January 22, 2021
I learned today of the death of Harold Stephens, a business partner and a good and generous friend. Steve, as we all called him, died at his home in Bangkok in the company of his wife Michelle. Steve was a skilled and disciplined writer who lived the most adventurous life of anyone I ever met. And, amazingly, given his charisma, he was not a drunk, a blow-hard or an arrogant jerk, though at first, I will admit, I feared he might be all of those.
He came into my law office one day in the early 90’s, though why he came, I cannot remember. We hit it off and talked for an hour or more. He told me he and his wife Michelle, had recently moved to Miranda from Bangkok so their three sons Paul, John and Tom could attend South Fork high school. Why Humboldt? Steve knew the area because his son from his first marriage, Peter, was already living in Humboldt, and still does.
At that time, Steve would have been well into his sixties. He was stunningly handsome and unwilling to reveal his age, though he did drop a clue: he had lied about his age, he told me, to get into the Marines near the end of WWII. He had seen combat in Asia and was stationed on Okinawa preparing to invade Japan when the atom bomb brought the war to an end. He said that he had met Hemingway in a bar somewhere; in Tahiti he knew Marlin Brando and had appeared as his double in a few scenes in Mutiny on the Bounty. He claimed to have traveled alone through the Soviet Union in a Jeep. He said that he and Albert Podell had driven around the world in a Toyota Land Cruiser; they had written a book about it called Who Needs a Road? The book was out of print, but in the late sixties, when it first came out, he and Podell had appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show. As an undergraduate at Georgetown, he claimed to have met Jackie before she became a Kennedy. “A rather plain-looking girl,” he told me. As if that were not enough, he swore he had worked out with Kirk Douglas in LA, and had spent enough time in Bangkok with the writer Gore Vidal to be certain that he was an arrogant jerk.
Seated behind my desk that day, I thought: this guy is so full of crap I’m surprised it’s not oozing out his ears.
The next time he came by, Steve claimed he was the travel editor for the Bangkok Post. I had never heard of the paper, but he said it was the most widely circulated English-language newspaper in Asia. He also claimed to be the travel correspondent for Thai Airways International. He wrote for their in-flight magazine and he could fly for free wherever he wanted. He told me he had personally built and still owned a fifty-seven-foot schooner called Third Sea. He said that he had sailed it all over the south Pacific and that it was presently at anchor somewhere off Kuai.
Seated behind my desk, I thought—well, I’m not sure what I thought at that point.
The next time he came by, Steve brought me two books he had written: At Home in Asia and Return to Adventure Southeast Asia. They had been published in Thailand but he believed he was being screwed by publishers there. Knowing that I was a lawyer, and sort of a writer, he proposed that he and I along with his nephew Robert Stedman, a photographer and designer living in the Singapore, start a publishing company. Steve had a novel he wanted to publish, and so did I. A passionate reader as well as a writer, he spoke enthusiastically about Conrad, Somerset Maugham and James Michener. The problem was that I knew nothing about running a publishing company, and neither did he or Robert. Steve was not deterred. The company would focus on books about Asia, he said. The books could be printed in Asia at minimal expense, and would mostly be sold there. Robert wanted to call the publishing company Wolfenden because the name sounded English, and although people in Asia hated the English, Robert thought they had an inherent respect for anything that sounded English.
Well, I thought, why not?
The first book we published was Mario Machi’s Under the Rising Sun. Mario had written a version of his memoir about the Bataan death march and his life as a Japanese prisoner of war, but Steve thought it could be made better. We met with Mario, got hold of his diary, did some research, assembled some photographs, and helped Mario create a new and, I believe, better book. We eventually sold every printed copy of Under the Rising Sun but it is still available as an e-book and readers continue to enjoy it.
After much labor we eventually acquired the rights to Who Needs a Road? the story of Steve’s and Al Podell’s motor journey around the world that had been out of print for several decades. Our publication with an introduction by Al went through several printings. Used copies can still be found and it is also still available as an e-book.
Between 1994 and 2019, Wolfenden published more than fifteen titles, the majority of them written by Steve including The Voyages of Schooner Third Sea, which tells of the adventures he had on his sailing vessel. The schooner, unfortunately, was destroyed in a hurricane off Hawaii a short time after we met.
Harold Stephens and I were not talented publishers. Stories and the writing of them were our passion, publishing books and promoting them were more burdensome. Robert Stedman stepped out of the company shortly after it began, though he has designed the covers and layouts of all the books, and has often overseen their printing. Most were printed in Asia, as Steve had suggested. To save money and hassles with customs, Steve would haul them to Garberville as luggage on his flights, sometimes hundreds of pounds at a time. I would arrive at my office and find boxes of books that had not been there when I left the night before; and I would know that Steve would soon be by to share a story or two.
He and Michelle returned to Bangkok soon after the boys graduated from high school, though they continued to make regular visits to Humboldt. Our house is sprinkled with gifts Steve and Michelle brought us from Asia. During the course of our long friendship, he showed great grace and generosity toward our family. My daughter Kate visited Steve and Michelle in Bangkok and Steve took her by train through Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore. When our son Ahry seemed to have disappeared the first time he went to Asia—a trip inspired, no doubt from his knowing Steve and reading his books—I emailed Steve and he and his sons soon had people all over Asia looking for the young man. It turned out Ahry was having too much fun diving off some remote island of Indonesia to post anything to his parents.
So, gains and losses, coming and goings. And rich memories today of Harold Stephens. Sail on, Steve. I wish you calm waters and a favoring wind. And thanks for the stories.