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 most tragic historical figures.
Born in Kęty, 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, he first made his mark as a rabble-rouser while attending the University of Washington School of Law, where, in 1928, as president of the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW), he successfully challenged the dominance of the Greek system and the athletic department over the UW’s funding decisions. His activism there 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 student-empowering Husky Union Building.
Along with his ASUW escapades, Zioncheck earned a law degree while also becoming involved in the local Democratic Party and the pro-labor Washington Commonwealth Federation. From the UW, he graduated into Seattle city politics in 1929 by leading a successful recall campaign against Mayor Frank Edwards, who was then trying to sell off Seattle City Light to private interests. Soon after, in 1932, as part of the national progressive electoral sweep that landed Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House, Zioncheck was elected to Congress, winning Washington state’s 1st District seat on an openly radical platform.
An ardent supporter of the spirit of the New Deal, Congressman Zioncheck was also a frequent 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. Zioncheck gradually reacted to his loss of power in The Other Washington by engaging in drunken public escapades that, unfortunately, earned him far more national notoriety than his radical legislative affinities. The first among these occurred in the wee hours of New Year’s Day 1936, when he strolled into the lobby of a posh Washington, D.C., apartment house, plugged in all the numbers on the telephone switchboard, and wished all the tenants a Happy New Year. Such reckless incidents would become less amusing, more frequent, and more infamous in the following months.
Thus, Marion Zioncheck, who spent his first three years in Congress as a sober, hard-working, dedicated legislator little known outside 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.
His sad descent into political and personal pathos became tragic on the date in focus here, when, having recently hinted that he would not seek re-election that year, Zioncheck leapt to his death from the window of his campaign office on the 5th floor of the Arctic Building in downtown Seattle. To add to the tragedy, his body landed directly in front of the parked car occupied by his wife, Rubye Louise Zioncheck, whom he had only recently married.
His brother-in-law, William Nadeau, was the first witness to the suicide, having tried in vain to stop Zioncheck’s abrupt rush towards the office window. 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 Marion Zioncheck could have become if he had not been ostracized by his capital-friendly and labor-hostile colleagues in Congress. By all accounts, his manic-depressive behavior did not develop until after his political marginalization was complete. On the bright side, he was succeeded in Washington state’s 1st District by his friend and former UW law school classmate Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), who would go on to become one of the most consistently progressive legislators in Congressional history — likely due in no small part to Magnuson’s long-lingering grief over his friend’s tragically aborted political career.
–Jeff Stevens. Sources: “Seattle’s Scuffler,” Time magazine, May 4, 1936, p. 14; George Creel, “The Loudest Radical,” Collier’s magazine, May 30, 1936, p. 15; “Zioncheck Commits Suicide,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 8, 1936, p. 1; “Almost Saved Him, Says Nadeau,” Ibid.; “Democrats Plan to Hold Service,” Ibid., p. 2; “Romney ‘Grieved’,” Ibid.; “Eyewitness Tells Horror of Plunge to Death,” Ibid.; “Magnuson Tells of Last Chat,” Ibid.; “Zioncheck Death Ends Career Begun as Emigrant Boy,” Ibid., p. 3; “Mother Not Told of Death,” Ibid.; “Zioncheck’s Wife Grief Stricken,” Ibid.; “Sister Collapses at Death News,” Ibid.; “Death Leaves Second Seat in Congress Open,” Ibid., p. 5; “Elevator Girl Tells of Tragedy,” Ibid.; “Zioncheck’s Suicide Held Due to Fear of Sanitarium,” The Seattle Times, August 8, 1936, p. 1; “Zioncheck’s Widow to Get $10,000 Gift,” Ibid.; “Congress to Give Zioncheck Full Honors,” Ibid., p. 3; “Real American Tragedy, Says His Ex-Partner,” Ibid.; “Schwellenbach Lauds Service of Zioncheck,” Ibid.; “Zioncheck Worked While Student,” Ibid.; “Nadeau Tells of Final Hour,” Ibid.; “Elevator Girl Terrified by Wife’s Screams,” Ibid.; “Widow Sobs All Through Night,” Ibid.; “Zioncheck Agreed to Quit Politics, Enter Sanitarium,” Ibid.; “Bankhead Selects Congressmen for Zioncheck Rites,” Ibid.; Wilfred Brown, “Zioncheck’s Plunge To Be Investigated,” The Seattle Star, August 8, 1936, p. 1; Arthur Herbert Forder, “Friend of Zioncheck Gives Close-Up View,” Ibid.; Louise Marquis, “The Man No One Quite Understood,” Ibid.; “Death Plunge Described,” Ibid., p. 2; “Congressman Mentally Ill,” Ibid.; “Big Public Funeral for Zioncheck; Hamilton Here for Landon Drive,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 9, 1936, p. 1; “Tribute Paid to Zioncheck,” Ibid., p. 3; “Capital Mourning for Madcap Solon,” Ibid.; “Death Scene Gives No Hint,” Ibid.; “Zioncheck to be Given Final Honors by City,” The Seattle Times, August 9, 1936, p. 1; “King Demos Pay Tribute to Zioncheck,” Ibid., p. 8; “Congressmen Will Pay Honor to Zioncheck,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 10, 1936, p. 3; “Public Funeral for Zioncheck,” The Seattle Times, August 10, 1936, p. 2; “Seattle Will Pay Last Tribute to Zioncheck at Public Funeral,” The Seattle Star, August 10, 1936, p. 3; “Zioncheck To Be Buried Today,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 11, 1936, p. 3; “Colorful Rites for Zioncheck, ‘Friend of Poor’,” The Seattle Times, August 11, 1936, p. 1; “Crowds Pay Zioncheck Last Honors,” The Seattle Star, August 11, 1936, p. 1; “10,000 Attend Zioncheck Rites,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 12, 1936, p. 2; Steven Frasher, “Marion Zioncheck: The wild man of Washington,” University of Washington Daily, April 29, 1983, p. 1; Trevor Griffey, “A Hero’s Haunting,” Real Change Newspaper, May 3, 2001; Jerry Carter, “The Crazy Congressman,” The American Spectator, July 31, 2002; Murray Morgan, “Skid Road” (Viking Press, 1951; Ballantine Books, 1971; University of Washington Press, 1982); Shelby Scates, “Warren G. Magnuson and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century America” (University of Washington Press, 1997); Phillip Campbell, “Zioncheck for President” (Nation Books, 2005).