In the first part of ‘The Trials of Chesty Morgan’, Chesty endured unimaginable hardships in her life – a Jewish girl growing up in Nazi-occupied Poland, both her parents killed in the conflict, followed by a difficult life in Israel, and the eventual promise of a new life in the United States before her husband was killed in a botched robbery. Chesty decided to become a burlesque dancer to make ends meet, soon becoming one of the highest earning performers in the country on the stripping circuit.
The Rialto Report spoke to Chesty Morgan, now aged 84. This is the concluding part of her story.
Read the first part here.
1973 – Double Agent 73
Doris Wishman was in a bind.
Hardcore sex films had just started to be exhibited in theaters – and were making good money, but twice-married, sixty-something Doris wasn’t keen. And that was a problem when the flaccid-soft nudie-cutie films you’ve been making for the previous decade were suddenly as unfashionable as a polka-dot poncho on a pole dancer. Explicit sex films would one day play a role in Doris’ career, but she wasn’t ready yet.
Instead, Doris listened to an acquaintance who’d just witnessed the full Chesty Morgan experience in the flesh so she investigated. Doris didn’t much like what she saw: “This was a woman born with a large bosom. To me they’re not sexy. It’s like a woman born with two heads…[but] she was a gimmick and that was what I was aiming for.” Doris appreciated that Chesty’s chest could make up for the lack of explicit kiss kiss bang bang, so she arranged a meeting. Doris and Chesty loosely agreed on a three-picture deal, the first of which, ‘Deadly Weapons,’ was shot in the summer of 1973. Chesty played an advertising executive who tracks down the mobsters who killed her boyfriend and then smothers them with her huge breasts.
To say that Doris Wishman worked in an idiosyncratic manner is like admitting the Pope sometimes attends mass on Sundays. For a start, her actors never received a script. Doris would tell them roughly what to do and say, while roughly scribbling down what they actually said on a large notepad so that she could roughly overdub the lines later. Filmmaking was not a precise science in her hands.
The relationship between director and star was testy as Chesty remembers: “I didn’t get along with Doris. She was unfriendly and not kind. I work best with people that I like, and I didn’t like Doris. I worked better with men, like Harry Reems. I liked him.”
Doris wasn’t enamored with Chesty either, with good reason, as she explained to a Boston Globe reporter: “She was a horror. Of all the people I worked with, she was the only person I couldn’t get along with. We were shooting Double Agent in White Plains, N.Y. I think the call was for 10 in the morning. Everybody’s there. Chesty isn’t there. 11, 12, 1, 2, 3, 4. By then, everyone’s weary. So I started to pay people. All of a sudden, she walks in. She says, ‘I vaz sick.’ I didn’t say a word. Next day, her boyfriend tells me that they were on their way to White Plains and she was reading the paper and she said, ‘Marty, there’s a sale on Delancey Street. Turn around!’ So he turned around. He was afraid of her. That day cost me a lot of money and aggravation.”
Deadly Weapons was first released in early 1974, and newspapers reported that it had a dramatic effect on cinemagoers: “The sight of Chesty Morgan smothering a man to death with her outsize bosom proved too much for some cinemagoers this week. Hundreds crowded into Stafford’s Picture House to see Chesty Morgan’s vital statistics of 71-32-36. But their illusions were crushed when she took off her bra, and those Deadly Weapons swung into action and smothered the first victim. The cinema started emptying as people headed for home sickened by their experience, which was far from titillating.
Even the theater owner admitted: The people left not because they were offended by the content of the film. “The acting was terrible and I admit Chesty Morgan’s bosom is not very pleasant to watch. One accurate description is to compare them with overgrown vegetable marrows.”
The follow-up, Double Agent 73, cast Chesty as a secret agent with a surveillance camera implanted in one of her nipples.
Doris was proven right: Chesty’s presence was an enticing commercial draw (“Seeing is Believing,” read the tagline), outweighing Doris’ woeful filmmaking abilities, and both films were successful. Their personal conflict was decisive however: two movie collaborations for the two women were sufficient, and plans for the third film never materialized.
Doris reworked that script into The Immoral Three, where a stand-in for Chesty’s Double Agent character is murdered in the opening scene, and her three daughters seek revenge.
1974 – Lilian Stello
Chesty Morgan’s first year in the stripping business had been profitable beyond her dreams, but it had unexpected consequences.
The most acute was loneliness: “One friend asked, ‘How can you be lonely when you have all the people in the audience watching you?’ But I just looked out and saw everyone out there, especially couples, and when I finished my show, I had to go back to my hotel room and I was alone, you know? It was a very lonely life.”
She’d been a widow for almost ten years, and had done everything for herself since then. In those ten years, she’d got what she wanted but lost what she had. She earned enough to be more than comfortable, but she missed the girls, busy at school and cared for by paid help, she missed the stability of home life, and she missed the companionship of a partner. Not that she was short of offers: “It’s a hard business leaving your family. And men are all the time making proposals to me. I’d like to get married again, but now I don’t know if a man is after me or my money.”
She kept men at bay, still wearing her wedding ring, and avoided suspicious women too: “Most women are jealous of me. They get scared they will lose their men.”
After a show in one city, a doctor offered her $5,000 to spend the night with him. Chesty flat turned him down: “I have a reputation to protect. I’m not in that kind of business.”
But as time passed, she realized she wanted somebody for her children – and for herself. The main problem was her mental block against men. Specifically, their intentions: “I couldn’t decide to get married. I was scared that I was gonna lose my home. I was afraid to bring a new man inside the home. Would he take everything I had?”
Friends agreed: “They asked me, ‘How can you get married if you work like ten men? One man wouldn’t be enough for you because you’re always working. You won’t sit down.’”
Enter Dick Stello.
Dick could not have been more different from Lilian. He was the relaxed, easy-going, comic relief in every situation. Everything was always upbeat with Dick. He once put a life-sized wooden Indian in the passenger seat of his car, and drove it around holding animated conversations with it.
By day, he was a highly respected National League baseball umpire, having entered the majors in 1968, and going on to work five National League championships, the World Series in 1975 and 1981, and two All-Star Games. In his spare time, he did stand-up comedy in his hometown of Boston, wrote country music songs, and headed for the golf course.
Lilian liked him immediately, though she admitted he wasn’t without fault. For instance, she told him he was way too generous, often giving cash away to needy friends who found themselves short.
But Dick was the man that broke through Chesty’s defenses, and in March 1974, after a two-month courtship, they tied the knot. Lilian bought him a red Cadillac with a white padded top, a Rolls Royce hood, and a Continental tail. Dick bought Lilian a new diamond, marquise cut, and nearly an inch long.
In truth, their lives were almost completely incompatible: Dick was on the road for the entire baseball season, just as Chesty was headlining burlesque theaters across the country year-round. Even when they made efforts to meet on the road, it was problematic. Early in their relationship, Chesty went to watch her husband umpire the 1973 All-Star game in Pittsburgh. She wore what she called her ‘funky suit,’ a navy-blue stretch number with gold chains that left little of her over-endowment to the imagination. It caused a near-riot in the stands: “People began looking at me. Pretty soon a crowd began to gather around. Then they were finding that nobody was looking at the game. Everyone was looking at me. So they sent the security guards to take me out of the stadium. Now I cannot go to any more of the ball games. And to pay Dick back, I will not let him go to see my performance,” Chesty laughed.
Sometimes their paths would cross during the baseball off-season. In November 1974, they found themselves in northern Kentucky. Dick turned up at the night club where Chesty was appearing but had to wait for six hours until she finished her act. Dick reacted to the gathered press, “If she thinks I’m going to travel around all winter and do this, she’s crazy!”
Lillian had a plan to make the marriage work which she shared with interviewers: “I will perform for a few more years until we have enough, and then I will stay home and take care of Dick and my girls and the house.”
1975 – Barberina
In Fall 1974, Federico Fellini, the Italian film great known for his distinctive blend of fantasy and baroque, was in New York to promote his latest, ‘Amarcord.’
While staying in the city, Fellini, a lover of abundance and an appreciator of excess, heard about the legend of Chesty Morgan, and enquired where he could see her act in person. One night, he slipped his press obligations and watched her perform. He was enraptured with Chesty, a person he called “the woman of all women, an exquisite creature.” Fellini was ushered backstage to meet his would-be muse. Years later, he remembered that she’d told him that, as a teenager, she’d been flat-chested and ashamed. Then, while suffering from a minor illness, her doctor had given her some injections, and her preponderous chest materialized overnight. Fellini called it “a divine miracle from Mother Nature.” Smitten with her, Fellini invited Chesty to be in his next film, ‘Casanova,’ starring Donald Sutherland.
Chesty dyed her hair black and went to Rome where she played the part of Barberina, the lady in waiting for a Countess who was Casanova’s secret lover. In one scene, Casanova and Barberina meet in a tailor’s workshop where Barberina unintentionally arouses Casanova by loosening her corset. He undoes it fully, and chases her around the room, breasts akimbo.
Fellini said that the Barberina character symbolized the attachment that Casanova experienced for a mother that he never had. Her breasts symbolized the maternal qualities that Casanova was deprived from enjoying. He said the scene was pivotal to the film, which makes the decision to ultimately cut it out puzzling, ostensibly because the film was too long.
Chesty’s memories of Fellini are positive (“a good man, smart and cultured”), and she enjoyed the experience (“but all the girls were jealous of me,” she insists), but she missed the U.S. acutely.
“Nothing beats the United States. It is always the place I want to be. I never want to leave”
1979 – On Tour
By the late 1970s, the Chesty Morgan touring routine was a well-oiled, industrialized, rinse-and-repeat, cash-generating machine.
She would turn up in a town, conduct (invariably grumpy) interviews for the local rags, pose for publicity shots, deliver back-to-back shows to sold-out audiences hosted by money-hungry theater owners, before collecting her fee (which was now over $5,000 a week) and heading onto the next town. Her daughter Eva, now 20, helped with the nightly show, standing mutely in the wings, waiting to collect each piece of expensive costume that her mother discarded.
Chesty’s act had developed since the early days, though not greatly, and the reviews still mixed incredulity with contempt: “The lighting wasn’t good, but it certainly appeared as if two flesh-colored watermelons were resting in the bodice of her dress.
“Her act was four songs long. Her act starts with a crackly version of Delilah, and then she begins to strip. Her gown is black with silver sequins – a creation that weighed 30 pounds and cost more than $5,000. She cavorted about the stage, a vacant look in her wide, innocent eyes. She took a man’s head in between her breasts. When the man’s head was given back, it carried a smile. She performed gym-like exercises on a rug-covered box. When the tape reached the fourth song, Elvis singing ‘My Way’, she took everything off from the waist up. The entire room seemed to lean forward. Applause. Questions and answers followed.”
Some columnists questioned her continuing appeal – before answering it for themselves: “She is a macromastic dancer whose act consists of removing the upper portions of her clothing. Her legs are skinny. She can’t dance. And she’s getting too old for such nonsense. But Zsa Zsa Chesty Morgan still packs them in at strip joints across the North America continent.
“Why? The reason is obvious. Her measurements are 73-24-36. That’s correct. She exposes 73 circumferential inches of fatty tissue. When she mounts the strobe-lit stage she looks rather like a pair of Goodyear blimps. With her axial dimensions, I’m surprised she can walk without snow shoes. Watching her dance was like watching two sumo wrestlers playing basketball in a telephone booth.”
The innuendo-dripping, sexist sniping left Chesty unconcerned. She knew there is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary – and sometimes, the more salacious and sexist the comments were, the more useful they could be. So she leaned in: she declared that she’d recently insured her breasts: “I contacted Lloyds of London. They did not understand what I was trying to do. Then they sent me to a Philadelphia hospital for an insurance examination. I’ve never seen so many doctors trying to work on just one patient. They kept coming in and taking pictures and examining. I said, “What’s going on? How come so many doctors? I finally got my insurance policy. I have insured them for $100,000.”
In interviews, Chesty was never less than brutally honest however, and far from trying to create a glamorous and alluring image, she aired her feelings – and they were invariably negative. She described the business as “unpleasant. Three acts a day, seven days a week, in theaters that often smell of urine.” She didn’t like to be called a stripper, preferring the term ‘burlesque performer’ – though she admitted she didn’t dance anyway (“I just stand there. What I do, dahlink, is posing.”) She railed against pornography: “I don’t do X-ray (sic) movies. Nothing is left to the imagination. The women are either alcoholics or addicts, and many of them are lesbians.” She felt resented by dancers with lesser assets (“I don’t believe in jumping around and doing all those dirty things. I do a complete show with wardrobe. I draw a nice class of customer.”) She admitted she made more money than the other girls and this made them jealous. Sometimes they attacked her and ripped her clothes and she had to call the police in some cities. (“Other girls in the industry don’t like me. The bust is the main thing and I have more of it than anyone else.”) Sometimes she self-mythologized (“When I was young, I was drafted into the Israeli army, but the doctors found that I couldn’t do basic exercises. How can a woman with a 73-inch chest do press-ups? My arms are too short to lift me from the floor.”)
But Chesty was grumbling all the way to the bank. With two salaries, Chesty and Dick moved to a new house in St Petersburg, FL – a luxury pad with eighteen chandeliers, plush French furniture, an $8,000 mirror, an onyx parrot, silver fighting cocks, and their red Cadillac parked in the driveway.
More income meant even more extravagant stage wear for the Female Liberace of Burlesque: “All my clothes are custom-made in New Jersey. It costs a fortune to fit me. My bras are 32KK. They are called Command Performance and are made by a Texas firm that uses lots of underwire. They cost $60 each, and after a couple of washings, they fall apart.” Happily, it was all tax deductible.
But bras weren’t the only thing buckling under the weight of Chesty’s rigorous performance schedule. Her marriage to Dick was suffering too. They continued to travel separately, rarely seeing each other. Chesty had visions of Dick becoming her road manager so they could spend more time together, but Dick had his lucrative baseball gig. Besides, he could be jealous, and there were reports of public fights in restaurants. He was unfaithful too. Chesty knew about his dalliances, they struggled along. Dick still loved her chicken soup with matzo balls, but It wasn’t enough: after six years of marriage, the inevitable divorce came in 1979.
Away from the spotlight, Chesty spent time at home with her daughters, helping her younger girl, Lila, with her school homework. The family had come a long way since Joe’s murder, and she remained close to both of them: “When they were small, I’d check on them five times a night, covering them when they were cold. I did that when they were older too. They’d say, “Will you still come to cover us when we are married too?”
1980 – Wanted
And then there were the legal headaches.
The police harassment, arrests, overnight stays in prison cells, court dates, attorney’s fees. Large busts, if you will. If anything, it got worse over the years.
It had started in 1975 in Miami where she was charged with lewd dancing. Detectives said she performed a slow dance, removing articles of clothing until she was naked except for her G-string. Then, it was reported, “she squeezed her breasts together in a way that was clearly an effort to sexually arouse customers.” The Floridian authorities clutched their pearls.
Other times, Chesty provoked trouble – some would say she initiated it, such as at the Flamingo Theater in Miami Beach three years later. Having finished her performance, she strolled out onto the sidewalk, wearing only bikini panties, a see-through robe, and a bobbing necklace. When the noon crowd gathered on Lincoln Road, so did members of the Beach police department’s Strategic Investigations Unit and a few uniformed officers. Baring her torso, billed on the nearby marquee as ‘The 73’ Inch Bust,’ Chesty announced she was striking a blow for the right of women to go bare chested just as men do. The result? She was arrested for “corrupting public morals, outraging public decency, and causing a disturbance.”
The prosecution’s case floundered when the state could only produce one witness who was partially offended – and that was a police department clerk. Laura Nader testified that she “wasn’t outraged, embarrassed, or annoyed,” but said she “didn’t feel it proper for the female species to do this.” Chesty’s attorney told the jury that the act was “a social happening and no reason to brand Miss Morgan as a criminal. Tax money could be better spent catching murderers and narcotic dealers.” Chesty walked free.
In June 1980, Chesty was busted in Phoenix along with her elder daughter Eve, 21, who was collecting money at the door. The charge this time was “taking part in an immoral performance.” Chesty said the arresting cops had enjoyed the show for three days before busting her. Chesty and Eve were interviewed by police before being placed in a holding cell, and then, perplexingly, ordered to meet with immigration officials before eventually being let go.
Wherever she went, one thing never changed: Chesty was always asked if she’d ever had breast enlargement surgery. It never failed to bristle her: “Of course not. When you have silicone, you can’t move around. You can’t do much with them. They look like rocks.”
She admitted she regularly considered surgery – but only to reduce the size of her chest. She changed her mind at the last minute every time: “Now I’m glad God made me the way he did. I just love this work. And the money that goes with it.”
Sometimes the questioning made her take more proactive steps to prove her point – such as at the Pillow Talk Lounge in Columbus, GA. As one newspaper reported: “When she finished her act, she waddled into the audience to express her gratitude to the patrons. She insisted her endowments are God-given and thought it important to prove the point. So she offered a tactile test: patrons were invited to squeeze – a dozen men standing by to knead two monstrous globules. They looked like supermarket shoppers testing the honeydew melons. While all this was going on, two policemen walked in, looked and left.
“The next day, she was busted for obscenity.”
1983 – Eva
In July 1983, tragedy struck her life again. Her elder daughter, Eva, was killed in a car accident in Brooklyn. She was 25.
Dick Stello, divorced from Chesty but still close to the family, dropped everything to come and offer support, but Chesty was inconsolable: “When my husband Joe died, it was like the end of the world. But if you lost a million husbands, it is not the same as losing one daughter. Husbands you can get, but a child…”
There was no way to escape her grief but to block out the memories: “The only time I could forget that my daughter was dead was when I was on stage.”
Chesty had started to acquire real estate in Florida. It could have become a full-time concern, but she refused to give up touring. She needed the attention from her audience at shows to take her away from the pain.
She went back and hit the road harder than ever.
1984 – Hoochy Koochy
The Walkman. Cabbage Patch Kids. Rubik’s Cube. And it’s morning again in Ronald Reagan’s America.
Those who expected the burlesque queen to fit the stereotype of a hardened, dumb blonde found out they were dead wrong. Be it politics, human rights, feminism, or the controversies surrounding her work, Chesty had strong opinions and was eager to express them. She was a firm supporter of Ronald Reagan. She felt strongly that all people should work, take pride in their professions, and do their jobs with style. She admonished lazy people who expected a free ride, and frowned on the welfare system which she said encouraged people not to work. She considered herself a feminist in that she felt strongly that a woman should establish her independence – something she learned after her marriage to Dick failed.
And she wasn’t afraid to put her principles into practice – even if it meant getting arrested again.
According to court papers, Chesty was admonished in Boston in 1984 after a burlesque dance, a partial striptease, and a question-and-answer routine where she told jokes and stories relating to her breasts. The problem arose when she invited the audience to touch her breasts to prove they were real. Two policemen were apparently waiting in line and she allowed them to touch her and put their faces on her breasts.
As a result, the theater’s liquor license was withdrawn.
Chesty went on the attack, taking the authorities to court, and holding press conferences: “My boobs belong to the world. They’re attached to my body, but they belong to the public. I feel there is nothing wrong with the act because my public just wanted to see if my bust is real. The reason I get into trouble is because of these people who run for politics. These politicians… they don’t like the hoochy-koochy.”
Her attorney said she was just “establishing a link between her and the audience. It violates her right to free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
Chief Justice Alan Hale retorted, “Are you seriously saying to me that letting people touch this woman’s breasts or snuggle up to her… is protected speech?”
The judge ruled against her: apparently there is no constitutional right to let bar patrons grope her bosom.
Chesty lost that battle but won the publicity war.
1987 – Dick Stello
Four years after Eva’s death in a car accident, Dick Stello was killed. He was 53. He pulled over on State Road 33 in his Cadillac to put a dealer’s tag on a Lincoln. He was standing between the two cars when a third car ran into the Cadillac, pinning Dick and crushing him.
Despite their divorce, Chesty and Dick had remained close. They spent holidays together, were due to be together for Thanksgiving, and spoke all the time on the phone. Their relationship had bemused Chesty: “We’re divorced and yet, we’re still going out. How come we’re always together?”
It was another deep tragedy in her life: “I am still in shock. Here was a man who wanted to live. Every time he walked in, he was a ray of sunshine. He never had a bad word to say to anyone. And he had so much life in him.
“I can’t believe he won’t be calling me anymore.”
1991 – End of an Era
Chesty’s last performance took place in Houston in 1991. It was the first night of the Persian Gulf War.
Times had changed, the competition was younger, the theaters were smaller, and the paychecks were dwindling. (One theater manager disagreed: “We put on the best entertainment in the world here. We’ve had Frank Sinatra here. Well, his son. And Dionne Warwick too. Actually, her daughter. But some real class acts. Like Chesty Morgan!”)
She took the stage to Lou Rawls’ You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine, before announcing, “I like to think my boobs belong to the public.”
Two further songs played, before her final number: ‘New York, New York’. An ironic tribute to the city that had saved her from the ashes of war-torn Europe but killed her dreams of a simple family life.
Chesty Morgan had breathed her last. It was over.
2000s – The Republican
When I spoke to Lilian, I found her happy to talk – though not necessarily about the topics I had lined up.
Nowadays she spends more time thinking about politics and the country’s future than dwelling on the past. She worries like a Republican, railing against immigration, rising crime and taxes, and falling house values. She distrusts most politicians, hates Democrats, and watches Fox News avidly. Her love for conservative rabble rousers like Hannity and Carlson is second only to her devotion to Donald Trump.
Above all she has a die-hard patriotism: “the United States is God’s country. This is the best country in the world. Have you ever been abroad? This is the safest place. I’m never going to leave. I’m so thankful to America. Everything that I have… America gave to me. I have freedom because of America.”
She’s been frugal with her career earnings which she invested carefully over the years. She still lives in St Petersburg where she owns a portfolio of apartments. She claims she is a dream landlord for her tenants, fixing any repairs immediately – and personally. She still makes matzo ball soup, and bakes half a dozen or more cakes each week that she gives to friends and tenants alike – with the choice items going to employees at Home Depot: “Home Depot is the best company. They are amazing. Everyone is helpful there. I spend most of my time in the store!”
When pushed, Lilian will also talk about her past. She remains proud of Chesty Morgan, mentioning that she still has many costumes – most of which she still can almost fit into.
She stays trim, but her back kills her: “My breasts have been inconvenient, and some days I wish I never had them. Now that I’m older, it’s hard to breathe. My daughter helps me find bras on the internet, but they are expensive. I don’t like to jiggle so I need proper bras. I am 30LL now, you know.”
She still thinks about breast reduction but mistrusts doctors.
I ask what she considers her proudest achievements. She talks about her daughters. Lila is a Florida attorney who lives nearby. She raised them in difficult circumstances and thinks she did a good job.
But she also mentions her own work ethic: “I worked very hard. If you work hard, you accomplish great things. We need people who want to accomplish. That’s what makes America great.”
She talks constantly and entertainingly. She is only quiet when she remembers the tragedies in her life: her murdered parents, her murdered husband, her ex-husband’s death, and her daughter killed in a car accident.
She returns to Joe’s murder: “I lost my husband and everything had to change. But it’s not the fault of America. I can’t blame America for it. America gave me the chance to be a success.”
Lilian sighs. Her lack of sentimentality means that self-reflection is tiring for her.
“Joe’s murder changed everything. I had no choice but to be Chesty Morgan after that.”
The phone rings for an age.
Eventually someone picks up, but the line remains silent.
Hello? I ask.
I’m looking for a man named Kazle Anthony?
I’m writing an article about someone who was affected by a homicide in Brooklyn in 1965.
Are you Mr. Anthony?
“What do you want to know?”
I wondered when you got out of prison?
Where did you serve time?
“Wallkill State Prison in Ulster County, New York. Over 40 years.”
What happened to your friend, Reginald Batten?”
“He got out in 1972.”
How did that happen?
“Conviction was overturned on appeal.”
Any idea what happened to him after that?
What do you remember about the robbery and the murder in Bed Stuy in 1965?
“What did you say you’re doing?”
I’m writing an article about a family member of one of the victims. Her life changed forever after that moment.
“Everything changed after that. For everybody.”
Tell me about it.
“It was a long time ago.”
“Better not to go digging up old stories, you know? You don’t know what you’ll find.”
The phone line dies quietly.
“Chesty Morgan and Watermelon Rose
Raise my rent and take off all your clothes
With trench coats, magazines, a bottle full of rum,
She’s so good, make a dead man come”
– From ‘Pasties And A G-String (At The Two O’Clock Club)’ – Tom Waits