Mandela’s Literary Editor


By Robert Ellis Smith

One seasonal resident of tiny Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island is following Nelson Mandela’s funeral rites 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 during what was to be his 1994 beach vacation.

At one point during the process, Phillips was sprawled on the floor in a tiny second-floor office, exchanging emails with Mandela’s collaborator in South Africa, former Time magazine editor Rick Stengel. (There was no high-speed phone service at the residence his family was renting.)

Phillips, now an independent book editor and “reshaper” living in Belmont, Mass., journeyed to Johannesburg in 1990 to meet with Mandela just two weeks after he was released from 27 years of dreaded prison life.

He found Madiba (the leader’s clan name) “optimistic, funny, calm, gracious, and relaxed.” Phillips told World Policy Journal, “He certainly felt sorrow, anger and bitterness about how he and particularly his family was 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.”

Of his first visit to 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.’  Classic Mandela— graceful hyperbole, but it certainly had the intended effect.

“We talked for a while on the yellow leather sofa 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.

“We met once in a dreary airport motel at Kennedy Airport in January 94…, as he was waiting out a layover on a flight from a vacation in the Bahamas back to South Africa to campaign for the election in May. Mandela was totally relaxed and at his best and most informal. No one knew he was there so it was just Mandela, Rick, me, and one security guy. We shared tuna sandwiches. Madiba swiped my potato chips when I wasn’t looking, truly. We simply chatted about this and that. I remember particularly his talking enthusiastically about Margaret Thatcher, who was a political enemy if ever there was one, but nevertheless someone he admired for her strength of character and the sincerity of her beliefs.”

Phillips was invited to the inauguration of President Mandela in May of 1994. Later, Phillips met several times with the President of the 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, Blair House, Mandela was in a serene private room surrounded by a noisy hubbub of security officers and news reporters outside. Phillips met him there and 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 faraway 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 you couldn’t really tell because he suffered eye problems in the latter third of his life— damage caused when prison guards would not permit him to use sunglasses while laboring in the relentless African sun.

Once, after introducing his son Alex to the great man in a New York City hotel room, Phillips heard Mandela say, “It’s such a pleasure to meet the son of such a famous man.” Mandela laughed as Phillips rolled his eyes. Sporting one of his characteristic African shirts of splendidly vivid colors and patterns, the President turned to Alex to ask the 24-year-old about his future plans.  

 “This book has a long history,” Mandela wrote in the introduction to his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, now a major motion picture. “I began writing it clandestinely in 1974 during my imprisonment on Robben Island.” Mandela spent 18 years in the brutal island compound.

“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 actor Steve Martin, White House aide George Stephanopoulos, and author Herman Wouk.

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.”

Beginning in 1980, Phillips, his wife, Gladys, their son, and their daughter, Chandra, began staying in a series of rented homes on Block Island, 12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island in the Atlantic Ocean.  In 1997, they purchased a home there. “I often thought how different Mandela’s long experience with an island was from mine.”



Robert Ellis Smith, a veteran journalist, has published the monthly newsletter Privacy Journal since 1974. It covers new technology and its impact on personal privacy. He also regularly publishes Compilation of State and Federal Privacy Laws, recognized internationally as the most authoritative source of U.S. and Canadian laws on privacy.

[Photo courtesy of Peter Magubane]

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