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Teatime with Cynthia Payne

Features | By Paul Bailey

Kind and surprisingly discreet: Cynthia Payne

Paul Bailey was honoured with the task of writing the official biography of the notorious Streatham madam. But first he was ordered to attend one of her ‘parties’

Cynthia Payne appointed me her official biographer in 1980, after rejecting John Wells , whom she suspected of being a ‘piss-taker’, and John Lahr, who turned up for his interview with the madam wearing grubby trainers and baggy jeans. They lacked respect, she said. I, by contrast, arrived at 32 Ambleside Avenue in Streatham in a smart navy-blue suit and shoes that gleamed. For the next two hours or so I listened intently as she told me about her life and the curious turns it had taken. I had no idea that there was a tape recorder secreted beneath a cushion on a nearby chair. When we met for the second time, she played back our ‘conversation’, to which I had contributed the very occasional ‘Really?’ and ‘Is that so?’ and ‘Of course.’ Otherwise, her soliloquy went uninterrupted.

There were slaves in attendance whenever we met. Slave Peter, dressed only in a skimpy apron that barely covered his genitals, brought us coffee and biscuits, while Slave Robert toiled in the garden, trimming the lawn and dead-heading flowers. They paid their Superior Mistress £40 a week for the honour of working on her behalf, and were happily unaware of the intrinsic absurdity of their situation – never were two men so devoted to duty. Cynthia carried a small cane, to remind them of the consequences if they cut corners or overlooked a weed sprouting in the grass. It was a perfect arrangement, they all agreed.

I was introduced, one by one, to Cynthia’s ‘regulars’ – old friends as well as customers. Squadron Leader Robert Smith, who was known as ‘Mitch’, mentioned in last month’s Old Un’s Diary, was the most notably eccentric, especially at parties, when he would exude Eastern promise by donning a yashmak, an ill-fitting bra and knickers vast enough to contain a small child. He enjoyed a ‘little mild flogging’ if a young lady, preferably in leather, was agreeable. At his funeral, in 1981, the chapel at the south London crematorium was filled with the kind of mourners you might expect in a film by Buñuel or Almodóvar. On one side were his middle-class relatives, who were united in horror at the spectacle of a dozen or so leather-clad ‘girls’, whips in hand, facing them across the aisle. No funeral, before or since, has afforded me so much pleasure.

Cynthia made it clear to me that I would never understand her if I didn’t come to one of her famous parties. There was always the danger that the police might raid her again, as they had done in 1978. One particular party, in December 1980, refuses to dislodge itself from my memory. It began in the early evening. Cynthia’s ‘girls’ were already in attendance when the first eager guests arrived at Cranmore, the name of her disorderly house. At the age of 43, I was the youngest man present. Cynthia greeted each of her ‘old boys’ with good humour and, in some cases, obvious affection. Everyone was well dressed, out of respect for the hostess. ‘Mitch’, in his yashmak, served the drinks – gin, whisky, cans of beer, and orange juice for those who intended to ‘go upstairs’ without succumbing to brewer’s droop before the real fun and games started.

Cynthia called for silence above the noise in the packed sitting-room. Two of her loveliest ‘girls’ were going to put on a display in front of the blazing log fire. We watched as Miss A and Miss B gave way to unbridled passion on the carpet. They were joined suddenly in their exertions by a distinguished London publisher who had undressed with a speed worthy of an Olympic gold medallist. He had removed everything except his socks as he threw himself between the pair of pretend-lesbians. The ‘old boys’ broke into spontaneous, and no doubt envious, applause as the publisher exhibited his hitherto unexpected skills. Cynthia was delighted that she had invited him. She remarked, without irony, that he ‘added a touch of class’ to the goings-on.

The publisher’s sexual energy was boundless that night. He disappeared upstairs with Miss A and was not seen again. I sat in the kitchen with Jean, a retired dominatrix, with whom I had become good friends. A ‘girl’ of advanced years was busy at the stove preparing poached eggs and toast for the ‘old boys’ who had exhausted themselves in the various bedrooms. Strong tea or Bovril was available for those of a weaker disposition.

About a week later, the publisher phoned to tell me that Cynthia had sent him a bill for £30. I replied that £30 was a very reasonable price for the services he had enjoyed. He was outraged at the idea that he should have to pay for sex. ‘But you were in a brothel,’ I said. ‘That’s not the point,’ he spluttered. Thirty-five years on, I still don’t know what he meant.

He sent her a cheque eventually. She tore it up. She was a notorious woman, and someone at the bank might recognise his name and give it to the newspapers. For all her brazenness, Cynthia Payne was a kind and surprisingly discreet human being, unlike the stingy millionaire who begrudged paying her a pittance.

This story was from February 2016 issue. Subscribe Now