I hope you weren’t looking for a bit of over-the-knee spanking in inner-city Sydney last night, because you would have been sadly disappointed. All the BDSM mistresses were at the launch of Sam Everingham’s excellent book Madam Lash, Gretel Pinniger’s scandalous life of sex, art and bondage.

Why don’t all the book launches I go to have semi-naked male acrobats, operatic arias and artistic strippers? Pinniger’s deconsecrated church in Surry Hills, the Kirk, was packed with types not normally spotted at Gleebooks. I left after the first strip show, but judging by the corset-wearing types waiting offstage, the night was still young.

Now almost 65, Pinniger has had two hip replacements and a mastectomy. She has also outlived most of her famous clients — Clyde Packer, who initiated her into bondage, financier Gordon Barton and a mysterious man called the Patron, who supported her for decades.

Several of her former boyfriends were there, however, including Tony Bilson, filmmaker Albie Thoms and lighting designer Roger Foley. Tragically, my old jurisprudence lecturer Lauchlan Chipman, who proposed marriage to Gretel at Melbourne University in 1964, was elsewhere.

Other guests included Sydney Push members such as Marion Manton and Liz Fell, three of Pinniger’s astrologers and the owners and staff of BDSM parlours The Kastle and Salon Kitty’s.

Everingham has done a fine job portraying a woman who became Sydney’s most famous dominatrix and fetishist, appearing regularly in public in her trademark leather corset, carrying a whip. Somewhere along the way, she became a fashion designer and well-known artist.

“Gretel is a woman of warmth and generosity, and has a passion for life. It’s not an authorised biography, as it casts a lens on her dark and light side,” he said.

We were expecting the subject to turn up, but instead her assistant, Cameron, appeared on stage to read a statement. In it, she said she was “betrayed” and “degraded” by the book, which was a “character assassination”.  She asked the audience to think of the launch as her “wake”, saying she would be reborn the next day as “Alice in Wonderland”.

The book does explain the origins of her obsession, however — a Catholic education. After Gretel is packed off to Strathfield’s upmarket Santa Sabina College, she learns the graphic details of the crucifixion.

“At Easter, the nuns would lecture Gretel and her fellow pupils on every details of Christ’s agony, including the more precise physical consequences of the nails piercing the nerves of his feet. Gretel wanted to experience the same suffering and ecstasy. As she would admit 30 years later: “I suppose I got some sort of erotic satisfaction from it.”

For the past 30 years, she has hosted a series of extraordinary parties at the Kirk and her Palm Beach mansion, Florida House.

Everingham writes: “Florida House retained its floating population of house guests, some more welcome than others. They included a one-armed Aboriginal, a Tibetan healer and a couple who hadn’t gone home since Gretel’s birthday six weeks earlier.”

But it appears that age and a manic lifestyle has taken its toll. Old friend Liz Stegley says in the book: “There’s nothing left of the woman I loved. There’s just this self-obsession. [But] for someone who used to take lysergic acid (LSD) as other people eat cornflakes, it’s extraordinary that she still has a couple of neurones to rub together.”

In the afterword to the book, Pinniger writes: “I apologise for the discomfort I have caused. Sorry. But please remember that True Art never came from the comfort zone, and I seek to be acknowledged for the fact that along with the curry, I gave you jobs, housing, clothes, parties, connections and colour — and sh-tloads of love — while I stomped about and irritated some of you no end … It was all for Art.”

Peter Fray

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