Leslie Goddard Portrays Everyone from Chicago Socialites to Queen Elizabeth II
By David A. F. Sweet
Fresh off her portrayal of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Leslie Goddard arrives at a coffee shop in Lake Forest with her hair in a bun, the style preferred by the wife of the longest-serving U.S. president.
For nearly 20 years, Goddard has portrayed famous women, mainly those no longer with us — such as the aforementioned Roosevelt, aviator Amelia Earhart, and Chicago socialite Bertha Honoré Palmer – along with the rare one still living, such as Queen Elizabeth II (she focuses on one year of her lengthy reign, the annus horribilis of 1992). The Chicago-area resident puts on performances at colleges, museums, libraries, and other spots across the country.
“It’s an amazing job to have,” said Goddard, who possesses a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in U.S. history and American Studies, along with two masters’ degrees and a Bachelor of Arts degree in theater and English from Stanford University. “You meet some people who may not read history, but you’re sparking an interest. It’s an incredible honor to be able to touch people’s lives.”
It takes Goddard four to six months to research a person’s life and to write a script and another four to six months to rehearse her 40-minute presentation and to create costumes. In 2019, she presented nearly 400 performances and lectures (she is often asked to speak about topics related to Chicago history). Then, the coronavirus hit in March 2020.
“I thought it was the end of my career,” Goddard said. “I went from a full calendar to nothing.”
Fortunately, she started performing via Zoom a month or so later. She overcame initial stumbles, such as wearing a green costume with a green background behind her (“I looked like a floating head”). But after investing in a camera, microphone and lights, her virtual performances went smoothly.
The first character Goddard ever played was Frances Willard, the temperance advocate, for an outdoor event at the Evanston History Center in 2003.
“I had just started working there as the educator and decided to do a Victorian-themed ice cream social,” she said. “I sewed my costume myself — a big-sleeved 1890s dress.
“I was running around, setting up games and helping scoop ice cream. I wore the full outfit — corset, lots of petticoats, and the most perfect ivory leather Victorian boots which were achingly uncomfortable by the end of the day. The biggest lesson learned was you have to balance comfort with historical accuracy.”
Goddard always faces a slew of little challenges for each performance, starting with where to change into her costume. While putting on her attire in a library bathroom once, a person believed she was up to no good.
“When I came out as Grace Kelly, the staff was standing there waiting for me. They just started laughing,” Goddard said.
The biggest challenge, though, comes during the question-and-answer period at the end of the show.
“You never know what someone will ask, and you really have to know so much about the character,” she explained. “And you have to stay in character. I don’t think Eleanor Roosevelt would answer a question about the unfaithfulness of her husband (Franklin).”
Sometimes, she has to pivot quickly at the outset of a performance. Dressed as Bertha Honoré Palmer, she found out at the last minute the program had been promoted to children rather than adults as kids flocked into the seats.
“I had to switch gears,” Goddard said. “I had kids try on the hat I was wearing, and I talked about the jewelry I was wearing.”
But that’s not as tough as showing up in the wrong costume. At an event where she was supposed to portray First Lady Jackie Kennedy, she had dressed instead as artist Georgia O’Keefe.
“At the end, someone raised her hand and said, ‘Why aren’t you wearing a pillbox hat?’” Goddard recalled.
Aside from all of this, Goddard is an author. She has penned Chicago’s Sweet Candy History about the many tasty candies such as Brach’s and Mars created here as well as Remembering Marshall Field’s about the famed department store where she once worked as a sales clerk. Her next book, Lost Department Stores of Chicago, will talk about those shuttered behemoths from Sears to Carson Pirie Scott and is slated to be published in 2022.
Goddard said she has about 20 ideas for future characters. Some are off-limits, as estates of the famous such as Lucille Ball and Agatha Christie feature strict regulations on impersonating them. Goddard recently tried out one whose estate didn’t mind: Lizzie Borden, accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an ax.
“It’s the first time I’ve done someone who’s not a heroine. You can’t always trust what she says,” Goddard said. “But to me, the story of the human condition includes villains as much as heroes.”
David A. F. Sweet is the author of Three Seconds in Munich, the story about the most controversial finish in sports history. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.