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In Grassroots, the actor Joel David Moore dons a polar bear suit, something Grant Cogswell threatened but never did.

THE IMMIGRANT

Gyllenhaal is late to this game. Grant Cogswell has been creating—and living—the myth of Grant Cogswell for decades, trying to write his own happy ending, or ennobling tragedy. So powerful was his mythopoeic conception of his life that for a while he was able to embrace an entire city in it.

Cogswell was born in Los Angeles to a family marked by what he calls “a potent confluence of political passion and madness”—twin specters that would haunt him as well. His grandmothers met while working on a legislative campaign. His mother worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and was at the Ambassador Hotel when Kennedy was shot. His maternal grandfather was institutionalized “in his late 60s.”

His father was a globe-trotting tech rep for an aerospace company and a prodigious drinker. His mother fled the drinking when Grant was four, and his father took him along, shuttling between European hotel rooms. He spent his high school years in England. Only much later did his mother tell him Dad also worked for the CIA.

Growing up transient and motherless “was hell,” says Cogswell. It induced an expat’s sense of displacement and an abiding yearning to belong somewhere: “He was one of the loneliest people I ever met,” Campbell wrote. When Grant was nearly 17, the family returned to Los Angeles, an experience he found “horrific.” He’d grown up hearing idyllic tales about the LA of streetcars and orange groves, nothing like the smog-choked sprawl he returned to.

But one place beckoned as a haven of calm and continuity. When Grant was 12, his grandmother moved to Mercer Island, and he spent each summer there, reveling in the trees, mountains, and smogless skies.

THE LEGACY

Cogswell moved to Seattle in May 1994, after college (creative writing, classics, and English). He was finishing a novel, since shelved; he had a passion for punk rock, a protean sexual identity (he’s variously identified himself as gay, bi, and straight; the significant relationships he talks about were with women), and a Europe-influenced vision of urban community he thought Seattle might still fulfill. “Seattle then was LA in 1952…. I thought we could still turn the tide.” Still get it right. Still write a happy ending to Los Angeles’s story, elsewhere.

He reread Murray Morgan’s Skid Road, the lively collection of vignettes that has introduced generations to Seattle’s history. In its pages he found a soulmate: Marion Zioncheck.

Like Cogswell, he was an immigrant outsider touched with brilliance. He worked from childhood on, putting himself through the University of Washington by logging, sandhogging, selling papers, and catching fish and (for the health authorities) rats. A rousing orator, he got elected student president, then challenged the college’s most sacred cows, Greek Row and the athletic department. He urged redirecting funds from sports teams to a student center. Jocks shaved his head, roughed him up, and tossed him in Frosh Pond, but Zioncheck didn’t back down. Two decades later the Husky Union was built.

Soon after law school, Zioncheck scored a populist triumph: leading a successful recall drive against Mayor Frank Edwards, who wanted to sell off Seattle City Light. He then ran for Congress, and in 1932, at the age of 31 and to everyone’s surprise, he won.

At first Zioncheck backed President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. But he soon grew disillusioned—“like an Obama volunteer who doesn’t vote in 2012 because he’s disappointed,” says Cogswell. Zioncheck led an insurgent congressional left bloc that tried to boost taxes and support public education. He drank and worked ferociously, reading every bill that came before Congress. Overwork, Cogswell believes, drove Zioncheck over the edge. That and caring too much.

Zioncheck cracked up in style midway through his second term. On January 1, 1936, after carousing through the night, he lurched up to the switchboard of a Washington, DC, apartment house, plugged in all the lines, and wished everyone a happy New Year. Arrested and jailed, he sobered up, but not for long.

Updated September 22, 2010. This version corrects errors originally published in the October 2010 issue. Grant Cogswell’s mother worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential, not congressional, campaign.