'Captain' Don Leslie -- world record sword swallower lived colorful life

Thursday, June 21, 2007

There was a time when every kid dreamed of running away to join the circus.

"Captain" Don Leslie lived the dream.





He was one of a vanishing breed, a lifelong sideshow carny who swallowed swords, ate fire and shoved sharp metal objects up his nose. He smoked like a Frenchman, wore his hair long like a rock star and had more tattoos than a sailor.

The Captain spent 42 years on the road. There isn't a circus worth mentioning or a place worth seeing where he didn't perform. He lived in a trailer, bathed from a bucket and stashed his pay in a sock. Circus life was all he ever knew, or cared to.

"He loved it," said Henry Goldfield, a San Francisco tattoo artist. He befriended the Captain 25 years ago when the sword swallower started performing at Fisherman's Wharf. "He always said that whenever he smelled elephants -- he knew he was home."

Donald Paul Leslie died June 4 at home in Chico, six months after being diagnosed with throat cancer brought on by decades of eating fire. He was 69, and his peers said his death closes the golden age of sideshow sword swallowing.

"The Captain was old school," said Lady Diane Falk, a sword swallower who worked with him for three years. "When you watched Captain Don, you knew you were watching history."

Mr. Leslie is a legend among sword swallowers, and there are as many variations on his story as there are people to tell it. But they all begin in Boston with Mr. Leslie running from a home broken by alcoholism.

Some say Mr. Leslie first sold hot dogs for Ringling Brothers. Others say he ran the pony ride for King Brothers. It was 1952, when circus sideshows still had bearded ladies and elephant men and odd jobs for a 14-year-old on the run.

But selling hot dogs, running pony rides and following elephants with a shovel was as lucrative as it was exciting.

The real money was in performing, so Mr. Leslie billed himself as a fire-eater and joined the Christiani Brothers Circus in 1954. He met Carlos Leal, a fire-eater and sword swallower of some renown who was happy to have an apprentice.

"Carlos taught him the wrong way to swallow swords," said Madame Chinchilla, a tattoo artist in Fort Bragg. She met Mr. Leslie 21 years ago and is writing his biography. "He told him to cough and gag and make a big production of it to add drama."

Fortunately, Harry Doll -- of the world-famous Doll family of performing dwarves -- introduced Mr. Leslie to Alex Linton.

"He saved the Captain's life," Madame Chinchilla said. "The Captain would have died if he kept swallowing the way Carlos taught him."

Linton taught Mr. Leslie to swallow swords smoothly, which is akin to having Joe Montana teach you how to throw a football. Linton held the world sword-swallowing record -- four -- until 1981, when Mr. Leslie simultaneously swallowed five. Each was 30 inches long.

Doll also christened Mr. Leslie "Captain" Don after telling the young sword swallower he needed a catchy stage name.

The Captain hung up his swords when he was 18 and did a brief stint in the Marines, then picked up where he left off, Madame Chinchilla said.

He learned how to stick needles through his cheek and ice picks up his nose. He mastered the art of lying on nails, walking on glass and getting out of a straightjacket. He was the Bruce Jenner of sideshows, a decathlete performing all 10 of the bizarre routines promised by any show worth seeing.

When the big top came down and the sideshow packed up, the Captain would spend the off-season working as a tattoo artist. He'd been tattooed by the masters, including Carol "Smokey" Nightingale and Lyle Tuttle, and knew enough to make a buck at it.

The Captain also would perform on the streets of Boston and was a regular on Fisherman's Wharf for most of the 1980s. He also appeared at the Exotic Erotic Ball a few times.

He was slowing down by then and had quit drinking, but he'd still hit the road every spring. People loved to see him swallow five swords simultaneously.

It was the grand finale to his show, and it almost killed him in 1989. That was in Seattle, before a packed house. He'd done it a million times, but this time, something slipped. The blades parted as he pulled them from his throat, tearing his esophagus.

That was it for the Captain. He called it quits.

He gave most of his swords to Lady Diane, whom he'd met earlier that year during a tour of the South Pacific. They worked together for a time in Canada, where the Captain created a sideshow for Conklin Shows.

But performing was in his blood, and it wasn't easy to give it up. He started swallowing swords again about a decade ago at tattoo conventions, where he was something of a celebrity.

His last appearance was in February, but he didn't swallow his sword. He was living on borrowed time by then. Cancer had already ravaged his throat and jaw. He'd been diagnosed last winter. The doctors gave him four months, tops. But the Captain was tough. He hung on for six.

"He was a man of the world and an independent spirit," said his son, David, "and he had one hell of a rollercoaster ride of a life."

The Captain is survived by his ex-wives, Sherry and Joannie, and four children, Don Leslie of Finland, Darryl Leslie of Phoenix, David Leslie of Boston and Stephanie Leslie of Quincy, Mass.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.

This article appeared on page B - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle