Seattle is full of stories of What Could Have Been. Among the most poignant of these is the story of Marion Zioncheck, at once one of Seattle’s greatest rabble-rousers and one of our city’s most tragic historical figures.
Marion Anthony Zioncheck was Seattle’s elected representative in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1933 until his tragic death by suicide on August 7, 1936. That tragedy was merely the tip of the iceberg of Zioncheck’s brief yet fascinating life. At his life’s nadir, he became the only U.S. Congressmember ever sent to an insane asylum. During his finest hour, at the peak of his congressional career, as a passionate champion of our nation’s underclass, he famously proclaimed, “I am a radical and I am damn proud of it. What do you think of that?”
Born Marion Antoni Zajaczek in Kęty, Galicia, Austria-Hungary (now part of Poland) on December 5, 1901, Zioncheck immigrated with his parents to the United States at the age of three, moving first to Chicago, then to Seattle in 1905. Raised in poverty on Beacon Hill, he attended high school in Olympia and enrolled at the University of Washington in 1919, but had to withdraw without graduating because he ran out of money. He then toiled for several years in menial jobs on fishing boats and in lumber camps to earn his college tuition. He was thus able to re-enroll at UW at the age of 25, financially supporting both his studies and his parents. His experience as an impoverished and non-traditional student among privileged young classmates would profoundly determine his future character and career.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Zioncheck first made his mark as a rabble-rouser in 1928 while attending the UW School of Law. As president of the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW), he brazenly challenged the dominance of the Greek system and the UW athletic department over UW’s funding decisions when he campaigned for the creation of a student union building on campus. His activism at UW earned him a head-shaving and a dunking in Lake Washington from ungrateful UW football players, yet it also led, several years later, to the financing and construction of the Husky Union Building, which finally opened on October 25, 1949.
Zioncheck would later describe his life as a UW student leader in a third-person autobiographical sketch written while he served as a U.S. Congressmember. That sketch demonstrated how his populist passions were already in full flower at that early stage of his career:
“As a champion of the poorer students as opposed to those who belonged to the fraternities and sororities, Zioncheck preached the policy of just recognition of all groups on the campus, with special favors to none. . . . He stood for democracy in campus life, and wanted all the students, regardless of whether they lived in hut or palace, to mingle freely as one great educational fraternity.”
Along with his ASUW escapades, Zioncheck earned a law degree while also becoming involved in the local Democratic Party. After passing the bar exam in 1929, he built a name for himself as a lawyer who fought for the destitute and underrepresented, including unemployed workers, radicals, and labor union figures, often working pro bono. His combative side, which would reach full flower during his congressional career, first emerged during his early legal career, and he was often cited for contempt of court, once appealing a $25 fine all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court.
From his legal career, Zioncheck graduated into Seattle city politics in July 1931 by helping lead a successful recall campaign against Mayor Frank Edwards, who was then attempting to sell off Seattle City Light, a public utility, to private interests. Zioncheck was co-chairman of the organization that campaigned for the recall.
The incident that provoked the recall occurred on March 9, 1931, when Edwards fired the popular head of Seattle City Light, James Delmadge Ross, a strong advocate for public ownership of municipal utilities. Edwards opposed that cause, and thus Ross’s firing was widely viewed as politically motivated. The Municipal Utilities Protection League, an ad hoc group led by Zioncheck and his fellow attorney (and future Seattle mayor) John Dore, quickly organized the recall campaign. Support for the recall was strong enough that, while only 25,000 petition signatures were needed to place the recall on a ballot, more than 200,000 were collected. On July 13, Edwards was recalled by popular vote in a special municipal election. Newly appointed mayor Robert Harlin then reinstated J. D. Ross. Seattle City Light’s customer rates quickly dropped by 75 percent as a direct result of the recall, and Zioncheck thus became a local hero in Seattle.
Zioncheck would then parlay his resulting local popularity into greater political stature in 1932. That November, as part of the national progressive electoral sweep that landed Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the White House, Zioncheck was elected to Congress, winning Washington state’s First District seat — then representing Seattle and Kitsap County, and formerly occupied by a Republican — on an openly radical platform. He took office in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1933.
During his first term, the populist Zioncheck was considered by many of his colleagues to be a studious and serious legislator. Unlike all too many Congressmembers then and now, he read every bill brought before the House before voting. This was partly due to the job he was assigned as a freshman by the House Democratic leadership: a degrading bill-reading job. From his performance in that position, Zioncheck gained a reputation as an obedient and unobtrusive liberal freshman.
In the 1934 national midterm elections, unlike with typical midterms, there was no backlash against Roosevelt or his fellow Democrats in Congress. In fact, that year FDR built upon his 1932 landslide victory — and Zioncheck was among the many beneficiaries of FDR’s considerable political coattails, also receiving the support of the Washington Commonwealth Federation, the erstwhile liberal-to-socialist political organization that was powerful in Seattle during the 1930s. His popularity had then also increased in his home district, and he was thus re-elected by a 20,645-vote plurality, an even larger margin than he received in 1932.
An ardent supporter of the spirit of FDR’s New Deal, Congressman Zioncheck was nevertheless a critic of the lukewarm nature of certain New Deal policies, which made him a target of certain money-friendly senior Congressmembers who, soon after his 1934 re-election, formed a coalition aimed at isolating and disempowering him. He then gradually reacted to his loss of power in The Other Washington by engaging in reckless public escapades that unfortunately earned him far more national notoriety than his radical legislative affinities.
The first among those escapades occurred in the wee small hours of New Year’s Day, 1936, when he strolled into the lobby of a posh Washington, D.C., apartment building, drunk and looking for some friends. Not finding them, he woke up everyone in the building by throwing open the switchboard and wishing all the tenants a Happy New Year. He then spent several hours in jail and was fined for drunk and disorderly conduct and for disturbing the peace.
Zioncheck’s combative side, dormant during his first term, began to emerge on the job dramatically as the year 1936 unfolded. One infamous day on the House floor, on March 11 of that year, he started an argument with William Ekwall, the Republican congressman from Oregon. When Ekwall requested to speak on the floor, Zioncheck interrupted, asking, “Does the gentleman from Oregon wish to make a fool of himself?”
Accustomed to such disruptive behavior, which by then had become Zioncheck’s legislative norm, Ekwall replied, “If anyone could make a bigger jackass of himself than the gentleman from Washington, I do not know who it is.”
Ekwall then indirectly threatened Zioncheck, telling another legislator, “Let him come out in the corridor and I’ll take care of him.”
Another noteworthy escapade was Zioncheck’s eloping in April with a 21-year-old Works Progress Administration secretary from Texarkana, Texas, named Rubye Louise Nix, whom he had only recently met. When reporters asked him how well he knew his new bride, he replied, “I met her about a week ago when she called me up one night. She asked me down and so I went down and looked her over. She was okay.”
The love-struck May-September couple couldn’t get married immediately in Washington, D.C., due to a three-day waiting period for marriage licenses there. Instead, they crossed into Maryland where no such statute existed. Zioncheck paid for the marriage license fee there by borrowing two dollars from the deputy clerk, who refused Zioncheck’s watch as collateral.
Marion and Rubye were married on April 28, 1936. Rubye told the newspapers that “excitement and hubbub” just seemed to follow her new husband everywhere, and that she was “glad to go along with him.”
The following weeks would bring an escalation of the antics that would earn Zioncheck notoriety in the national press. Among these antics, he drove onto the White House lawn, sent a truckload of manure to the house of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover, and sent a package of empty beer bottles and mothballs to President Roosevelt in response to a perceived insult. Such incidents would become less amusing, more frequent, and more infamous. The nature of Zioncheck’s work was clearly taking its toll, which caused him to drink excessively, which further drove such outrageous behavior, which at its worst resulted in jail time.
He was finally taken in a straightjacket to the Shepherd and Enoch Pratt Hospital, a sanitarium in Maryland. A few days of observation there was apparently all it took to declare him insane. But on July 4 he escaped from the sanitarium by jumping over a seven-foot wall. He then returned to Washington, D.C., where he assaulted his landlady, who had sent his belongings away from his trashed apartment, and had a major quarrel with Rubye, leading to the couple’s temporary separation.
Thus, Marion Zioncheck, who had spent his first three years in Congress as a sober, hard-working, and dedicated legislator little known outside of Washington state, became known to the rest of the nation as nothing more than a drunken clown, a circus act, a frivolous amusement for avid readers of a sensation-hungry national press. Alternating between depression and outrageous antics, he announced that he would not run for re-election in 1936, then changed his mind mere days later. In Seattle on August 4, he addressed a paying audience of more than one thousand on the topic, “Who’s Crazy?” Of course, he denied that he was.
Marion Zioncheck’s dark descent into political and personal pathos became tragic on August 7, 1936, when he leapt to his death from the window of his campaign office on the fifth floor of the Arctic Building at Third Avenue and Cherry Street in downtown Seattle. Adding to the tragedy, his body landed on the sidewalk directly in front of the parked car occupied by Rubye. It was shortly after 6 p.m., and Rubye had been waiting outside to attend a campaign banquet with her husband later that evening. Zioncheck’s brother-in-law, William Nadeau, who had accompanied him to his office that evening, was the first witness to the suicide, having tried in vain to stop Zioncheck’s abrupt rush towards the office window.
“If I’d been just a second quicker I could have caught him. I only missed him by a foot when I grabbed for him as he jumped,” Nadeau later told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Nadeau found on Zioncheck’s desk a hastily written note, which read, in full and verbatim:
“My only hope in life was to improve the condition of an unfair economic system that held no promise to those that all the wealth of even a decent chance to survive let alone live.”
One can only wonder today how important a figure in American politics and government Marion Zioncheck could have become had he not been ostracized by his capital-friendly and reform-hostile colleagues in Congress. By all accounts, his eccentric behavior did not develop until after his political marginalization was complete. On the day after his death, The Seattle Daily Times had this to say about his alleged mental illness:
“[Zioncheck] had been advised by his physician to take a long rest, away from political turmoil, and [he] had been told that he could recover completely. His mental ailment had been diagnosed as manic depression.”
Zioncheck was mourned in Seattle with much public ceremony. More than two thousand people attended his funeral at the Senator Auditorium at Seventh Avenue and Union Street in downtown Seattle, with another thousand waiting outside, and Boeing and the University of Washington both closed down for half a day in his honor.
On the bright side, Zioncheck was succeeded in Washington state’s First District seat by his friend and former UW law school classmate Warren G. Magnuson, who would go on to become one of the most consistently progressive legislators in Congressional history — likely due in no small part to his long-lingering grief over his friend’s tragically aborted political career. According to Magnuson’s biographer, former Seattle P-I reporter Shelby Scates, Magnuson was deeply affected by what happened to Zioncheck. In a memorial speech, Magnuson once said of his late friend:
“He was the most brilliant of our young Democrats, passionately devoted to the idea of leadership. He felt the corporate structure must be made amenable to community spirit. He was opposed to the application of force by an armed minority. He believed the days of Cain and the exploitation of neighbors must give way to the Golden Rule.
“Marion felt too profoundly and too intensely, a heavy responsibility to his fellow man. These are my impressions and recollections of our dead comrade. I give them to you with only one hope — that we shall continue together where he left off.”
Marion Zioncheck is buried at Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park in North Seattle.
Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.