The relationship between biographer and subject can be fraught but particularly so when it’s an unauthorised biography of one of Sydney’s most salacious personalities — Gretel Pinniger aka Madame Lash.
Written over several years, with input from the famous dominatrix, Madam Lash: Gretel Pinniger’s Scandalous Life of Sex, Art and Bondage was to be launched at a decadent party at the Kirk, the church owned by Pinniger, in her presence.
On the morning of the launch, however, Pinniger lashed out with a scathing attack on the book and its author, claiming the biography was full of lies.
A publicity stunt? Perhaps, but one that culminated with Pinniger sending her chauffeur to the launch party to read a statement about the hurt the book had caused her.
Author Sam Everingham told Sydney Star Observer the next day that he is optimistic that his relationship with Pinniger could be repaired.
“I think she thought it was going to be an authorised biography, but it was always going to be a whole and truthful account of an amazing and often shocking life,” Everingham said.
“She’s an amazing woman and she’s a real personality, but she’s a handful and unpredictable. Like all the best artists, she’s amazingly creative but you’ve got to treat her with care. She’s sensitive.”
Everingham’s account is full of the more well-known stories from Pinniger’s life, including an ill-fated appearance on The Mike Willesee Show and the launch of her own S/M dungeon in the 1970s, as well as her later rise in the art world as an Archibald finalist.
There are also tales of Pinniger’s childhood, shaped by an absent father and the experience of being the outsider at religious girls’ schools.
It tells of her love affairs with powerful men, including restaurateur Tony Bilson and former NSW Liberal MLC Clyde Packer (brother of Kerry). It alludes to her most enduring relationship with her benefactor — a man who has never been publicly identified and is known only as The Patron.
Aside from the personal anecdotes, the book is enjoyable as an account of Sydney’s history and its past as a city with a vibrant and dirty underground, before chrome took over and pub patrons were banned from having fun.
“She was doing amazing shows in the gay scene here back in the ’70s. She made outfits for the first Mardi Gras. She had the Game Bird shop devoted to fetish fashion,” Everingham said.
Everingham’s favourite story about Pinniger concerns the night she performed at the University of New South Wales alongside drag outfit Sylvia and the Synthetics. The bondage performance soon escalated to a live-sex-act-come-performance-art piece and Pinniger was quickly escorted off the stage by concerned security before the crowd got out of hand.
“For our generation, I look back and think, wow, we’re so tame compared to what was going on in the ’70s.”
There were also tales of Pinniger’s slave auctions and performances at the now-defunct Signal leather bar, and her integral role in encouraging Sydney’s burgeoning fetish scene.
“When she was doing it in the ’70s, it was all very new and no one was doing that really in-your-face sexuality in public, but there she was inviting the media into her dungeon,” Everingham said.
“I think it was very liberating for some people. I think there was this feeling, if someone could talk about S/M so publicly, it must be okay.
“Now people like Madonna and others have embraced it, but back when [Pinniger] was doing it, it was all new. It was underground and she brought it up to the public eye. The Madame Lash persona, I suppose, really gave a point for the S/M community to hang their hat on and feel safe.
“I think she came to hate that Madame Lash persona though. Particularly when she moved into her portraiture painting, she wanted to be seen as Gretel the artist.
“I don’t think it was ever really a part of her personality to whip men, and be the dominant one. I think she found a niche she could exploit — and did — but now she is all about her art.”
A celebrated portrait artist who has been an Archibald finalist several times, Pinniger is now devoted to a new form of art involving building up hundreds of layers of thick, circular swirls on top of past paintings.
“She has an amazing visual memory, and she can see the painting underneath that she painted 20 years ago, and remember it even though it’s been covered up by hundreds and hundreds of layers of paint now,” Everingham said.
“It took me a while to work out she was talking about the past and what’s in her mind rather than what’s on the canvas. To her, she feels it is very much a revolutionary form of art that will one day be recognised as a totally new art form.”
If not, her impact on art, bondage and Sydney’s cultural cachet will surely be enough to keep her in the history books.
info: Madam Lash: Gretel Pinniger’s Scandalous Life of Sex, Art and Bondage is now available at bookstores. RRP $30.
Editor’s note: Gretel Pinniger spells Madame Lash with an ‘e’, while Sam Everingham’s book title omits the ‘e’.