CANADIAN JOURNALISM'S JAMES BOND
Despite its home sprawling along a costly stretch of a major street, there is almost a hush around giant St. Paul's Bloor Street, which some call our national cathedral.
It has an aura of greatness and history.
A suitable setting for a service of thanksgiving and remembrance for William "Bill" Henri Stevenson who reported with insight, dash and diligence on the shadows of espionage and the famous on the world stage, from the royalty of throne, politics and theatre to cruel dictators.
Outside is the "cross of sacrifice" monument of The Queen's Own Rifles because this is the mother church of the regiment with a name from past wars.
The Empire still lives within these soaring walls and arches. One of its magnificent voices thunders from the famous century-old pipe organ. The "new" church is also a century old, with the first two "low" Anglican churches that began in Toronto's baby days joined like stone Siamese twins. They are the creations of John Howard, of High Park, and Edward Lennox, of old City Hall and the Casa Loma built by a St. Paul's parishioner.
Yet we come not to remember the rich who could fund a regiment for the War To End All Wars but a man who lived such a rich life in war and peace that no one knows all his stories, just the ones he chose to share in best-sellers and in yeoman's service as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto media.
The service follows a 500-year-old tradition in the chapel under the Maple Leaf and Union Jack. There are only about 100 here, because Bill was 89, an age when you have outlived friends and colleagues, but not your fame. Yet there are those in the modest gathering who have won a Nobel, married into the Supreme Court, been a major councillor, and have been midwife to famous books.
We begin, naturally, with the Royal Naval Hymn, written in 1860 (after the first St. Paul's was built here in 1842) a prayer in music based on Psalm 107 that is uttered by all who love and fear the sea.
"Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee
"For those in peril on the sea!"
Bill was 17 when he became a pilot in the Royal Navy. The appeal of those repeated lines made this his favourite hymn, and when he sang, he remembered when his comrades in arms burned below him in the wreckage of Spitfires in the cold Channel, when all that stood between England and Hitler's deadly insanities were that Channel, the ringing words of Churchill, and the sacrifice of kid pilots.
We sing quietly, even the mighty organ is muted. Then friends and family speak, but their words are swallowed in the expanses.
There is some Kipling, of course, because we are honouring a man whom Kipling would have treasured. His wonderful lines may be corny to some because they don't understand his era. Yet many of us this afternoon can recite those lines even if we can't quite hear them.
"...walk with kings, nor lose the common touch..." could have written about Bill.
He did walk with kings and just about everyone of note for several decades because he had the curiousity and even the impertinence of the great journalists. He covered the greats. He was always surprising with an anecdote about that. Like the time he told me about being a kid wandering East London looking for the orchestra conductor whom he thought was great. He knocked on the door. A pretty 16-year-old girl answered and was floored when Bill said he was really there for her father. After all, Dame Vera Lynn, the Sweetheart of the Forces, one of the most distinctive voices of war, was already famous because she had started performing at 7.
Somewhere, I suspect, Bill right now is humming We'll Meet Again, her anthem of hope, probably encouraged by another veteran of two wars, Peter Worthington, his old friend. That is if they have stopped yarning.
When Bill wandered the world as foreign correspondent, manoeuvring around officials who hated the free press as much as they feared their "beloved" leaders, he kept bumping into the famous, literally.
He told me that when he was on the Great Wall filming some official function as the first western reporter inside Communist China, he was helping his CBC camerman back up to get a long shot. Bill kept bumping into someone and finally, exasperated, he swore and whirled to confront a startled Mao.
Bill's wife Monika has a variation, which happens with a writer with 70 years of anecdotes stored in his head and in the study and attic of their lovely big house. Her story has a figure continually blocking the camera shot and when Bill remonstrated loudly the man turned and it was Mao.
The confrontation ended with polite bows, because Bill could be a diplomat as a correspondent. He needed to be to arrange for the Chinese to release Andy Mackenzie, a Canadian squadron leader who they had pretended was dead and not a prisoner there. He rewarded them in his Page 1 Star story by praising their help.
He persuaded Tito, the boss of Yugoslavia, to help hundreds of former immigrants from his country to return to Canada even though Stalin had had their passports confiscated.
Bill spent years with King Bhumibol of Thailand coaching him with his memoirs and later writing one of his 20 books about the experience. His tale of the "revolutionary king" was controversial, which was nothing new when it came to the torrents of words from his typewriter. Those words were translated into many languages, for example his long interview with Ho Chi Minh in the middle of that war has been translated into Vietnamese and is on the school curriculum there.
At one point, as Toronto Sun Editor, I hadn't heard from Bill for some time even though he graced our pages for about a decade. When I tracked him to the royal suite in the International Hotel in Bangkok, he explained he hadn't written because he had been advising the king about how he should handle a "difficulty" with the army, an incident reported widely. He didn't think it appropriate to comment in print when he had played such a role. We settled for him writing in general terms which didn't praise what the king had done.
The last words of remembrance this day come from Monika. She speaks in a clear and firm voice, just what you would expect when she had been an award-winning TV producer with 60 Minutes. Her words do not float away.
She emphasizes "the most important influence in Bill's life, (the) one that made him such an extraordinary human being. That influence was his experience as a naval pilot during WWII when he saw most of his comrades killed. When a pilot died there was nothing to do but drink to his memory and get on with the job." Bill had written, she said, that this drove him 'to justify being alive. I swore to the memory of lost comrades.' She said proudly that Bill "kept that oath. It became part of his psyche and guided his life and work - guided it when he took on the most dangerous missions - something he never talked about, not even to me, because he never broke his personal secrecy oath."
Monika's description of how Bill had been marked by war returned me to my first years as a Telegram reporter, when I was surrounded by men who had been to war. There was a steely determination to them. They had hearts of fire
Monika tells a war story I have never heard, a true thriller that would make a book and movie better than the last fiction written by Bill's friend and diving buddy, Ian Fleming. She said "Bill singlehandedly blew up a ship of high level Nazis trying to escape to South America just after WWII ended. The details are hair raising. No one expected him to survive."
Monika only knew because Sir William Stephenson, the Winnipeg millionaire who was the espionage spymaster genius behind the Allied victory, told her. There is no mention in Bill's huge bestseller, A Man Called Intrepid, which became the movie with David Niven playing Sir William. ( I blogged about it on Nov. 10, 2012.)
She had asked Intrepid about an elite private honour that he had given Bill. He replied that it hadn't been awarded for the reason she thought. It had to do with Bill donning the SCUBA gear that was developed in World War Two (but was not yet perfected) to dive to fasten a limpet mine to the hull of the ship commandered by the Nazis..
There is some stirring along the pews. It is news to us, and almost to Monika.
The Stevensons, Mary and me, and the Thai ambassador to Canada, watched Nureyev in The King and I, the musical about the king when Thailand was Siam. Then Nureyev came back to Rosedale for dinner.
I asked Bill how he became friends with the famous egotist who had once been the world's leading ballet star. He said cryptically that he had helped him defect from the Bolshoi and the Soviet Union. (Monika knows no details. )
Bill then suggested I pretend I had something to do with books because Nureyev was furious with his Sun review.
Nureyev held court, talking easily about the greats. There was a knock, and since everyone was busy, I answered and found Liona Boyd, the noted guitarist who was dating Prime Minister Trudeau. She told me she had been at a Rolling Stones concert at the Ex and invited Mick Jagger for dinner too. (She uses his tropical retreat.)
Jagger never showed. Turned out when his limousine drove up, he demanded to know who was using the limousine already there.When he was told it was Nureyev, he cursed and was driven away.
I never knew why the singer hated the dancer. So I asked Maybarduk-Alguire at the reception after the funeral. Her explanation was that the two had been lovers, and she knew that because once at an exclusive Parisian club, she had watched them in a lengthy close encounter..
Just another dinner at the home of Bill and Monika where once, she said, Nurevey had summonsed by phone most of the Kirov Company who showed up later in the evening after flying in.
Bill was so used to the intricacies of the shadow world, of agents, Enigma, ciphers, and deadly secrets, that he seemed to talk in code. If he shared, a sparse anecdote might emerge in dribbles.
Some of this grew from that time of slogans like "loose lips sink ships." when gossip could kill. Later there were the doubters, and problems he blamed on stolid bureaucracy and surveillance by the CIA, for example when he and Monika were writing about war prisoners, whether POWs or MIAs, that the Americans left behind in Vietnam. In their book, they talk about the official pressures and thank those, including me, who weren't intimidated.
His friends and some editors thought they were paranoid, except after the most recent revelations, it is obvious they would be early targets of that massive American electronic spying.
You're telling me that the president is wiped out by Alzheimer's, I asked? Bill said Perot was convinced. A huge world scoop that Bill never wrote, because who would believe us. Now, because of what followed afterwards, it is probable that even before his second term ended, the president was burdened, if not wiped out, by that dread aging of his memory. His aides and Nancy were running the country, just like the wife had acted for Woodrow Wilson.
And now we also realize it is probable that the Stevensons were being wire tapped in Toronto because of what they were researching about the U.S. military. Ironically, Bill was better connected to more spies than most of the snoopers.
For example, he was an ardent defender of Israel. He was able to call anyone at any time, from the Mossad commander to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After all, he had written 90 Minutes at Entebbe detailing how the PM's brother, Yonatan, became a national hero as the only Israeli who died in the raid. He wrote how the PM is a wounded veteran of several special forces operations.
Once when Bill was being given the lengthy difficult interview that anyone different gets entering Israel, he brought it all to a sudden halt when he noticed the security official had the Entebbe book open on his counter. He thumped his picture on the back cover. No wonder he was able to produce that best-seller so quickly that the entire world noticed, including, again, the New York Times.
After the funeral, I didn't forget that mystery of Bill blowing up Nazis. Few would! I probe Monika for details. What date? Where? Was it a Greek ship? Whose waters was it in? How many Nazis? How many died? How did Sir William and Bill find out? I am not alone in my questions since a noted professor and historian, Irving Abella, is intrigued too and joins in. There are no details.
There is a familiar verse from Timothy in the funeral program. "We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord have taken away."
Bill has not carried anything away, but he has left behind secrets, some known to few even inside the worlds of intelligence. And there, in the official intelligence establishments, there are hot jealousies over success because there are so many failures. There are firestorms over what is reality and what is myth. Blowing up that ship in the finest James Bond tradition is just one mystery that I hope is fleshed out. I wonder if even Fleming knew about it, whether it came up after the day's dive by the two experts off of Jamaica's north shore, when the neighbour, Noel Coward, came over because, as he had revealed to the world in the early 1970s, through Bill naturally, Fleming had trained him as a spy.
As this sad day ends, there is a solemn moment, a return after seven decades to the mournful custom that Bill and other survivors followed after every dogfight. They drank a fiery shot of British navy rum to the memory of dead comrades.
Monika asks me to give this toast. I keep it simple. It is not a moment for eloquence because none is needed in such a tradition. You select words with care when you honour a word warrior.
I joined the RCAF reserve when Korea flared because I thought, as in Revelation, that it was always going to be war and rumours of war. Just in case, I wanted to be in planes, not trenches. And here I am in 2013, 60 years later, from the lowest rank, honouring a man who was being shot at when I still was playing tag.
As Tennyson wrote, "the old order passeth."