As most folks in America know, the film Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday night. Its fictionalized parts have already been widely discussed, and criticized, but TIME has a particular perspective on them, having had a front row seat to many of the events.
Within a month of the hostages being taken in November 1979, inquiring minds in Washington with access to diplomatic staff directories realized there was a discrepancy. The Iranians only had 50 of the 58 embassy employees (two of their captives were not embassy workers but Americans visiting the embassy at a particularly bad time). By December both TIME and Newsweek were contemplating cover stories showing individual photos of all the embassy staff and were asking the State Department about the discrepancy.
After a request from State, TIME decided not to publish the individual photos. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance personally called Newsweek‘s publisher, Katherine Graham, but to no avail: Newsweek published its cover shortly thereafter. It became an open secret in Washington that the Canadians were harboring the six missing Americans.
Meanwhile, TIME’s correspondent in Tehran at the time, Bruce Van Voorst – who had accompanied Ayatollah Khomeini back to Iran from Paris and was at the embassy the day after it fell – had gotten to know Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. “Early on, he told me if you ever get in trouble, call me,” Van Voorst recalls. “He took a real risk and really kept their secret.” Says Van Voorst: “I was really distressed about [the movie’s] failure to give Ken Taylor his due. I got to know Ken during this period. I would see him in his capacity as ambassador and quickly learned how astute and competent he was.”
Van Voorst visited Taylor in the residence at least three times, and Taylor managed to keep the presence of the hostages secret. “We would exchange tidbits on what we knew – he on the diplomatic situation, while I told him what was going on in the streets where I, wearing my newly purchased Iranian surplus military trousers and jacket, spent much of my time.”
Van Voorst was finally ejected from Iran three days before TIME named Khomeini Man of the Year in January 1980.