Making Waves: Remembering Kay Bullitt

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Kay Bullitt was 28 when she arrived in Seattle in 1953. In her words, she saw this place “as a land of promise.”  She died here August 22, age 96, having helped our community achieve a good measure of that promise. 

Her legacy is both deep and wide, and by no means the result of having married into the Bullitts, one of the Pacific Northwest’s wealthiest and most influential families. Young Kay already was a liberated woman, well before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique energized and elevated the women’s movement in 1963. 

Her role-model mother, a graduate of Radcliffe College (also Kay’s college), had served as dean of women at Colorado College and ran Boston’s Women’s Education and Industrial Union and a jobs program for Jewish women escaping the Nazis. Kay’s New-Deal-Democrat brand of politics was already set. She admired “the pluck of Eleanor” Roosevelt, and possessed a confidence composed of conviction, purpose, respect for others, and humility. She was ready to make her way in “a man’s world,” well before Katherine Muller became Kay Bullitt.

Making waves was natural for her. Whether it was her part in the triumph of the women’s eight-oared crew that defeated the Harvard men, or catching the recognition and admiration of the future Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill, when she testified, as a student, in support of Fair Employment practices before the Massachusetts Legislature or, social convention notwithstanding, choosing to join a summer program for young African American women — Kay just did it. 

Early on in Seattle, she made lasting friendships with prominent, activist women: Dorothy Block, a celebrated champion of the city’s parks, and Eleanor Siegl who founded with Kay’s help the area’s first children’s preschool, The Little School—which thrives today at its location in Bellevue. Dorothy Block and her financier husband Robert introduced Kay to Stimson (Stim) Bullitt, whom she married after his divorce. And, in the bargain, took on raising his three children—and then bore three of her own. 

Marriage to Stim Bullitt brought Kay into the orbit of her mother-in-law, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt, one of the most respected and influential business leaders in Seattle. She had inherited her lumber-baron father’s real estate holdings. Dorothy expanded the real estate holdings and began building a regional radio and television empire, The KING Broadcasting Company. Mrs. Bullitt had disliked her son’s first wife, Carolyn Kizer, a well-regarded poet. She liked Kay and signaled her approval by travelling to Boston for their wedding. 

Stim owned a one-and-three-quarter-acre lot on west Capitol Hill, the Harvard-Belmont district, 1125 Harvard Avenue East. He hired architect Fred Bassetti to design an A-frame style house for his new wife and kids. This house, and most especially the huge green-grass yard, became Kay’s “stage.” Over the years, she would “produce” gatherings large and small, open or by private invitation, parties and picnics, weddings and memorials, political fundraisers and campaign planning sessions, sanctuary to the ill and threatened. She was a convenor. Her motto: “When you bring people together around a purpose, good things happen.”

Characteristically, whether she was Kay Muller or Kay Bullitt, she preferred the “second row.” Certainly she could occupy the spotlight, and effectively, but Kay did not need and did not seek prominence. Her preference was for good results. If someone else got the notoriety, got the bouquet, all right. And yet, her married name thrust her into a kind of assumed spotlight, often falsely: “Of course, she’s a Bullitt.”

The young couple early and often engaged in Democratic politics. Kay helped on Stim’s second unsuccessful run for Congress. “It was a mess,” she recalled of his campaign office. “Some old garage or gas station.” She organized it for him. They remained active in the “liberal Democrats,” which eventually would evolve into the Metropolitan Democratic Club. They also were active in the Keechelus Group, focused on ways to agitate for peace, which Kay hosted regularly at their new home. (She had seen war-ravaged Germany on a postwar student visit and found the devastation and human suffering there “abhorrent.”) These two activities, helping Democrats and agitating for peace, would remain prominent with Kay the rest of her active life. 

By the ‘80s, the Congressman Mike Lowry’s Shrimp Feeds in Kay Bullitt’s big yard were so popular (drawing 900-1,000 people each July) that national and state Democrats made sure they stopped by to be seen and to press the flesh. As the ‘80s drew to a close, Kay’s participation in the Glasnost era effort to build better relations with Russia included helping organize the Goodwill Games. 

Planning for Seattle to host the Games was eschewed by the mainline Seattle business establishment. So, Kay hosted local empresario Bob Walsh and Seattle University’s President Bill Sullivan, S.J. at 1125 as they organized the venture with younger business leaders. Besides the athletic competitions and people-to-people events, The Goodwill Arts Festival, featuring many priceless works from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, sold out performances by the Bolshoi Ballet, a staging of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace. The arts festival  earned $16-plus million, topping the money made from the athletic competitions. A New York Times report noted the performances drew standing ovations.

During the month-long event in 1989, several table-to-table discussions with Russian visitors and local citizens occurred in Kay’s kitchen. “They were very good exchanges,” Kay remembered, “because we had much more in common than not. They wanted peace as much as we did.” She also was part of a Seattle contingent that visited Russia later on. 

Kay Bullitt’s work and impact on Civil Rights is perhaps best measured by the fact she was the first white person to be asked to join the board of the Seattle Urban League. African American men and women knew and respected her because they witnessed how she walked the talk. Kay even went doorbelling with a young African American woman trying to find an apartment to rent on Capitol Hill. (Seattle voters in 1964 and rejected by 2-1 margin, an open-housing ordinance, but later it was adopted 5-4 by a courageous City Council majority). With offspring Dorothy and Ben in tow, media-savvy Kay Bullitt also enlisted a KING 5 News reporter and camera crew to come along. She wanted a record showing how this young black woman would be treated by landlords with apartments for rent. Eventually, the young woman was accepted as a tenant. “It was important to bring public attention to this problem,” Kay said with a wink.

Kay’s on-going work for civil rights ran the gamut of issues from school busing, to backing sympathetic school board candidates, to co-chairing the Meany Middle School Parent Teachers Association chapter with the distinguished (African American) Judge Charles Z. Smith. For her, education and civil rights were identical twins. 

Amid all this activity, Kay Bullitt’s life as wife and mother was a chain of highs and lows. 

(Before proceeding, I should tell the reader two things: As a journalist in Seattle at both the Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times, it was my practice not to deal in the personal affairs of public figures. That is, unless such material affected their official duties or prominent roles in the public square. I adhered to this standard when researching and writing the 2014 book on Kay Bullitt, 1125 Harvard East—Kay Bullitt’s Gathering Place—available now at Elliott Bay Books. For this Post Alley article, however, I include some personal facts and observations not found in that book.)

“He left,” said Kay somberly of Stim, “and then he came back every night.” It was 1976.

Stim’s philandering was a not well-kept secret around town, especially after he made page one of the morning Post-Intelligencer. A Seattle Police Officer found Stim with his “date” late one night/early morning in Seward Park. It made the police blotter and was picked up by an attentive P-I beat reporter. Kay and Stim divorced in 1979, but family events at the house would almost always involve Stim. For the Sunday brunches, birthdays, etc., even after he remarried, Kay included Stim and his third wife. 

“Stim told us in the doorway,” his oldest daughter Ashley, remarked disapprovingly. “Kay was the right person [for him]. She always tried to do the right thing.” Observed close friend and confidant, Jean Walkinshaw, “She has a generosity of heart. Unlike anyone else I know.” That generosity was revealed over the years as Kay and Stim maintained a cordial relationship. Privately and publicly. Joel Connelly, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter, covered a 1979 dinner celebrating the life of liberal friend John Goldmark. Connelly’s report noted that seated near the front were Kay and Stim, “holding hands.” 

The tableau is telling. This writer concluded, after some 40 to 50 hours of interviewing Kay, members of her family, and 31 individuals who knew the couple well, that Kay never stopped loving her man, Stim Bullitt. At the end of the project, as we went over the manuscript line by line, any point where Stim was mentioned, Kay’s expression took on a special, sympathetic, sometimes faint smiling appearance. At one point, she questioned an adjective I had used with Stim she thought “a little strong.” She did not ask that I change it and I didn’t. Still, her question expressed her heart and confirmed my perception. 

Kay’s life contained many joys but heart-punishing sorrows as well. In 20 years as a journalist, I had never feared an interview as I did when anticipating asking Kay about the death of her only son, Benjamin Bullitt. My God, it’s bad enough to lose a child.  But murdered! The morning I raised this subject, Kay’s manner became an instant chill. A pause, then “I know I need to talk about it.” 

A classic playboy, Ben was asked to leave the prestigious Lakeside High School, only to suffer the same fate at Garfield where he had transferred. He started an antique business, used his grandmother’s name, without her knowledge, to gain loans equaling $600,000 from uncareful bankers, spent $300,000 on a yacht and found himself and a girlfriend with his antique-store partner sailing off Leschi one November night. “They kept pushing his head underwater,” shrieked his girlfriend afterward. 

Ben’s body was never found. The bankroll he’d carried openly was never found. Two police investigations were not able to resolve exactly what happened. Stim hired a private investigator. He had the lake off Leschi dragged for nearly a week. Nothing. No resolution. But Ben’s mother and sisters emphatically stated “He was murdered.” 

So how does one report that inconclusive outcome? It took more than two months. Two attorney friends provided possible sources with knowledge of this tragedy. With air-tight assurances of confidentiality and anonymity, two impeccably knowledgeable sources independently and unaware of each other, provided their personal beliefs that Ben was indeed murdered. 

That tragedy would not befall Ben’s sister Margaret. After Yale, Margaret held jobs and became interested in spirituality. She joined in with a communal group, Direct Centering. They imposed a strict regimen of living and behavioral practices. The DC guru wanted Margaret to move to Florida for some big job there. Kay smelled a rat. Stim thought an intervention would not work. Kay ignored that, hired a deprogrammer, confronted Margaret and after a period of sessions in New Jersey and Iowa that included her siblings, Margaret came home to Seattle. An artist by talent and temperament, Margaret looked back on that time and said bluntly, “My mother saved me.” 

Kay’s generosity of heart caused her, later on, to bring Margaret’s ex-husband to 1125 for an extended period while he received treatment for bile-duct cancer. Eventually he weakened to the point where he needed more intensive care and moved to hospital. He died in 20002011. Kay also provided sanctuary to the Peter Goldmark family. A madman had slaughtered Peter’s brother Charles, his wife and two children in their home on Christmas Eve 1985. David Rice saw himself as a soldier destined to fight communism and targeted the liberal Goldmarks. Upon hearing the tragic news, Kay had Peter’s family move into 1125 until Rice was apprehended and it was safe for them to return home. 

The litany of awards given to Kay for her contributions to her city “of promise” is too long to repeat here. Kay wouldn’t like that anyway. She would, however, smile at two testimonials that value who she was and what she did. 

Namesake Dorothy, Kay’s and Stim’s first child, recalls being with “Mamie” (Mrs. Bullitt) at the funeral for Sen. Warren Magnuson. “Afterward, when we got home, she started having back trouble,” Dorothy remembers. “She began to fail, and declared that she was ‘ready to die.’ During that conversation, she told me she ‘felt especially close to Kay,’ who ‘reminded her of her own mother Harriet Overton Stimson.’”

Close friend and neighbor Jean Walkinshaw, a highly decorated documentary producer at KCTS 9, lost her husband Walter in 2010. He was one of Stim’s lifetime friends and law partners. Jean offered this tribute to Kay: “Every other morning [after Walt’s death] she stopped by for breakfast on her way up the (Capitol) Hill from exercise and seldom has a week gone by that she hasn’t asked me over for a glass of our favorite wine. She is a TRUE friend and so totally accepting of the foibles and shortcomings of others (including me). Now that I am seeing more of her, I am struck by her amazing energy and drive to contribute to society.” 

One last contribution: In 1974, Kay and Stim decided to deed 1125 over to the city for use as a public park. Kay’s “stage” will now enjoy continued use, presided over by her undaunted spirit.

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Sam Sperry is a Seattle native, covered Seattle government for The Seattle Times from 1971-1976, and held positions under two Seattle mayors, the King County executive and Gov. Gary Locke. From 1987-2000 he was associate editor of the editorial page at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Having attended some of those soirees behind “The Church” in the ’80’s, and having met Kay, it was a great read, until the unnecessary personal gossip retelling of her private life.
    There is a right time for telling the world what you remember, and a wrong one.

  2. This story points to some other observations. One was the importance of women, and women’s networks, in changing Seattle politics. Another is the central role of Capitol Hill in driving Seattle’s progressive agenda. A third is the crucial importance of international issues in organizing protest, creating networks, and powering local political change. Kay and some other of the Bullitt clan were shining examples of all of these forces for change.

  3. Sam,

    What a lovely and well deserved reflection of Kay. Her passion for justice peace and love of Seattle were profound and inspiring.

    I appreciate the shoutout to my folks who were part of that activist generation along with Kay and Stim.

  4. What a lovely remembrance. I wish I could have met her. I remember my father volunteering as a Russian interpreter for the Goodwill Games when I was in my youth.

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