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Bullitt, Dorothy Stimson (1892-1989)

HistoryLink.org Essay 677 : Printer-Friendly Format

Dorothy Stimson Bullitt purchased a small Seattle radio station with almost no listeners in 1947. She expanded it into one of the finest broadcasting empires in the nation. She was a Seattle civic leader who entered the business world at a time when women were not welcome. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Dorothy Bullitt First Citizen of 1959.

Born in Seattle

Dorothy was born at the family home on Queen Anne Hill, in Seattle, to which her parents and their young son Thomas had moved from Michigan three years earlier. Using his fortune from Michigan lumber, C. D. Stimson (1857-1928) built the Stimson Lumber Company in Ballard. He struck it rich during the Klondike gold rush, when the market for things made of wood skyrocketed. He later invested extensively in downtown Seattle real estate. In 1900, the family moved to the new half-timber home, now known as the Stimson-Green Mansion, in the opulent First Hill neighborhood of Seattle.

While their husbands made money, a coterie of well-to-do women, including Dorothy's mother, put it to use. They were determined to establish cultural and civic amenities that they had known before moving to the urban frontier. Harriet Overton Stimson (1862-1936) was a founder of Children’s Orthopedic Hospital, the Seattle Symphony, the Visiting Nurse Service, and a major benefactor of Cornish School.

A Girlhood of Riding, Sailing, and Singing

In 1914, the Stimsons moved to the Highlands, a "gated community" on Puget Sound immediately north of the Seattle City Limits. Dorothy enjoyed riding her horse and sailing with her father on his big yawl. She inherited her mother's love of classical music, and at home, practiced the piano.

Her education was typical for girls of her station. She had no need to learn to cook or clean. After attending public schools, she enrolled in an Eastern boarding school and took voice lessons from a private teacher. She lived in New York in order to attend concerts and the opera.

Marriage and Democratic Politics

Upon her return to Seattle, she met her future husband, the Kentucky lawyer A. Scott Bullitt (1877-1932). They were married in 1918. A member of a prominent Southern family, he was a Princeton graduate with a passion for politics. Unlike the Stimsons and most leading Seattle families, he was a Democrat. He organized the Democratic Party in Washington state. He mentored U. S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) in the early years of his political career, but was unsuccessful in his own bids for senator and governor.

Difficulties and Reverses

In the early 1930s, Dorothy Bullitt’s lifestyle took a dramatic turn with the deaths of her father and her brother Thomas, who was killed in an airplane crash. In 1932, her husband died of liver cancer. She was left with their three minor children and was suddenly in charge of some of the family’s extensive downtown real estate holdings. (The Stimson Mill and other properties had been left to her brother.)

A. Scott Bullitt had served as national committeeman of the Democratic Party and had been scheduled to nominate his friend Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) for president. After his death, the Party turned to his widow, who took his place as a delegate to the national convention in Chicago. At the request of the platform committee, she presented a plank that outlawed child labor.

A Woman's New Place

Dorothy Bullitt entered the man’s world of the real estate business at a time when women were neither present nor welcome. She later said, “I didn’t know the difference between a lease and a permit to go swimming. I didn’t even have a lawyer" (Robinson, 227). In the depths of the Great Depression, office tenants were moving out and the lessee of the Coliseum Theater had broken his lease. Mrs. Bullitt found a lawyer and went to work, personally shepherding the family’s floundering properties back to financial health. She earned the respect of the business community and eventually served on the boards of a bank and an insurance company, and as a University of Washington regent.

While learning to read balance sheets, she maintained her life-long commitment to the arts and to women’s organizations, notably the Seattle Junior League and Children’s Orthopedic Hospital. When Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt visited Seattle, she persuaded the president to visit the hospital so that young patients could see what a polio victim had been able to achieve. She remained true to her upbringing in terms of appearance and manner. A traditionalist, she sent all three of her children to prestigious Eastern colleges and universities.

A Pioneer in Communications

In 1947, Mrs. Bullitt embarked on a new venture and purchased a failing radio station. Two years later, she purchased an FM station, so that she could feature classical music. During 1949, she acquired Seattle's only television station: There were at that time only 6,000 TV sets in all of Seattle. The nearest station to the south was in San Francisco; the nearest one to the east was in Minneapolis. She negotiated a swap for the call letters KING, thus matching the name of King County. She affiliated with the American Broadcasting Company until the 1950s, when she took NBC away from the Seattle station KOMO.

In her application to the Federal Communications Commission, she promised to provide at least 100 minutes per week of public service announcements. She and her talented administrative team gave staff the support and editorial license to deal with controversial topics. She had a firm policy against selling air time to religious organizations, but donated such time, most notably to her own St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, for the Christmas Eve midnight service and for the weekly Sunday evening compline service.

KING Broadcasting Corporation built headquarters and studios on lower Queen Anne Hill in Seattle and later moved to the current (1999) location on Dexter Avenue N. Within a few years, King Broadcasting acquired stations in Portland and Spokane. It provided equipment for the local non-profit education station KCTS, Channel 9. Years later, the company acquired stations in Boise and Honolulu and a radio station in San Francisco.

In 1961, Mrs. Bullitt turned over the presidency of KING to her son Stimson (1919-2009). She continued to chair the board until 1977, when her daughter Priscilla “Patsy” Collins (1920-2003) took her place. Her other daughter, Harriet Bullitt, chaired the executive committee. Mrs. Bullitt could be found in her office four days out of five until shortly before her death in 1989.

An Enduring Legacy

A lover of the Pacific Northwest, she enjoyed her yacht and tugboat on Puget Sound and her mountain home at Leavenworth well into her 90s. She left her KING stock to the Bullitt Foundation whose purpose was preservation of the Northwest environment.

As foundation trustees and as KING’s major shareholders, Harriet and Patsy decided to sell the broadcasting corporation. They bought back the ever-popular “Classic” KING-FM at market price, then donated it to the Seattle Opera, the Seattle Symphony, and the Corporate Council for the Arts. It was a move their mother had approved.

Sources:
Mildred Tanner Andrews, Woman’s Place: A Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 159-161; Delphine Haley, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt: An Uncommon Life (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1995); Susan Paynter, “KING Founder and Civic Leader Dies at Home,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 28, 1989, sec. A, p. 8; John S. Robinson, “The Queen of King,” in Washingtonians: A Biographical Portrait of the State ed. by David Brewster and David M. Buerge (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1989), 217-242; Mildred Andrews Telephone Interview with Patsy Collins, March 1999. See also O. Casey Corr, King: The Bullitts of Seattle and their Communications Empire (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996).


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Dorothy Bullitt (1892-1989)
Courtesy Patsy Collins


 
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