Goldmark, John E. (1917-1979)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 7/22/2011
  • Essay 9858

John E. Goldmark was a Washington State legislator from Okanogan who served three terms in the state House of Representatives from 1957 to 1962. He rose into Democratic leadership ranks and was considered one of the most prominent members of the party's liberal wing. However, he was trounced in the primary election in 1962 after several rightwing political opponents launched a campaign that tried to paint Goldmark and his wife, Sally Goldmark (1907-1985), as communists or sympathizers. The Goldmarks sued for libel and won a $40,000 judgment in a nationally prominent trial. The judgment was later overturned following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case involving similar issues. John Goldmark went back to his ranch in Okanogan and never held public office again. He died in Seattle in 1979 of cancer.

Intense, Restless, Curious

John Goldmark was born October 7, 1917, in Scarsdale, N.Y. His father, Charles J. Goldmark, an electrical engineer, came from a prominent family of Austrian-Jewish descent. His mother, Ruth Ingersoll, died just after she gave birth to John, her only child, in 1917. She was a scholar in English literature -- Wellesley College still grants a Ruth Ingersoll Goldmark Fellowship in English each year.

He grew up in the New York City area with some impressive family connections: John's uncle by marriage was the Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis (1856-1941). Goldmark attended various Quaker boarding schools and then graduated from Haverford College, near Philadelphia. He went on to the Harvard Law School, where he served on the Law Review and graduated with honors.

"Goldmark was an athletic, intense young man, restless, curious, and blessed with a remarkable coolness of judgment," wrote William Dwyer (1929-2002), in The Goldmark Case, a book-length account of the libel trial that would make both Goldmark and Dwyer famous. "In him, a scientist's logic meshed with a politician's interests ... .  Making money held no attraction for him, despite his family's moderate means. He hoped for a career in public service" (Dwyer, p. 6).

John and Sally

World War II intervened. Goldmark applied for a commission in the U.S. Navy, and while waiting for it to come through, he went to work in Washington, D.C., for the Office of Price Administration. There, he met Irma "Sally" Ringe, a New Deal employee. She came from an immigrant Protestant German family in Brooklyn and had attended medical school for a year before she had to drop out and find work. She joined the Communist Party in 1935 -- an act that would have repercussions 25 years later -- believing it could right economic injustices.

John and Sally fell in love in 1942. When John expressed his antipathy to the Communist Party during a gathering, she took him aside later and told him that she was a member. He said he loved her despite her politics. Her interest in the Party waned from that moment on -- she later testified that she quit the Party in 1943 -- and they went ahead with their plans to marry. But in the summer of 1942 the Navy came calling. He went into officer's training and was commissioned as an ensign in December 1942. He returned to Washington, D.C., for bomb-disposal training and married Sally. Their first child, Charles, was born in January 1944 and shortly afterward, John was sent to the South Pacific, where he served in New Guinea, Australia, and the Philippines, disarming bombs under fire.

While in the Pacific, he dreamed of starting a new life, on the land, in the Northwest. "People from there seem less twisted up in tradition, class and inhibitions," he wrote to Sally. "[The West] will be a break with both our pasts, but ... we'll have more happiness following it than clinging to past enjoyments" (Dwyer, p. 10).

Life in Okanogan County

When Goldmark was discharged at the end of the war, he immediately began to implement this plan. He and Sally loaded little Charles into their car and drove west. At one point, he hired on as an orchardist in White Salmon, Washington. A second son, Peter, was born in 1946. John Goldmark began searching for land he could call his own and finally found it in a high, remote region of Okanogan County, 25 miles up a dusty road from the town of Okanogan. He bought a rocky, partly timbered ranch in 1947 and began his new life as a cattle rancher.

It wasn’t always an easy life. Sally wrote to her sister on New Year’s Day 1950, that "long icicles hang from [the cattle’s] nostrils and their eyes are frozen shut ... chickens in their roost, preparing to lay eggs, which will shortly freeze and be brought in, cracked" (Dwyer, p. 12).

Yet it was a robust, self-reliant life, and son Charles Goldmark later considered it to be a gift. "By giving us life on the ranch, John and Sally gave us something very special -- the chance to learn things that few people ever learn,” said Charles Goldmark. “How a cow reacts to a cutting horse. What the grass is like in the spring. What the wind sounds like in a blizzard. We were in a place where your life was what you made it" (Dwyer, p. 17).

Politics 1950s Style

Even in this remote and idyllic spot, there were omens of trouble to come. In 1949, as anti-Communist fervor began to roil the country, two FBI agents came all the way to the ranch to interview Sally about her time in the Communist Party. Then in 1956, the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed Sally for a committee hearing in Seattle. She was questioned in "executive session" and later said she answered all of their questions. She believed that everyone seemed satisfied and the subject was closed.

Meanwhile, John Goldmark had thrown himself into public life in Okanogan County almost from the beginning. He became involved in the Grange, the Wheat Grower’s Association and the Rural Electrification Board. He started a chapter of the Young Democrats and by 1951 had been elected the president of the state Young Democrats organization. He also purchased an airplane and in 1949 earned a pilot's license for his periodic forays into Seattle.

Goldmark made himself into a surprising hybrid: A tough-as-nails rancher with a crew cut, cowboy boots and a Harvard Law degree. When he took the bar exam in Seattle, he overheard a fellow applicant wondering whether a "damned cowboy" could pass the bar (Dwyer, p. 14). Even then, the Young Democrats -- and by extension, Goldmark himself -- were having to defend themselves against charges of "running interference for Communists," as a state Republican leader charged ("Demo Denies"). In response, Goldmark said, "The Young Democrats are running interference for American principles and no other" ("Demo Denies"). He added that there was a dangerous tendency to silence people by applying "the tag of Communism to them" ("Demo Denies").

Goldmark served as an Adlai Stevenson delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1952. Then in 1956, a seat opened up in Goldmark's district for the Washington State House of Representatives. Goldmark filed for the seat and won both the primary and the general elections, much to the surprise of the county's dominant Republican establishment. The issue of Sally's past did not surface.

In the Legislature

He made a splash as the freshman legislator who flew to Olympia -- in his own plane. He had learned to fly in because road access was often so difficult to his ranch, but now he found the plane handy for his political career. Goldmark went on to win two more two-year terms. During  his time in the legislature, he immersed himself in budget and taxation issues and helped lead the fight for public power in the ongoing debate over public versus private electrical power. He also supported the establishment of a Washington State Art Commission. He was also a strong supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and in 1959 he sponsored a bill drafted by the ACLU, which would strengthen due process and free speech rights in union affairs. He became a member of the ACLU's state committee.

In 1960, Goldmark launched a bid for the House speakership, but he then threw his support to John L. O'Brien (1911-2007), for whom he became a floor lieutenant. In 1961, he also served as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and was elected chairman of the bicameral Legislative Budget Committee. Goldmark became an active supporter and organizer for John F. Kennedy's presidential run in 1960 and was one of the keynote speakers at a Kennedy Campaign Work Meeting in Seattle in September 1960, along with U.S. senators Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) and Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983).

Trouble in Okanogan

Meanwhile, in Okanogan, the politics were getting rough. Earlier that year, an article appeared in an anti-communist journal, The Vigilante, titled "Irma Ringe and the Washington State Legislature" which talked about the wife of a state legislator with a "startling past" as a Communist (Dwyer). It was co-written by Ashley Holden, the editor of the Tonasket Tribune, and Albert Canwell, a former Republican state legislator and former chairman of the State Un-American Activities Committee. The legislator went unnamed, although plenty of people knew that Irma Ringe was actually the maiden name of Sally Goldmark.

Holden then wrote a Tonasket Tribune editorial that called Goldmark "a tool of a monstrous conspiracy to remake America into a totalitarian state which would throttle freedom and crush individual initiative” ("Libel Jury"). He also wrote that Goldmark was "the idol of the Pinkos and ultra-liberals who infest every session of the legislature" (Caron). Canwell taped an interview, later distributed as "An Interview With Al Canwell," which stated that Sally Goldmark was a member of the Communist Party as recently as 1948.

"A mass of anti-Goldmark literature papered the district in the months leading to the primary," said The Seattle Times (Prochnau). The trouble came to a head a rally at an American Legion hall in Okanogan on August 23, 1962. A crowd of 150 gathered to hear Canwell attack the American Civil Liberties Union. Loris Gillespie, a local orchardist and former county Republican chairman, was presiding over what he said was a non-political meeting. State Senator Wilbur G. Hallauer (b. 1914), who was in the audience along with Goldmark, believed it was anything but non-political.

"After Canwell spoke, Hallauer walked to the stage and contended Canwell's remarks were actually an attack on him and State Representative John Goldmark," said the Associated Press in a news report. "Nelson Morrow of Bridgeport, a district Legion commander, came forward, put an arm around Hallauer and ushered him from the stage" ("State Senator Ushered Off"). Hallauer later said the crowd was shouting, "Throw him out! Throw him out!" (Larsen, "Hallauer").

The Goldmark Case

The tireless anti-Goldmark campaign worked. Goldmark was defeated by a stunning 3-to-1 margin in the September 1962 primary. State Democrats were shocked and Goldmark was seething. He decided he wouldn't take it meekly. "You just can't let 'em get away with it," he said later (Larsen, "John Goldmark"). Shortly afterward he filed a $225,000 suit claiming that he and his wife had been libeled "with malice and permanently" as Communists or sympathizers. Besides Holden and Canwell, the other defendants in the libel case were Don Caron, state coordinator for the John Birch Society, and Gillespie. Caron had become a right-wing cause celebre earlier that year when he quit his job as a U.S. Forest Ranger in Okanogan rather than give up his anti-communist newspaper column for the Okanogan Independent weekly newspaper.

The trial, held in Okanogan before Judge Theodore S. Turner from King County, had a sharp political edge from the beginning. Holden was unrepentant, saying on the stand that he believed that both Goldmark and his wife remained communists. The defendants’ attorney, E. Glenn Harmon, accused the Goldmarks of "being under Communist Party discipline" (Fischer, "Publisher"). When Holden was asked if Goldmark was a "conscious, deliberate agent for the communist conspiracy," he replied, "He knew what he was doing." Holden had earlier declared that the trial was an "effort to scare the living daylights out of conservatives everywhere in the nation" (Fischer, "Goldmark Presentation"). Goldmark denied ever having any membership or sympathy for the Communist Party and said he did not believe in anything it stood for.

At times, the trial became personal. Some of the defendants had speculated that the Goldmark’s marriage was some kind of communist "forced marriage." One witness quoted Gillespie as saying, "Why would he, Goldmark, marry a girl as homely as Sally, if he wasn't forced into it?" ("Goldmark Marriage Eyed"). The trial lasted for 43 days and at times devolved into arguments over issues such as the definition of "liberal." One defense witness opined that a liberal was defined as "a person who has very little knowledge of fiscal responsibility" ("Liberal Defined"). At one point, Sally Goldmark's interest in folk music was cited as evidence of her communist sympathies. At another point, the defense attorney asked her if the Communist Party approved of "mixed nude swimming parties" ("Future Damaged"). She replied frostily that she had no idea.

A long line of witnesses took the stand, including Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden, fresh from filming "Dr. Strangelove," who testified on behalf of the Goldmarks. The Goldmark’s son, Charles Goldmark, 19, also testified in rebuttal to one of Holden’s articles, which noted that the younger Goldmark was a student at Reed College in Portland, "the only Northwest campus allowing Communist Party secretary Gus Hall to speak." Charles Goldmark said that other campuses had also allowed Hall to speak. Charles said that he attended the Reed speech but left "about halfway through it" ("Pro-Red Views Denied by Son").

Republican state representative Slade Gorton (b. 1928) also testified on behalf of the Goldmarks. He told the jury that Goldmark’s reputation in the legislature was "excellent," that he never heard any hint that Goldmark was tied to any communist causes, and that there were certainly "more liberal" Democrats in the legislature than Goldmark ("Past Recalled by Mrs. Goldmark"). Sally Goldmark took the stand for days to talk about her past. She said that her complaint wasn’t that the defendants revealed her communist past; her complaint was that "this was mixed up with a lot of lies and innuendoes" (Fischer, "Plaintiff Criticizes").

The defendants brought in a number of anti-communist "experts" -- including some ex-Communists -- to testify to the enormity of the communist conspiracy. Canwell said that the lawsuit itself was "a part of the communist opposition to the right wing movement in America" (Fischer, "Defendant Canwell"). The defendants’ attorneys closed by saying that the defendants did not conspire to defame Goldmark. They simply worked to defeat a political candidate and that Americans should have the "right to criticize any public official without being hauled into court" ("Goldmark Jury Deliberates").

In the end, however, Dwyer, the Goldmark's attorney, said the case was about simple fairness. "I don't think in this state there has ever been such an example of people going so far and acting so viciously to ruin a man's name," said Dwyer in closing arguments. "They've said every conceivable dirty thing about that woman (Sally) they could say without being held in contempt of court" (Fischer, "Goldmark Case Near Conclusion").

The jury awarded verdicts to Goldmark on five of the nine claims in the case and awarded $40,000 in damages, one of the largest libel verdicts in Washington history. The largest award was levied against Holden for his "monstrous conspiracy" editorial and another story. All three of the other defendants were also found liable on various claims. The jury did not, however, find that the defendants formed a conspiracy to defame the Goldmarks. The Goldmarks were described as "exuberant" and called it a "great vindication" ("Libel Jury").

Victory and the New Trial

The defendants immediately called for a new trial. The verdict made national news. Time magazine ran a story headlined "The Limits of Political Invective." The Washington Post ran an editorial headlined, "Vindication." Yet this feeling of vindication would not last long. In December 1964, Judge Turner granted a new trial. A few days later, on December 18, 1964, Turner went even further. He overturned the $40,000 judgment and set aside the jury's verdict. The reason: The U.S. Supreme Court had made a new, and crucial, decision in a March 1964 case involving The New York Times. The Supreme Court ruled that a public official could not collect damages for criticism of his official actions in absence of proof of actual malice.

Turner said the evidence in the Goldmark case had indeed established that Goldmark was not a communist and that the defendants had made false charges to injure him politically. But that was not enough. There had been no clear proof of malice. Defense attorney Harmon called it a "victory for the right of the common man to criticize our elected officials" ("Goldmark Verdict Upset"). Dwyer said the plaintiffs' goal was to prove that the Goldmarks were not communists, and that "we still hold the substantial victory" ("Dismissal Order"). "The goal of vindicating Goldmark against the smear campaign had been reached and that victory could not be undone," wrote Dwyer in 1984 (Dwyer, p. 281).

Canwell said that he was the one vindicated by the final decision. "(Goldmark) not only wasn't libeled, he didn't win his case," said Canwell (Canwell, p. 339). Canwell even upped the invective against Sally Goldmark, referring to her as a "lesbian communist" (Canwell, p. 346). Goldmark and Dwyer considered appealing to a higher court and going through with a new trial. But they eventually decided that it wasn't worth it -- they had already proven that the charges were false.

Life After Politics

John Goldmark never held public office again. He and Sally returned to the ranch. In 1966, he was thrown from a horse and suffered a badly broken hip. He lay sprawled on the cold ground for a long time before anybody found him. He was flown to Seattle and, after several operations, had to re-learn how to walk. The couple moved to Seattle and Goldmark took up a law practice,  for the first time since graduating. He became a trial lawyer at age 50. "He was, of course, an absolutely brilliant lawyer," said a fellow attorney (Larsen, "John Goldmark").

In 1973, Goldmark learned that he had lymph cancer. His health steadily declined. In 1979, as he neared his final months, a dinner was organized his honor, attended by 150. Among the speakers was Slade Gorton, the state's Republican attorney general and soon to be U.S. Senator. "In 1959 ... I took it as an article of faith that I would not like John Goldmark, and that we would vote on opposite sides of almost every significant issue which came before the legislature," said Gorton that night. "The last half of that prediction turned out to be all too correct. The first part did not. Because it was from John Goldmark that I learned the most important political lesson of my entire life ... that the character and the courage of the individual within our system count for far more than anything else" (Dwyer, p. 284).

He died on October 31, 1979, of cancer. Goldmark, one admirer said, had been the "closest thing Seattle has to a Renaissance Man" (Larsen, "John Goldmark"). Sally Goldmark died in 1985.

A Tragic Postscript

Neither parent was alive to see the tragic postscript to that 1963 trial. On December 24, 1985, Charles Goldmark, then a 41-year-old attorney in Seattle, opened his door to a stranger just before a Christmas Eve gathering. The stranger, David L. Rice, tied up Goldman, his wife and their two children, 10 and 12, chloroformed them, and beat them to death. Rice later said he said he did it because he had heard a passing reference, during a meeting of an ultra-right-wing organization, that the Goldmark family was communist. Rice regarded himself as a soldier in the war against communism and said that "sometimes soldiers have to kill" (Coughlin, Hopkins). He thought the attack would bring him recognition for striking a blow against communism.

Son Peter Goldmark took over the family ranch in 1972. In 2006, he was the Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress and was defeated by incumbent Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers (b. 1969). In 2008, he was elected the state Commissioner of Public Lands. 

Sources: William L. Dwyer, The Goldmark Case: An American Libel Trial (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984); "Goldmark-Ingersoll Wedding," The New York Times, February 13, 1916, p. 15; "Demo Denies Any Intention to Aid Reds," The Seattle Times, November 21, 1951, p. 2; "Okanogan Solon Uses Plane in Politics," Ibid., January 23, 1957, p. 9; "State Senator Ushered Off Stand at Rally," Ibid., August 24, 1962, p. 12; William W. Prochnau, "Goldmark Defeat May Have Repercussions," Ibid., October 7, 1962, p. 128; Richard W. Larsen, "Hallauer: Tough,  Bright, No stranger," Ibid., January 21, 1977, p. 12; "Trials: The Limits of Political Invective," Time magazine, January 31, 1964; Jack E. Fischer, "Publisher Says Two Libel Suit Plaintiffs Are Reds," The Spokesman-Review, November 7, 1963, p. 3; "Goldmark Marriage Eyed," Spokane Daily Chronicle, November 1, 1963, p. 2; "Past Recalled by Mrs. Goldmark," Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 2, 1963, p. 2; Jack E. Fischer, "Plaintiff Criticizes Anti-Red Tactics," The Spokesman-Review, December 6, 1963, p. 16; "Future Damaged, Goldmark Claims," Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 6, 1963, p. 2; "Liberal Defined at Trial," The Spokesman-Review, December 12, 1963, p. 26; Jack E. Fischer, "Defendant Canwell Charges Suit is Slap at Right Wing," The Spokesman-Review, January 8, 1964, p. 7; "Goldmark Jury Deliberates," Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 18, 1964, p. 2; "Libel Jury Sets $40,000 in Suit by Goldmarks," Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 22, 1964, p. 1; "Decision of Supreme Court May Affect Goldmark Case," The Spokesman-Review, March 14, 1964. p. 5; "Goldmark Verdict Upset," Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 18, 1964, p. 1; "John Goldmark, Aides, Mull Libel Case Dismissal Order," The Spokesman-Review, January 25, 1965, p. 17; Don Caron, Labels, Lies and Logic: What Happened When Four Patriots Revealed the Facts in a Political Campaign, pamphlet reprinted from The Wanderer, March 26, 1964; "Goldmark Boy Dies of Injuries," Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 31, 1986, p. 2; Dan Coughlin and Jack Hopkins, "Rice Explains Why He Killed," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 24, 1986, p. 1; Albert F. Canwell, "Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History," interviewed by Timothy Frederick, Washington State Oral History Program, Office of the Secretary of State, on the Washington State Legislature’s Oral History website,, accessed July 10, 2010;, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Former state Representative John Goldmark wins $40,000 (later overturned) in a libel case in okanogan county against four individuals and a newspaper that had called him a communist "tool," on January 22, 1964," (by Jim Kershner), (accessed June 18, 2011); Richard Larsen, "John Goldmark, An Intriguing, Talented Man, Passes On," The Seattle Times, November 1, 1979, p. 46.

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