The Block Island Times

Mandela’s Block Island literary collaborator

William Phillips edited ‘Long Walk To Freedom’
By Robert Ellis Smith | Dec 13, 2013

One of Block Island’s seasonal residents has followed the funeral rites this past week of Nelson Mandela with special interest and a large sense of loss. He is William Phillips, a retired editor of Little Brown Co., book publishers, who edited and reshaped the historic figure’s autobiography while living in a rental home on the West side of the island in 1994.

At one point during the process, Phillips was sprawled on the floor in the tiny second-floor office that was in the same building as Harry’s restaurant, exchanging email with his collaborator in South Africa, former Time magazine editor Rick Stengel. Phillips even placed a call to South Africa from the pavilion of the Fred Benson Beach during what was to have been his Block Island vacation.

Phillips, now an independent book editor and “reshaper” living in Belmont, Mass., journeyed to Johannesburg in 1990 just two weeks after Mandela was released from the dreaded Robben Island prison.

He found Madiba (Mandela’s tribal name) “optimistic, funny, calm, gracious, and relaxed.” Phillips told The Block Island Times, “He certainly felt sorrow, anger and bitterness about how he and particularly his family were treated, but he transmuted those emotions by an extraordinary act of will into the positive emotions of forgiveness and reconciliation for which he is most famous. Personally, I never saw him other than cheerful.”

Later, Phillips met several times with the great man after he had become President of his fractured nation; the editor reported that Madiba’s demeanor remained the same. There was one exception: When, as president, he visited the White House guest house in Washington — Blair House — Mandela was in a serene private room surrounded by a noisy hubbub of security officers and news reporters outside. Phillips asked the President to review old photographs. Little Brown needed information for captions.

“At one point when he was staring at one picture,” Phillips recalled, “He got this incredible, far-away look in his eye, which seemed equal parts nostalgia and pain, and said, barely above a whisper, ‘I’ve forgotten so much.’ It seemed that he had tears in his eyes.” But it was dificult to tell, Phillips went on to say, because Mandela suffered eye problems  in the latter third of his life from damage caused when prison guards would not permit him to use sunglasses when laboring in the relentless African sun.

“This book has a long history,” Mandela wrote in the introduction to his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” now a major motion picture released just this week. “I began writing it clandestinely in 1974 during my imprisonment on Robben Island,” Mandela wrote — under the frequent guidance of Bill Phillips.

Mandela continued: “Without the tireless labor of my old comrades Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathhrada for reviving my memories, it is doubtful the manuscript would have been completed. The copy of the manuscript, which I kept with me, was discovered by the authorities and confiscated. However, in addition to their unique calligraphic skills, my co-prisoners had ensured that the original manuscript safely reached its destination. I resumed work on it after my release from prison in 1990.”

And that is when Little Brown selected Phillips to develop the book.

There could have been no greater choice to shape and structure a book. He has done this for comedian/author Steve Martin, White House aide George Stephanopoulos, and author Herman Wouk. (Sometimes one of his charges will show up on Block Island for consultation.)

Phillips famously rescued a long-awaited book on Winston Churchill when the author died before completing it. Malcolm Gladwell, a young writer for The New Yorker, who struck gold with his terse, innovative books, credits Phillips’ “Midas touch.” Gladwell has written that Phillips “deftly and thoughtfully and cheerfully guided this manuscript from nonsense to sense.”

Of his first visit with Mandela, Phillips recalled, “I went to see him very early one morning at the little house in Soweto, which at that time was surrounded by ‘caravans’ (trailers) filled with sleeping journalists from all over the world. We were let into the garden by a sleepy guy, and sat there all by ourselves for a while in total quiet, not a sign of a soul stirring. Mandela appeared on the porch by himself, beaming. He took my hand and said with that incredible warmth that everyone who’s ever met him can vouch for, ‘Ah, welcome, Mr. Phillips, I’ve heard many good things about you.’”

Phillips called this “classic Mandela graceful hyperbole, but it certainly had the intended effect.”

He said the two “talked for a while on that yellow leather sofa (see the photograph) about the book, and I fell forever under the spell of the most gracious, dignified, warm, funny, attentive, unpretentious, regal, and kind human being I’ve ever met. After we concluded a deal a month or so later, I would meet with him in New York a number of times, once in Johannesburg again, and would talk on the phone now and then.”

Philips was invited to the inauguration of President Mandela. Once, after introducing his son, Alex, to the great man in New York City, Bill heard Mandela say, “It’s such a pleasure to meet the son of such a famous man.” Mandela laughed as Phillips rolled his eyes. Mandela was decked out in one of his characteristic African shirts of splendid, vivid colors and patterns.

Beginning in 1980, Phillips, his wife, Gladys, their son, and their daughter, Chandra, began staying in a series of successively spectacular rented homes on Block Island. In 1997, they purchased a new home on the east end of Old Mill Road.

Bill and Gladys keep a low profile during their stays on the Island. You’ll find him piloting his moped around the island and spending time on the beach.

“I often thought,” Phillips said, “How different Mandela’s long experience with an island was from mine.”

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