Profile

A man who could well be called intrepid

Doug Fetherling November 3 1980
Profile

A man who could well be called intrepid

Doug Fetherling November 3 1980

A man who could well be called intrepid

Profile

Doug Fetherling

Some women at the next table are staring at the man with the black patch over one eye, thinking he’s somebody they should know. Finally their curiosity gets the better of them. “No, madam, I am not Moshe Dayan,” he replies in the nicest possible tone. “Nor for that matter am I an advertisement for Hathaway shirts.” Then he laughs. Who he is, rather, is William Stevenson, the former foreign correspondent who has turned author and written, among 10 books so far, A Man Called Intrepid, the best-selling story of another Canadian, Sir William Stephenson, who headed Winston Churchill’s intelligence operations in the Western Hemisphere during the Second World War. Introductions are made all around, and Stevenson returns to his lamb chops, pausing now and then to adjust the piece of cloth covering his left eye. “Damn thing’s a bit of a nuisance,” he says, laughing again. “Makes me look like Oakley Dalgleish.” The reference is to the onetime, one-eyed editor of Toronto’s Globe and Mail, where Stevenson worked for many semesters

during his long transition from newsman to bookman.

In 1949, when he was 24, Stevenson signed on with The Toronto Daily Star on the understanding that he could get inside what was now suddenly called Red China. He was one of the first westerners to report at close range the aftermath of Mao Tse-tung’s revolution. This led to his first book, The Yellow Wind: Travels in and Around China, and to a long career in the Far East, Africa, India and the Middle East—locales he has since been turning to good account in a series of increasingly successful nonfiction books and more recently in fiction as well.

“And then one day in 1956 I got back to Hong Kong from the mainland, picked up a copy of The South China Morning Post and saw a brief paragraph saying that H.C. Hindmarsh was dead.” Hindmarsh was the Star’s legendary editor. Although the two men had never actually met, they had enjoyed a good relationship based on memos (“Should we see Tito about Stalin?” “Yes, please. [ signed ] HCH”).

“In those days, you see, foreign correspondents were either eccentric Gordon

Sinclair types or else they didn’t exist at all,” Stevenson recalls. “Hindmarsh was different. He understood. When I read that he was dead I realized that I was dead, too—at the Star.” Yet he stuck around for several more years before being lured away to the Globe, “which Dalgleish was trying to make into something like the Manchester Guardian of North America.” This involved more globe-trotting (as well as a year “taking dictation” as an editorial writer) and led to his third book, Birds’ Nests in Their Beards, an inside account of Indonesian guerrillas fighting (at this time, unsuccessfully) to overthrow the government of President Sukarno. But the job at the Globe came to a bad end.

“As was the case with Africa in 196263, what I saw was not always what the liberals back at the office wanted me to see.” So Stevenson, a Londoner by birth and already experienced in television through Far East work for the CBC, went to Britain and was co-host of a public-affairs show called Dateline. Then, he struck out travelling again as Far Eastern bureau chief of the Near and Far East News Agency, a Third World wire service based in Kuala Lumpur. By this time he was already a legend, a movie stereotype come to life:

the hard-boiled China hand with passport always at the ready in the pocket of a khaki safari jacket he appeared to have been living in for years.

“He was always one of my great correspondent heroes,” says Charles Taylor, The Globe and Mail's former man in Peking, Nairobi and various points between. “I remember that he preceded me in Hong Kong, and that I sort of inherited the services of Ah Wong, his cook-boy. Bill had trained Ah Wong to be a bartender. The drinks he mixed were nothing short of incredible.” Incredible was what accountants also called Stevenson’s expense accounts. “My method,” says Stevenson, “was simply to add up at the end how much of the paper’s money I’d spent and then make up something plausible—or not so plausible. Once, coming home from India for the Star, I found I was still $50 short on the tally. So I listed two gurus for that amount. I attached a note saying that gurus were normally $35 a piece but that, being conscious of the Star’s economy drive just then, I’d made a special bargain.” The item was approved. Another famous Stevenson expense account included the following entry: “Helicopter crash, $22.” Says Stevenson: “Oh, it’s a very long story.” Until the 1970s, Stevenson’s books grew out of his assignments as a journalist. But in 1973 he published a more complex and thoughtful volume, The Bormann Brotherhood, which examined the supposed disappearance, after the Second World War, of Hitler’s chief of staff, Martin Bormann. It detailed how various other war criminals—part of a sophisticated network—had man-

aged to elude capture mainly by going to South America, some of them apparently with tacit help from the Vatican. It was a thorough, non-sensationalist book with frightening implications, and Stevenson pinned a lot of hopes on it. “But as it happened, the book appeared at the same time as two others on Bormann, one of whose authors actually claimed to have found him alive. Mine was lost in the shuffle. Inadvertently, I had ended up providing free research for many later books, like The Boys From Brazil.”

But the tale had a hidden blessing. In researching the Bormann book, he had renewed his acquaintance with Sir William Stephenson. Their paths had first crossed during the war, when the future author (along with Ian Fleming, Noel Coward, later Canada Council head Peter Dwyer and all sorts of other unlikely people) had done underwater espionage work for Stephenson. Now Sir William had retired to Bermuda, where the two men soon grew friendly. Stevenson decided to write Sir William’s biography. “It was just a labor of love,” says Stevenson, still amazed. “I thought the book would have a short life at best.” The book, of course, was A Man Called Intrepid, which brought Sir William, now 84, belated laurels as a hero, became a somewhat garbled television mini-series, and at last count has sold two million copies in a U.S. paperback edition alone.

Overnight, Stevenson became a bestselling author. That same year—1976—

the Israelis made their daring bid to free hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda, and Stevenson (who had already published two works on Israeli military affairs) was tapped by Bantam Books, the New York paperback house, to do the requisite instant book, itself quite a financial success. “I first talked with the publisher about writing it on July 3, the day the raid began,” he recalls. “They had the book distributed everywhere by July 27. A month later it was in translation.”

Another result of Intrepid was that Stevenson pulled up stakes in Toronto and moved to Bermuda. The decision, he insists, had nothing to do with his windfall and Bermuda’s reputation as a tax haven. It was a case, rather, of his wanting to be closer to Sir William and also of wanting to spend more time scuba diving and pursuing his interest in underwater archeology. “I have a serious back problem and I’m in pain most of the time,” he says. “The only relief I get comes when I’m underwater. So I try to swim and dive every day when I’m there-”

Then, last year, Stevenson was approached by representatives of a Texas oil millionaire named Jack Grimm, who planned to mount an expedition to locate the hulk of the Titanic, which went down off Newfoundland in 1912 with the loss of 1,500 souls and also, according to legend, a fortune in jewels and such. Grimm’s idea was to photograph the wreck, to retrieve the valuables if possible and, in any event, to market the story as a film and a book. Stevenson took on the literary end of the operation. While diving last August in the water above the wreck, he burst a blood vessel in his eye and now has only partial vision. The book, however, continues to be a live project.

“Originally, it was to be another quickie affair,” says Stevenson. “But it’s no longer a narrative, with a beginning, a middle and an end. I have the material for something more serious, something along the lines of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s book ostensibly about the astronauts. It sounds pretentious, I know, but what we had on the expedition was a cross section of America, from the hucksters to the serious scientists. I think I can really do something with it.” But then Stevenson’s writing has been undergoing a great many changes. Last month, he published his third novel, The Ghosts of Africa, set during the First World War, and he has two other works of fiction in various stages of undress. One is a novel about race relations in Bermuda; the other, a continuation of the Bormann book in another mode, centres on why the Allies didn’t bomb Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. (The reason, says Stevenson, “was the unspoken ele-

ment of anti-Semitism in the Allied Command.”)

On the surface of it, both would seem to have a certain potential for controversy, but Stevenson denies either is to be overtly political. Over the years, Stevenson has allowed himself to be associated with various conservative viewpoints. Yet he resists convenient pigeonholing. “I can’t see what the labels signify,” he says. “Fact is, I’ve always had very strong left-wing sympathies emotionally—with the labor unions, for instance. But what that does now is to put me in the camp of so-called

right. As far as I’m concerned, facts are sacred and opinions are none of anyone’s business. When I was in newspapers, an editor said to me, ‘You’ll probably end up one day in some cannibal’s cook pot because you insist on seeing both sides of a story.’ You see, I was usually only let into many of the Communist countries in the first place because I had a reputation as a straight shooter. I never had that much trouble with them. Except, of course, that time I was expelled from Yugoslavia. It was in 1949....”

This, too, is a very long story.