In 1932, many young Democrats were elected to Congress with the spirit of change in their minds. One was Marion Zioncheck (1901-1936), a brilliant and charismatic young attorney who was the first Democrat to win the Seattle-based 1st district of Washington, defeating decisively the district’s former Congressman, John F. Miller. A spirited radical, he was a workhorse and his constituents were appreciative: he improved his share of the vote in 1934. Zioncheck played a leading role in the Washington Commonwealth Federation, a socialist pressure group within the Democratic Party that would eventually become communist-dominated. He was an enthusiastic backer of the New Deal but occasionally disagreed with the Roosevelt Administration: in 1935 he voted against extending the National Industrial Recovery Act likely on the grounds that it created cartels given his views. However, in his second term the positive perception of him among his constituency would change.
In that early morning of New Year’s Day 1936 his neighbors complained to the police about the noise of the party at Zioncheck’s home and they found him drunk making calls with the apartment building’s switchboard. He was not the same after that party and became “a maniac – what the newspapers of the day called a clown, a playboy, a “bad boy” – and a figure of scorn, hilarity and eventually pity” (Conroy). His behavior was bizarre in and out of the House.
While speaking before Congress, Zioncheck denounced James A. Farley, the Postmaster General of the United States, who oversaw the distribution of Democratic Party patronage, as incompetent and stupid. The Supreme Court was for him a collection of “old fossils” or “corporation lawyers” (Hill).
In May, Zioncheck married a 21-year old woman after knowing her for a week. When the couple went to Puerto Rico for their honeymoon, he caused trouble. Zioncheck, who had become notorious for getting speeding tickets, was involved in two car crashes. He was also the cause of an incident that led to a riot in which he was pelted with rocks by students and it had to be put down by the national guard. Zioncheck’s outlandish behavior also caused an irate man to challenge him to a duel. He was urged to leave for the Virgin Islands in which he lapped soup from his bowl like a dog, crafted a concoction of hair tonic and rum, and was involved in yet another crash…the cause was him biting his driver’s neck.
After returning from their honeymoon, Zioncheck continued to cause trouble: he threw a glass at a man in a Harlem nightclub and the next morning he served drinks to reporters at his apartment. He would later in the day remove his shoes and frolic in the Rockefeller Center’s fountain. He and his new wife, Rubye, had also done so in Washington D.C. On his return to Washington, Zioncheck got into a dispute with his elderly landlady over the awful state of his apartment which resulted in him dragging her out of her apartment and tossing her onto the street, resulting in her going to the hospital for a hip injury. He remained at his apartment, unperturbed, and speculated that his landlady was probably a communist.
On May 31st, Zioncheck desperately searched for his wife, who had walked out on him on the night of the 30th after a heated argument. In the process, he crashed into his friends’ homes, searched hotels, and knocked on doors of acquaintances. He sped around Washington, running red lights, and almost running over numerous pedestrians. On June 1st, he drove on the White House lawn and dropped off empty beer bottles and ping pong balls as gifts for President Roosevelt while seeking the arrest of Vice President John Nance Garner. He was shortly after finally arrested by the police for lunacy. Zioncheck was sent to Gallinger hospital where he escaped but was recaptured and transferred to a private hospital, from which he also escaped and got a ride to D.C. from a none-the-wiser motorist. Zioncheck then figured it best to return to Seattle to avoid another arrest. There, he vacillated as to whether he wanted to leave Congress given his deteriorating standing in his district and delivered a speech, “Who’s Crazy”, to address the media coverage of his escapades.
On August 7th, 1936, Zioncheck and his wife were to attend a banquet and as she waited in the car for him, his body plummeted to the street right before her eyes from the fifth floor window, and on his body was a note that read: “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” (Corsicana Daily Sun). Although the cause of death was ruled a suicide, there were family members who believed he was pushed as they didn’t want to believe that he had intended to end his life. Zioncheck had been unable to cope with the stresses of his condition and the level of work that he had demanded of himself. His friend and successor, Warren Magnuson, gave a speech in his memory, describing him thusly, “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” (Scates, 58). Magnuson would indeed carry on and prove far more successful: he would after four terms be elected to the Senate, where he would serve until 1981.
Conroy, S.B. (1989, January 29). The Hellion of Harvard. The Washington Post.
Hill, R. (2015, April 26). The Congressman From Crazy Town: Marion Zioncheck of Washington. The Knoxville Focus.
Rep. Zioncheck is Arrested on Lunacy Charge. (1936, June 1). The Evening Times (Sayre, Pennsylvania).
Rep. Zioncheck is Killed in Dive From Five-Story Window: Jumped Quickly. 1936, August 8). Corsicana Daily Sun (Corsicana, Texas).
Scates, S. (1997). Warren G. Magnuson and the shaping of twentieth-century America. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
Students Stone U.S. Congressman. (1936, May 14). The Ottawa Journal.