much of an advertisement for real estate and she said: "Well, I'm not very good for real estate!" Did she understand people who moved around all the time? "It's good for us!"
I thought she only sold the houses of the very rich but she said, no, that was quite wrong and that she'll sell any house and she recently sold one for about $400,000. "I don't care whether they are down here or all the way up there. I treat everybody the same." I never got to the bottom (let alone the top) of why she does sell so many of the very top end houses, or why she's so good at it. She shrugged and said: "I just work hard. I love working." She said she just started out knocking on the doors of houses she liked the look of.
She has been Barfoot and Thompson's top salesperson for 13 years. I think. She didn't have a clue. Did she know how many houses she'd sold in her 33-year career? "I wouldn't have a clue."
I thought she'd live in Remuera. "No. No." I thought she'd be rather grand. "No. No. I'm just me." Was she posh? "No. Hate it. That's what I don't like about living in Lebanon. The classes."
Her father's family were titled and had a castle and land but her grandfather was murdered: "Because they wanted to steal the horses." And then her grandmother died and so her father was raised by his uncle and wanted nothing to do with the castle or the family land. She and Angus did once go to look at the castle, which was still standing, more or less, and the land had "goats walking all over it" and had long ago been taken over by other people. I was very interested in all of this but she just seems to regard it as somebody else's distant past, which it is, really. I suspect she doesn't spend much time looking back. She has all those houses to sell.
She never makes friends with clients and doesn't get involved in their lives and she doesn't have any real estate agent friends.
Her life is family and church about which she was adamant I say no more about other than that it is a church with no name and no buildings.
"The people are the church." Other than that: "It's private."
She says that 99 per cent of her clients: "You couldn't wish for nicer people". The other 1 per cent she tells to give their houses to somebody else to sell. I thought the richer the person, the tighter they'd be but she said: "No. The opposite." I thought real estate must be a tough game and that she must then be really tough but that was completely wrong too. "I am, put it this way, very, very sensitive." This means that "I'd hate to do anything wrong. That would really upset me." And has she? "No. I hope not. I'm just very careful of what I say and what I do." She hates paperwork and can't use a computer. Her handwriting is atrocious. She said that nobody can read it and I'm not sure she can either. She wrote down an email address (real estate agents don't turn off their phones, even in interviews) and then looked quizzically at it and asked me what the person she'd been speaking to had said.
I wondered whether her directness was a Lebanese trait. She hasn't given it much thought; she just gets on with being just her. She met Angus in Lebanon where he had gone as a missionary in the church with no name and they met when he was teaching English at the American University. Was it love at first sight? "No, no. I trusted him and respected him. He was a great guy. So sincere and honest and proper." The proper part was important. "Yes." Was she proper? "Yes. This is very important."
I bet it was love at first sight for him. We looked at some pictures of her as a young woman. I said, clumsily: "Oh! You were beautiful. I mean, you still are!" She said: 'How old do you think I am?" She looks about 60, I said, sucking up, but she does. "I'm 73," she said. Later she said: 'No. I'm 74." In one picture, taken when she was a young mother with three children she is wearing a white dress with a pattern of little flowers and a Peter Pan collar. It is a very proper dress.
She has an amazing beehive hairdo, which is not quite as proper, but very fetching. She sent a copy of this picture home to her mother because she had made the dress and her mother didn't believe that she could sew. When she married Angus she couldn't even cook. In Lebanon there had been servants. She got one heck of a shock when she arrived in New Zealand in 1960, a country she "didn't even know existed".
She used to say to Angus: "Does anybody live in this country? You go to bed with the chooks and you wake up with the chooks! You know, you start going out to dinner at nine o'clock at night in Beirut. Everybody is in bed here by then! So it took a bit of getting used to."
She was not unhappy, but she was homesick. Her parents weren't happy that she had gone so far from home and her father refused to speak to the young couple for a time, but he came around in the end. And she kept busy, as she always has. She said: "Right. I've got to do what New Zealanders do, so I took night classes. I took continental cooking. I took sewing, gardening and floral art. I took wood working." Wood working! "Yeah, because I wanted to make pelmets for the curtains." Were they good pelmets? 'Yeah, because I wanted good pelmets. Then I decided I wanted to do pottery. Oh, I hated it! I went to the first lesson and you have to make a jug and you have to go with the wheel with your foot so I was going like this and this thing is not going straight and the teacher came over to me and said: 'You are hopeless. Waste of time.' So I got the clay, and my foot was still going on the thing, which I didn't know, and I went like that [sweeping her hand across the clay] and whole thing splattered all over everybody around! so I took off! I said: 'Goodbye!'"
What a horrible teacher! "Well, I was hopeless!"
I thought this was all very interesting, and funny. She said: "Anyhow, are you finished?" No. "Oh, God!"
She had a thought. "Does Barfoot & Thompson know I'm doing this?" I didn't know the answer to that. Had she told them? No. Ring Garth, I said, meaning her boss, Garth Barfoot. "What's his number?" I don't know!
This led to much phoning of other people and me having to talk to her manager who said that she didn't know why she was talking to me, either, and could I put Leila back on please? No, I couldn't because she was now on the other phone. So I talked some more to the manager who said that Leila couldn't phone Garth because he had fallen off his bike (he must be nearly 80 and is mad on triathlons) and was in hospital. When I told Leila this she said, hardly bossily at all: "Flipp'n heck. I'll sort him out and tell him to get off his bike and stay home."
It was all very confusing but I think she thought I was somebody else altogether and that this was another sort of interview altogether and so I wasn't to put it in the paper until it was sorted out.
Too late, I said.
"Why don't you go and talk to Rosie [Horton]?" she said, hopefully. "She's a friend of mine. She's gorgeous." That might be the first sale she's failed to make, but she accepted defeat gracefully and rushed out to the garden to cut me some seed heads.
She's a terrible interview, even allowing for the confusion. She kept saying I wasn't to put entirely inconsequential things in, which, being a bossy person I of course ignored. But she's a lot of fun and I can forgive almost anything of a generous gardener.