Ben Hills with Deborah Cornwall
To my most adored Edoardo … ” The lawyer pauses, and looks around the elegant Paddington salon, with its priceless Aubusson tapestry, Persian carpets, its brass Buddha statues, Tiffany lamps and Donald Friend paintings.
How are they going to take this, he wonders? The camera pans across the sad faces of the friends and lovers of Roger Claude Teyssedre gathered around the gleaming mahogany table for the reading of the will.
The two Greek Michaels are there in their mourning black. Big Michael the restaurateur, who was Roger’s lover back in the ’60s, and Little Michael, seduced by Roger when he was 19, and whose multitude of sisters have cooked and cleaned for him ever since.
Alex, the handsome Vietnamese orphan who had a brief fling with Roger in the early 1970s, can’t make it – his last known address is a hotel in New Caledonia where he is said to have retreated to solve some taxation problems in the Pacific sunshine.
Ludwig is there, of course. He was the latest live-in lover, and hardly left Roger’s side during the last few months when he lay dying of AIDS upstairs, plumped up on pillows in his enormous antique brass bed. Ludwig was the new favourite, but Roger had promised the others before he died that they would also be generously remembered.
Particularly Edoardo. He was Ludwig’s predecessor in Roger’s brass bed, a witty and handsome man who has now retreated from Paddington’s gay ghetto to live in the Blue Mountains and conserve his strength for his own fight against terminal cancer. To him Roger promised $100,000 at least – money which Edoardo was hoping to use to fly home at Christmas to Milan to farewell his family and to pay for private nursing when the time came.
“To my most adored Edoardo, I leave the sum of $10,000.”
Edoardo is stunned. The lawyer must have made a mistake. Of all those millions Roger had amassed, only $10,000 for his dearest friend. Just four days before he died, Roger had reassured him the money would be there to pay for the trip, the nursing and his other needs.
Edoardo glares down the table towards Ludwig.
“To Michael Caccomanolis, I leave the sum of $10,000 … to Michael Trikillis $10,000 … to Alex Chit-Nat Hi-Rout $10,000 … ” Each time the lawyer names the amount, another pair of eyes fixes angrily on Ludwig. This is not what they were promised.
It takes just five minutes to read the simple, one-page typewritten will. The estate – the houses, the shares, the large amounts of cash in the wall safes and bank accounts – is worth anything from $3 million to $8 million. But only $52,000 has been left to Roger’s best and oldest friends and lovers … the rest goes to Ludwig Gertsch, that Johnny-come-lately who has been in his life for only eight years or so.
The camera zooms in on the date at the top of the will. It is March 30, 1990- just 17 days before Ludwig discovered Roger dead in that great brass bed.
The movie script writes itself. Jack Nicholson has just the touch of menace for the role of Roger, (pronounced Ro-jay, of course) the aging and mysterious French roue. The Les Girls cast should provide the retinue of lovers. Music by Mahler, Steven (Sex, Lies and Videotape) Soderbergh to direct it. Great box office.
Except this is no Hollywood melodrama. The cinematographic liberty we have taken is to bring the cast together in the Paddington terrace where Roger lived with Ludwig the last years of his life. Wills aren’t read much any more, and the friends and former lovers in fact learned of their diminished inheritance in a series of letters sent out by the lawyer administering the will.
But the rest is fact – an extraordinary saga of love and death, greed and debauchery set in the wealthy, high camp gay milieu of Paddington; a secret world where even case-hardened detectives investigating the possible murder of Ludwig Gertsch blanch as they learn of unspeakable acts in gothic bondage basements.
As Sydney’s gay men came out of the closet in the ’70s and migrated to the bars and baths and bistros of Oxford Street, they came to know – or at least know of – a fleshy man with a Henry VIII beard and bright black eyes, jangling with Cartier jewellery, who strode along Oxford Street with a retinue of friends and admirers in tow as if he owned the place. In fact he did own the place … or at least large chunks of it.
His friends doted on him and called him Roger, eliding the “r” in the French manner. “He had the charisma of a Bhagwan,” said Denise Coussens, a business associate.
Others had another name for Roger Claude Teyssedre – behind his back, they called him Mr Sin. “He just seemed like evil incarnate to me, he used to make the hairs stand up on my neck every time I saw him,” said one longtime member of Paddington’s gay society.
Roger used to tell people that he grew up an impoverished street kid in wartime Paris before deciding, in 1950, to migrate to Australia. He was 20 years old at the time, and Sydney must have been a rude awakening -homosexuality was still punishable by eight years’ imprisonment, the pubs shut at six o’clock, heroin hadn’t been heard of and vice, such as it was (mainly illegal gambling, sly grog and heterosexual prostitution) was tightly controlled by a few well-known criminals, police and politicians.
Roger worked first as a flower arranger, then moved on to men’s fashion, restaurants, bars, and finally bathhouses catering for a gay clientele. Over the years, he pioneered most of the best-known names on the Oxford Street’s gay strip – Jools restaurant, Le Cabanon, Ruby’s, Patches, the Exchange Hotel and King Steam, a comparatively staid establishment now under new ownership, described as a “gay Masonic lodge”.
Man-about-town Leo Schofield remembers him clad in a kaftan presiding over a Moroccan restaurant: “He had been charged once with selling horsemeat, and we used to jokingly ask him for two brumby-burgers.”
As his description of himself changed from restaurateur, to entrepreneur, to company director, Roger was quietly amassing an impressive collection of commercial and residential property – some of it in partnership with that other well-known impresario of Sydney’s gay nightlife, Dawn Irwin (nee O’Donnell), publican of the Imperial Hotel, Erskineville, and the Newtown Hotel.
Land Titles Office records show that from 1971 on, Roger had his name on the titles of no fewer than 24 properties around Alexandria, Surry Hills, East Sydney, St James, Katoomba, and Picton on the Southern Tablelands. In addition, he became a director or shareholder in at least six companies involved in investment and running various businesses.
Much of his business was done in cash, and at the time of his death he had$895,794 sitting in various bank accounts. “Either he was the most successful restaurateur Sydney has ever seen,” says a lawyer who is trying to sort through the maze of property and company transactions, “or else there is something else here that we aren’t seeing, some other source of money.”
With the money – whatever its source, and there is no shortage of gossip around the gay bars of Oxford Street – came popularity and influence. Roger’s house in fashionable Sutherland Street, Paddington, became a glittering salon after he spent three years and scores of thousands of dollars converting it into an altar to camp chic.
Homes magazine just last winter featured the terrace in an eight-page spread, gushing about the African slate on the floors, the Chinese silks, Indian antiques that Roger (“The Compulsive Collector”) brought back with him from his overseas trips. “An almost Ali Baba ‘open Sesame’ experience awaits those who enter the home of Roger-Claude for the first time … ”
His aged mother Juliette lived in a shingled cottage behind the house until her death two years ago, and to complete the picture, a coven of six Siamese cats roamed the property.
People jockeyed for pride of place at Roger’s dinner parties where hashish and cocaine flowed as freely as the champagne, and there was no shortage of pretty men eager to share his bed. Right up to his death, at the age of 60, Roger retained his swarthy good looks – assisted by several thousand francs worth of plastic surgery in Tahiti.
But there were only five men who were ever important to Roger. The other four have told police that none of them knows what has happened to Ludwig Gertsch.
It could have been an awkward moment in the carefully orchestrated funeral. Roger had plenty of time to plan – he had known for five years, since mid-1985, that he had AIDS. As he lay holding court swathed in silken manchester in his big brass bed, doped to the eyeballs on Tryptonal and sleeping 17 hours a day, he had plenty of time to muse about his own last rites – right down to insisting his two favourite songs were played: Sinatra’s My Way and Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien.
As requested, the 50-odd mourners had travelled in a convoy of black stretch limousines from Carter’s funeral parlour in Oxford Street to a crematorium at Botany – a rum assortment of drag queens in full regalia, former straight business associates in suits and pill-box hats, friends, Dawn O’Donnell, and a contingent of weeping Greeks. But what to do with the four ex-lovers who turned up?
Ludwig Gertsch played the magnanimous widow. He invited them to sit with him in the family pew, up front by the casket at the front of the auditorium, as Dawn led off with a moving eulogy about Roger’s kindness and generosity, his ability to befriend “prime ministers and ordinary people alike”.
It was a rainy Friday afternoon, April 20 this year, just four days after Ludwig arrived home at Paddington around 7.30 in the morning (he later told police he had been visiting his mother) and made Roger a breakfast glass of orange juice. He found his lover dead in bed.
Ludwig Gertsch was 17 years younger than Roger and prided himself on his well-turned physique, a legacy of the days when he worked as a go-go dancer before taking on his own hair dressing salon, Ludwig’s, in Redfern. Swarthy and bearded like Roger, Gertsch had lived in Dutch Guyana (now Surinam), on the north-east shoulder of South America, before he and his mother moved to Australia in the 1960s.
Ludwig and Roger had known each other socially for nearly 12 years before Ludwig moved in to the Paddington house in 1982, just one month after 2 Ludwig’s former lover, a schoolteacher, had died of a drug overdose. While many of Roger’s friends speculated at the time that Roger had taken Ludwig on more out of pity than lust, it was the start of a stormy lover/lackey relationship that would last until Roger’s death … a relationship that would leave Ludwig nearly $3 million better off.
Friends and former lovers all say that Roger treated Ludwig like a slave from the outset, forcing him to give up his hairdressing work to be at Roger’s beck and call. Ludwig, who, up until the age of 35 had never driven, had to get a driving licence to chauffeur Roger around (Roger himself did not drive)and was expected to play butler and bottle-washer – as well as bedfellow – at Roger’s frequent soirees.
“I can never understand why men try to live together like husband and wife,” says Edoardo Alderighi, a well-known former restaurateur who was Roger’s live-in lover for three years before Ludwig came along, “When I lived with Roger we would fight all the time – Roger treated his friends like gold, but he treated his lovers like s—.”
There were many emotional scenes in front of friends, many occasions when Roger threatened to turn his lover out into the street – especially when Ludwig had drunk too much, something Roger abhorred. One friend remembers Ludwig arriving home at 10 in the morning after drinking and dancing all night at a “Rat party” celebrating the flamboyant Grace Jones – Roger had his bag packed and sent back to mother (in Redfern), relenting only days later after much weeping and pleading from Ludwig.
Other members of Roger’s circle – the “family” of seven men and women who were eventually to share in his will – resent the fact that during the last months of his life, when Roger was on the roller-coaster ride of AIDS, Ludwig was over-protective, taking the telephone off the hook, telling callers Roger was too sick to see them. “Every time I telephoned towards the end, Ludwig would say ‘He’s asleep,’ or ‘He’s not here,'” recalls Edoardo.
Ludwig was lover number five. Edoardo was number four. Their immediate predecessor was Alex Chit-Nat Hi-Rout , an exotic and beautiful Vietnamese refugee with whom Roger had an affair in the mid-1970s. Alex is the only one who has not so far come forward to claim a greater entitlement from Roger’s will – he is believed to be in New Caledonia practising faith healing.
Before him there was Michael Trikillis (Little Michael) who lived with Roger in the early 1970s, and whose family of seven sisters remained devoted to Roger. One of them, Aspasia (Sia) Atsas, was his personal cook and cleaner for more than 15 years, who, together with her sisters, kept him in weekly supplies of homemade spanokopita and other Greek delicacies.
And before Little Michael there was Big Michael, Michael Caccomanolis, another former restaurateur, who had been Roger’s friend and lover going back to the 1960s when he was first establishing his empire of fashion, food and gay pleasure houses.
They were all there in the front row at the crematorium – all except Alex -to pay their last respects, and to wonder whether anything had happened to change their expectations from Roger’s will. They had all been promised handsome endowments.
Roger had always been fond of writing wills, and delighted in telling people what they could expect from his business empire when he died, as he knew he must. His friends and lovers were the only people he could leave it to(after the death of his mother) and they were remembered generously in wills made in 1981, 1985, and 1988.
It is the 1988 will on which the former lovers will base their challenge to Ludwig Gertsch’s inheritance of the bulk of the estate. Under this document, Big Michael would have inherited $200,000, Alex and Edoardo $100,000 each, and Little Michael $75,000. Even Sia the cleaner would have received $50,000 for her years of faithful service.
But that was not to be. Witnessed by his florist and his next-door neighbour, just 17 days before his death, Roger signed a new will drastically reducing the benefits to everyone except Ludwig. Edoardo and Big Michael were to get a mere $10,000 each, Little Michael $5,000, and Sia just $2,000. In the drafting, two of the names of the beneficiaries were misspelt.
Other peculiarities were to emerge when the list of assets was produced by Roger’s new solicitor, Brian Roberts. According to the list, the estate(including the $895,000 cash in the bank) was worth $2.7 million, a far cry from the $8 million or so which had been expected.
Police just this week opened a hidden wall safe in the house which was believed to have contained $1 million in cash … but found only two watches and three semi-precious stones.
Even more odd, the Herald discovered, was the transfer of a half-share in the Imperial Hotel at Picton, which had been bought for $600,000 by Roger and a hotelier named Walter Dowling in 1988. Roger’s signature on a Titles Office document transferring his half share to Mr Dowling is dated May 31 this year.
Roger died 45 days earlier, on April 16.
Contacted at the hotel, Mr Dowling said he was baffled. “The bank said everything was OK and Mr Roberts was handling it. There’s definitely something weird about it if he was dead when he signed the thing,” he said. Mr Roberts snapped “no comment” 3 and hung up his carphone before he could be asked if there was any explanation for the phenomenon.
“He was a desperate and lonely man … ” This is how the last man to see him alive described Ludwig Gertsch a few days before he disappeared. The witness is Brian Roberts, Roger’s lawyer, and he was speaking before he decided not to take calls from the Herald.
Ludwig had inherited $2 million, but – according to Mr Roberts – that was rapidly “diminishing, with the number of leeches around him”. Friends say that Ludwig had been hitting the bottle, and the capsule (especially his favourite drug, Ecstasy), heavily after Roger’s death.
But was there anyone who hated him enough to make him disappear?
Police do not discount claims that Ludwig had received mysterious death threats. He complained of receiving threatening telephone calls. He turned the Paddington house into a fortress, changing the locks, putting in a new security system, even buying a mobile phone so that he could call for help if someone should cut his phone lines. He arranged to ring a roster of friends several times a day to tell them that he was alive. He paid taxi drivers an extra $5 to wait until he got into the house safely.
The night he disappeared, October 19, it was Brian Roberts who dropped Ludwig off in Oxford Street, describing him as “very distressed”. He had had an argument with his latest lover, a married father of two who had recently discovered his bisexuality, and his last words to Roberts as he walked off down the bar and bathhouse strip were “I’m going f—ing.”
The following night Ludwig was due to host a party for 30 people at the Paddington Terrace, a warm-up for the annual gay 4 Sleaze Ball. The week later, he was to join a friend for a holiday in Thailand. Those were the plans- but Ludwig never turned up, not to pick up his passport, not even to feed his beloved cats. Mr Roberts reported him missing.
For three weeks now, most of the Paddington CIB – a four-man team headed by a seasoned investigator named Detective-Sergeant Ken Bowditch – have searched for the missing man. It is a search that has taken them – as well as a high-priced private investigator hired by Mr Roberts – down the backstreets of gay Sydney.
The first week they homed in on the gay bar circuit, questioning people in likely haunts such as the Albury, the Court House, the Unicorn and the Oxford. They drew a blank.
By week two, inspired by reports that Ludwig had been planning to buy a”leatherman suit” for the Sleaze Ball, they moved on to the gay baths and saunas, the Tool Shed, Ken’s Karate School, and Roger’s old haunt, King Steam.
“The leather scene and bondage and discipline scene is really frightening,” said a shaken Sergeant Bowditch after a fortnight’s fruitless inquiries. “It’s the whole concept of what they do – fisting, racks, vibrators running amok. You only have to talk to some of the doctors at St Vincents Hospital to get an idea of the horrific things they do to each other.”
At that stage (earlier this week) police had no real leads, and only a strong suspicion that Ludwig might be dead. “It could be that he is in a B and D(bondage and discipline) joint somewhere,” theorises Sergeant Bowditch, “but what bothers me is that we haven’t found a body. He was stone cold sober when he was dropped off and yet nobody saw him … in an area where everybody knew him.”
Although some of Ludwig’s friends believe he is capable of faking his own disappearance – he confided in one that because of the threats, he wanted to sell up, leave the country and live overseas – every day that goes by increases the odds on the Missing Person file being re-labelled Homicide.
“From what we know of Ludwig from talking to his friends, Ludwig just wouldn’t have the gall to stage his own disappearance,” said Sergeant Bowditch. “By now, he would have had to ring somebody up to tell them about it.”
But that is cold comfort to Roger’s other former lovers. They will not lightly forgive Ludwig for having replaced them in the will – as well as the affections – of the man they loved. They want Ludwig alive … so they can face him in court and extract the $500,000 they believe is rightly theirs.
Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 10th of November 1990
Word count: 3519
Keywords: Missing persons Wills Biog Roger Teyssedre Ludwig Gertsch
1. Ludwig Gertsch in a holiday mood.
2. Roger Teyssedre shortly before his death.
3. Roger’s home in Paddington … a glittering altar to camp chic.