LEONORA RUSSO: The Queen of Williamsburg


She walks down Bedford Avenue in all pink. A Louis Vuitton purse hangs over her shoulder, and two tennis balls are attached to her walker so that it doesn’t squeak(she might ask you to reattach them if they fall off). Her laugh is loud and free, and her language is always shockingly dirty. If you visit Williamsburg, and if you are lucky, you might come across a little old woman, Leonora Russo, a local attraction far more exciting than the usual hipster joints and flea markets. On a beautiful, warm day, Leonora will probably be sitting on bench outside a coffee shop or bodega, greeting locals, making friends with strangers, and yelling sweet nothings at every child and dog that walks by. She often tells me that there is nothing on earth more precious than dogs and children. “I love dogs,” she says, “I love dogs and I love children with all of my heart.” It was winter when i decided to write a story about Leonora. I hadn’t seen her in weeks, which wasn’t surprising given the weather, but I was sure that she would be easy to find. She’s so friendly, I thought, one of the locals is bound to have her contact details.


It was shocking to realize how wrong I was. It was shocking to realize that, like me, most of the locals barely knew a thing about Leonora. It was a sad epiphany. She spends hours asking about our lives, but apart from the most material facts, we knew nothing about her, and clearly most of us didn’t even care to ask. I began to panic, because what is something happened to Leonora? What if she passed away? Weeks could go by and her absence would go unquestioned.   I was disappointed in myself, and suddenly my story took on a new importance. I thought that it could be a redemption of sorts. Many more icy weeks passed before I saw her again. It was a spring day, one of the first, and she was walking towards me on Bedford Avenue. Her tennis balls were in place, her velvet hat was sparkling with silver beads, and her faux leopard coat was the boldest on the street. I think I must have skipped towards her, I was so relieved.

Leonora Russo The Queen Of Williamsburg

She greeted me, loud and happy as usual, “Hello my darling , come sit with me! Let’s find a place to sit! How about this bench here? I know the people in this shop—they know me!! They love me! Everyone in this neighborhood knows me. Just ask anyone—they will tell you about Leonora.” I smile, “Everyone loves you Leonora.” I run into the bodega for her coffee, the usual with cream and splenda, and then I sit beside her on the bench. I told her about the story I planned on writing and asked if she wouldn’t mind me asking her a few questions. “Of course not,” she said, “ask me anything! People here always ask me and take pictures of me. Did you know that I am called the Queen of Williamsburg? I was once in Time Out Magazine!” She begins talking before I get a chance to ask any of my questions. Most of what she tells me is what I already know-that she has modeled, that she loves to sing, and that she has lived in this neighborhood for most of her life. When she finishes her coffee she invites me up to her apartment. She lives a few blocks away from me in a rent controlled apartment. She tells me that the landlord can’t wait for her to die. “He wants me to die so that he can rent the place out for more.”


It’s an old four story building, and Leonora lives on the top floor. Climbing the stairs was a hassle, even with me there to hold her walker and help her up. She tells me that she usually does it on her own. Finally, we step into her apartment. It is perfect in so many ways. Perfectly what I imagined it to be, and perfectly Leonora. Everything is pink and velvet and frilly. Antiques and old photo’s line the polished wood counters, and ancient. There is a boxy television with an antenna that she tells me has been her best companion for years. I ask about her family as we go through some black and white photos. “My husband died when I was 35 and it broke my heart. I want no other. My only son died a few years later. The rest of my family—they are either dead or living-I don’t know. I don’t see them,” Leonora was born in Queens to middle class working parents of Italian decent. They owned a pizzeria. She tells me that she was the most beautiful of their four daughters and always very popular with young men, and I don’t doubt it. “They were coming at me from left, right and center! My parents didn’t know what to do”, she laughs. Leonora worked at her parent’s pizzeria, boiling pasta, rolling dough, and caring little for any of her admirers.

Leonora Russo The Queen Of Williamsburg

“Then one day,” she tells me, an Italian/American man came along and I knew right away that this one was worthy of me.” “He was my first love. My only love. In those days people only had one love. We weren’t like you kids, all confused. He was charmer from day one but he worked a good few months to sweep me off my feet,” It was her husband that took her to Brooklyn. “That was how I came to be in Williamsburg. I still live in the exact same apt now–rent controlled for 60 years and that landlord, that motherfucker wants me gone. Well fuck him I’m going nowhere,” she laughs. It wonderfully loud and witchy.I ask Leonora what she thinks makes a man worthy. She tells me, “I need a man with money. A good man with money. My husband was both. He owned two Coca Cola trucks and treated me like a queen. I was so happy then. Young, beautiful and free to travel, be with friends and focus on my singing and acting career.”


She tells me that she acted in many small movies over the years, and that she sang at local bars. I asked her to sing a song for me, and she was more than happy to oblige. Her voice is lovely, but the lyrics are unforgettable. I’m not the butcher or the butcher’s son, but I’ll give you some meat until the butcher comes. I’m not the plumber or the plumber’s son but I’ll plug your hole until the plumber comes. I must have gasped, or giggled, or something, because when she was done she looked at me sternly. “What?” she asked, “You think that’s because I’m old, I’m boring? The other day I saw a young mother with child in the corner store. She bent down so I had a vision her butt and the tattoo above it. It said, fuck me. Imagine that? Fuck me it said.” Leonora shakes her head in dismay. “Yeah, that’s trashy,” I agree. “So I tapped her on her shoulder and she looked up at me. What? she asked me. You said fuck me so I’m here to fuck you, I told her. ” She laughs. It’s that witchy laugh I love again. “Oh my darling,” she looks down the street with foggy eyes, “I’ve had quite a life, a beautiful life. I’ve had days when my bath was filled with Champagne.” ( Source: Fancyfrivolous.com ) We invite you also to watch the video below.