Bullitt, Stimson (1919-2009)

  • By Joel Connelly
  • Posted 6/02/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9428

Stimson Bullitt climbed mountains and rock faces, helped transform Seattle's rundown 1st Avenue, served a decade as King Broadcasting Co. president, was a skilled appellate lawyer, championed civil liberties and environmental causes, was awarded a Purple Heart in the World War II Leyte landing, and earned a place on Richard Nixon's enemies list. None of these achievements, taken alone, tell his story, and the whole of his 89-year life manages to exceed even the sum of its parts.

Achieving Heights

As he watched Stimson Bullitt, then in his late 70s, on a climb of Jabberwocky Tower in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, renowned mountaineer (and first American atop K-2) Jim Wickwire was awed at the skill and stamina shown by his friend. "It was marvelous for me, being 21 years his junior, to watch -- and he was doing all the leading," joked Wickwire. "He would, of course, make light of it. He was always understating or downplaying, talking about self-perceived shortcomings, which were not shortcomings. He was a high achiever" (Wickwire, April 7, 2010).

Charles Stimson Bullitt, scion of a notable Seattle family -- his mother started the King Broadcasting Co. -- spent a life of 89 years in a ceaseless quest to prove himself to himself. He was wounded in the Leyte landing of World War II and awarded a Purple Heart. He was a lawyer for 38 years with the firm formerly named Riddell, Williams, Bullitt & Walkinshaw. He served 10 uneasy years as president at King.

Bullitt delivered a 1966 on-air editorial warning that the Vietnam War was depleting America's resources and dividing the country. He urged de-escalation of the war. A few years later, he received news from the "other" Washington: "With a relish that might have been malicious if he had not been squalid, I learned of having been put on President Nixon's 'enemies list'" (Bullitt, River Dark and Bright, 169).

Late in life, long past normal retirement age, he developed Harbor Properties, fulfilling a vision of transforming Seattle's once rundown 1st Avenue into a 24-hour residential neighborhood at the center of the city.

He lifted eyes and legs unto the hills, loving the physical challenge of climbing but also using mountains as a means to manage depression. At 62, making his third try at North America's highest peak, Bullitt summited 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. He climbed the north ridge of 9,415-foot Mt. Stuart, "a big deal," in Wickwire's words, at the age of 79. He was pictured in his early 80s spread-eagled on Illusion Dweller in Joshua Tree National Park. He stopped climbing at the age of 87.

As a young man, after two unsuccessful runs for Congress, he penned a book, To Be a Politician, described by reviewer Richard Rovere in The New Yorker as "human and humane, funny, hopeful, exciting, and ennobling as any civilized work must be" (www.stimsonbullitt.com). 

Running with the Swift

Stim Bullitt's quiet drive is centerpiece to any conversation about his life, from boyhood to his 80s. "He was very sensitive as a child to privilege: He gave up yachting for boxing. The only [racially] integrated place he could find in Seattle was the boxing ring," said Fred Nemo, second oldest of Bullitt's five surviving children (Nemo, April 12, 2010). Or, in the words of architect Alex Bertulis, a longtime climbing companion, "He wanted to earn everything himself. In the ring, his mother's purse strings meant absolutely nothing" (Bertulis, April 28, 2010).

Striving was a theme in Bullitt's memoir, River Dark and Bright, in which he wrote: "Because to aim lower seems the coward's or idler's course, I have sought to 'run with the swift': Ski racing with Frank Gabl, climbing with Alex Bertulis, boxing with inner-city Black professionals, practicing with good lawyers, tackling long-sustained business challenges" (p. 164). 

Stim Bullitt's Boyhood

Born in 1919, Stim Bullitt was the second of three children of A. Scott Bullitt (1877-1932) and Dorothy Stimson Bullitt (1892-1989). His maternal grandfather, C. D. Stimson (1857-1928), moved west from Chicago in 1889, became a major mill owner, built the Olympic Hotel, and developed the Highlands, a gated community just north of Seattle, where Stim Bullitt grew up after the family moved from the Stimson Green Mansion on Seattle's First Hill.

Scott Bullitt came from an Eastern family, by way of Kentucky. He ran for the U.S. Senate from Washington in 1926, and governor in 1928, and was an early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). He was rumored in line for a Cabinet post, only to die suddenly in 1932.

An early indication of Stim Bullitt's willpower is a family story related by daughter Dorothy Bullitt. "He was a little boy and my grandmother put one dessert after another in front of him. He would not eat any of them. Just what do you want, he was asked, and he replied:  'I want what I cannot have'" (Dorothy Bullitt, April 14, 2010).

Stim Bullitt worshipped his father and his father's image: He would, however, never display the outgoing personality and comfort with people that made Scott Bullitt a natural politician. "He wanted to be like his father" recalled sister Harriet Bullitt (1924-2022). "He thought his father was perfect and he wasn't perfect" (Harriet Bullitt, April 11, 2010).

At 14, returning from an International Boy Scout Jamboree in Hungary, Stim Bullitt traveled with his mother to lunch with Franklin D. Roosevelt at Hyde Park. He remembered FDR's greeting, "Hello Boys!" and the president as "happy, buoyant and commanding" (Bullitt, River Dark and Bright, 130-131).

Stim Bullitt's resistance to wealth and privilege ran through his Yale education. He rode the rails coming out West from school, and worked in Central Washington orchards and on a highway crew at Chinook Pass. He was the Yale University boxing champion and won fights in New York City, Connecticut, and Washington. A mastoid infection cut short his life in the ring. "Our mother became worried and called the boxing commission," said Harriet Bullitt.  "He learned that and never forgave her" (Harriet Bullitt, April 11, 2010).

War Years

He lugged 50 books off to World War II in the Pacific, fighting the Japanese Empire even while writing letters to Congress protesting internment of Japanese Americans. His first great playmate as a child had been Edward Ohata, the son of his family's chauffeur (Nemo, April 12, 2010).

Bullitt was promoted to ensign, trained as a communications officer, and was wounded by shrapnel as he carried radio gear ashore at Leyte. Naturally, he made light of it, years later telling daughter Dorothy that shrapnel was "an easy way to get a Purple Heart." Deeper down, though, the war experience minted a man of peace. "He was sorry he was not an infantryman," said Fred Nemo. "He told me, when I was a child, the horror of turning around in a landing craft and seeing a soldier kneeling with his head missing. I would say that the later Vietnam editorial was rooted in three things. He experienced the horrors of war. He read extensively about the horrors of war, reinforcing his experience. The McCarthy era and 'Red Scares' happened, causing him to distrust the judgment and competence of politicians when decisions come up on whether to go to war" (Nemo, April 12, 2010).

Civic Activist

After World War II, as part of a "Great Generation" leadership that would shape Seattle for a half-century, Bullitt launched himself into a legal career, plus civic and civil rights activism.

He had in 1941 recommended an African American friend with a master's degree from Yale for an elementary school teaching position with the Seattle School District. Seattle School Superintendent Worth McClure wrote in reply that the Seattle school system did not hire Negroes.

Bullitt was on the Committee for a Washington Law Against Discrimination, a sponsor of the Washington State Fair Employment Practice Committee, sat on the board of the Seattle Urban League, and was later a trustee of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. Such stands sometimes put Bullitt in harm's way. Seattle voters rejected open housing ordinances well into the 1960s, and the state's electorate refused to repeal an alien land law. Banks were reluctant to extend home and business loans in inner-city Seattle.

Bullitt was Democratic nominee for Congress in Washington's 1st District, but lost the 1952 race to Republican Tom Pelly (1902-1973). He sought a rematch in 1954, but was defeated in the Democratic primary by former Senator Hugh Mitchell (1907-1996). To Be a Politician was inspired by these races, and a literary reputation was born. Social scientist David Riesman would dub Bullitt the "Monsieur Montaigne of Seattle," and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., rightfully predicted: "This brilliant and original book should become a small political classic" (Bullitt, Personal Abstract).

On the Personal Side

Bullitt was to have setbacks in life. He was, in sister Harriet's words, "a very conflicted person always" and cursed with "a very low sense of self-worth" (Harriett Bullitt, April 11, 2010). He would confess, in River Dark and Bright, to a period of "black despair" and "brooding over suicide" for a period of seven years in his 40s (Bullitt, River Dark and Bright, 28).

He was married for five and a half years to the poet Carolyn Kiser, much later to win a Pulitzer Prize for her book of poetry, Yin. The union produced three children, but ended in acrimonious divorce. A second marriage in 1954 to Katharine "Kay" Muller, a Seattle civic and peace activist, would last 24 years. Bullitt, his siblings Harriet Bullitt and Patsy Collins, daughter Dorothy, and ex-wife Kay would share the 2000 Seattle First Citizen Award.

King Broadcasting

In 1961, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt asked her son to take over the presidency at King Broadcasting. "He was kind of forced into the broadcasting business," said Harriet Bullitt. "He was the man in the family, and he wanted to succeed ... He saw a challenge of doing world-changing things rather than loving the business" (Harriet Bullitt, April 11, 2010).

Dorothy Stimson Bullitt had built a broadcast empire with two unfailing skills. She could study a spreadsheet and she could read people. She had bested Westinghouse for a Portland TV license, and snatched a coveted NBC affiliation away from the Fisher family of rival KOMO-TV. Stim Bullitt was very different. He settled into an unassuming windowless office, closed the door, and pondered the future of the world. Unlike his mother, and unlike successor Ancil Payne (1921-2004), he tended to manage by memo and never schmoozed in the KING coffee shop.

And there was a fundamental problem: He really didn't like broadcasting. "Daddy hated the product of television, and felt that it was intellectually empty and that its influence outran its content," said son Fred Nemo (Nemo, April 12, 2010).

Life at King was never dull, however. Stim Bullitt was one of TV's first executives to hire women and African Americans. He started Seattle Magazine, staffed it with Ivy Leaguers, and watched it scald local institutions from the Downtown Seattle Association to Broadmoor. Seattle Magazine lost money, as did a film division -- King Screen -- and a plywood plant acquired in Okinawa. But Stim Bullitt also made far-reaching decisions. "He got us into the cable business early on when it was affordable, which was brilliant," said his sister (Harriet Bullitt, April 11, 2010).

KING-TV was a pacesetter in public service when the concept meant something to broadcasters. Its documentary on the North Cascades helped create a national park. A King Screen film, The Redwoods, won an Oscar. Station documentaries raised the issue of suburban sprawl, and exposed a Red-baiting smear that drove a distinguished Eastern Washington rancher from the State Legislature.

His sisters and mother eased Stim Bullitt out of King's presidency. They feared that operations like the magazine and film company were bleeding the broadcast operation. Stim Bullitt left broadcasting under what he called "strained and awkward circumstances" (Bullitt, River Dark and Bright, 104-110). He borrowed Lincoln's words some years later, saying, "I felt like the man who was run out of town on a rail and when asked how he felt about it, said, 'Except for the honor of the thing, I'd just as soon have walked.' Well, I would just as soon have walked six months later" (Haley, 289).

The Bullitt family split its assets: Mother and sisters took the broadcast properties, brother the real-estate holdings. Stim Bullitt returned to the law, his first love, and to work as an appellate attorney.

At Home in the Mountains

He headed for the hills: The solitary figure behind closed doors became a collegial and cherished climbing companion. A reporter tried to call Bullitt on the day President Nixon resigned, only to discover he was out scaling Vesper Peak in the company of a young Legal Services lawyer.

"In the mountains, he totally felt at home," said Bertulis. "He was wonderful to be with. He felt on a par with everyone he climbed with ... In the end, it was his passion" (Bertulis, April 28, 2010). The two men climbed such formidable Cascade peaks as Mt. Formidable and Slesse Peak, ascended the classic west ridge of 10,816-foot Mt. Sir Donald in Canada's Selkirks, and reached the summit of 18,490-foot Pico de Orizaba in Mexico, the continent's third-highest mountain.

Alex Bertulis has a "typical Stim Bullitt" experience: "He promised a girlfriend that he would lead her up Mt. Rainier. He broke up with her -- they were no longer on speaking terms -- but to complete the promise, he invited her on the climb" (Bertulis, April 28, 2010). The party had what Bertulis called a "difficult" experience on a standard route.

His climbing produced one near-death experience. Bullitt, his son Ben, and two others were climbing Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier when they were pinned down at the 12,900-foot level by a storm that lasted 62 hours. The three younger climbers set out down the ridge for help. Stim Bullitt ate the last of his food and, convinced he was going to die, wrote out two messages to his sister Patsy: One was a set of instructions, e.g., where to find his wallet and car keys, the other a good-bye note to friends. He was found by a search plane, rescued by helicopter, and presented the crumpled instructions to Patsy at lunch the next day.

Death of a Son

The mysterious 1981 drowning of 24-year-old Ben Bullitt, a beloved but "wayward and self-indulgent" son, was not only a tragedy but a kind of transforming event in the life of the Bullitt family (Bullitt, River Dark and Bright, 63). Of his son's death, Bullitt would write: "He did not have my respect. Yet when the dark waters closed over that curly head, only one thing mattered. He was my little boy, and I loved him" (Bullitt, River Dark and Bright, 63).

"Ben was the only one of his children who wore his emotions on his sleeve," said Ben's brother, Fred Nemo. "When a person has an untimely death, the family begins to pick up his traits. Ben melted our hearts. We adapted his traits of being openly affectionate, or openly argumentative. By his sacrifice, Ben infused the family with the virus of personal warmth" (Nemo, April 12, 2010).

Giving Back

Stim Bullitt did a lot of giving, and giving back, in the final years of his life. Over the years, he donated $17.2 million to the Bullitt Foundation, which underwrites environment causes in the Northwest. He gave to his children, successfully suggesting in turn that they give the state 590 acres for the Squak Mountain Wilderness Park. He gave scholarship grants to minority students, allowing James Meredith (b. 1933), the civil rights hero, to attend Columbia Law School. When -- infrequently -- Democrats elected a president, he picked up the tab for young field workers to attend inaugural ceremonies in Washington, D.C.

Getting Out and About

Stim Bullitt was an active bachelor through much of his golden years. Bill Sumner, who climbed Mt. McKinley with him, tells an unforgettable party story: "One friend had a bit too much wine and she was on Stim's case about his romantic interests. He was polite and quiet until pushed too far by the remark, 'You do seem to enjoy the company of younger women.' Stim paused and said, 'I enjoy the company of younger men, too.' I choked laughing in my beer. The tipsy lady was nonplussed. That conversation was over" (Sumner, April 16, 2010).

The mountains were, to the last, a very big deal. Bullitt kept scaling walls, and sometimes emerged nursing bloody cuts and abrasions from close encounters with vertical rock faces. "I was petrified at times watching him lead, although I was belaying him," said Sumner, "but he pulled it off. He died of very old age" (Sumner, May 13, 2010).

Finding Tina

Stim Bullitt found personal happiness, in the last years of his life, with Tina Hollingsworth, who would become his third wife and his widow. The couple would climb a mountain and then hurry back for a Seattle Opera performance and change clothes in the parking lot. "Tina was the first real love of his life," said Harriet Bullitt. "She probably gave him the only lasting happiness he ever had with another person" (Harriet Bullitt, April 11, 2010).

The couple was also at home in Bullitt's library. "The intellectual life, what people read, we talked about," said Tina Bullitt (Tina Bullitt, April 19, 2010). To Stim Bullitt, the life of the mind mattered. In a 1991 letter to Jim Wickwire, he mused about an incident in which President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt paid a courtesy call to 92-year-old retired Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "When the president-elect was wheeled in he found the Justice in a rocking chair, reading Plato in the original Greek. He asked him why. With a smile, Holmes replied, 'To improve my mind, Mr. President'" (Bullitt to Wickwire, August 28, 1991).

The Harbor Steps

Harbor Properties was Stim Bullitt's culminating project and statement. He had assembled what his sister calls "dilapidated properties" and presided over creation of residential towers and Harbor Steps Park, a public plaza and steps that provide downtown's most romantic sunset walk.

"Everything he did was directed toward this town," Tina Bullitt recalled, at lunch on the first anniversary of her husband's death. "Everything about it, it was here -- the mountains, the intellectual life, what people read, how we would hold onto features that we loved ... He never really realized the impact he had on people. He regretted that he could not do more." (Tina Bullitt, April 19, 2010)

Harbor Steps had one final conflict. At the behest of his board, Stim Bullitt fired his daughter Dorothy from a senior executive position. She went on to recognition as an author and distinguished visiting lecturer at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Affairs. Dorothy Bullitt talked movingly of their eventual reconciliation: "We were separated for about two years. It was too painful to spend time with him. At his 75th birthday, I put together a book with gold engraving. It contained 75 memories, one per page. In the process of writing, I totally forgave him. He had been a great parent and great friend. [She left the book at his office.] I was invited for his birthday. Everything clicked right back. It was a differentiated relationship. It was a grown-up relationship. He apologized to me in a very intense conversation" (Dorothy Bullitt, April 14, 2010).

Last Years

Stim Bullitt became more a family man in his last years, delighting in the presence of his achieving grandchildren, at ease with his ex-wife Kay, and even hosting former wife Carolyn. He was ecstatic when daughter Dorothy came to the Evans School, headquartered in a building about 100 yards south from the University of Washington Law School where there is a Stimson Bullitt chair in environmental law.

Stim Bullitt died on April 19, 2009, in a chair at his West Seattle home with Puget Sound pounding at the beach below. Two days later, he had been slated to watch as former Nixon aide Egil "Bud" Krogh (b. 1939) spoke to Dorothy's students. She went ahead with the class, feeling it a fitting honor.


Joel Connelly, interview with James Wickwire, April 7, 2010, Seattle; Stimson Bullitt, River Dark & Bright: A Memoir (Seattle: Willows Press, 1995); Stimson Bullitt, Personal Abstract, 2008, typescript in possession of Tina Bullitt and Joel Connelly;  Joel Connelly, interview with Fred Nemo, April 12, 2010, Seattle; Joel Connelly, interview with Alex Bertulis, April 28, 2010, Seattle; Joel Connelly, interview with Dorothy Bullitt, April 14, 2010, Seattle; Joel Connelly, interview with Harriet Bullitt, April 11, 2010, Leavenworth, Washington; Delphine Haley, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt: An Uncommon Life (Seattle, Sasquatch Books, 1995); William Sumner, email to Joel Connelly, April 16, 2010, in possession of Joel Connelly; Joel Connelly, interview with William Sumner, May 13, 2010, Seattle; Joel Connelly, interview with Harriet Bullitt, April 11, 2010, Leavenworth, Washington; Joel Connelly, interview with Tina Hollingsworth Bullitt, April 19, 2010,  Seattle; Stimson Bullitt to James Wickwire, August 28, 1991, in possession of Wickwire and Joel Connelly, Seattle, Washington; Joel Connelly, interview with Dorothy Bullitt, April 14, 2010; Stimson Bullitt website accessed June 3, 2010 (www.stimsonbullitt.com).

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