“It is 3am in the Combat Zone and the gay bars have closed, the fags, hookers, pimps and pushers roam the streets.” this is a quote taken from a 1973 Boston Globe article by Jeramiah Murphy.
What follows is a brief history of Boston’s most notorious neighborhood, the Combat Zone. The stories, statistics and people are real and true.
The Zone as it was known started to take shape in the early 1960’s when Boston’s former red-light district, Scollay Square was demolished and replaced with the now concrete wasteland that is Government Center. All the bars, burlesque and vice had to go somewhere and the lower end of Washington St. right off Chinatown with its cheap rent and under patrolled corners made the perfect fit. Bars slowly started to incorporate burlesque, the name Combat Zone was in reference to the sailors and service-men that roamed the streets and filled the bars. With an active clientele, the neighborhood became, as the New York Times described it in 1976 “A sexual disneyland…” triple x theaters, gay crusing joints, strip clubs like the Naked-i, Pilgrim Theater and the Pussycat Lounge were the tamer side of the Zone’s sex trade. A 1975 police raid by Boston’s vice squad arrested 97 girls under the age of seventeen working as prostitutes in The Combat Zone.
There were two driving forces at play in the Zone: sex and money. This attracted a wide range of characters from gay to straight, prostitutes to police, druggies to gangsters. One of the better known performers was a woman who went by the stage name Chesty Morgan. Chesty was famous for her seventy three inch bust that would be carried in front of her onto the stage by two little people dubbed, the “Chesty Morgan Midgets.” Seriously, all of this is true.
Chesty performed at the Pilgrim Theater here in Boston and across the country. She even made it into a Fellini film. Her stage act consisted of twenty five minutes where she pranced around the stage topless, she always made it a point that she did not remove her g-string. She would flirt with customers and allow them to fondle her breasts to prove they were real.
Chesty, who’s legal name is Lillian Stello wasn’t born as a large chested lady of the night. She was born in a suburb outside Warsaw, her parents the proud owners of a successful department store. As the Germans rolled into Poland and assumed power in 1939 Stello’s parents lost control of their business and were forced into a Jewish Ghetto. I’m tempted to call her Chesty for continuity, but that would fail to separate who she is from the contrast of what she did.
Lillian, still a baby at the start of war would survive, sadly her parents would not. Both murdered during the Nazi occupation. After the war Lillian was sent to Israel where she would grow up in a series of orphanages. In 1957 a twenty year old Lillian meets a man, Joseph Wilczkowski, an American. The couple are married, they leave Poland and settle in New York.
Lillian describes her husband as “a very good man, a good provider...” to their two children and the hard working owner of multiple butcher shops around Brooklyn.
Lillian’s life had found new purpose in America, building a business and a family.
In 1965 with a daughter four and another four months she receives a call from the Brooklyn Police. Lillian was brought to the station and told that her husband was dead, murdered. Her husband, along with two employees had been herded into his walk-in refridgerator by two armed robbers. The robbers then proceeded to shoot and stab all three victims leaving them dead.
Lillian who was now twenty-seven, in a foreign country, her husband murdered, alone again with two young daughters.
Lillian admits she contemplated suicide, but couldn’t bear to leave her children without a Mother.
She’s desperate to make money, to find a way to support herself and her children. A friend suggested burlesque, “you’re very attractive Lillian, you could do this.” he says. “Never!” Lillian replied, refusing to see the man again, but the seed had been planted. Eventually this seed takes root and Lillian steps onto the stage under the name Zsa Zsa. Her first performance flops, too nervous to remove her bra the club promoter explains the need for her to focus on her primary assets. They agree her new stage name will be Chesty Morgan and the bra would come off.
Chesty becomes a star of the stage, touring nationally and earning up to $6000 per week. The famous director Frederico Felini sees Lillian performing at a club in New York. He invites her to Italy to be part of his film “Fellini’s Casanova.” After taping, her scene was cut from the film, but her legend grew. “I was not a stupid girl with a big chest...the nightclub owners, they want you to work for drugs or booze and I always wanted the money.” Lillian saved her money, investing in stock and real estate.
In 1997 after years of denying suiters Lillian accepts a proposal from a Major League Baseball umpire Richard Stello. With both of their careers keeping them on the road the marriage ends in 1984, but the couple remain close friends. Richard is killed in a car accident in 1987.
Lillian is now a little old lady, retired and living in Florida.
The Combat Zone itself did not age well and the streets became increasingly violent, drug fueled and dangerous. One of many murders occured in 1995 when Chanelle Pickett, a 23 year old African-American trans woman, met William Palmer, a white computer programmer, at the Playland Cafe, a down and out gay bar owned by a connected Italian family. She and another trans woman left the bar with Palme. The three of them spent time snorting cocaine at Pickett’s apartment. Pickett then accompanied Palmer to his home, where, according to the medical examiner, Palmer beat her about the head and strangled her for over eight minutes.
When the case went to trial Palmer used what is known as a “trans-panic” defence, claiming that he had no idea Pickett was trans until they began having sex. Palmer’s defense painted a the picture of Palmer as a naive victim and Pickett as a manipulative “gender shape-shifter.”
This helped Palmer earn a conviction of only assault and battery and a not guilty verdict of murder. In the end Palmer received only a two year sentence.
So what happened to the Combat Zone? How did it transition from the wild west of sexuality and vice to shiny new residential towers and a few asian restaurants..? Like Lillian Stello, the neighborhood of lower Washington has calmed and shed its former alias.
In reality The Zone was getting too rough for its own good. The 1976 murder of Harvard football player Andrew Poupalo put major politcal pressure on the city to start cleaning the mess up and take back control of a neighborhood gone wild. Over the next two decades the advent of VHS, the scare of HIV/AIDS, the transition from the good times of cocaine to the desperation of crack and a major effort from Chinatown residents would extinguish the flames of what was once called “Satan’s Playground.”
JEFF KLINKENBERG / St. Petersburg Times 12/19/2009
Opinion LINDSAY TRACIE 09/10/2019
Giorlandino, Salvatore S. (1986). "The Origin, Development, and Decline of Boston's Adult Entertainment District: The Combat Zone"
Currah, Paisley; Juang, Richard M.; Minter, Shannon (2006). Transgender Rights. University of Minnesota Press. p. 315.