Harriet Stimson Bullitt And Priscilla Bullitt Collins -- The Bullitt Sisters -- Has Life Among The Sheltered And Well-Off Prepared Them For The Rough-And-Tumble Arena Of Environmental Causes?






Harriet Stimson Bullitt drums the floor of Tio's Eastlake bakery in staccato beats, her jaw angled over one shoulder, eyes flashing provocatively. Her dress is dotted with bright circles like so many multicolored balloons rising against a black sky, and suddenly she's soaring, too, her swoopy cloud of gray hair spinning, a graceful hand reaching skyward to a flamenco rhythm.

Deep in the cool servants' quarters of the Stimson-Green Mansion, Priscilla Bullitt Collins tugs at a tall vertical row of heavy wooden doors, pulling one free to reveal an old but efficient drying system dating to 1900. Her grandfather's servants hung tablecloths and lace runners in this basement drier. Upstairs, two generations of her ancestors hold frozen poses in faded photos, watching silently as she goes about her duties as hostess and owner of the cavernous mansion on the city's erstwhile elegant First Hill.

These are the daughters of Dorothy Bullitt, that stalwart legend of Seattle's urban adolescence who died last year. Bullitt - real-estate mogul, member of so many boards that her resume reads like a Seattle history text, founder of King Broadcasting Co. and the city's public-service conscience from the 1940s through the '60s - was ``Mother'' to the sisters who two months ago hung a ``for sale'' sign on KING.

Not only did the two sisters make that momentous business decision; in one sweeping move they appointed themselves keepers of the Northwest's environment by transforming the sale into a $100-million windfall for the region. Through the Bullitt Foundation, they plan to make decisions that will mold the future of local environmental activism.

They are hardly the Edward Abbey figures one would think would enter this sometimes vicious realm, where tree huggers throw mud in the face of birdwatchers in the scramble for nonprofit dollars. They were raised in the sheltered atmosphere of the old Seattle aristocracy, and it's no surprise that their view of the environment is romantic and simplistic. Even they admit it. Eccentric hobbies aside, they've been so elusive publicly that what does come as a surprise is that beneath the well-bred dignity and naivete, they're strong-willed and focused, perhaps even calculating, when it comes to their cause.

Dorothy's daughters are emerging from her shadow with a determination to cast their own.

That's not been easy for these women, who were raised by a legend who loved them but was often absent. ``We had to find and make our own way,'' says Harriet. ``We had role models, but not a lot of help. We had money, but there was a problem wanting to amount to something on our own. Everybody wants to find their own niche.''

How that niche came to be the environment, and not the media or the real-estate businesses that are in their blood, can only be told through their lives. They aren't women who talk in such contemporary cliches as being in touch with their feelings. Ask them how they feel, and you'll generally get an elusive answer - and an anecdote in place of introspection.

Consider who they are:

Priscilla (``Patsy'') Bullitt Collins, 70, an unpretentious woman with a straight back and a strong, flat voice that often rises in hoots of laughter. Has a penchant for ending up in warring lands. Took her family on a trip through cultural history in the mid-'60s, including a tangent across the Soviet Union, where Americans weren't allowed, in a microbus. Jokes that she almost owns the Volkswagen company because of the white VW vans she's donated to orphanages and hospitals around the world. Gives to Strand Helpers. ``Cheers'' is her favorite TV show. Bought the Stimson-Green Mansion to prevent it being turned into law offices, and runs the mansion's catering business. Lives in a $500-a-month apartment, also on First Hill, and longs for winter to come so she can stop pulling weeds in the mansion's front yard. Divorced.

Harriet Stimson Bullitt, 65, with a flair for the dramatic and looks it, dominant widow's peak dipping onto a high aristocratic forehead. Has a politician's white smile. Took up flamenco dancing six years ago as a replacement for fencing. Lives on a nordic tug boat, the Whirl Wind, moored next to her barge, Water Music, on Lake Union, both equipped with sprung floors for impromptu dance sessions. Sticker on the side of the barge reads, ``There's no abyssness like show abyssness.'' Dresses in classy, avant-garde clothes (she likes Nubia's, an upscale dress shop). Has a passion for Icicle Canyon in Leavenworth, where she lives about half the time. Started Pacific Search (later Pacific Northwest) magazine with an environmental bent when environmentalists were ``the equivalent of terrorists.'' Worked with Friends of the Duwamish. Oldest competitor in a triathlon a few years ago in Leavenworth. Married three times, now divorced.

These, obviously, are women who have not been squelched by their mother's fame. Still, life with such a high-powered person was at times disconcerting. Harriet, in her rather lilting, Katharine Hepburn-like voice, says of Dorothy Bullitt, ``What mother was interested in at the moment was what was important to her. She was not motherly in the conventional sense, but she was warm.''

This is said with characteristic directness. These are not memories of youngsters; they hold no adolescent rancor. ``That's just the way it was,'' Patsy Collins says again and again when talking of her childhood. ``We didn't think anything of it.''

The daughters didn't always have a famous mother, of course. It wasn't until they were grown that Dorothy Bullitt became Seattle's first lady - she was 55 when she laid the first brick in what would be the KING fortress. That first brick was the purchase in 1946 of a struggling AM radio station, KEVR, simply to bring classical music to the Seattle area. Television was in its infancy, and Bullitt was a little bored with the real-estate business that had been her mainstay, her daughters say. As a business adventure, she acquired the first television station in the Northwest, which became KING-TV.

But when Harriet and Patsy were small, there was none of this. They grew up with the good and bad aspects of lives sheltered in the money, brick and mortar of The Highlands. The family's neighbors had names such as Boeing, Bogle and Baillargeon - webs of names that, spun together, create a pre-war aristocratic Seattle family tree.

It was in many ways idyllic: Patsy, Harriet and brother Stimson Bullitt (no longer a part of KING, but a partner in his own law firm and director of Harbor Properties) swam in a Puget Sound that they remember as not so much cold as full of drift logs and barnacles. Stimson and Patsy ganged up on the smaller Harriet, who had come along ``to wreck our lives,'' Patsy says with a laugh. ``We decided to wreck hers instead.''

``I learned to climb the tallest trees,'' Harriet retorts wryly.

(The two sisters don't quite talk at the same time, but close. ``I do the nouns, she does the verbs,'' Patsy says.)

Their mother believed in girls learning to ride horses and swim, but she sniffed

at the idea of their ever having to cook a meal. Patsy says her mother would say, `` `There'll always be someone to do that for you.' ''

Dorothy Bullitt's mentor was her father, C.D. Stimson, owner of the city's largest sawmill, a one-armed, cigar-smoking figure who raised his family in the early years in the mansion Patsy is now restoring. Though some have tried to draw a parallel between the family's timber background and its new thrust toward saving timber - a guilty-conscience motivation - the truth is that most people in Seattle in those days looked at trees and saw board feet. C.D. Stimson's legacy was of a different kind.

It was from C.D. Stimson that Dorothy Bullitt got what the daughters describe as her ``can do anything'' attitude. He taught her to swim by tying a line under her arms and dropping her off the side of a boat.

Their mother married debonair attorney Alexander Scott Bullitt in 1918, hardly the days of women's liberation. ``This was no feminist,'' Patsy says. ``She didn't cut her hair or wear earrings or nail polish because her husband didn't want her to.'' She went to political functions with him - Bullitt was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat and leader of the party in Seattle - but she disliked politicians as men who ``were seedy, had no table manners and murdered the English language,'' her elder daughter recalls.

Seattle in the mid-'20s was changing from a small town to urban center. But The Highlands was actually outside the city, which stopped at about 85th Street, remembers Catherine Baillargeon Brownell, a Highland School classmate of the Bullitts. It was, she says, an isolated life for The Highlands' children. They attended Highland School, a two-room community schoolhouse, where there were as few as 10 students and as many as 14, Brownell recalls.

Highland houses were - and still are - mansions; the Bullitts paddled with ducks in the ornamental pond in front of their house as kids and peeked in on parties attended by the likes of Dr. Richard Fuller, of Seattle Art Museum fame. As the Depression hit, Seattle became as bleak as its gray skies, and if The Highlands didn't feel it much, it did add to the isolation. There were concerns about kidnapping, and gatemen were hired. The children were under siege.

For the Bullitt children, the Depression held a different kind of tragedy. When Patsy was 11, Harriet 7 and Stim 12, their father developed cancer, a literally unmentionable disease. ``Father came home from the hospital `to get well,' and people came to visit him,'' Patsy says. ``That's all we knew. We never caught on.''

When he died, their mother seem totally unprepared to take over the family fortunes. She didn't even know where the keys to his desk were. The family's extensive downtown properties needed to be run, a mortgage their father had taken out on their home paid. Across the nation, financiers were jumping from tall buildings in panic; at her desk Dorothy Bullitt sat in tears, poring through the telephone directory desperately trying to find an attorney whose name seemed familiar.

For their mother, it was devastating. For the daughters, it amounted to more than losing a father.

``It was hard for Mother to grieve properly. She got busy working, so the three of us were left stranded emotionally,'' Harriet says. ``We got through that death the best we could, which was by ourselves.''

From then on, Dorothy Bullitt was usually at work. And when she was home, she was tired from work. Instead of the scintillating dinner-table conversations one might expect in the home of Seattle's first lady, the daughters remember: ``We would be in the kitchen with the cook, Stim would be reading in his room, Mother would have a tray in her room.''

It's not that she wasn't welcoming, Harriet says. ``We found the best time to talk to her was when she was brushing her hair.''

Luciano Pavarotti once said in an interview that if he wanted his children to sing opera, he would forbid them to do so. Then they would. Dorothy Bullitt could have used that advice if she wanted daughters as fascinated by business as she was. ``She lectured us about business things all the time. Other mothers talked about cookies or how to dress. She tried to tell us about stocks and bonds and I never knew the difference and didn't care,'' Harriet says. ``But I could talk to her about stars and waterfalls, too . . . ''

If Dorothy was a mostly absent mother, she did direct their morals. Laughter makes the room ring when they remember an obviously favorite incident, that of ``the wall.'' They tell it in counterpoint.

Harriet: ``This was my lesson in truth.'' She and a friend were shuffling through the leaves wondering what to do one Halloween day in the early to mid-1930s. ``There were blackberries around and we were splashing them on the pavement under our feet the way kids do - plop, plop. And we thought maybe we could write something. We ended up collecting berries and all of a sudden this pristine white wall appeared before us.''

Patsy: It was near ``old man Bogle's, and they were kind of stuffy. Nice people and all, nothing against them.''

Harriet: ``We began squashing the berries and they made the most wonderful stain, we drew pictures and discovered the garage door, all white. So we drew pictures on it.''

Patsy: ``It was an election year, 1932 or '36. FDR was running. Mr. Bogle had a great hate in this world, and that was FDR. He was so complaining, he was about ready to move to Canada.''

Harriet: ``FDR was a friend of father's and we felt protective of father's memory. It was a solidly Republican neighborhood, and we'd heard about Democratic politics from day one. . . . We drew a big heart with an arrow through it. . . . Well, we wrote `Bogle loves FDR.' ''

It wasn't the prank that got them in trouble, it was lying about it. Dorothy Bullitt even vouched for her daughter's honesty.

Harriet: ``My cohort squealed, they got it out of her.'' She was grounded for three months. ``Mother decided to combine punishment with learning, and I had to read a number of books. . . . I learned to hate reading for the rest of my life, but I learned not to lie.''

Stories of early exploits spill from the sisters - the story of Patsy shooting at targets and thrusting the neighborhood into darkness, stories of epsom salts dumped into martinis at bigwig parties. If these rebellions sound like a lighter episode of ``The Cosby Show,'' it's because that's the kind of world these children grew up in, a world where even their imaginations didn't stray beyond the acceptable.

Catherine Brownell, who was the same year in school as Harriet, describes her in those days as ``a very imaginative child, and very pretty. She was a little more of a tomboy than some. Patsy was always a lady, even as a little girl.''

It may have been Dorothy Bullitt's expectations that resulted in the mettle beneath her adult daughters' elegance. For example, Dorothy Bullitt forced Patsy to go to college, though Patsy tempers the word ``forced'' by saying she enjoyed it, too. Despite her business success, Dorothy was sensitive about not having a college degree herself. Patsy sailed through Vassar, majoring in Italian; Harriet had a rougher time of it.

During the war, Harriet studied chemical engineering at the University of Washington. One day the professors told her not to use the library because she was ``a distraction to the men students, who were serious. They said I should look for a boyfriend someplace else.'' Harriett later went to Bennington, then married and went to Germany with her husband, then to Boston and Florida. When her marriage broke up, she returned to Seattle with her two children to get a degree in natural science at the UW. ``Gosh,'' she says, ``most of what we learned about was the Northwest. It was like coming home intellectually.''

It was that interest in the Northwest that led her to publish Pacific Search, a journal providing communication between amateur groups such as the Pacific Science Center and Audubon. The publication steered away from controversy, and was criticized by both environmentalists and corporations. ``I guess that meant we were successful,'' Harriet says. When the oil crisis of the '70s hit, the magazine lost its volunteer base and Harriet turned it into the slick Pacific Northwest.

``With the increase in deterioration of the environment, it was not enough to talk about crabs, mushrooms and flowers anymore. We wanted to drive the idea of the Northwest as a whole region,'' she says. The magazine began examining a larger area, with such cover stories as the future of the region's great rivers.

``Harriet was committed to her cause,'' says Peter Potterfield, editor of the magazine in the '70s and now an author and consultant. ``She didn't have to come in every day, but she did.''

Harriet sold Pacific Northwest after 25 years. The magazine was never a moneymaker, and it was becoming lifestyle-oriented to satisfy advertisers. ``That wasn't the mainstream of my interest,'' she says. ``But I thought it could be combined with environmental issues, as TV and radio did.'' The magazine was bought by Micro Media, a New Jersey company.

She's still known for her environmental leanings: A swimmer in Lake Union recently paddled by her tug to do a little water-based lobbying to get her involved in the Growth Management Initiative. His approach, while unconventional, worked.

If the environment is her cause, flamenco dancing and that tugboat and barge are her passions. (When asked why she lives on a tug instead of in a mansion, she says blithely, ``I've already done that.'')

Sometimes she combines them, and there are dance parties in the barge. People who live on Lake Union paddle kayaks by in hopes they'll see a flamenco party in full swing in the goldfish bowl-like windows. Harriet explains her attachment to the dance: ``It's like poetry, only physical. It's a basic human emotional experience expressed with flamenco. It can captivate you for a lifetime.'' And, she adds, ``it's better than a fat farm.''

Patsy, on the other hand, is an anomaly. She is at home in the Stimson-Green Mansion, where the polished wood suits her elegant bearing. But she's equally at home in bombed-out Third World countries and can talk about the futility of war as well as any 1960s flower child. Her friend the Rev. Donovan Cook, minister of University Baptist Church, describes her as ``a person I know by her laughter, and that's a wonderful thing to say about somebody.''

With Cook, Patsy was one of the founders of Christians for Peace in El Salvador, the group that sponsored both Josie Beecher and Jennifer Casolo, the two women who were arrested - then released - in El Salvador last year.

Patsy gets her liberal anti-war leanings from the post-World War II days when, as a Red Cross volunteer, she went by train through Hiroshima four months after the bomb hit. ``Five-year-old street urchins learned very quickly the way to survive was to sell their burns, because they were so terrible the soldiers couldn't bear it and would give them food and candy. I thought, `This is the kind of thing war does to people.' . . . So the child has to sell the suffering in order to live. It started coming home to me that war doesn't stop when it's over.''

In the mid-'80s, Patsy heard that an orphanage in El Salvador needed a van to take kids to school. ``I remembered the Japanese children, so it was resonating,'' she says. She bought a white Volkswagen van, had it shipped to El Salvador, and then realized it would sit in a port without someone to actually take it to the orphanage. Four women from Seattle, including Patsy, went to El Salvador and drove the van to the children.

In 1986, Patsy heard that the Stimson-Green Mansion was slated to become law offices. She snapped it up, not so much as a part of her mother's past but because it's a part of the city's past. Gold Rush money built the house, she says. Each room has old photos in it: many of the Stimsons, Dorothy Bullitt's parents who did such things as found Cornish School, the Seattle Symphony and Children's Hospital. Today the mansion is used for catered parties and weddings; sometimes Patsy herself brings a breakfast tray to the bride and groom staying the night.

Last summer, Patsy found she had lung cancer. After an operation, she's fully recovered, and, though she says the experience ``reminds you of your mortality,'' it did not have anything to do with the decision, made in April, to sell King Broadcasting.

Though the sisters took on important ownership positions on the board of KING in 1972, neither took it on as a full-time job, despite complaints by their mother that they weren't more involved. ``We were interested. It made good money, but we didn't turn our lives over to it. It's not like we grew up with King Broadcasting,'' Patsy says. Stim Bullitt became CEO at KING when their mother retired in 1962, but in 1972 the family divided the company, with Stim Bullitt assuming control on Harbor Properties, Patsy becoming board chair, and Harriet becoming chair of the executive committee. But the sisters had no intention of becoming their mother's clones.

``We had very different roles than my mother's role. No one associated us with that kind of authority,'' Harriet says.

Their mother did, however, give them business lessons. Harriet ticks them off: ``She taught us never to be late to a meeting - let the men be late because if a man is late, it means he's doing some important thing, but if a woman is late, it means she's out shopping or at the beauty salon. If you conduct the meeting, convene on time and close the door. If someone comes in through a closed door late, they won't be late again. And let men get up and go to the bathroom, but never you. Never lose your temper except when you decide to use it when you aren't angry.''

Patsy says, ``Because people didn't know her, they make up stories. That's too bad, because the true legend was better. She did not believe in liberal causes, though people think she did.'' At KING, she says, when reporters wanted to do a story, they'd say her mother was interested in it. ``It's natural, so she got a reputation for those things. They never asked her how she felt.

``In making up stories, they overlooked the real ones. She hated waste; a common scene in her office was of her soaking stamps off letters and reusing them. She laboriously cut names off letterheads and reused the paper. In the '80s, she was wearing shoes she'd had in World War II,'' Patsy says.

Her mother never, she adds, referring to one news account after the sale was announced, made eggnog. ``She would have had to break the eggs,'' Patsy says in mock horror. And children weren't her favorite thing, either. ``She never put our kids on her lap to read to them, much as we tried.''

Patsy says that since her mother died, there has been much written about how she didn't really like money, just public service. ``She did not put public service ahead of money; mother liked them both. She never had to choose, but you have to make a lot of money before you can do public service.''

As far as their relationship with their mother, Harriet says, ``She used to tell people she was proud of us. But she was very involved in her career. Nothing was more important than that. . . . I think she felt bad that she didn't have a good relationship with those who meant the most to her. But she had a very close feeling about each of us that was very different.''

Patsy puts it differently. ``To mother, family came first,'' she says, adding that that didn't mean staying home all the time. ``She was downtown, but whom did she love? The principle was that family comes first, though that doesn't mean acting on it.'' That's why, she added, her mother left her money to something the children had control over, the Bullitt Foundation.

She had little sentiment, the sisters say. She sold the family home; sold the Coliseum Theatre, for which her father had traded his mansion; sold her favorite old tugboat, the Stimson, which she loved; sold her boat ``the Mike'' (as in microphone), which she also loved. ``She was shrewd with money,'' Patsy says. She tells a story about a businessman who met with her mother at KING, and forgot his hat. He called later to say he'd come by for it, then added that he'd left his shirt there, too.

For that reason, they say, she would agree about selling the company to double the amount that would go to the foundation. The suggestion that they waited until she died to sell the company is ``gross,'' Patsy says. ``That goes back to people not knowing her. She liked money a lot, and the company made money. So she was happy, but if she thought she could make more by selling it, she'd gladly do it. Mother was not sentimental about property.''

The family controls 70 percent of the stock in King Broadcasting, and those family ties - and the ages of the major stockholders - prompted the decision to sell, Patsy says. The other facts of life are that none of the sisters' heirs are interested in taking over the business. One of Harriet's children is a full-time mother of three; the other is a pilot for Horizon Airlines. And Patsy's are: a bicycle repairman, a teacher at a school for the blind in California, and a student of ancient history. ``We did not want to impose on them or take advantage of them,'' Harriet says. ``It wouldn't be fair to them to be the third generation of a dynasty they were not close to.''

Harriet acknowledges that she doesn't like the loss of local ownership in flagship companies. ``We have no local banks - I hate that. There are grocery chains owned from outside. That's the way a lot of companies are going and I'm sorry about that, but I can't think of an alternative to offset the advantage of this sale. We don't have to sell, we aren't under pressure to sell. But there are needs the foundation could fill. Why wait?''

And Patsy says after the announcement that the company would sell, there were very few calls to KING from the public - only 12 to 15 in the weeks after the announcement. ``You want to know who this is of interest to? KING employees, the press and the environmentalists because of the money. The general public is not very fascinated. We get more calls about Susan Michaels and Jean Enersen's hair or why we were wrong about the weather.''

The sisters say the family obligation to the community is simply shifting to where it's needed: the environment, an issue they became interested in after seeing it destroyed.

In Woodinville in the 1930s, they both visited a bee farm out in what was then the country. ``I used to go sit in the woods with a friend and try to go to Nirvana,'' Patsy says. ``We'd close our eyes and say, `Ommm.' At our 50th reunion, we both remembered that and I asked her, `Did we really get there, to Nirvana?' And she said, `Yes, it's just that we never came back.' Now I go to Woodinville and I get lost. It's a suburb. Where's the little bee farm? This is very silly and romantic, I suppose, but it is a part of our life.

``When you see something and then it's gone, you say, `Does it all have to go?' ''