Tauranga retiree’s secret past
Posted at 3:15pm Sunday 31 Dec, 2017
Eileen Farquer now lives in a Tauranga rest home. Photo: Tony Wall/Stuff.
She was a fixture of Rotorua's social scene in the 1980s and 90s - a flamboyant raconteur who claimed to be the heir to the fortune of American jeans inventor Levi Strauss.
She went by the name Lee J Strauss, surrounded herself with men and women half her age, bohemian types mostly, and liked to be called "Lee-J".
But it was all a ruse - she was in fact Eileen Marie Farquer, an Australian-born career criminal who had left behind a heartbroken family in the US and was fraudulently collecting a benefit under the Strauss name.
More details about Farquer's life have come to light after Stuff reported this month that an American woman, Bonnie Metzger, believed Farquer was her mother, who abandoned her and her siblings in 1952 when they were toddlers.
Her story was actually full of holes - Levi Strauss had no children and passed his business to relatives with a different surname.
But in the pre-internet age it wasn't as easy to check out her stories.
Lester Smith was a Hamilton-based sales rep in the early 1980s when he encountered "Lee J" on a night out in Rotorua.
She was with a raucous group of about 15 people going to dinner to celebrate her birthday and they invited Smith along.
Over dinner, Strauss regaled Smith with the story of her supposed connection to the American Strauss family.
"She said when she was growing up she wouldn't conform... and was always the black sheep getting in trouble.
"The family had apparently ostracised her... she said the arrangement was she was to live as far away as possible from her family and not cause them any embarrassment.
"So she lived in New Zealand and got a monthly allowance."
She claimed not to care about money and spent freely, insisting on paying for everyone's dinner, Smith says.
On other occasions she was broke. She once borrowed $200 from a young man she was fond of, Smith says, insisting he take items of jewellery as collateral.
"Out of interest he took them to a local jeweller who said they were the real thing - worth tens of thousands of dollars."
Smith says Strauss would wear a large brooch and scarf, loved jazz music and reminded him of Dorothy Parker, the American writer and socialite, with the way she would hold court and entertain.
"She certainly looked a bit different for Rotorua in the '80s. She looked like what she said she was - old school money."
Artist and gallery owner Bryan Schofield first met Strauss when she arrived in the Bay of Plenty in 1977, having arrived in Queenstown a few years earlier.
She showed him photos of herself as an attractive young woman, crewing on the classic American sailing yacht Ticonderoga.
Schofield considered her a close friend, and they would drink wine at her rented pole house at Lake Rotoiti.
They would also pick kiwifruit and sell goods at local markets.
"She used to sell Levi jeans she would get from someone in Hamilton. She used to get them at a really good price - whether they were legit or not, who knows?"
She would always drive nice cars, Schofield says. One time they visited a Porsche dealer in Tauranga and she gave staff the impression she wanted to buy one.
"A young guy drove one over to Rotoiti to show her - she probably was never going to buy it - for Lee J it was just a nice way to spend a morning."
She never mentioned her family - "she may have had a husband or two" - and was reluctant to discuss that.
Jean Sydenham was Strauss' neighbour at Lake Rotoiti in the late 80s and remembers seeing a Time magazine article about Levi Strauss' family.
"She said 'let me read what they're saying about me' and I said 'there's nothing about you in there' and she said 'oh they're disowning me again are they?'. She was a bluff artist."
Another time Sydenham saw an article in the newspaper about re-possessed cars with an accompanying photo - one of them was Strauss'.
"She said 'they've made a mistake, it's not my car', but it was the same number plate - she was playing games and not paying bills."
Sydenham's family gave Strauss a brown German Pointer dog called Lara - giving her the idea for another alias, Lara Brown, which she still uses.
It was under that name that she was known around Little Waihi near Maketu, where she initially lived in a caravan park before renting a bach.
Her landlady, Pam Young, says a young man in his 20s or 30s showed up about five years ago - Brown described him as her "son" who she'd helped raise. He was from the Cayman Islands or somewhere in the Caribbean.
Young says Brown's lawyer made her tell them about her court charges for benefit fraud.
"How do you put an old lady out on the street? If she didn't have an abode she would have gone to jail...so we gave her a home here."
Things eventually turned sour over unpaid rent.
"She could be absolutely beautiful, wonderful and when it all fell apart she turned out to be one of the nastiest ladies I've ever met.
"She tore strips off me in front of everybody, told everybody I was trying to kill her."
She started living next door with Noel Hamon, who describes her as a "dear old soul".
He researched her family on ancestry.com, after she said her real name was Farquer.
"She didn't know her parents or much about her family. I found out she was from Aussie and I found her father and mother, gave her the genealogy papers - she had a bit of a cry."
Through that research he made contact with Metzger and MacIsaac in the US, but is reluctant to give them too much information because he considers it private.
Farquer left Little Waihi a couple of years ago and lived in a caravan park near Paengaroa, before moving to a rest home in Katikati.
Now 88, she lives in a rest home in Tauranga and has dementia.
Smith, the former sales rep who socialised with her in the 80s, says she was hilarious and entertaining, but there was a sadness about her.
"Because desertion was such a major part of her story with the Strauss family - I'd love to know what happened to her in Australia with her parents to make her such a wandering spirit.
"It's a pity she's lost her memory because a warts and all true story from her would be something else."
Metzger says she would love to meet her mother, but fears being rebuffed.
Farquer's social worker has suggested she start by writing a letter.
"I'm finding it difficult to start - the fact that she denies or does not remember having children is part of the difficulty."
Metzger says it's been wonderful to learn more about such an enigmatic woman, and she feels the stories have helped bring her "from the depths of my imagination to the depths of my heart".