PORTRAIT OF A PORTRAYAL ARTIST
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
After another one of her spot-on historical portrayals of a famous woman from mid- 20th century America, Leslie Goddard was approached by a concerned audience member.
Goddard had performed a 45-minute, one-woman play about Rachel Carson, the marine biologist, author, and conservationist whose 1962 book, Silent Spring, documented the environmental harm caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides.
“I had revealed, during my portrayal of Rachel, that Rachel had a recurrence of breast cancer,” recounts Goddard, who, during her portrayal, wore what Carson typically donned in the 1950s and 1960s. “A woman came up to me after my presentation and said to me, ‘I hope you have a good oncologist.’”
Carson died in 1964.
The audience member’s genuine concern for the current condition of the late Carson’s health had inadvertently doubled as quite a compliment for the talented Goddard, whose career as a historical portrayer, history lecturer, and holiday program presenter was born 20 years ago and is as hale and healthy as ever.
She conducted 425 presentations in 2022, which provided her with only 365 days. Goddard, a Darien resident, enthralled and educated 11 audiences, including several at North Shore-based venues, such as a library, church, or senior center. She has made appearances in 30 states since 2003.
“I’m not concerned about impersonating a famous woman as much as I am about evoking, as best I can, who the woman was,” says the 53-year-old Goddard, who has portrayed, among others, Julia Child, Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Tupperware Lady Brownie Wise, Queen Elizabeth II, and—her newest—Betty the Pan Am Stewardess. “Impersonating someone risks turning her into a caricature. Choosing a character I want to portray is the hardest part of what I do, because I know I’ll have to live with that woman’s voice in my head for years.
“So I want to make sure it is someone interesting, and that there’s enough interest out there in the person.”
Goddard’s very first portrayal, in 2003, was that of Frances Willard, an educator, temperance reformer, and women’s suffragist.
Goddard’s depiction of Betty the Pan Am stewardess is a composite of several Pan Am stewardesses. In this historical portrayal, you’ll learn about the reallife experiences of Pan Am stewardesses in the 1960s, the airline’s strict height, weight and age requirements, the stewardesses’ interactions with celebrity passengers, and vivid details of some wild rides.
Goddard, as she does for all of her chosen characters, spent a year researching Betty. She interviewed flight attendants from the era and read the book Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am by Julia Cooke.
“The images of stewardesses back then were ones of young, beautiful women,” Goddard says. “But these women were groundbreakers. They were adventurous for their era. They led exciting lives, with some, at the age of 21, getting to see the Taj Mahal. They also endured scary moments, like snipers attacking Pan Am planes flying in and out of Saigon during the Vietnam War.”
Lizzie Borden is the only character Goddard has portrayed who was not a heroine. She has yet to portray Lucille Ball or Coco Chanel, but those characters are “high on my bucket list,” Goddard says. After Goddard portrayed Titanic survivor Violet Jessop, she was asked about the number of dogs on board the ill-fated ocean liner.
“I had to do research after that event,” Goddard says of one of her favorite pastimes. “I found out 12 dogs were on board and three survived.”
Edward “Doc” Wingler, the late Hinsdale Central High School Theatre Director, directed the twoperson play Talley’s Folly in Goddard’s junior year at the school. It’s about one night in the life of two unlikely sweethearts.
Goddard landed the role of Sally Talley, two years after having performed in the productions of Equus and A Streetcar Named Desire as an HCHS freshman.
“I was crazy fortunate my freshman year,” says Goddard, the daughter of the late Joe Goddard, a Chicago Sun-Times baseball writer for 27 years, and Evanston resident Carol Goddard, a former Pioneer Press bureau chief. “Doc Wingler was a great director who liked challenging scripts. Theater became one of my big passions. History became the other.”
Goddard majored in English and Theater at Stanford University and got her M.A. in Theatre History and Literature at the University of Illinois, before earning another M.A. degree (in Museum Studies) at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. She completed an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Program (U.S. History, Women’s History, American Studies, Theater) at Northwestern University.
Among her full-time positions from 2006- 2013 were community programs coordinator at the Elmhurst Historical Museum, exhibit developer at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, and executive director of the Graue Mill and Museum in Oak Brook.
“I visited Graue Mill and Museum as a child, and I wanted to live there,” Goddard says. “When I traveled with my father to Sarasota, Florida, where he covered the Chicago White Sox in spring training, I visited the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art down there. I wanted to live there, too.”
A number of awards take up space in her house in Darien, where she lives with husband and history buff Bruce. She won a 2018 Association of Lincoln Presenters Excellence Award for her presentation, “Jackie Kennedy.” Goddard was named Best Speaker in 2014 by Westerners International for her portrayal of Bertha Palmer, a businesswoman, socialist, and philanthropist.
And she has written three books, including Lost Chicago Department Stores (The History Press, 2022). Arcadia Publishing published Goddard’s first two books, Remembering Marshall Fields (2011) and Chicago’s Sweet Candy History (2012).
“What I like to do through my portrayals is spark an interest in history,” Goddard says a couple of hours ahead of her “Julia Child” appearance at a Lake Bluff Women’s Club luncheon in April. “I want couples to talk about what they learned on their car ride home. I want them to head to the library the next day and check out a book about the woman I portrayed.
“I was blessed to have had the constant support of my parents in the early years of my career. I never thought I’d be able to find a rewarding vocation that combined my interests in history and theatre.”
Visit www.lesliegoddard.info for more information about Leslie Goddard’s historical portrayals, history lectures, and holiday programs.