2012-12-30 Intrepid correspondent took risks for news Print E-mail
Written by Andrew Stevenson   

Intrepid correspondent took risks for news

The pilot and adventurer wrote best-selling books, met Mao Zedung and Ian Fleming and won accolades for his foreign reporting


Special to The Globe and Mail

December 30, 2013

William Stevenson became famous for writing A Man Called Intrepid, a real-life espionage story about a Canadian spymaster confusingly named William Stephenson (spelled with a "ph," not a "v"). The book was on The New York Times Best Sellers list for most of 1976. Among other things, it told of the Enigma code breakers at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, a story that was almost unknown until then. Mr. Stevenson followed that up in 1976 with 90 Minutes At Entebbe, the story of the daring Israeli rescue of hijacked hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda. There are many books on that subject; Bill Stevenson's was out first. He had many connections after having written two books on Israel, and he was tipped off about the raid.

"Big Daddy [a reference to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin] is in for a big surprise," was the message Mr. Stevenson received, according to his last book, Past to Present, A Reporter's Story of War, Spies, People, and Politics. Bantam Books told him to fly to Israel and write a book. "We avoid paperwork and save time by shaking hands at Grand Central Station," wrote Mr. Stevenson of the deal he did with his publisher.

He flew back to New York after the Entebbe raid on July 4, 1976, and holed up at the Algonquin Hotel with his son Andrew for company.

"Bantam had someone outside the hotel door and every 10 pages or so we would pass them out and they would be run back to the publisher for editing and typesetting," said Andrew Stevenson, a filmmaker who lives in Bermuda.

The book was finished in just over a week and was on the shelves in bookstores on July 26, a little more than three weeks after the actual raid.

Both his 1976 best sellers were made into big-budget movies.

The Henri in William Henri Stevenson's name was from his French mother, who moved to England as a nanny to a Viscount, and married a Scot, the radio officer on a merchant ship. Mr. Stevenson was born June 1, 1924, in the London district of Marylebone, posh now but not then. ("Not Posh" was a chapter in his last book.)

Mr. Stevenson won a scholarship to the East Ham Grammar School, the type of school that offered the same education as private schools. When he was 11, his class visited an airfield on Empire Air Day and he sat in a Tiger Moth biplane and vowed to become to a pilot. He got his wish and trained in a Tiger Moth during the Second World War.

He first started writing for the Boy Scout Magazine in Britain when he was 12 and was a King Scout, the top rating, at 16. He then became a junior reporter at the Leighton Buzzard Times, a local newspaper. During the early stages of the Blitz, when London was being heavily bombed, as a King Scout he volunteered as a fire spotter and bicycle courier for government agencies. He joined the Royal Navy at 17 in 1941.

Mr. Stevenson first came to Canada in 1942 as a trainee pilot in the Commonwealth Air Training scheme. He then went on to fly aircraft off British aircraft carriers. At first he flew Gloster Gladiators, old-fashioned biplanes that were vulnerable to German fighters but ideal for guarding convoys from submarines on trips to Murmansk, Russia's Arctic port.

Later, he flew Seafires, the carrier version of the Spitfire fighter, as a combat pilot. During the war, he flew some secret missions and first met William Stephenson, the man called Intrepid who would be the subject of his book more than 30 years later. He also learned about the code-breaking unit at Bletchley Park, where his father - the radio expert - worked.

After the war Mr. Stevenson wrote for provincial papers and then came to Canada and worked for the Toronto Star. Soon he was appointed a roving reporter for the paper and travelled the world meeting the famous, such as Jawaharlal Nehru of India, and the infamous, including Ramon Mercader, the man who assassinated the exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin's arch-rival, with an ice pick in Mexico. Mr. Stevenson brought along a photograph of the assassin's mother to verify his identity.

"I enter the assassin's jail cell, hold up the photograph and ask 'Is this your mother?' He leaps across the cell, clawing at my throat. Armed prison guards yank me out."

In 1950, he started covering the Korean War, and in 1952 won the Canadian National Press Staff Correspondents Award for foreign reporting from Korea. In 1954, while still writing for the Star, he began to file radio reports for the CBC.

Mr. Stevenson joined the CBC full time in 1957, when he was 33. He worked out of a small Agence France-Presse office in Hong Kong. Filing stories to newspapers could be done by cable, but TV was another story. Today a reporter in China can Skype live into a newscast. When Mr. Stevenson covered China, undeveloped television film and voice-over tracks on separate tapes were shipped back to Canada.

"Films and tapes are sent twice weekly by direct Canadian Pacific Airlines flights to Vancouver. Turbo-prop Britannias have cut the flight time down so that a tape recorded at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Hong Kong time, can be in Vancouver by 5 p.m. Wednesday, Vancouver Time," wrote Mr. Stevenson in the CBC Times in 1958.

In the early 1960s he began filing reports to The Globe and Mail. In January of 1961, the paper published a pamphlet with all of his foreign reports for the year and an analysis of Canada's foreign policy.

The CBC and Mr. Stevenson parted company in 1976, around the time he was writing his Entebbe book. Some people say other foreign correspondents, including those running the news service, were jealous of his literary success. The Globe and Mail was critical of his departure in a piece by John Ayre, published in the Weekend Magazine supplement in January of 1977.

"An author only the CBC could refuse. Despite his extraordinary connections with the Spy Network, super-reporter William Stevenson has been disconnected by the TV Network."

After leaving the CBC, he wrote full-time, publishing more than 20 books in his lifetime. During the 1980s, he and his family spent a great deal of time in Thailand, a period detailed in his book The Revolutionary King.

"Bill Stevenson was my boyhood idea of a hero. A pilot, a foreign correspondent, an adventurer who took risks. I was full of admiration for him," said John Polanyi, a chemistry professor at the University of Toronto and winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Dr. Polanyi got to know Mr. Stevenson in the past three or four years. He came to appreciate his self-deprecating humour. "He often treated his adventures and accomplishments as if they were a joke, but of course they were not."

In his long career - he never stopped working and writing - he met everyone from Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, to Mao Zedong. He didn't much like Fleming, but thought Mao polite, in spite of his fearsome reputation, when he responded to Mr. Stevenson's shaky Mandarin greeting with "I am Chinese," in perfect English.

Mr. Stevenson was 89, though his Ontario Health Card said he was 91 and he could never manage to get it changed. He leaves his wife, Monika, their daughter Alexandra, and his daughters Jackie and Sally and son Andrew. His son Kevin predeceased him.

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