Godden, Jean (b. 1931)

  • By Sheila Farr
  • Posted 7/22/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21060

A key player in Seattle public life for more than half a century, Jean Godden (b. 1931) made a name for herself as a writer, editor, and columnist at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times. Then, during a 12-year stint on the Seattle City Council, she switched from commentary to action as she crafted legislation and helped shape the city's budget. Three days after vacating her office at City Hall in December 2015, Godden suffered a heart attack. While recovering, she began to write some of the backstage tales she hadn't yet told. Godden published Citizen Jean: Riots, Rogues, Rumors, and other Inside Seattle Stories in 2019. In 2020, she continued to write a column for the community paper Westside Seattle, contribute to the news site postalley.com, and participate in a weekly radio show, The Bridge.

All Roads Lead to Seattle

Jean Hecht was born in Stamford, Connecticut on October 1, 1931, and attended 16 schools in a dozen different states before she graduated from high school in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father, Lt. Col. Maurice Hecht (1905-1954), worked for the U.S. government as a map and chart-maker. Her mother, Bernice Elizabeth Warvel Hecht (1907-1954), took various jobs teaching and strove to keep the family intact as they moved continually for her father's work. When Jean's brother Harry was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Bernice (known as Bunny) made a bed for him in a hotel dresser drawer. She kept a running tally of all the towns and cities they lived in, which totaled 116 by the time the family touched down in Seattle in 1950.

At the time, Jean had just graduated from high school, and would soon enroll at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, her parents' alma mater. She left Seattle on her own and travelled to Evanston, Illinois, where for two years she attended class and worked at the campus paper, the Daily Northwestern. But one year on summer break she returned to Seattle and landed a job as news editor at a free community weekly, the University District Herald. There she met the commercial artist Robert Godden (1929-1985). Suddenly her college plans derailed. They married and their first son, Glenn, was born in 1953. The following year both of Jean's parents died prematurely, four months apart, leaving her devastated.

Jean gave birth to a second son, Jeff, in 1957. With seemingly boundless energy, she not only ran the household and took care of the kids, but also kept the books for Bob's advertising agency, served as PTA president, and secretary of the League of Women Voters. She participated in the Lake City community council and the Seattle Municipal League, and, as a resident of Northeast Seattle, Godden signed on with a new group, Citizens Against Freeways. Its goal was to prevent a freeway from being carved from I-90 through the Central district and across the Montlake cut.  

Jean joined the fight, led by activist Margaret Cary Tunks (1918-2007), who had studied law and was married to the dean of the University of Washington law school. Tunks researched the Washington State Highway Department's role in the project and discovered, "a nest of legislators operating a powerful highway lobby that had wrested control of the state's highway budget. The goal was either to enrich themselves through construction contracts or to curry approval for projects that benefitted their individual legislative districts" (Godden, 21).  

Godden wrote press releases for Tunks, took notes on meetings and public events, added her voice, and reveled in the minutia of the democratic process as citizens took on local government bureaucracies. Her outgoing nature and an early life on the move gave Godden a skill set well suited to civic engagement: She met people easily and remembered names and faces. She was confident, smart, curious, and good with words. In 1970, Citizens Against Freeways prevailed as the Seattle City Council voted to kill the project. And Godden, in the thick of things, had found the place she loved to be: writing and taking a stance, having a voice, and making a difference in local politics.

Into the Newspaper Business

As her children got older, Godden went back to school at the University of Washington and completed her BA in Communications in 1974. She quickly found a job as a temporary editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in charge of the paper's weekly entertainment section, where she ran herd over a group of recalcitrant critics. During six weeks in that post, she got to know the quirks and kindnesses of her newsroom colleagues and was encouraged to apply for an opening on the editorial page -- editing letters to the editor and op-eds, writing headlines, and laying out the page. Godden needed the work. Her husband, Bob, was struggling with an illness that would soon be diagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis, making Jean the family breadwinner.

She got the job and the following year advanced to assistant editorial page editor, with Nancy Hevly (b. 1931) taking over Godden's former post. The two, who would remain lifelong friends, worked closely to put out seven editorial pages a week, reading and editing letters, interviewing and writing editorials in response to the most pressing news, all at a time when that included laying out the page and delivering it for typesetting. Editor Jack Doughty (1914-2006), a macho old-school newsman, called them "his two broads," Hevly recalled. "Which we just took. He was the man" (Hevly interview with author).

Godden's first year in the world of daily newspaper journalism came at a dramatic time. From the abduction of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst (the P-I was a Hearst publication) and turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War, to Watergate and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, each day seemed to bring an onslaught of stunning headlines. And then in 1976, things heated up locally, too. Washington's first woman governor, Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), took office and promptly took aim at the media. She stopped holding regular news conferences and limited interviews to reporters she deemed friendly. When a litter of piglets was born on her farm, Ray made her disdain clear by naming them after reporters she disliked, including Godden's P-I colleague, Mike Layton. 

Godden was at the heart of the newspaper's response, deep in the decision making and interviewing, helping shape the editorials that spelled out the newspaper's views. Ray wasn't fond of Godden either. So incendiary were the governor's remarks and actions that P-I editorial staff meetings opened with a quick prayer for the "health of Governor Ray," a tongue-in-cheek moment they hoped would protect the newspaper from libel lawsuits (Godden, 43).

Things got dramatic at Seattle City Hall, too, with the rocky first term of Seattle mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939), a former KING-TV newsman whose relationship with the media quickly soured after he took office. He became known, among other things, for hiring a bevy of attractive young women, including former KING reporter Carol Lewis, a campaign donor. One observer quipped that City Hall had started to look "more like a dating bureau than an urban government," Godden later wrote (Godden, 56). And then there was the Greek freighter that crashed into the West Seattle Bridge, precipitating a transportation crisis that led to construction of a new bridge.

Jean Godden: Columnist

Through it all, Godden steadily earned respect at the newspaper and around town, accumulating awards and the approval of colleagues. Hevly recalled that Godden was driven by a two-pronged ambition: To succeed, no matter the odds, and also to have people like her. "That's a difficult goal to reach, but she did it. And I have great admiration for her" (Hevly interview). Godden also became good friends with columnist Emmett Watson (1918-2001), the curmudgeonly Seattle raconteur who coined the phrase "Lesser Seattle" to protest rampant urban renewal and development. Watson and Godden often had lunch together and Godden credits Watson with helping her find her voice as a writer. He knew that if you wanted to draw attention to important matters, you had to entertain people, too. Watson would leave the P-I in 1982 over a dispute with an editor and later take his column to The Seattle Times.

In 1980, Godden was asked to fill in as acting business editor at the P-I, and then hired for the permanent position. But in 1983, with Watson's voice at the paper sorely missed, an editor called Godden in and asked if she would like to write a column -- jumping from a primarily managerial job to producing four prominent articles a week. She gulped, consulted with her family, and took the leap. Around the same time she began moonlighting as a restaurant critic, to bring in a bit of extra cash.

Godden's column focused on goings on about town, civic and social. She was instructed to avoid politics -- that was the purview of male columnists. But Godden soon discovered she could slip in riffs about women politicians without any repercussions. Whatever the topic, Godden loved the job. She already knew many social and business leaders from her years as an editor, and had plenty of sources ready to dish.

One of them was Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck (b. 1957), son of architect and professor Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985), who had led the fight to save the Pike Place Market in the early 1970s. Now, it turned out, the Market was once again threatened, a consequence of the earlier convoluted bailout scheme devised by New York investment firm the Urban Group. The Urban Group had reaped millions in tax benefits from the deal, and now, thanks to a change in federal tax laws, planned to assume ownership. Steinbrueck learned what was happening and phoned Godden. After several hours on the phone with him she wrote a column, published November 30, 1989, breaking the story and launching months of public uproar and legal wrangling over the city's beloved landmark. It was, Godden later wrote, "a scoop I would have preferred never to have written" (Godden, 67).

Still, that piece and Godden's inside take on the Seattle scene helped make her name recognizable. Her mug shot topped the local section four days a week, and she tossed out bits of juicy gossip and dropped names. Mayor Norm Rice had a "secret past," she revealed in 1990. He had once aspired to be a professional actor, but gave it up when he discovered how little work was available to Black actors ("Rice's Secret Past"). She might dish a tidbit overheard at the hair salon in one item and mourn the death of a local jazz musician in another. Godden's column was what people talked about that day. And being mentioned in it became a status thing. Naturally, the city's competing newspaper, The Seattle Times, developed Godden-envy. Over the years, hints had been dropped that The Times would be happy to have her on staff. But Jean was preoccupied with work and Bob's progressive illness and didn't give it much thought.

When Bob Godden died on December 1, 1985, Jean wrote a column about him and their life together. Not long after, she got a call from one of her former UW professors, Dr. Alex Edelstein (1919-2001), director of the School of Communications. He complimented her on the column -- and, oh, by the way, he and his wife were separated, would she like to go to a movie sometime? Godden put him off for a while, but eventually agreed. They became friends, occasional travel companions, and then a couple for 15 years until his death.

In 1991, Godden got a call inviting her to lunch with Times executive editor Mike Fancher. She knew what it meant. After ordering sushi and making a few pleasantries, Fancher and managing editor Alex MacLeod cut to the chase: What it would take for Godden to move her column to the Times?  

Godden had three modest wishes: She wanted to keep her seniority, including four weeks of paid vacation. She wanted a desk in the open newsroom (instead of being tucked away in an office) so she could keep an ear on what was happening. And she wanted to be paid the same as the male columnists, who now included her old friend Emmett Watson. (While researching salaries, Godden had discovered that at the P-I she was being paid substantially less than the men.) Fancher agreed and the deal was done. The next day Godden resigned from the P-I, and with her invaluable Rolodex in hand, took her column to the competing paper. Her hiring was trumpeted on the front page on March 29, 1991: "Jean Godden Moving to Times." A story described her column as "short slices of local life: odd license plates, overheard conversations, city government snafus," and pointed out: "Godden has also broken harder news" ("Popular P-I Columnist ...").

From the P-I to the Times

When Godden's first Times column was published on April 7, 1991, the paper also ran a separate story, dispelling some "myths" about the paper. One was that "The Seattle Times can be excruciatingly boring," which, the author acknowledged, was true. The newspaper, the report said, was on a mission to overcome the BF (Boring Factor). Another myth was that "Jean Godden is a gossip columnist." That accusation was juggled by calling her "an observer, a commentator, a magnet for community news -- including breaking stories." But the bottom line was: "Her addition to The Times is definitely a big first step for The Times to rid itself of BF" ("Behind The Scenes ...").

Godden strove to amuse with her gossipy tidbits, but also to enlighten. In one riff on the little-known Washington State House proposal nicknamed the "Potty Parity Bill," she pointed out there was a good reason women were often left standing in long restroom lines at public events while men breezed through. Example: In a wing at Husky Stadium, women waited for 29 stalls, while the men's fixtures numbered 62. She cited facts and added zingers, noting that as a private entity the Seattle Art Museum didn't need to hold public hearings on its steeply rising admission fees -- but that it had willingly accepted public financing with a $29.6 million bond issue.

Columnists are the stars of the newspaper, yet Godden remained egalitarian in her views and her treatment of newsroom colleagues. As a believer in collective bargaining, she prepared to strike in 2000 as union contract negotiations with management broke down. On November 21, 2000, Godden walked out with other guild members from both Seattle daily papers, beginning an acrimonious strike that lasted 38 days for P-I workers and 49 for the Times. When the strike ended, Godden learned that her prominent Sunday column had been permanently reassigned to Nicole Brodeur, who had crossed the picket line during the strike. Things wouldn't be the same.

In her 30 years at daily papers, Godden had taken home armloads of awards from the Society for Professional Journalists, Washington Press Association (formerly Washington Press Women) and others, for editorials, business writing, restaurant reviews, and columns. She was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 with a team of P-I colleagues. She remained characteristically modest about her achievements. "Press people give themselves more awards than keys on an absolute linotype," she maintained (Godden email, 6/19/20).

Now Godden began thinking about how she might best put her skills and experience to use. On August 1, 2003, the Times ran a news item that Godden, then 71, was considering a run for Seattle City Council. "I want to stop being frustrated from the outside and do something from the inside," she said, noting that as a journalist, "I couldn't put up a yard sign, couldn't support a candidate and couldn't affect policy with anything more than a smart-ass columnist's remarks" ("Newswatch"). She resigned from The Times that day and filed to run against incumbent Judy Nicastro, joining a crowded field. The following week, Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger stepped up to publish Godden's goodbye column, after The Seattle Times deemed it inappropriate to run an article by a declared candidate.

From Bylines to Budgets

Godden's political campaign put Times editors and management into a difficult squeeze: How to avoid any appearance of favoritism? In a column outlining the paper's plans, executive news editor Mike Stanton said, "Everybody involved in the coverage will be bending over backwards to make sure Jean doesn't get any special treatment" ("Godden's Candidacy ..."). And she didn't.

New to campaigning, Godden made plenty of blunders at the start. She automatically considered reporters her pals and trusted them implicitly. Godden supported a proposal to spend a big chunk of public money to develop the bio-tech industry in South Lake Union. But when her former Times colleague Bob Young asked her what she knew about opposition to the plan, she admitted "I'm woefully ignorant." He jumped on the quote ("Personas, Not Policy ..."). Young even observed her unmatched stockings. "Very astute," Godden later noted (Godden interview).

Whether it was Godden's high profile and policies, or the incumbent's reputation -- tarnished by accepting campaign cash from a strip club owner -- Godden won the Times endorsement and the election. Council president Jan Drago assigned Godden to chair the committee overseeing the troubled City Light department. "Jean has a depth and wealth of experience that didn't come out in the campaign," Drago said, noting that Godden also entered the council without the "baggage" of having voted to oust the former City Light superintendent earlier that year ("Council Elects Drago ...").

Godden went on to serve three terms on the council. Among her successes were providing lower water rates for senior and low-income customers; requiring businesses to recycle; and getting City Light's debt in line with a tax increase to keep services from being cut. But one achievement that made Godden especially proud was legislating paid-parental leave benefits for city employees. And she continued to push for causes she believed in. In 2015 she was one of five council members who sent a letter to UW President Ana Mari Cauce (b. 1956), urging her to meet the demands of the union representing UW physicians.

"I saw her as being strategic," said former council member Nick Licata (b. 1947), "keeping to the middle of the road when possible, perhaps to influence the outcome. As a consequence, only six times in 12 years on the council did she cast the lone opposing vote" ("Jean Godden Looks Back").

Throughout her time on the council, Godden held firm to her high principles as a journalist and citizen. "I knew how important transparency was to government," she said (Interview, 2019). Godden acknowledged that one time she was fined $150 for a minor campaign violation, and felt the sting. Still, she wrote, "even if I was once on the wrong side and even if I sometimes suffered frustration as a council member from records-disclosure requests, I will defend to a last breath the public's right to know" ("I Paid A Price ..."). 

In 2015 Godden lost her seat to Rob Johnson. She was 83 at the time and age may have tipped the outcome. Only a few days after she cleaned out her office at City Hall, as she prepared to go out Christmas shopping, Godden collapsed. Her son Jeff called 911 and medics transported her to the hospital, where she received an angioplasty and medication to dissolve clots in her lung. Her brush with death convinced Godden it was time to start writing down all the stories she hadn’t yet told, about her years in journalism and in politics. In 2020, her first book already published, Godden still kept a busy schedule, writing and commenting on the concerns of the day. She contributed to the community paper Westside Seattle and the news site postalley.com, as well as a weekly radio show, The Bridge (on hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic). She was at work on a second book.


Sheila Farr, author interviews with Jean Godden, Feb. 4, 2019 and June 18, 2020; author interview with Nancy Hevly, June 17, 2020; Jean Godden emails to Sheila Farr, May 19, June 8, 9, and 21, 2020; transcripts and messages in possession of Farr; Jean Godden, Citizen Jean: Riots, Rogues, Rumors, and Other Inside Seattle Stories (WSU Press, Pullman, Washington, 2019); Jean Godden, "I Paid A Price On Public Records Law," Crosscut.com, Feb. 27, 2018 website acccessed June 1, 2020 (https://crosscut.com/2018/02/washington-public-records-law-jay-inslee-legislature-accountable); "Lake City Elects Community Council," The Seattle Times, November 13, 1970, p. C-1; "3 Receive Communications Service Awards," Ibid., December 7, 1980, p A-31; Jean Godden, "For Times and Me, Writes of Passage," Ibid., April 7, 1991, p. B1; Gordy Holt, "Jack Doughty, 1914-2006: Former P-I Editor Had an Appetite for Adventure," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 30, 2006, website accessed June 19, 2020 (https://www.seattlepi.com); HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Royer, Charles (b. 1939)," by Frank Chesley (https://historylink.org/File/8265); Jean Godden, "Our Pike Place Market Could Again be in Peril," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 30, 1989, p. B-1; Kit Boss, "Popular P-I Columnist Quits to Join The Times," The Seattle Times, March 29, 1991, p. E-1; Colleen Patrick, "Behind The Scenes: Times Fact and Fiction," Ibid., April 7, 1991, p. A-19; Jean Godden, "Speculating About Fees at Seattle Art Museum," Ibid., April 24, 1991, p B-1; Godden, "Potty-Parity Battle Stalls in Olympia," Ibid., April 28, 1991, p. B-1; "Newswatch," Ibid., August 1, 2003, p B-3; Jean Godden, "Godden's Last," The Stranger, Vol. 12, No.47, August 7-13, 2003, p. 10; Bob Young, "City Council Elects Drago as President in Sweeping Shake-up," The Seattle Times, December 12, 2003, p. B-1; Bob Young, "Personas, Not Policy Driving Races for Council," Ibid., October 22, 2003, p. B-1; Nick Licata, "Looking Back on a Career in the Press, Politics," Ibid., February 17, 2019, p. E-5; Jean Godden, "Rice's Secret Past," Seattle Post-Intellegencer, January 10, 1990, p. B-1; Jean Godden, "Looking for Some Personality," Ibid., June 9, 1989, p. B-1; Jean Godden, "Royer Reconsidering Ban On TV Cameras at Briefings," Ibid., January 24, 1978, p. B-10; Michael R. Fancher, "Godden's Candidacy Poses Some Challenges In Coverage Of Race," Ibid., August 10, 2003, p. A-2. 

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