Today we offer a cautionary tale about jumping to conclusions, a tale about how we can go wrong when we judge a book by even the most eye-catching cover. • For example: What comes to mind when you hear the name "Chesty Morgan"? • People of a certain age might think: "Wasn't she an exotic dancer in the 1970s? Famous for her measurements? She made a movie with Fellini, didn't she? She must have been some red-hot mama, whoo hoo!' • Yes, that was Chesty Morgan, a woman objectified all over the planet for having what one night club promoter called "the world's largest natural breasts! She defies medical science!'' Yes, Chesty Morgan — the woman with the alleged 73-inch bust. • Have your laugh, but listen: The world is a complicated place. Even red-hot mamas have real lives. Often those lives are tragic. Sometimes they are beyond tragic.
Let's say you are shopping at a Publix. You are in the cake mix aisle near the flour and the baking powder. You are joined in the aisle by an older woman. She is tiny, probably a few inches short of 5 feet, but under a red windbreaker her sweatshirt is strained to the bursting point.
She makes small talk about baking.
"I make lemon cake for all my friends,'' she says in a lilting Polish accent.
Her Florida driver's license identifies her as Lillian Stello and says she is 72 years old. She seems younger. Maybe it's her lively blues eyes. Perhaps it's because she wears her hair in a blond mullet.
Even some longtime friends don't know Lillian's story. Sometimes it is easier to tell the whole, amazing story to a stranger.
• • •
She is a small child in 1937. Her father and mother are well-to-do Jews who live near Warsaw. In 1939, Germany invades Poland. Her parents lose their department store. They end up in the ghetto afraid for their lives.
Her mother, Eva, leaves the apartment to find shoes for a niece. She is caught in a German sweep, hauled away in a boxcar, never to return. Little Lillian puts aside food every day —just in case her mother is hungry when she comes home.
Jews eventually fight back. Her father, Leon, is shot dead in a ghetto uprising.
Lillian ends up in Israel, where she lives in a series of orphanages, then in a kibbutz where she studies nursing. She has low self-esteem and worries about everything. Boys think she is beautiful.
What can they possibly see in her?
When she is about 20, she meets a man from America. Five days later they are married. Joseph Wilczkowski is her ticket to the United States. They settle in New York.
"But guess what?'' she says now. "He was a very good man, a very good provider. He had butcher shops. We have two children. He didn't see them much because he work so hard. I wanted to work with him, so I could have money of my own, but he wanted a wife who was at home. That was the only problem I had with him. I wanted to work and have a little money of my own."
A late-night phone call. Policeman says: "We need you to come down to the station.'' Lillian shrieks and bangs her head again and again against the wall. She has a bad feeling about what will come next.
The police tell her that armed robbers herded her husband and two employees into a refrigerator and shot and stabbed them to death. Tabloids call the crime "the icebox murders.''
Lillian, about 27, contemplates suicide. But she can't do it. One daughter is 4. The other is 4 months. She has to live for her kids. But what will become of them?
• • •
"Guess what?'' she asks one day while sitting in front of her favorite Publix. "America is the greatest country on Earth. You know why? In America, you can do anything if you work hard. I am always willing to work hard.''
In 2009, it is difficult to find a good job no matter how hard you are willing to work.
In 1965, it is just as difficult, especially if you are a Polish immigrant woman who speaks uncertain English and has limited job skills.
She has a little money and a little property from the marriage, but New York is expensive. She worries about bankruptcy, being thrown out on the street. In her life she has lost two parents and a husband. It is her nature to expect the worst.
She is pretty. Voluptuous. Men knock on her door. A few suggest marriage. She tells them, "I will never marry again. I'm too afraid.'' In her experience, love leads to death. How could she endure another tragedy?
She asks one suitor, Maury, to help find her a job. Maybe she would feel better if she had a way of making a living. In 1972, Maury takes her to a smoky nightclub. On stage, a woman slowly removes her clothes while men hoot and holler. Maury says, "You're very attractive, Lillian. You know, you could do this. They'd pay you.''
"Maury, I never want to see you again,'' Lillian says. "How dare you suggest it.''
End of date.
But she thinks about Maury's suggestion.
• • •
At first she calls herself Zsa Zsa; later, a nightclub owner sizes her up and suggests "Chesty Morgan.'' On her first engagement, she refuses to take off her bra. She gets over her shyness. Soon she makes enough money to purchase custom bras and expensive costumes. She hires a choreographer, learns how to tell a joke and to sing.
Bookings all over the United States follow. In Boston, a writer describes Lillian as an exotic dancer "with a front as imposing as the Fenway wall,'' referring to the local baseball stadium's towering left field fence.
A B-movie director, Doris Wishman, hires Lillian for a couple of wonderfully awful R-rated films. The kitschy Deadly Weapons and Double Agent 73 remain in circulation today. The famous Italian director Federico Fellini is in New York to promote his latest movie, Amarcord, and catches a glimpse of Chesty. He invites her to be in his upcoming film, Fellini's Casanova.
She dyes her hair black and flies to Rome. Casanova, played by Donald Sutherland, chases Barbarina, played by Chesty, around and around a table. Fellini cuts her part from the film, but her scene remains in a documentary that still circulates on the Internet.
Back in the States, she travels and performs and performs and travels, sometimes making $6,000 a week. "I was not stupid girl with a big chest,'' she tells people now. "Nightclub owners, they want you to work for drugs or booze and I always wanted the money. Don't tell me you want me to come to San Francisco for a couple of shows, hon-ney. Pay me for a week. I have to fly across the country in an airplane, be away from my children, stay in a strange hotel, go without sleep. You have to pay me for all that trouble.''
She tells nightclub owners, "I never show my bottom half. I never dance around pole or go in private room with customers.''
She is among the last of the old-time burlesque queens. She values the tease as much as the strip. In San Francisco, she christens a ship in a costume so tight the sailors carry her to the water. Now and again she is arrested, allegedly for letting men next to the stage touch the tops of her breasts. She wants the world to know they are real. Chesty Morgan does not need breast augmentation!
She marries again, in a lonely moment, and moves to Florida. Husband No. 2, a major league umpire named Richard Stello, is a nice man, fun to be around when home, but he is never home — he travels for a living. Of course, so does she. They divorce in 1979.
Still, they keep in touch. He helps her through the death of her oldest daughter in a traffic accident in New York in 1984. She and her ex-husband remain close. He loves her chicken soup with matzo balls. He is killed in an auto accident near Lakeland in December 1987. They had planned to spend the holidays together. She was going to make him soup.
She continues dancing, crying, saving money, crying, investing in the stock market, buying real estate. She dances for the last time in Houston, 1991. She remembers because it is the opening night of the Persian Gulf War. On stage she dances the hoochie koo. Backstage Chesty Morgan is glued to the television with the rest of America.
• • •
She now lives in an expensive house on Tampa Bay. In boxes she has old pictures, old posters, old costumes. She can no longer fit into her old size 5 costumes. But almost.
Every morning she walks to stay fit. Her back, which struggled to support her chest for so many years, is an unforgiving antagonist. In a belt pouch she carries aspirin for chronic pain. Sometimes she wonders if she should finally get the breast reduction. Problem is, she distrusts doctors. They might try to cheat an older woman like her.
Some days she walks 2 miles, other days 8. Walking companions receive earfuls of advice and warnings about dangers that may lurk around every corner. She worries about all the "For Sale" signs. She worries that her property is losing value. She worries about what is going on in Tallahassee and in Washington.
She distrusts politicians, especially Democrats, and listens almost exclusively to Fox News while baking lemon cakes or preparing chicken soup. "If I could,'' she says, "I would marry Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly. I love them like they are my husbands.''
After her walk she climbs into her 9-year-old pickup truck. She can hardly see above the steering wheel as she drives to Home Depot to buy supplies for the apartment buildings she owns.
In Home Depot, she is on a first-name basis with certain clerks. They don't know her show business background; they know her only as the older female fireball comfortable with manual labor. "They are kind to me there, so helpful. You say please in your story that Home Depot is a very good place. Home Depot is one of the things I love about America.''
From Home Depot she drives to a neat apartment building she owns near U.S. 19 in a working-class part of town. Sometimes she hires workmen to help, but often she takes care of upkeep herself.
She climbs a ladder to the roof. Her last roofer forgot to seal the spot where the air conditioner rests. So now she has to do it. She knows plumbing, air conditioning, carpentry and roofing.
She wears yellow rubber gloves, slacks, milk-white sneakers, the tight sweatshirt. Soon the yellow gloves turn black with tar.
She is a long way from a nightclub stage in San Francisco.
"My act? Hon-ney, I had better costumes than Liberace! I walk through the crowd from the back so they can see me up close. I have a long coat with a tail. I swing the tail this-a-way and that-a-way as I walk.''
On the roof, she spices up her demonstration with body language.
"I am on the stage, and I turn this way and that way and the coat opens, but just a little bit" — she pronounces it leetle bit — "just enough to a give a peek. Then on stage I take off the coat and the gloves — rhinestone gloves — one at a time, very slow, and then my top, except for the corset. After that I . . .''
Yes, Chesty Morgan was a stripper who bared her breasts without apology. She is in the Burlesque Hall of Fame in California, along with Gypsy Rose Lee, Josephine Baker, Sally Rand, Bettie Page and Mae West. Yes, the pop singer Tom Waits mentions her in a song called Pasties and a G-String. In Sweden, an avant-garde pop band calls itself Chesty Morgan.
In west-central Florida a tiny woman named Lillian fixes roofs, bakes lemon cakes and makes matzo ball soup for friends. When she thinks of her murdered parents, a murdered husband and a daughter killed in a traffic accident — when she visits the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg — she often breaks into tears.
But not right now, not while she works on the roof. On the roof, working with her hands, she can live in the present moment.
The tiny woman kneels, pours tar, massages it into an apartment roof with rubber gloves. She says, "Hon-ney, guess what? Sometimes if you want something done right, you got to do it yourself.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] and (727) 893-8727. Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
Jeff Klinkenberg's latest book is Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators.