In a very different New York than today, one person controlled much of the pornography business with the Eros, Venus, Capri, Adonis, Lido and Cameo theaters, where adult movies were shown 24 hours a day. Her name was Chelly Wilson, a woman of great character and audacity who excelled in a male-dominated industry and who at first glance looked like an ordinary mother or grandmother.
The documentary Queen of the Deuce (The Queen of the Deuce), directed by the Greek Valerie Kontakos, tells the incredible life of Chelly Wilson: her migration from Greece, where she was escaping Nazism and the horrors of World War II, to the United States; her successful business life that led her to build a veritable pornographic empire in New York; and her particular intimate and family life, always close to her children, grandchildren, husband, lovers, friends and even mafia bosses.
Kontakos met Chelly when she was a child, her uncle was a film producer in Greece and he sent Greek films to be shown in New York. On her trips to the United States, she met her and also worked at the Tivoli theater box office, which later changed its name to Adonis and became one of the most emblematic places for the gay community in the city. She always wanted to make a film about her life, but the opportunity did not come. She finally received the endorsement of the family, who appear with her testimonials in the documentary.
“Chelly became something of a role model for me, especially during my teenage years. She was an inspiration with her ability to be a force in a world dominated by men.”, says Kontakos via email to infobae.
Wilson was born in 1908 as Rachel Serrero in Thessaloniki, Greece, into an Orthodox Sephardic Jewish family. Since she was little, she showed independence, intelligence and also rebellion. She dreamed of being a doctor and liked to play the violin; she spoke Ladino, Greek and French. Despite wanting other things for her life, she found it difficult to escape her family mandate, what her father wanted, whom she loved and respected. At a very young age, she married Moise Bourla, a young Jewish man from the community.
With Bourla he had two children, but Wilson was not cut out for marriage, for the life of a housewife. After the birth of Daniel, her firstborn, she took her suitcase and went to Paris. Her father implored her to come back and her husband threatened her and told her that she would never see her son again.
“When you die, I divorce,” she told her father.
And Wilson, shortly after returning from Greece and becoming pregnant with their second daughter Paulette, divorced.
After the outbreak of World War II, decided it was time to flee to the United States. She did it on the last ship to leave Greece in 1941, before the Nazi army invaded the country. She left little Paulette in charge of a gentile family in Athens, whom she asked not to hand her over to her relatives for any reason. And so it happened when a great-uncle of the girl went to claim her.
This decision, and the generosity and courage of a gentile family who put themselves at risk to care for a Jewish girl during the Nazi occupation, ended up saving their daughter’s life. Nevertheless, Chelly’s grandmother, brother and sister were not so lucky and died in a concentration camp. And he had no more news of her mother, so it is likely that she was also killed during the war.
Arriving in New York, and without speaking the language, he quickly began to do business. With the money he brought with him, he rented a small food truck where they sold hot dogs, all kinds of snacks, and soft drinks.
Little by little, he became established and got to know the culture of the United States better. At the end of World War II, he sent ships with hundreds of thousands of dollars of humanitarian aid to Greece that he raised thanks to donations.
“Chelly always identified with Greece. Culturally, she had a connection to the Greek way of life and she surrounded herself with a lot of Greeks and Jews in New York,” the director of the documentary told infobae.
In 1947, two years after the end of the war, he traveled to Greece to search for his daughter Paulette and to the British Mandate of Palestine to locate his son Daniel, who lived on a kibbutz and was part of a Zionist army.
“I stole Dino from Palestine, he was miserable there,” says Chelly in part of the documentary, who had to bribe some authority so that her son could return to the United States with her.
When he managed to save a good amount of money, he bought his first theater in New York. However, at the beginning they only showed Greek cinema and, although it had its niche audience, it was not a lucrative business.
In 1965, someone recommended that he show a porno film in his Cameo theater. Success was immediate and from that moment everything changed, there was an explosion, a new possibility opened up before her, something she never expected or looked for. At that time she was married to Rex Wilson, who also worked in the industry and with whom she had Bondi, her third daughter.
All of this happened in a small area of Manhattan, on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, a vibrant and lively place; exciting for many and dangerous and dirty for many others. In this sector of the city, known as the Deuce, epicenter of the theaters of the grindhouse genre and later of pornography, the queen was Chelly Wilson.
“Growing up in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s changed my view of the world. I don’t like nostalgia or romanticizing the past. But I got to experience a city that was wild and free, creative and cutting edge, and not gentrifying yet. there was room for everyone”, says Kontakos.
In that world dominated by men, where you needed the protection of the mafia, Chelly had six theaters that showed porn movies 24 hours a day. And, despite her success and all the money she earned, she led a life far from ostentation. She lived in an apartment above her Eros theater. Her home was always full of people: famous porn stars, well-known producers, friends, and her female lovers (Chelly was gay) who lived with her and her husband. Her children and grandchildren found out about her sexuality some time after her. She was just something she never talked about.
“She was a Jew who celebrated Christmas in a porn theater every year. There is nothing stranger than that, ”says her grandson David Bourla in the documentary.
In addition to showing movies, Chelly also decided to produce and distribute porn films. He also opened a Greek restaurant for his lover Noni. The place was frequented by figures like Bobby Kennedy, Jackie Onassis and movie stars like Shirley MacLaine.
Later, with the arrival of conservatism to power in the 80s with the presidency of Ronald Reagan and with the policies of Rudy Giuliani as mayor of New York in the 90s and his intention to want to “clean up the city”, his pornographic empire gradually fell apart.
In 1994, at the age of 86, the great Chelly Wilson passed away. And as a final wish she asked her family to eat a great feast of Greek food in her memory.
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