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A Forgotten Ladino ‘Queen’

How Chelly Wilson realized her American dream—in adult theaters

Rokhl Kafrissen
June 28, 2024
Chelly at her daughter Paulette's wedding

Courtesy of the Wilson Family

Chelly at her daughter Paulette's wedding

Courtesy of the Wilson Family

What about Ladino? It’s the question that makes every Yiddishist dread the Q part of Q&A. It feels like the weakest sort of “gotcha” from people who care more about scoring imaginary points than doing literally anything to actually support Ladino. But Yiddishists, on the whole, are well aware of other Jewish heritage languages, their intrinsic value, and their importance to the healthy diversity of Jewish culture. They understand that the two, Ladino and Yiddish, are simply not in competition with each other. What’s the point in trying to create beef where there is none?

Nonetheless. I was absolutely captivated at a recent screening of Queen of the Deuce, a new-ish documentary about the life of Chelly Wilson. Born Rachel Serrero to Ladino-speaking parents in Salonika, Wilson was the unlikely mogul atop an “only in New York” adult cinema and real estate mini-empire. Her story is outrageously improbable, tragic and triumphant. I laughed, I cried, I finally got it. Representation matters.

It also reminded me that white nationalists (and other haters) like to claim that pornography is a Jewish plot to degrade the character of the nation. Yet, they have never once reflected on the Ashkenormative lens through which they make that claim. Sure, you’ve got your Al Goldsteins, your Seymour Buttses, and your Karen and Barry Masons, all of whom were innovators and boundary pushers in adult entertainment—and in the case of the Masons, queer material:

But in my opinion, none of them can hold a candle to the wild story of Rachel Serrero/Chelly Wilson—and that needs to change. For the first time, I also want to shout: What about Ladino?

After arranging for her two small children to be hidden, Serrero escaped Greece in 1939 (!) and arrived in New York, where she wasted no time amassing her fortune. Thanks to her foresight, the children survived the war and they were reunited soon afterward. (For a relatively short film, Queen of the Deuce spends quite a long time on the tragic unfolding of the Holocaust in Greece, which is not something you expect in a film with so many XXXs in it.)

One of the many fascinating aspects to Wilson’s story is that she was a pioneer in the history of gay pornography (her Eros I cinema was one of the first theaters in Manhattan to screen a gay hardcore feature film) while she herself lived as an out lesbian, one who just happened to have two ex-husbands in the picture. At one point, Wilson opened a chic Greek restaurant called Mykonos just to have a place for one of her longtime girlfriends, Greek singer Noni Kantaraki, to perform.

In many ways, Chelly Wilson is an American immigrant success story, despite the X-rated nature of her American dream. As portrayed in the movie, Wilson was motivated less by greed and more by an innate love of the deal. She certainly didn’t live lavishly, holding court at an apartment above another one of her adult theaters in midtown. What seemed to matter to Wilson was being surrounded by family, friends, and soon-to-be friends. Everyone in the film speaks of Wilson with some degree of awe. She could be gruff (and hilariously so) but the net effect was one that pulled you in, rather than pushing you away.

Chelly Wilson passed away in 1994, at the age of 86. She was a woman of many breathtaking escapes: She escaped the stifling patriarchy of her traditionalist family, an unhappy arranged marriage to a man she despised, and the catastrophic Nazi war machine that decimated Greece’s Jews.

As I write this, I’m in Warsaw, Poland, and, as beautiful and welcoming as modern Warsaw is, each day holds endless confrontations with all the escapes that did not succeed.

Eve Adams was one of those whose escape was tragically incomplete. Adams was born Chava Zloczower in Mlava, about an hour from Warsaw. At the age of 20, she arrived in New York City. There, she tried her hand at different occupations, including selling subscriptions to Der Groyser Kundes, a Yiddish satire magazine. In February 1925, she published a book of short stories called Lesbian Love, “the first written account of lesbian life in America.” A month later, she opened Eve’s Hangout, a tea room for ladies in Greenwich Village. Under different circumstances, Adams might have enjoyed at least a little bit of happiness and some satisfaction as another American success story, perhaps even a pusher of boundaries. Instead, not long after opening her tea room, she was targeted by an undercover policewoman, arrested, and charged with obscenity and disorderly conduct.

Instead of becoming an American citizen, as she had dreamed, Adams was convicted, jailed, and ultimately deported to Poland. Later she made her way to Paris, where she began a relationship with another Polish Jewish woman, Hella Olstein. At the end of 1943, both Olstein and Adams were arrested and ultimately murdered in Auschwitz. And though Adams’ story has (understandably) attracted a fair bit of attention from artists, and received an excellent biography in 2021 from Jonathan Ned Katz, it still remains somewhat obscure.

I certainly didn’t know anything about Eve Adams until last September, when I saw a delightful new show called The Great Lesbian Love of Eve Adams at The Tank. It wisely focused on the very brief period of her New York life, when she had published Lesbian Love and opened her tea room. The meta-heartache of Adams’ life is compressed into the gut-punch embodied in the figure of the undercover policewoman (boo! hiss!) who befriends and betrays Adams as well as the trial that followed.

And yet, the Yiddishist in me was left longing to know more. In 2021, Noam Sienna wrote a poignant un-interview with Adams for In Geveb. Sienna’s piece captured the sharp silence of her absence. We know that Adams had multiple points of contact with the Yiddish literary scene in New York. In fashioning herself as a writer, was there a Yiddish side to her work? Did she go to the Yiddish theater? How could she not?

Adams was coming into her own at the same moment that Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance—and its scandalous depiction of lesbian prostitutes—was taking New York (and points beyond) by storm. Adams biographer Jonathan Ned Katz believes it’s most likely that she saw the play. And I agree. But, as Sienna gets at in his piece, we want, we need to know more. What did she think of it? Did she stand up and cheer for representation? Or did she see it and curse its contribution to the “brothel panic” of that era? Indeed, when Adams was put on trial, one of the absurd (and salacious) charges against her was that she was working as a prostitute and pimping other girls out to male customers. Having no doubt seen the trouble brought down on Asch for his boundary-pushing work, it’s all the more understandable that Adams published Lesbian Love in a limited run of 150 copies, for “private circulation” only.

As this is my second proper trip to Warsaw, it’s also my second visit to its magnificent cemetery on Okopowa Street. One of the many notables buried there is Michal Klepfisz, heroic fighter killed on the second day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and father of acclaimed poet Irena Klepfisz. Klepfisz’s poetry has become a touchstone for generations of young Yiddishists, navigating the layers of her own complicated identity, as a lesbian, as a child survivor and a daughter of a survivor, always navigating among languages, crossing back and forth between moments in time. A photo of Klepfisz’s poem “Warsaw, 1983: Umschlagplats” lives in my iPhone camera roll, a reference point for my own travels when things become too overwhelming and time threatens to unravel my own safe present existence.

This street might have been my home.
This street might have been the beginning
Of my journey to death.
I must remember:
It was neither.
I live on another continent.
It is 1983. I am now a visitor.
History stops for no one.

I was especially moved to see that the Yiddish Book Center has been offering special Pride-themed tours of their new core collection during June. The tour was put together with the inspiration and work of three of the YBC’s young fellows: Claire Breger-Belsky, Maya Gonzalez, and Grisha Leyfer. Juxtaposed prominently is Klepfisz’s poem in memory of the victims of the AIDS epidemic, “Bashert,” alongside the handmade zine made about Klepfisz, created just a few years ago by a student named Kristen Morgenstern. It’s a fitting dynamic of escapes and tragedies for celebrating a modern Pride in Yiddishland.

And, speaking of Pride: The queen of the modern klezmer fiddle, not to mention OG queer klezmer icon, Alicia Svigals, released a new CD this month, Fidl Afire. It’s no surprise that Svigals’ virtuosity is on full display, and the fire in the title is not metaphorical. This time around, however, the sound is different from Svigals’ previous solo albums. Here, the reference points are more raucous. The orchestration is a party, quite literally, pointing to her decades of gigs with simcha bands. Even cooler is the way she reconceives classic midcentury, clarinet-led tunes for violin.

What surprised me, though, was how hard I got hit by Fidl Afire’s vocal number. Singer Vira Lozinsky performs a setting of Mashe Shtuker-Paiuk’s Yiddish poem “Mayn Mame Ver Ikh” (I’m Becoming My Mother). Ten years ago, I might have scoffed at such a conceit as hackneyed. Today, it’s the kind of cliche that lands with the delicacy of a prizefighter’s blow. Devastating. It doesn’t hurt that Lozinsky has a honeyed alto that can dance elegantly between the comedy of the premise and the pathos of its truth.

MORE: From 2021: Watch Eve Adams biographer Jonathan Ned Katz in discussion with Lauren Gilbert at the Center for Jewish History …

ALSO: The Borscht Belt Festival will take place in downtown Ellenville, New York, with live comedy, film, food, and more. July 27-28. More info here … If you want to extend your Pride celebrations into July (and why wouldn’t you?), East Village klezmer icons Isle of Klezbos will be appearing in (or near) two of the gayest cities in the country: Provincetown and New York. On Sunday, July 28, they’ll be at Wellfleet Preservation Hall (Outer Cape Cod, down the road from Provincetown), 335 Main St., Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Reserve tickets here. Tuesday, July 30, Isle of Klezbos will be at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York City. Tickets are $25 and available here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.

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