HomeCELEBSThe secret life of Times Square's notorious porn queen

The secret life of Times Square’s notorious porn queen

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The late Chelly Wilson was a larger-than-life New Yorker who embodied the American dream.

“She believed America was the greatest place in the world, that you were free here to do whatever you wanted to do,” her daughter Bondi Walters told The Post.

And what Wilson wanted to do was run a porn empire.

A Greek-Jewish immigrant born in 1908 in Thessaloniki, Greece, Wilson fled the Holocaust and came to New York in 1939, where her first job was managing a hot dog cart at Dyckman Pier.

By the mid-1960s, she was one of the reigning porn movie magnates of Times Square, running five theaters along Eighth Avenue during the so-called Golden Age of Porn.

A new documentary, “Queen of the Deuce,” celebrates the wild life of Wilson, a colorful and fiery character who thrived in the midst of a heavily male-dominated milieu and hosted a rotating cast of guests and supplicants at her apartment above one of her theaters, the Eros, located on what would become one of the neighborhood’s sleaziest blocks — the east side of Eighth Avenue between 45th and 46th Streets.

Wilson presided over a collection of porno theaters along Eighth Avenue, just north of the infamous stretch of W. 42nd St. then known as the Deuce.

Using a combination of archival footage, recollections from relatives and friends, audio interviews and animation, director Valerie Kontakos charts Wilson’s journey from childhood and an unhappy early marriage in Thessaloniki through hiding her children from the Nazis and fleeing to America.

In New York, the charismatic Wilson cultivated a wildly successful career as a porn producer and theater owner, eventually juggling her expansive adult empire with restaurant ownership, a second marriage, two female lovers and four children.

“She had this magnetism, she knew so many people from all different walks of life,” said Walters, 79. “She wasn’t the kind of person who went out to schmooze. She drew them to her.”

Wilson ran her empire from the couch in her apartment above the Eros Theater, at 723 8th Ave., now home of the Playwright Celtic Pub.
Wilson ran her empire from the couch in her apartment above the Eros Theater at 723 8th Ave., now home of the Playwright Celtic Pub.

Wilson would hold court in her living room above the Eros, making a de facto office out of her couch and her glass-top coffee table, often surrounded by bags of grubby cash brought up from her box offices. Newspapers would be everywhere; She read everything she could get her hands on, Walters said, and spoke four languages. She hosted a regular poker game, and around her table you’d likely find other porn purveyors, an adult film star and possibly a mobster or two.

Some in the apartment were house guests who’d sleep on the floor, tables or whatever was available, Walters recounts in the movie.

“My mom always had people staying with us,” she told The Post. “They were mostly from Greece, visiting or moving here. We always benefited from it. They were good cooks, so there was always wonderful food.”

West 42nd St.  between 7th and 8th Aves., once known as The Deuce, in 1970. A new documentary on Chelly Wilson's life,
West 42nd St. between 7th and 8th Aves., once known as The Deuce, in 1970. A new documentary on Chelly Wilson’s life, “Queen of the Deuce,” explores her role in the old Times Square.

Wilson was an impassioned crusader for her fellow countrymen and women; She started her career in film distribution with mainstream Greek movies and newsreel footage of the war there, and produced her own movie, “Greece on the March,” in 1941. The following year, she married projectionist Rex Wilson.

Ten years later, Wilson rented the Squire Theater on Eighth Avenue to showcase Greek cinema. But those films’ popularity waned, and she spotted a more lucrative opportunity as the sexually adventurous 1960s gave way to the no-holds-barred 1970s. The Squire would eventually become the Cameo, which premiered one of the first hardcore films to show in Times Square, “Sexual Freedom in Denmark,” in 1970. Wilson then went on to build the Eros and Venus, also leasing and then purchasing the Tivoli theater, renaming it the Adonis, which would go on to become the setting for a legendary gay porn film, 1978’s “A Night at the Adonis.”

In 1968, Wilson also moved into the restaurant business as co-owner of a splashy Greek restaurant, Mykonos, which became a well-reviewed hot spot; one photo from the Mykonos heyday shows Wilson alongside actress Shirley MacLaine.

Wilson (at center) attracted the in-crowd, including celebrities like Shirley MacLaine (not pictured) to her Manhattan restaurant, Mykonos, which she opened in the late 1960s.
Wilson (at center) attracted the in-crowd, including celebrities like Shirley MacLaine (not pictured) to her Manhattan restaurant, Mykonos, which she opened in the late 1960s.

Wilson was known for being able to talk to anyone, but there was one subject she didn’t often discuss: the Holocaust, and the fate of her relatives who’d remained in Greece. Wilson successfully hid her two Greek children, Paulette and Daniel, with friends and family, until she traveled back to bring them to America in 1946.

“My mother’s brother, sister and mother were all in Salonica,” also known as Thessaloniki, said Walters, when the Nazis invaded. They were all subsequently deported to a concentration camp, where they were killed.

Wilson didn’t even tell Walters that she was Jewish. As a girl, Bondi attended Catholic school, and her mother, whose birthday was on Dec. 25, always had the family celebrate Christmas. Walters only learned about the family’s religious lineage from her older sister Paulette, whom Walters had been hiding with a friend in Athens, and brought to live with them at the age of 12. After that, said Walters, “my rosaries disappeared.”

Wilson operated the Adonis, which in 1978 served as the location for the legendary gay porn film, "A Night at The Adonis."
Wilson operated the Adonis, which in 1978 served as the location for the legendary gay porn film, “A Night at The Adonis.”

Both of Wilson’s marriages were tempestuous. Walters recalls her mother’s fights with her father, which involved throwing chairs.

“My dad used to say, ‘Don’t get upset, she’s going through the change.’ But it was obvious she was doing that all her life, way before the change!” Eventually, Wilson also had relationships with two women, who would often stay at the apartment. Her husband moved to Puerto Rico for a time, although they stayed close.

Porn’s golden age waned, and Wilson moved out of the business gradually, beginning in the late 1970s, as the winds of change began to blow in Times Square. Today, the former Eros, at 732 Eighth Ave., has been transformed into the Playwright Celtic Pub, although you can still see Greek statues Wilson used to adorn the theater, Walters said. Two doors down at 728 Eighth Ave., Wilson’s Venus theater is now Trattoria Daniela.

Wilson (right) poses under the marquee at the Eros Theater on Eighth Ave., downstairs from her apartment.
Wilson (right) poses under the marquee at the Eros Theater on Eighth Ave., downstairs from her apartment.
Valerie Kontakos is the director of a new documentary,
Valerie Kontakos is the director of a new documentary, “Queen of the Deuce,” which tells Chelly Wilson’s unusual story.

Wilson died in 1994 at the age of 86, but not before one final gesture that came as no surprise to her family: In a letter to her daughters, she wrote up the shopping list for the food to be served at her memorial, and gave instructions for how she should be celebrated.

“She said people should come to my apartment and toast her,” Walters said. “And she said that she had done her duty here on Earth and she’s returned to God. I never thought of her as religious, but she obviously did have some things that were very private, that she kept to herself.”

The legacy of Wilson’s complex, flamboyant life is very much alive, said Walters.

“She taught me that you can really do anything you want if you believe in yourself. And don’t let anybody tell you anything different!”

“Queen of the Deuce” plays at the DOC NYC festival on Friday.

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