Flora MacKenzie is one of the most colourful characters in New Zealand history: A hard drinking, hard talking brothel owner from the 1960s and 70s who won the affection of sex workers, police and punters alike.
There are all kinds of crazy stories about her: The time she threw a dead dog at her neighbour, her famous revolving bed, her close friendship with the head of the Auckland police vice squad.
In this episode of Black Sheep, we look at the legend of Madam Flora.
Elisabeth Easther is a playwright and actor - and also probably the closest thing to a Flora MacKenzie expert.
“It’s very hard to get to the truth,” Easther said. “You hear so many different versions of [her life story], and you have to cobble it together from hearsay and newspaper articles and letters people write to you.”
Easther became fascinated by Flora MacKenzie after performing a monologue as her while at drama school. Later in Easther’s career, she turned that monologue into a full play: Famous Flora - named after the brothel that MacKenzie ran for more than 30 years.
Easther said Flora was the daughter of Sir Hugh MacKenzie, a rich and well regarded businessman who ran a horse stud in Māngere and served as head of the Auckland Harbour Board.
“She was all horse races and debutante balls and being introduced to the Queen.”
According to Easther’s sources, MacKenzie caused a minor scandal during a royal visit to New Zealand because she crossed her legs at the knee, rather than the ankle, while the Queen was present.
“And I think she did it on purpose,” Easther added.
Flora began training as a nurse but gave it up because she couldn’t stand the strict discipline of the nurse matrons.
“She was determined to be her own person,” explained historian Barbara Brookes, author of A History of New Zealand Women.
Instead, MacKenzie traveled to Australia in the 1920s, mixed with the bohemian crowd in Sydney and developed a fascination with fashion design which she brought back to Auckland when she returned home.
By 1927, she was the sole owner of Ninette Gowns, a high-end fashion shop on Queen Street.
“And she’s got a particular market that she knows how to cater to,” Brookes said. “She took meticulous care … some of the beautiful gowns are now in museum collections.”
The great mystery is how this high-class fashion designer changed careers to become the most famous brothel owner of 20th century New Zealand.
Flora MacKenzie personally told the story of how she became involved in the sex industry to Radio New Zealand journalist Ray Hays in 1976. She was then 74 years old and had just been prosecuted for brothel keeping for the sixth time.
MacKenzie said her father had bought her an apartment building on Ring Terrace. She rented some of the downstairs rooms to a group of young single women, one of whom had told Flora that she was a private business secretary.
One day, MacKenzie needed to fill out a complicated tax form so she went downstairs to ask her tenant for help. She said she then had the following conversation with the young woman.
“Do you want me to leave?”
“I can’t help you [with the tax form]”
“I’m a prostitute.”
“What’s a prostitute?”
MacKenzie eventually worked out what a prostitute was, but instead of evicting her tenant she decided to take a cut of her earnings. Before long, there were a number of sex workers operating out of Ring Terrace, which eventually became known as ‘Famous Flora’s.’
MacKenzie doesn’t make it clear exactly when this happened. It could have been as early as the 1930s or as late as 1958.
Many suspect she first became involved in brothel keeping during World War II, catering to the thousands of US servicemen who passed through New Zealand on their way to war in the Pacific.
“These men are, of course, very interested in sex,” said Barbara Brookes. “And of course New Zealand women are interested in the American men.”
Plenty of Kiwi women were keen for relationships with US servicemen without any cash changing hands but sex workers also did a brisk trade.
An article in the New Zealand Herald, from 1943, provides a tantalising hint at Flora’s involvement in that trade.
“A plea of guilty was entered in the case in which Flora MacKenzie was charged with being in possession of 3,400 cigarettes, uncustomed goods. [Her lawyer] Mr Simpson said the defendant had entertained a number of American officers and they had generously left the cigarettes in return. She could not, with courtesy, refuse to accept them. A fine of 25 pounds was imposed.”
While the article doesn’t mention prostitution, Elisabeth Easther believes these cigarettes may have been a form of payment for sex workers at Ring Terrace.
“That absolutely smacks of currency,” she said.
In any case, it’s clear that by 1958 Flora MacKenzie had shut down Ninette Gowns and become a full-time brothel keeper.
According to most sources ‘Famous Flora’s’ was a high-class establishment. Her former handyman, Rob Houison described it like this in the book Naked Truth, by Rachel Francis:
“Most of the clients were very well-known businessmen, local politicians, mayors, QCs, barristers, bank managers, anyone who held, in those days, what you would consider to be a pretty important position.”
This clientele occasionally led to trouble for MacKenzie. In 1968, the New Zealand Truth newspaper published the number plates of cars parked outside Ring Terrace and threatened to name their owners.
That exposé led to a police crackdown - and eventually a jail sentence - for MacKenzie herself. It was one of six times she appeared in court for brothel-keeping.
However, MacKenzie usually had a good relationship with the police, particularly Alec Leyland who was the head of the Auckland city vice squad. He did an interview with Metro magazine after MacKenzie’s death, paying tribute to her memory:
“Notorious she’s been branded, but I knew her for what she was from the soul. She’d never see anyone in trouble.”
Although that Metro interview with Alec Leyland does suggest there might have been some dodgy deals which helped smooth the relationship between Flora and the police …
“I rang up Flora. I said ‘look Flora I’ve got a new boss. I’d like to bring him along and introduce him to you’.”
No sooner had the formalities been observed than she gave a signal. A bevy of seductive-looking girls sauntered into the room and demurely lined up before the open-mouthed policeman.
“Take your pick,” said Flora with an imperious wave of her hand. “They're all free.”
Listen to the full Black Sheep podcast to hear about Flora’s many brushes with the law, and the memories of those who interacted with her over the years