Political Hay

The Crazy Congressman

Jim Traficant's got nothing on Marion Zioncheck.

By 7.31.02

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Jim Traficant wants us to think he's crazy. Throughout his recent trial for bribery, tax evasion, and racketeering, as well as during more recent congressional proceedings to expel him from the House of Representatives, Traficant has acted as if he's slightly off his rocker. Check out this Washington Post account of his hearing before a House ethics subcommittee for evidence.

Trouble is, as amusing and kooky as Traficant's antics are, no one really buys what he's peddling. What Traficant's really trying to do, it seems, is deflect attention from his crookedness by wrapping himself in the mantle of insanity (a tactic tried recently -- with similarly little success -- by Mafia capo Vincent "The Chin" Gigante).

That's too bad, because a crazy congressman makes a great story.

There was, however, a member of Congress some years back who really was nuts. Marion Zioncheck, a New Deal congressman from Washington state, was colorful, charming, quirky, and, sadly, it turns out, insane. His descent into dementia was very short -- just seven months -- and very public. And, like Traficant's downfall, it made for great copy.

In just a short period of time Zioncheck grabbed the nation's attention with a hilarious series of madcap antics, bizarre stunts, and numerous arrests. Almost overnight he shed his congressional obscurity to become known as the "Playboy Congressman," with a wild bride he barely knew, an odd ping-pong obsession, dancing pet turtles, and an Indian headdress. Today, strangely, he is entirely forgotten.

ZIONCHECK WAS ELECTED WITH FDR IN 1932, and earned no notice during his first three years in Congress. That all changed in late 1935. Neighbors complained to police about the howler of a New Year's Eve bash he threw. When the cops arrived, they found Zioncheck in his cups, commandeering his apartment building's switchboard and waking all the tenants.

The night ended with them putting the stewed congressman to bed, but the illustrious run of Marion Zioncheck was on. With increasing regularity, he made waves with odd or contentious behavior on the House floor. He derided Postmaster General James Farley, saying, "There has never been a dumber or more inadequate man in office." Members of the Supreme Court were "old fossils" and "corporation lawyers." When a fellow congressman made a unanimous consent request, Zioncheck said he would not object as long as the legislator wanted "to make a fool of himself." The unamused colleague, Rep. William Ekwall, replied, "There is no bigger jackass in Congress" than Zioncheck. As if to prove that point, Zioncheck would need to be restrained from physically attacking a Texas congressman a few weeks later.

Rep. Zioncheck' antics off the House floor made for bigger news. He gained notoriety for reckless driving. Skipping an April court appearance for speeding set the local authorities on his trail. When D.C. police found him, Zioncheck cited congressional immunity, a claim that failed to dissuade the gendarmes from tossing him in the clink, albeit not without a struggle. A fellow member of Congress had to pay Zioncheck's fines to free him.

Four days later Zioncheck made the broadsheets again. The occasion this time was his eloping with a 21-year-old Works Progress Administration stenographer, Rubye Nix, whom he had only recently met.

Surprised reporters pressed him on how well he knew his new bride. "I met her about a week ago when she called me up one night," he replied. "She asked me down and so I went down and looked her over. She was OK." Before leaving on his honeymoon, Zioncheck entertained a coterie of bemused reporters at his apartment. Donning an extravagant Indian headdress, he mixed cocktails and served them stew.

The happy couple headed south for their honeymoon, but their progress was interrupted by a number of encounters with the law. Rubye was nailed for speeding in Charlottesville. Meanwhile, a warrant for Zioncheck's arrest was being issued in Alexandria, Virginia, the result of another missed court appearance. One North Carolina sheriff apprehended the congressman after a high-speed pursuit, and was ready to extradite him. Problem was, the Alexandria authorities weren't anxious to have Zioncheck returned. The sheriff let him go.

It was during this trip south that Zioncheck's amusing antics started giving way to seriously deranged behavior. He and Rubye turned up in Puerto Rico, where in the course of several days Zioncheck twice crashed his car, was challenged to a duel, sparked a small independence riot, and called on the United States Marines to quell the uprising.

The Marines instead hustled Zioncheck and his bride to the more peaceful environs of the Virgin Islands. There, newspaper reports revealed, he was tossed out of a formal dinner for lapping his soup from his plate. This was relatively normal behavior compared to what would follow.

After dinner, his car careened into a ditch. Apparently he had bitten the driver on the neck. Zioncheck emerged from the accident in good shape -- physically, at least. Reports also noted the congressman drinking cocktails of rum and hair tonic which he consumed with little difficulty.

MARION ZIONCHECK'S TRUE DIFFICULTIES were only starting. Zioncheck had been leasing his Washington apartment from an elderly magazine writer named Pamela Young, who was traveling through South America. Alarmed by the reports she received about her tenant, Mrs. Young hurried home to ensure the safety of her possessions.

The congressman was still on his honeymoon when she arrived. Mrs. Young was mortified by what she found: windows open or broken, a fancy bed cover used as a rug under the dining room table, dozens of spent rum bottles, refuse and filth everywhere.

Zioncheck returned shortly to the United States by ship, arriving in New York City. A bevy of reporters was on hand to record his every move. They were hardly disappointed. A late-night sortie to the nightclubs of Harlem yielded more Zioncheck mania: He hurled a glass at one unsavory patron merely for looking at the Zioncheck party the wrong way. The victim suffered a deep gash in his hand. Marion and Rubye stumbled back to their hotel at dawn, but were up and greeting visitors by 10:00 A.M. Instead of breakfast, the bathrobed legislator fixed guests "Zioncheck Zippers" -- equal parts rye and honey, with a dash of mint -- before taking a tour of the city. On a dare, he peeled off his shoes and splashed about in the Rockefeller Center fountain.

The Washington press corps and Zioncheck's landlady were anxiously awaiting his return. The Zionchecks and Mrs. Young had their first altercation at the apartment. "At first, Zioncheck was amiable," reported the Washington Evening Star. "He showed Mrs. Young how his pet turtle could dance to the tune, 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby.'"

She was not amused. A heated argument ensued, during which the Zionchecks decided Mrs. Young should be forcibly ejected. Newspapers across the land treated readers to the bizarre photograph of the Honorable Marion Zioncheck dragging a little old lady out of her own home.

Mrs. Young was taken to the hospital, where she would be treated for a serious hip injury. Meanwhile, the unbothered Zioncheck mixed drinks for reporters, played with his turtles, and posed endlessly for pictures. He told the assembled scribes that he suspected Mrs. Young was a communist.

What happened next would presage COPS by some sixty years. At some point during the evening Rubye mysteriously fled. Zioncheck grew inconsolable. And when the last drunken reporter departed, Zioncheck worked himself into such a rage that he began hurling bottles and a typewriter out the window. This led to another violent arrest, with policemen wielding billyclubs to subdue the shirtless congressman

After making bail, Zioncheck would spend the better part of the next day vainly searching for his missing wife. But not before heading to the zoo, where he enthusiastically pointed out to spectators how "Wahoo," his favorite baboon, could perform somersaults.

When he finally returned alone to his apartment that evening, ironically, he told reporters standing sentry duty, "I've got to get some sleep before I go nuts."

He would need his sleep. The next day would proved the turning point in the bizarre saga of Rep. Marion Zioncheck.

RISING EARLY, ZIONCHECK SET OFF in his roadster, tearing through the streets of Washington toward the White House. He cruised the wrong way down some streets and even drove one block of Connecticut Avenue on the sidewalk to avoid a traffic jam.

He pulled up to the president's mansion at 8:30. (In an earlier, safer era, there was no gate around the White House, and anybody could drive up.) The congressman announced he had a few gifts for President Roosevelt. Skeptical police officers inspecting his bag found a number of empty beer bottles, a mothball container, and some ping-pong balls. Roosevelt wasn't back from a yachting excursion, so Zioncheck scribbled a note to his fellow Democrat, left the items, and departed.

By this time Zioncheck's behavior was catching up to him. He was arrested that afternoon and placed in the sanitarium. A trial was ordered to determine his sanity. "Detention in Gallinger Hospital, however, did not stop the Zioncheck antics," reported The New York Times. Clad in pajamas, he invited in news photographers "for whom he posed in various attitudes that he considered fitting for a person in his suspected condition."

Zioncheck might have thought it funny that everyone thought he was crazy, but he didn't help his case much by what happened next. He escaped. After kicking in two window screens, a wire report noted, Zioncheck "galloped about the grounds, whooping and puffing at a long black cigar, until caught by guards."

Rubye reappeared on the scene, and had her husband transferred to a private hospital near Baltimore in exchange for dropping lunacy charges. The congressman was there for barely a week before he escaped again, this time scaling a fence, outrunning hospital guards, and disappearing into the woods. Zioncheck trekked 18 miles before hitching a ride back to Washington, where police found him the following day.

Zioncheck struck a deal. He agreed to return to Seattle rather than be arrested once more. The House Sergeant-at-Arms and a D.C. policeman accompanied the flighty congressman as far as Chicago, where a crowd of hundreds waited for a glimpse of the lunatic congressman they had heard so much about.

ZIONCHECK'S ANTICS HAD NATURALLY GAINED notice back in his district. By the time he returned, eighteen people had filed to run for his seat in November's election. The "Capitol Clown" kept observers on their toes, suggesting that he would run for governor in order to "have charge of all the insane asylums in the state."

In Seattle he addressed a paying audience of more than 1,000 on the topic, "Who's Crazy?" Zioncheck, of course, denied he was. Two weeks later he announced he would not run for re-election. Days later he reversed himself and said he would.

The matter would be settled definitively three days after that, on August 7th. Marion Zioncheck jumped to his death from the fifth-story window of his Seattle office. His body landed just yards away from an automobile in which his bride of four months sat waiting for him to come down.

The wild and often hilarious escapades of Rep. Marion Zioncheck were brought to a sad end. His seat in Congress was soon filled by Warren Magnuson, who would distinguish himself for decades as a paragon of sobriety and stability.

Zioncheck, who so delighted newspaper readers across the country, quickly faded from the consciousness of a public worried about the beginning of the Spanish civil war and Hitler's occupation of the Rhineland. Today it is rare to find anyone who knows of him. But if only for a short time, Zioncheck managed to do what most people who pass through the halls of Congress never do, and that is truly to make a name for himself. While he met a sorrowful end, no one can deny that Marion Zioncheck had a great run.

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