Page 1: Biography
Dressmaker, brothel keeper
This biography, written by Jan Jordan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Flora MacKenzie (or McKenzie) was born in Māngere, Auckland, on 15 August 1902, the daughter of Hugh Ross MacKenzie, a farmer, and his wife, Lillie Theresa Ellett. Flora, her brother and sister were brought up on the horse farm their parents owned, which became well-known as the Ascot stud. McKenzie Road in Māngere was named after her father, who was an active member of both the Māngere Road Board and the Auckland Racing Club. Later Sir Hugh, he went on to achieve prominence as long-time chairman of the Auckland Harbour Board. In February 1927 her father officially welcomed the duke and duchess of York when they arrived at Auckland.
Flora MacKenzie trained as a nurse and also became an accomplished dressmaker. For many years she ran a boutique, Ninette, in Vulcan Lane, which specialised in bridal gowns and was reputedly patronised by an affluent clientele which included cabinet ministers’ wives. She sketched her own creations, often in watercolours. (After her death, framed dress sketches by Flora MacKenzie were sold in an Auckland gallery, often, it was claimed, to former clients of her other business venture – the infamous Ring Terrace brothel in Ponsonby.)
MacKenzie’s entry into the world of prostitution has been traced back to the 1940s, when her father purchased a block of flats for her at 17–19 Ring Terrace. Flora MacKenzie apparently lived there for six months before realising that the tenants were ‘good-time girls’ who entertained American GIs. She is then said to have drifted into the role of madam when her frequent drinking binges allowed the ‘professional’ girls to take over the premises. The establishment which developed was like an exclusive club, and attracted patronage from Auckland’s business and commercial élite.
It also attracted the attention of the police. Between 1962 and 1976 Flora MacKenzie appeared in court six times on brothel-keeping charges, and was twice imprisoned for periods of six months. One of these appearances was sparked by reaction to threats made by NZ Truth newspaper in 1968 to publish the names of the owners of cars seen parked outside the Ring Terrace establishment. The police responded to complaints and used undercover officers to obtain evidence of brothel keeping. Kevin Ryan defended MacKenzie at the resultant trial, during which the judge, G. D. Speight, and the jury were taken to her property to ascertain for themselves whether this was a brothel or, as MacKenzie said, simply a large house let as flats and used for entertaining. Ryan recalled his astonishment at the transformation the premises had undergone before the judicial visit. A large cross dominated the noticeboard in the lounge, where pamphlets proclaimed ‘Jesus Saves’ and invited people to attend a Billy Graham crusade. As the jury walked through the flats they were somewhat confused to see only single beds, on top of which lay large, ornate Bibles. Some were persuaded by Ryan’s argument that Flora MacKenzie was a lonely woman who liked company and gave young women a good roof over their heads, and the trial resulted in a hung jury.
Flora MacKenzie had by now become an Auckland identity. Her home was legendary, prized for its art and antiques and rumoured to have a rotating bed upstairs with panoramic harbour views. She has been described as ‘a flamboyant, happy-go-lucky woman … who did not care a damn about what the so-called respectable people thought of her’. She was an alcoholic who sought help from Alcoholics Anonymous, somewhat unsuccessfully. She pretended she liked drinking milk and bought two pints a day, which she then mixed liberally with spirits and kept in the refrigerator. Whenever anyone from AA visited, MacKenzie beamed virtuously as she sipped her ‘milk’.
Flora MacKenzie was also a great lover of animals, in particular her Pekinese dogs. When, in 1957, she discovered that one of her pets had been run over, she immediately blamed a neighbour. This woman, a justice of the peace, answered a loud knock on her door, only to have a flying dead dog hurtle into her: MacKenzie had swung the animal round by its tail until the door opened, when she suddenly let go. The neighbour phoned the police and Alec Leyland was sent to attend the incident. This was the occasion of the first of many meetings with Flora MacKenzie, which became more numerous a year or so later when he joined the Vice Squad. Although adversaries, they became firm friends.
The Ring Terrace brothel became the most famous in Auckland, if not New Zealand. MacKenzie, however, never liked the words ‘brothel’ or ‘prostitute’, and contended, ‘Isn’t every woman a prostitute? Married men pay their wives, don’t they?’ She preferred to describe her business as offering ‘sex therapy’, and indeed sexologists are said to have referred clients to her for remedial assistance. Flora MacKenzie believed in equal rights for women, and declared, ‘I think men are useless b––s, running around crying because they need sex. But I’m not a man hater. What’s good for one should be good for the other and I think the time will come when there are places for women to go for men. I think women should be able to choose the men, buy one, and then drop him afterward like they drop women’.
At the time of her death, at her home on 8 July 1982, she had cirrhosis of the liver and a weak heart. She had been ill and in pain for some years. Flora MacKenzie had never married nor borne children and was rumoured to have left her premises to the man who delivered her weekly crate of whisky; all her money went to the deaf. Although no death notice was published and her funeral was a very quiet affair, the obituaries and tributes to her were fond and numerous. Amongst those who paid tribute to MacKenzie was one of her former legal counsel, Roger Maclaren, who said: ‘She was generous to a fault and always a sucker for a soft touch. She had an amazing sense of humour, she was garrulous, obscene – she was everything a madam should be, I suppose’.