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Seattle Originals

Seattle functions best as a graveyard for fictional characters. Whenever an author grows tired of a character, a standard phrase appears in the novel: “He (or she) moved to Seattle.”

Nine times out of ten, that character is never heard from again. Being sent to Seattle amounts to a literary mercy killing.

Funny thing is this fictional plot twist is merely art imitating life. Seattle has always been a place that has drawn unconventional and sometimes difficult personalities. But there’s no need to send fictional characters to this city when the place is so full of home-grown, one-of-a-kind Seattle originals.

From the first, Seattle has appealed to go-for-broke eccentrics, people who didn’t quite fit the standard mold, men and women who listened to a different inner music. Oddballs thrived where play-it-safe personalities failed. The mundane types packed up and went back home or moved on to cities where they could live out predictable, ho-hum lives from cradle to grave.

Seattle has been host to people like Dr. David Swinson Maynard. The good doctor was a pioneer who came here in the middle of the 19th Century. When every one else was concerned with eking out a living and establishing a family, Doc Maynard was harboring dreams of Seattle grandeur, of Seattle becoming a great city. Maynard was the city’s first avowed capitalist. He functioned as a one-man chamber of commerce, a visionary who was far ahead of his time in many ways, both public and private.

For openers, Doc Maynard made friends with the original settlers, the Native Americans who, for who knew how many generations, had dwelt on the verdant shores and husbanded the bountiful resources. When others thought the Indians were nothing but an obstacle to progress, a people to conquer and exploit, Maynard was nursing them through the deadly diseases – measles and smallpox, among them – brought to the Pacific Northwest by the white settlers.

No one could ever call Doc Maynard a conventional man. He had no qualms about leaving Lydia, his first wife, behind in Ohio. On a long overland covered-wagon trek to Puget Sound, Maynard met and fell head over heels in love with a young woman whose husband had died, en route, of cholera. Maynard, in fact, had tended to the ailing husband, as he did to many of those on the Westward journey.

But it was the widow Catherine Broshears who caught Doc Maynard’s eye and tugged at his heart. It was his love for Catherine that prompted Maynard to later push a plan to separate Washington from the rest of Oregon territory. That way, he reasoned, he could convince the Washington territorial legislature to legalize divorce, thus making it possible for him to marry his beloved Catherine.

Ah, but even the best-laid plans sometimes go awry.

Maynard was legally wed to Catherine, wife Number Two, when wife Number One showed up. And why not? Lydia Maynard had not heard about the divorce and still considered herself Mrs. David S. Maynard. For a time, odd as it sounds, all three lived together. Doc Maynard would squire both wives down the Seattle street on sunny Sunday afternoons. The sight, naturally, had the townsfolk talking. But then they had come to expect the unconventional from Doc Maynard.

Fact is that the scandalous ménage a trois appeared to be working amicably. However, the first Mrs. Maynard finally was appeased – “paid off,” said the gossips. She left the fledgling city, and Doc Maynard and the beloved second wife lived together – happily, it is said—for his few remaining years.

The couple now rests in peace at Lake View Cemetery; where so many city founders are interred. The Maynard graves command the very top of the cemetery’s hill, overlooking Lake Washington and the distant Cascade Mountains. A giant Sequoia grew up through Doc’s original tombstone, splitting it into almost illegible paving-stone sized pieces. Rains all but washed away Doc’s name. Catherine’s simple marker with its enigmatic inscription (“She Did Her Best”) fared only slightly better.

Apprised of the deteriorating condition of the Maynard graves, a fraternal group known as the Clampers raised the funds and finally replaced the fractured, time-worn marble with a granite grave marker. The ceremony honoring the city’s first unapologetic booster brought out a number of Maynard descendents, as well as history buffs and the proprietors of Doc Maynard’s Pioneer Square Saloon. The original markers now are in safekeeping at the Museum of History & Industry. Following the ceremony, the Clampers, a group that traces its origins to the California Gold Rush, repaired to a local tavern to toast Doc Maynard. It was a highly symbolic gesture, one that the convivial doctor himself would have appreciated.

After the Maynard years, the city was home to hundreds of other individuals who sound more fictional than real. One of the standouts was Vic Meyers, a genial Seattle bandleader who operated Club Victor, a popular Seattle nightclub in the 1920s and 30s. Meyers was often in the news, partly because of his frequent brushes with the feds for alleged violations of the Volstead Act. That’s the congressional act that prohibited liquor sales and gave the nation its ill-starred experiment with Prohibition.

Bandleader Meyers and his abuses of the Dry Years made lively copy for Seattle’s daily papers. Not surprising then – is it? – that Meyers immediately leaped to mind when a bunch of Seattle newsmen were sitting around drinking sasparilla or something stronger and talking about the 1932 mayor’s race. Lord, they said, it was going to be the dullest race ever. What they wanted was a colorful candidate. What if they could persuade Vic Meyers to enter the race? Then they’d have some outrageous quotes and stunts. The newsmen left it to the late newspaper columnist Doug Welch — at the time he was the Seattle Times’ assistant city editor – to talk Meyers into entering the mayoral race.

It didn’t take much persuading.

Meyers jumped in enthusiastically. He was talked into parading through the downtown streets, Gandhi style, dressed in a bed sheet draped like a toga and leading a goat. It was outrageously politically incorrect at a time when the phrase hadn’t yet been invented. But it gave the city’s newspapers something to write about. Predictably and deservedly, Meyers lost his race for mayor of the city.

However, the genial bandleader had enjoyed his brief introduction to Politics 101. So, come the next election, Meyers drove to Olympia, the state capital, intent on filing for elective office. Which office to run for? Well, he had to pay a filing fee and the cheapest fee, based on a percentage of the salary of each elected official, was the $12 needed to file for the office of lieutenant governor. To the surprise and possible chagrin of the journalistic kingmakers, their political neophyte came out of nowhere and won the race for lieutenant governor.

With only a $12 down payment, Meyers had parlayed his political hobby into statewide office. The power of incumbency and Vic Meyers’ name familiarity led to five consecutive terms – 20 solid years — in an office that was only a heartbeat away from the Governor’s Mansion.

If nothing else, Meyers played an unheralded but important role in state politics: He kept governors at home and on the job. Concerned about what mischief Meyers might do in their absence, the state’s governors– especially those of the opposition Republican Party – were forced to forgo lengthy junkets.

Meyers wasn’t the first, nor the last, nonconformist in Seattle’s political annals. In the same 1934 election that propelled Meyers into the state house, there was another self-made individualist on the ballot, a young lawyer named Marion Zioncheck. Rising out of a poverty-stricken immigrant background, Zioncheck kept his eye on the prize and painstakingly worked his way through law school. With the ink on his diploma barely dry, he filed for Congress. And, on his first try, he won.

Zioncheck seemingly had it all. Here was a 32-year-old congressman blessed with a promising political future. Zioncheck had a solid liberal reputation, a mandate from the people and an awesome grasp of public affairs. He was in the prime of life. The sky was the limit. Clearly he was destined for greater things, a future governor or senator.

But Zioncheck also had a dark erratic side, something little known to his original supporters. Fueled by alcohol and who knew what inner demons, he grew more and more impulsive and outrageous. There were speeding tickets in Washington D.C., public displays of drunkenness and an ill-advised and impulsive marriage. There were incidents like the time he dived, fully clothed, into a fountain. He lapped soup from his plate at fancy hotels. He bit the neck of a chauffeur assigned to drive him.

It quickly became obvious. The brilliant young congressman was mad as a hatter and he was out of control. What could be done? His backers managed to spirit him off to a sanitarium. But he managed to escape and vowed he’d run for reelection in 1936.

Finally, torn asunder by his warring inner impulses, Congressman Zioncheck leapt to his death from the Fourth floor window of his office in the Arctic Building. Or so it was alleged. Wicked observers always said that, before the body hit the pavement, there were half dozen wanna-be congressmen lined up at the nearby King County Courthouse, ready to pay their filing fees for the vacant office. Among them was the inheritor of the mythic title of Upcoming Young Congressman: Warren G. Magnuson, the man destined to become, arguably, the state’s most powerful national politician ever. The Zioncheck episode was over, though stories about the brilliant but flawed figure would continue to circulate for years to come. There were inevitable conspiracy theories – the gossip mongers who hinted that a Fourth floor swan dive had not killed Zioncheck. It’s something that, sadly, we’ll likely never resolve.

Alongside flamboyant characters like Vic Meyers and Marion Zioncheck, mere newsmen seem pallid. But columnists like the late Doug Welch and Emmett Watson were clearly among the most enduring influences on Seattle. Long after the name Marion Zioncheck had been forgotten, there were and are Seattleites who will recall the two revered newspaper scribes. They described and shaped life in Seattle, viewing the city through their own fog-colored lenses.

Welch grew up in Tacoma, the son of the managing editor of the Tacoma News-Tribune. He started his newspaper career as a cub reporter the summer he was 15. Humor and whimsy were his forte. At the height of his career he would write for the Saturday Evening Post and win fame and awards for his syndicated newspaper column “The Squirrel Cage.”

But around Seattle he was best known for his ability to skewer pomposity with gentle satire.

Welch covered the Seattle Parks Board as no one else could. He would describe the ladies’ hats. He would write about the homemade booze cookies they sampled during the holidays. He covered the rest of the city the same way, with a touch of hyperbole and a heavy serving of ironic wit.

Best of all were his chronicles of his own Magnolia neighborhood. He wrote, “Like I keep telling you, I live in this peculiar neighborhood. We have the fellow who already has everything so his wife gave him a cannon for Christmas, a real cannon which he fires from time to time and people say to each other, ‘It’s the bomb.’ And we have the lady who puts on her old Girl Scout uniform and steps out on her patio and blows the bugle whenever something bugs her. And we have the old lady up the street who complains to the State Department that the Russians are pumping poison gas into her bedroom window, and they are, too. And we have the St. Bernard who makes martinis, but not very good ones, and nobody tells him because it would hurt his feelings.”

Old time residents of Magnolia claim that there really was a bugle lady and a guy with a cannon and even a St. Bernard (although he probably didn’t make martinis). They say that Welch’s hyperbole had roots in reality, although the mirror he held up to Magnolia was straight out of a carnival fun house.

Welch’s contemporary in newsprint was columnist Emmett Watson. But Watson, unlike Welch, was more at home in the city’s watering holes than in the Magnolia neighborhood. Watson aspired to the role of resident scribe, the writer who reflected life in the city. Emmett, right from the first, was one of the handful of Seattleites who could be identified by a single name. He belonged to an elite circle, people like Ichiro, the Seattle Mariner star; Ivar, the restaurateur who taught the city to “keep clam,” and Lou, the beloved former Seattle Mariners coach.

Simply say Emmett or Em or even Old Em and everyone knew whom you meant.

For more than half a century, Emmett was Seattle’s best known columnist. He wrote for the old Seattle Star, The Seattle Times and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Those were the days when newsies left one paper for another to get a $5 a week raise. At the end of his career, Emmett boomeranged and landed back at the Times, explaining his years at the P-I as “I went out to get a pack of cigarettes and took a detour.”

Everyone recognized Emmett. They saw him sauntering through the city streets with the slightly stooped posture of the former athlete, which, in fact, he was. He said the reason he chose a newspaper career was because he “couldn’t hit a curve ball.” He’d had a brief career as a second string catcher for the old Seattle Rainiers, the city’s beloved Triple-A team. At the time, it was about the only game in town.

Emmett quoted his manager as saying, “I’ll tell you one thing about Watson. He can’t hit, can’t run or throw, but he has a very good squat.”

It wouldn’t do to introduce Emmett without saying something about his relationship with women. Emmett was the most uxorious of males. You know – uxorious — meaning he appreciated women. Not only did he like women, they liked him. I recall seeing him at a posh dinner party given in honor of the late William Randolph Hearst Jr. – son of William Randolph Hearst Sr. of “Rosebud” fame. At the party, Emmett was decked out in a well-tailored tux, escorting a much younger woman, a trophy who was wearing a backless black velvet evening dress. All eyes were on them and it wasn’t because of Emmett’s tux.

At one of Emmett’s birthday parties, a friend whom I’d invited to accompany me was goggle-eyed. He asked, “Why is it that all the women talk to Emmett as if he was a little boy who might forget his galoshes?” I looked around and realized the room was filled with former girlfriends of Emmett’s. Homely handsome, he was like catnip to women. I recall discussing this with him one time and he smiled, puffed on his Lucky Strike cigarette, and said with a twisted smile, “Right now I have a strong bench.”

Truth is that Emmett the columnist was at once a role model and adviser to me. He saved me from taking wrong turns and detours. I remember when I first started writing a column in the 1980s. Em and I were at lunch and he said, “What are you writing about tomorrow, kid?” He always called me kid.

I said, “I thought I’d write about rape relief. It’s a good program and I’m afraid the city is going to stop funding it.”

Em looked as if I’d hit him with a bean ball. He cradled his head in his hands and said, “Rape relief! God, no.” He then gave me a priceless piece of advice. He said, “There are lots of people who can write that story. It’s not something you need to do.” Little by little, lunch by lunch, he revealed his philosophy about writing a column. He said, “Most days you entertain the troops. Then when you’ve paid your dues, you can slip in editorial comment.”

If Em had a fault, it was the expectation that he need not carry cash. After all, he was born into the era when city columnists not only could accept freebies, they simply assumed someone else would pick up the check. The first time Emmett asked me to lunch, he drove his vintage Fiat to Rosellini’s 6-10, at the time one of THE places to be seen. He parked in a nearby lot.

He stuck his hands in his pants pockets expectantly and pulled them out, palms up and empty. “Don’t have any change,” mumbled Emmett. “Take care of it, would you, kid?” Naturally, I did. I was dazzled at the thought of having lunch with the headliner columnist. The lunch experience was like none I’d experienced. Legendary restaurateur Victor Rosellini himself greeted us and ushered us to the showcase, ringside table, reserved for the most prominent celebrity of the day.

Service was flawless and the food was superb. Emmett soldiered his way through a meal that included Rosellini’s fabled lamb shanks, finished off with apple pie ala mode. Then, to my surprise, the waiter said there’d be no check, the meal was “on Victor.” “Better leave a sizeable tip, kid,” Emmett said. It was beginning to dawn on me that lunch-on-the-house was standard operating procedure for Emmett.

In fact, he had developed a bantering rational when it came to lunching with women. He said, “I’m going to teach a women’s lib course in how to pick up checks. It’s part of your equal rights training,” he claimed, with just the least ironic smile.

If getting Em to buy lunch was difficult, getting him to repay a debt was even harder. I recall that I once loaned one of my editors $10 on a day when she was heading off to lunch and didn’t have any cash. When she returned, she said, “Emmett owes me $10, you can collect it from him.” Not that $10 was that big a deal, but reporters were paid a lot less than editors and certainly less than the paper’s premiere columnist.

I asked Doug, the copy aide, for his advice on collecting the debt. “Search me,” he said. “I have a hard enough time getting Emmett to pay his $5 monthly coffee dues.” (In those pre Starbucks days, Doug made a giant urn-full of coffee each morning. By lunchtime, the brew had the consistency and flavor of newly-poured asphalt.)

It might be a fool’s errand, but I stubbornly vowed I would collect the $10 or know the reason why. I mentioned the debt to Emmett several times without success. “Oh, yeah,” he’d say. “I’ll catch you on payday.” Finally, I devised a plan, using humor. I’d plant notes in his typewriter each morning. One of them: “Riddle: What internationally known columnist owes what ink-stained wretch $10?” Or “Would the Seattle Weekly like to hear about the $10 misunderstanding?” Weeks later, I collected. It was a feat worth bragging about. The wonder is that I spent the $10 instead of having the bill framed.

Aside from the more famous originals, there are scores of other eccentrics who have made Seattle their home. A disproportionately large share worked for newspapers. There was the marine reporter who sometimes showed up at the Post-Intelligencer wearing an ill-fitting wig, talked in a false falsetto voice on the phone and threw phone books at the copy aides.

Then there was the over-eager P-I reporter who became a legend by leaping over the yellow caution tape at the scene of a crime and saying to the nearest police officer, “Let’s share information.” It was that same eager-beaver reporter who, instead of doing assigned evening cop calls, would pretend to make the calls, holding his finger over the connection. Later he’d phone his Latino girlfriend and rattle on endlessly in X-rated Spanish. Little did he know that several of his fellow reporters were also bilingual.

One can only ask: What is it that keeps attracting these one-of-a-kind characters to Seattle?

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