Lord Hamlyn and the dominatrix who didn't kiss and tell

Madame Lash's liaisons with Australia's great and good became a matter of public record. But she has always kept the identity of her biggest benefactor secret – until now
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The Independent Online

Many men have fallen for the charms of Gretel Pinniger, Australia's most notorious dominatrix, who – under the sobriquet of Madame Lash – has been the talk of Sydney society for more than 40 years.

There was Clyde Packer, elder brother of the late media tycoon, Kerry, who introduced Pinniger to S&M in exchange for a white mink coat. There was Tony Bilson, now one of Australia's leading chefs, with whom she explored "free love" and drank "schooners [tall beer glasses] of champagne". And there was the mystery man who bankrolled her lifestyle as well as her two prime Sydney properties, and whose identity she promised never to divulge.

Now Madame Lash – still throwing wild parties at 64, despite two hip replacements and a mastectomy – is in trouble, thanks to a new biography which details her relationship with this secret benefactor. While it does not name him, merely calling him "the Patron", many in Sydney have long known that he is Paul Hamlyn, the late British peer and publishing billionaire.

One of Australia's most colourful characters, Ms Pinniger co-operated in the writing of the biography, Madam Lash: Gretel Pinniger's Scandalous Life of Sex, Art and Bondage, by Sam Everingham. But since it appeared, the normally voluble, limelight-loving dominatrix has gone to ground. She failed to attend the book's flamboyant launch party at The Kirk, her deconsecrated church in inner-city Sydney, and is lying low at Florida House, her five-storey beachside mansion, complete with dungeon and bondage rooms.

The problem, Mr Everingham believes, is that the privately educated Ms Pinniger, who once contemplated becoming a nun, still receives a monthly allowance from Lord Hamlyn's estate, dependent on her continuing discretion. Lord Hamlyn died in 2001, but "the executors of his estate obviously don't want his name to be muddied", according to the author, who thinks Ms Pinniger has been "warned off".

"She was always only given money on the understanding she wouldn't talk about her private life," he said. "And she was a model of discretion throughout her conversations with me."

Friends, though, filled in the gaps, and the biography is revealing – too revealing – about her liaison with Lord Hamlyn, who met Madame Lash through an Australian businessman in 1977.

It relates: "He was then in his early fifties, married with children and so wealthy he could indulge almost any whim. One of these was exploring the outer boundaries of sexual fantasy. Money was no object, and under such conditions Gretel's inventiveness was endless."

Lord Hamlyn – founder of Hamlyn Publishing, noted philanthropist and one of the Labour Party's biggest donors – would fly to Sydney several times a year, as well as summoning Ms Pinniger to various international cities on his business schedule. All she had to do was bring "a suitcase of fetish gear, creativity and her bounteous energy".

One friend who used to watch her pack relates: "There'd be double-ended dildos ... I used to feel extremely naïve." She once asked her: "What on earth is that thing?" Lord Hamlyn's mistress replied: "Oh, it's a bearing rein ... You ride people around the room with it."

Ms Pinniger recalls: "When he [Hamlyn] said fly, I'd fly. When he said kiss this whip, I'd kiss it." According to the book: "Gretel might just have 24 hours with him before flying home. They would sometimes indulge in fantasies involving someone else, sometimes an entire dinner party of guests."

Also a painter and fashion designer, Ms Pinniger mixed with gangsters in Sydney's red-light district, Kings Cross, in her youth. She once ran for the Australian Senate, with a promise to bring "rubber, leather, glitter, glamour and, of course, lashes" to Canberra, and gatecrashed the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, where she picked up a young West Indian boxing champion.

Mr Everingham believes Lord Hamlyn was "something of a father figure" to her – her own father abandoned the family when she was five. While at Melbourne University, she began working as a nightclub hostess to help fund her studies. She then became a stripper, acted in a few porn films and invented the character of Madame Lash for a performance piece.

The black lipstick, leather and stiletto-wearing, whip-wielding image brought her plenty of attention. But according to her biographer, it is quite unlike her. "The reality is she's an introverted artist, a very creative soul, a very intellectual woman, really quite shy, and not a very sexual person," he says.

Although she would whip a man if he requested it, Ms Pinniger told him: "I'd never do it so hard that I'd cut anyone." She had sex in a Melbourne cemetery with her first boyfriend, a fellow student. Clyde Packer – who had fallen out with his father, Frank, and turned his back on the family business – set her up in a terraced house, complete with "torture chamber", in inner-city Sydney.

Their relationship ended after a front-page story appeared in a Sunday newspaper headlined: "Man near death in whipping by girl". While neither protagonist was named, and the story – believed to have been planted by the newspaper's proprietor, Kerry Packer, to embarrass his brother – was probably fabricated, their identities were clear.

Ms Pinniger has always lived life on the edge, consuming prodigious quantities of drugs, particularly LSD, and inadvertently blowing the whistle on police corruption in King Cross during a television interview. One notorious vice king, the late Abe Saffron, reportedly wanted her killed, but was dissuaded by another, Lennie McPherson, whom she had escorted to a nightclub.

A person of refined tastes, Madame Lash used to turn up to first nights at the opera in her black converted hearse, with its registration plate STIFF. (Her other vehicles include a fire engine with the plate HOTTY.) She gave birth to her son, Siegfried, to the accompaniment of Wagner's Ring cycle.

Tony Bilson, her former boyfriend, says: "Gretel in some ways sees her life as an opera – that she's a sort of Wagnerian reincarnation. If she chooses to believe that, I think it's wonderful because it gives her a life a dramatic quality that others lack."

That quality was evident when Ms Pinniger arrived at the 1974 Melbourne Cup in an outfit described in the book thus: "An ankle-length black leather trench coat with epaulettes. On its back were cherubs carrying weapons and helmets. On its front, a four-foot-tall Botticelli Venus rose from her half-shell. Intermittently revealed by the garment's waist-high split were tiny leather shorts and spiked high-heeled boots over black net stockings."

Madame Lash designed her own leather and bondage-style creations, selling them for a while from a Sydney shop patronised by Rod Stewart, Cher and Elton John. But she was hopeless with money, and not much better at politics. Although her stab at the Senate in 1996 was conducted in a blaze of publicity, which included an interview on Australia's highest-rating TV gardening programme, she won only 382 votes.

As a painter, she has received some recognition. Her entries were twice hung in the Archibald, a national portraiture prize, and she has invented her own "4D" style, which involves piling hundreds of layers of paint on canvas. (One of her larger works incorporates 120kg of paint.)

Ms Pinniger's brother, George, claims the biographer secured her co-operation because she thought the book would focus on her art. Gretel was "excited" when she saw an advance copy, Mr Everingham says. At the launch party, though, her chauffeur read out a statement denouncing it as a "character assassination" containing "lies" and "misrepresentations".

George believes his sister is much misunderstood. "Gretel was very lonely, almost tragically lonely, as a child, and she's really still the same person now. She's been cheated and robbed and defamed, but she continues to look for the best in people. She has a childlike trust in their goodwill."

Andrew Stevenson, a lawyer who represents the Hamlyn family's interests in Australia, did not return calls. But George Pinniger denies that his sister has distanced herself from the biography because her allowance is in jeopardy.

"The idea that she's been pressured by solicitors and threats of losing money is absolutely ridiculous," he says.

"If she's been discreet about the men in her life, it's because she loved them. She doesn't kiss and tell."

The publisher patron

By Andy McSmith

Paul Hamlyn was famous in his lifetime as a publisher, a ruthless business man, a generous benefactor, and a lover of the good life. He made a vast fortune, estimated at £300m, and gave vast sums away, mainly through his charitable Hamlyn Foundation.

He also, late in life, became one of the Labour Party's major backers. The connection began modestly in the late 1980s, when he gave money to help a then struggling party develop a policy on culture and the arts. Previously, he had been a founder member of the short lived Social Democratic Party, through his friendship with the former Labour Foreign Secretary, David Owen.

In 2001, he was dragged into what threatened to be a political scandal, when it was revealed that Labour had accepted £2m from a single unidentified donor.

The party wanted to publish the donor's name, but could not get Lord Hamlyn's permission because he was desperately ill with cancer, pneumonia and Parkinson's disease. After a few days, helped by his friend Lord Gavron, he issued a simple statement that he was "proud to be a donor". He died eight months later, in September 2001.

Lord Hamlyn opened a bookshop at the age of 21, then began publishing books cheaply, selling them through unlikely outlets like Marks and Spencer. He sold his business to IPC, but bought it back after falling out with IPC's new boss, Don Ryder. He sold it for the second time in 1987, to Reed International, for £523m in shares.

Most of his donations to education and the arts did not carry his name, though a notable exception is the Paul Hamlyn Hall alongside the Royal Opera House in London. But he enjoyed his money. He had homes in Chelsea, Paris and the south of France, rebuilt and redecorated by his second wife, Helen, and he joined his friend Sir Terence Conran to buy the Michelin building in South Kensington, where he located his publishing empire and Bibendum, one of London's top restaurants.

Born Paul Hamburger, he was the son of a Jewish paediatrician. The family fled from Berlin in 1933, when Paul was seven, and settled in London, but his father died soon afterwards, leaving the family in straitened circumstances. It was this early hardship that explains his life-long sympathy for the downtrodden, and perhaps also explains why, once he had more money than he needed, he enjoyed spending it so much.

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