Remembering William Stevenson, Master of “Spycraft”

3 December, 2013

Time:  Summer, 41sZ9Tu0LUL._AA160_1976

Place:  Algonquin Hotel

I was a bright-eyed editorial assistant at Bantam Books, then a forward-looking mass market paperback global giant.  I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, learning my craft at the side of two brilliant senior editors.

Then came the summons. We were about to embark on one of Bantam’s first “instant” books, a journalistic feat in which a book actually broke news, and at the time, a truly novel concept.

More than 100 Israelis were being held hostage after a militant Palestinian group hijacked a plane.  As Israeli forces swung into action in a daring mission to free the hostages, journalist and spymaster William Stevenson was flown to Israel and given access to Israeli government officials and some hostages who were released before the raid.  The raid took place on July 4.  A few days later, I accompanied editor Jean Highland, one of my bosses, to a suite at the Algonquin Hotel, where Stevenson typed madly in the back bedroom, while we began whipping the manuscript into shape, literally as pages flew out of the typewriter.  At one point, I suggested what I thought was a brilliant organizational scheme for the book. Highland, a veteran of political books turned to me and said:  “Joelle, this is an instant book. We will do this the easiest and most logical way.” Thus, I learned one of the first of many important lessons in publishing.

90 Minutes at Entebbe was published on July 26, and became a huge international success.  It joined Stevenson’s recently released book, A Man Named Intrepid, at the top of bestseller lists.

I was so awed at having been given a chance to work on such an exciting book.  I’d left grad school for publishing, and at the moment, I never looked back.  Yesterday, fittingly, just as news of Stevenson’s death was released, I happened to be sitting in the Algonquin lounge, just a few floors below the suite where we had worked with Stevenson on that now legendary book, pinot grigio in hand, with a former Bantam Books colleague.  We were there to celebrate a new joint project, and at that moment, as the circle closed, I thought: life is perfect.

–Joelle Delbourgo