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Lenora Russo, Celebrated 'Queen of Williamsburg,' Dies at 91

By Gwynne Hogan | November 18, 2016 4:14pm | Updated on November 21, 2016 8:47am
 Leonora Russo, 91, a local fixture along Bedford Avenue passed away on Nov. 4. 
Leonora Russo, 91, a local fixture along Bedford Avenue passed away on Nov. 4. 
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Jessica Hullinger/DNAinfo

WILLIAMSBURG — The Queen of Williamsburg, Lenora Russo, the local celebrity and fixture on Bedford Avenue, known for her impeccable vintage outfits, her big sunglasses and for chatting up anyone who would listen, has died. She was 91.

Russo, who lived North 11th Street and in the neighborhood for 68 years, died on Nov. 4, in NYU Hospital, according to Arthur's Funeral Home at 207 Nassau Avenue where her she'll be remembered on Monday Nov. 21 from 6 to 9 p.m.

She was dubbed "the Queen" in multiple short films and two DNAinfo profiles.

Russo could talk to old-timers and newcomers alike, said Paul Veneski, 52, a lifelong Williamsburg resident who'd known her since he was a child.

"She was like the ambassador of Williamsburg, she bridged the old with the new," Veneski said. "You had all the hipsters coming into the neighborhood. She became very friendly with them. They gravitated to her."

"She bridged the gap and joined the two together," he said. "She was good at that."

Russo was born in Manhattan and moved to Williamsburg in the 1940's. She worked for many years as a school bus matron and lived off a tiny pension she'd earned when she retired, those who knew her said.

For several decades Russo was involved in fighting to save the People's Fire House community center, once when neighbors wanted to shut it down, then again in the early 2000's when the city wanted to turn it into condominiums. Her activism then earned her a brief profile in New York Magazine in 2007.

But Russo really earned her notoriety in the neighborhood, with her reliable presence on Bedford Avenue where she'd stroll the block several times a week, giving young women unsolicited fashion advice (tattoos and piercings were uncivilized and better suited for Cannibals than young ladies) and chatting up anyone who would give her the time of day.

She'd made it onto a postcard of local celebrities sold at Office 11211 and a photo of her hangs on the wall of Vinnie's Pizzeria.

How often did she stop in for a slice?

"To pay for it? Not often," said Dan Clayton, 31, manager at the Bedford Avenue pizza joint with a laugh, who said they'd likely be commemorating Russo with a special menu item later on Friday. 

"She still owes me $5.50 another worker chimed in," with a chuckle. 

Another of her favorite haunts was Kasia's Restaurant, on the corner of Bedford and North 9th, where she'd come for the chicken soup. Server there Kamil Kawa, 32, described her as "very sassy."

"She would sing a lot," he said. "The guy in the kitchen, she used to blow him kisses."

Others recalled her singing at family functions, weddings, community gatherings she would reliably grab the microphone and belt a song out of tune.

One of her favorite jingles, she'd accompany it with risqué gestures to her chest.

"If you like my peaches why don't you shake my tree," she'd say, and often boasted about her figure as a younger lass.

"When I was 19, honey, not that I wanna brag, I was a beauty. I was a beauty. I used to cause car crashes here," she told DNAinfo in a 2014 interview. 

Though, Russo's claims might seem hyperbolic, but Veneski confirmed that, yes, Russo had been a looker.

"She had great figure," he said.

Her reliable optimism, her humor and her big mouth, will be missed at the Fire House and Bedford Avenue, those who knew her said.

After all, in 68 years, this place had become an inseparable part of who she was, she told DNAinfo.

"I love this neighborhood, especially now at this age. Don’t forget… it’s part of me," she said. "I know everybody here. You know my title is “Queen of Williamsburg.”"