“For God’s sake don’t mention this to anyone”

Making the news

In the first week of April the Alexander Turnbull Library received an unusual and interesting donation – a lively handwritten account by the New Zealand diplomat Richard Sewell about a famous episode in the 1979 hostage drama in Iran. Mr Sewell died in 1989 and the manuscript was donated to the Library by his partner, Grant Allen.

Grant Allen and David Colquhoun, Curator of Manuscripts at the Turnbull, complete the donation paperworkGrant Allen (right) and David Colquhoun, Curator of Manuscripts at the Turnbull, complete the donation paperwork. The manuscript lies on the right. Photographer: Mark Beatty.

There was huge media interest. No other single Library acquisition has ever achieved quite so much attention. Cameras from both main television channels were there, along with Radio New Zealand, commercial radio stations, and Fairfax newspaper reporters. Coverage went beyond New Zealand, with a feature article in the Guardian .

Some of the media scrum wait for their interview opportunitySome of the media scrum wait for their interview opportunity. On the right is Turnbull Chief Librarian, Chris Szekely. Next to him is Grant Allen, the donor of the manuscript. Photographer: Mark Beatty.

Questioning the story

The reason for such interest was that Sewell’s story gives a very different account of the events featured in Argo, last year’s hugely successful, Oscar-winning film. Argo is about how six American diplomats, who had escaped from the besieged US Embassy, were smuggled out of Iran under the disguise of being a visiting film crew.

It is very exciting film, but rather loosely based on actual events. The only mention in the film of New Zealand is a irritated aside from a CIA honcho that “The Kiwis turned them away” when the escapees were looking for somewhere to hide.

In fact the New Zealand diplomats in Tehran did no such thing. The main heroes in the real Argo story were the Canadian Ambassador and his staff, but the New Zealand Ambassador, Chris Beeby, and Sewell worked very hard to help the escapees, often putting themselves in danger.

Getting the facts

For those who do not rely on Hollywood films for history lessons the real Argo story has been well documented before. A very readable and well-researched account is given, for example, in the 2011 book Our Man in Tehran, by Canadian author Robert Wright.

There are several complimentary mentions in that book to the work of Beeby and Sewell. The Guardian also has a good summary of the film’s historical shortfalls.

Telling his tale

Sewell’s manuscript is short, just ten pages long, but does give new information and colour to what is already known. Here is the first page of the manuscript, when he wakes at 2am, after a hard night of alcohol-enhanced final planning with the hostages:

Page one of Sewell's diary. Reads, 'Two am. The alarm beside my bed is ringing. I lift my head off the pillow and put it down again quickly. Last evening's farewell was taking its toll. It had been an excellent dinner - quite emotional - and we had all enjoyed it. Now came the hard part. The escape. Would they make it? Were we all making a big mistake. Did ________ have enough guts [continues]' Richard Sewell, Personal account of events in Iran, page one. Ref: MS-Papers-11435.

The blanked name possibly refers to Robert Lucy, a Canadian diplomat who had done much of the detailed planning.

Later pages describe Sewell’s anxiety about whether the ambassadorial car would start, and his drive to pick up the CIA operative “Kevin”. Kevin was actually Tony Mendez, played in the film by Ben Affleck.

Mendez was not quite so cool in Sewell’s account, however. He had slept in, and “appeared bleary eyed, staggery, not together at all. ‘How late are we?’ ‘Almost 30 minutes!’ ‘Bloody Hell! For God’s sake don’t mention this to anyone’”. “And then”, Sewell continues,

we laughed and laughed as we both thought out loud about the folk back in Washington, at Langley, in Ottawa who no doubt were already biting their nails, counting the minutes, following our progress by remote control, worrying and waiting for Argot to run its course.

It is a colourful and colloquial read, effectively conveying the tension of that early morning on the streets of Tehran.

Gilding the lily

Sewell’s account stops at the airport, which will disappoint those who have seen Argo, for it is after that that the film launches into its wild action highlights. The escapees just make it to the plane as the Iranians frantically realise they have been duped. Excitement mounts as the plane roars down the runway with military vehicles racing after it.

That was all Hollywood hokum, of course. Nevertheless it was a very anxious time for the escapees as they moved through the various airport checkpoints. Sewell stayed with them, helping them through. It was a brave act, and an exciting episode in our diplomatic history.

The manuscript has been fully digitised and is available to read online.

The Library gratefully acknowledges Grant Allen, the copyright holder, who gave permission for the Library to make the manuscript available on our website.

By David Colquhoun

David Colquhoun is a freelance historian and curator. For 25 years he was Manuscripts Curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library. During 2014-2016 he is an Adjunct Scholar at the Library, working on several research projects based on the Library’s collections.

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Ariana Tikao April 13th at 7:38AM

Great blog and fantastic story, David! I saw the film Argo with my son over summer and it was a very dramatic account of this hostage story. It is great that through the donation of this diary, a fuller picture will now be known.