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Richard Halliburton: The Forgotten Myth

A brief, endless journey on the road to romance 

By Guy Townsend

This story first appeared in our August 1977 issue. Last year, Travelers Tales published a paperback version of The Royal Road to Romance.


“We all have our dreams.
Otherwise what a dark and stagnant world this would be ... Lord Byron once wrote that he would rather have swum the Hellespont than written all his poetry. So would I!

“Sometimes, once in a long, long while, sentimental dreams come true. Mine did, and it was as colorful and satisfying as all my flights of fancy had imagined it would be.”

— Richard Halliburton, The Glorious Adventure

 
Swimming the Hellespont, which Richard Halliburton did in 1926 in imitation of his hero Byron, was but one of the dreams, sentimental or otherwise, made real by the adventurer-writer in his brief, spectacular life. His exploits were featured on the front pages of local newspapers around the globe; his own accounts of his adventures were translated into virtually every major language. Between 1921 and 1939 he ventured the company of Borneo headhunters and heads of state, French Foreign Legionnaires and Devil’s Island convicts, Oriental sages, South American Indians, and subscribers to the Ladies’ Home Journal. In the end, his life and works were indeed as colorful as could be imagined; as for satisfaction, he might well have settled for a single Byronic stanza.

The second two decades of the twentieth century — the Twenties and Thirties — constituted perhaps the last age of adventure and conquest acknowledged by the modern world. It was the era of Lindbergh and Hemingway, of Babe Ruth and Rudolph Valentino. It was the era, too, of Richard Halliburton. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Halliburton is largely forgotten today. The exploits that made him famous in his lifetime are uncelebrated in his absence; his books, tremendous best-sellers in their day, are long since out of print. There are those who would argue that this circumstance is fitting enough for a man whose writings have as little relevance to the present-day world as an operator’s manual for a Stanley Steamer. Be that as it may, Richard Halliburton was in his own way a remarkable man who lived an interesting and eventful, if incomplete, life; and for a decade and a half, anyway, he was the most famous Memphian in the world.

Those who do find their way to Halliburton’s adventures today generally represent two widely separate segments of the reading public — older readers, who remember the man from his heyday half a century ago, and adolescent readers, whose minds and spirits are still attuned to the romantic and adventurous frequency on which Halliburton operated so enthusiastically. Indeed, Halliburton’s acquaintance is probably best made during adolescence, when the romantic urge is at its strongest, when the lives of adults seem to be endless drudgery at best. Halliburton represents — in his writing at least — an escape from all that, a casting off of tiresome responsibilities and mundane obligations, a carefree questing after the joys and adventures of life wherever they may be found, be it Borneo or Timbuctoo.

 

Richard Halliburton was born on the ninth day of the twentieth century in Brownsville, Tennessee; shortly thereafter he and his parents, Wesley and Nelle Halliburton, moved to Memphis. Richard briefly attended the Hutchison School for Girls, where his mother taught, and later was a student at the Memphis University School for Boys. Wesley Halliburton had hopes that his gifted son would attend his own alma mater, Vanderbilt, but Richard had his eye set on Princeton, and to further that end he was sent to prep school at Lawrenceville, a mere six miles down the road from the Ivy institution.

It was at Princeton, which he entered with the Class of ‘21, that Richard was first overcome by the wanderlust which was to dominate his life. At the end of his sophomore year he “ran away” to New Orleans, where he signed on as an ordinary seaman on a freighter bound for England. Life aboard the freighter was harder and much less romantic than the young man had expected, however, and he would have jumped ship when it put in at Norfolk, Virginia, but the Halliburtons were vacationing nearby, and Richard’s mother, insisting that he carry out his obligation to the captain, persuaded her son to return to the ship and complete the voyage. Halliburton later saw the incident as the turning point in his life.     

Richard spent the next several months walking about England and France, taking in all he could with seemingly boundless energy, and sailed home again in January of 1920. He returned to Princeton in the middle of the spring term, where his leave-taking and newfound worldliness earned him a mixture of envy, awe, and resentment. Halliburton sold his first piece of professional writing, an account of a hunting and fishing trip he took with friends to the Montana Rockies, which Field and Stream bought for $150. Richard had entertained the rather unlikely notion of spending his life traveling and adventuring about the world, supporting himself by writing about his activities. With the success of his first story, he determined not only that he could, but also that he would.

Richard had earlier made his most important determination, however — that he would never resign himself to the “even tenor” of life his father hoped he would settle into when his youthful exuberance was spent. He had written his father from Paris:

I hate that expression and as far as I am able I intend to avoid that condition. When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible. . . . And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills — any emotion that any human ever had — and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed . . . .

 

Upon his graduation from Princeton in the spring of 1921, Halliburton sailed for Europe, beginning his first trip around the world. Until such time as he began to sell his magazine articles, Richard was receiving an allowance of $100 per month from his father; Wesley Halliburton had also arranged for The Commercial Appeal to buy all the travel articles his son sent in at $35 apiece. After extensive, though uneventful travel in northern Europe and the Low Countries, Halliburton arrived at last in Zermatt, Switzerland, the site of his first genuine adventure (as distinguished from the ersatz adventures he created, on occasion, in order to add zest and excitement to his later writings). On September 23, 1921, Richard, in the company of a friend and two capable guides, began his ascent of the Matterhorn, arriving at the 14,701-foot summit just before noon on the following day. Richard had never climbed before, and that fact, plus the dangerous climbing conditions which prevailed so late in the season, combined to make his ascent of the Matterhorn a feat worth bragging about.

After further travels in France and Spain, Halliburton arrived in Gibraltar in January 1922, where he succeeded in getting himself arrested as a German spy by persisting in taking photographs of British installations after having been warned repeatedly that it was forbidden to do so. He was finally left off with a ten-pound fine. He did not have that much money himself, but he borrowed it from an acquaintance and quickly fled the island. (Halliburton’s personality inspired generosity in others, and he was never the least bit backwards in taking advantage of it.) After a brief stay in Egypt he traveled extensively throughout India, the high point of his Indian adventures being a midnight swim in the elevated pool before the Taj Mahal. Halliburton stretched his limited funds while in India by stealing free rides on trains — dodging conductors and, when necessary, lying about having lost his ticket. In fact, he seems to have held to the belief that when he committed crimes of this nature they were to be regarded as light-hearted pranks. From India he traveled considerably — and often dangerously — about Asia and on to Japan, where he scaled 12,700-foot Mt. Fujiyama alone in a season when the climb was regarded as impossible. He finally sailed from Japan as a seaman on the liner President Madison and arrived back in Memphis on March 1, 1923.

Of the dozens of articles he had written during his travels he had only managed to sell a couple to Travel and one to National Geographic, so after a brief visit with his parents he went to New York to try to sell his writings in person. His efforts were uniformly unsuccessful, and by early summer he turned in desperation to lecture agencies, finally being signed by the Feakins Agency. At last he began to turn his travels into profit, being booked for $2500 worth of lectures and quickly rising from 45th to sixth place on Feakins’ list of lecturers. The one drawback was that his busy lecture schedule left him with no time for turning his notes on his travels into a book. Finally he retreated to seclusion on Nantucket Island and had a breakdown of sorts before finally whipping the book into shape (in a sanitarium) by the year’s end. Even with the finished product in hand he had trouble selling it to publishers, who regarded it as sophomoric; finally, in April 1924, his Princeton connections, on which he relied heavily whenever possible, helped get the book accepted by Bobbs-Merrill, on the condition that it be pared down somewhat in size. The Royal Road to Romance (which Richard adamantly insisted the book be titled, over the strenuous objections of his publishers) was on its way to publication.

 

Even before the book was off the presses, Halliburton was on his way to his second round of adventures, this time to retrace the route of Ulysses as described in Homer’s Odyssey. He sailed from New York on the Mauretania July 4, 1925. It was on this trip that Halliburton re-enacted Lord Byron’s swim across the Hellespont (the Dardanelles). Halliburton made the crossing in two hours on August 11th. The swim, though certainly demanding, was hardly an extraordinary feat — it had been accomplished, unheralded, by a number of persons before. Halliburton managed to turn it into a publicity stunt nevertheless by having it reported in the U.S. that he had drowned in the attempt. Things did not work out exactly as planned, however, and Richard was able to clear his skirts only by dint of some dexterous misrepresentation.

It is somewhat curious that Halliburton would resort to exaggeration — and in some cases, fabrication — in the course of this and later travels. Most of his “adventures,” however shallow or contrived, were real — and perilous — enough. The Hellespont swim, for example, was not unique, but it was a genuinely brutal experience: the white-capped water was numbingly cold, and Halliburton emerged severely sunburned, suffering from nausea and exhaustion. Indeed, the author took incredible risks, albeit often unknowingly, and never avoided a physical challenge, whether it took the form of hostile Turkish troops, towering peaks, or cobra-infested jungles. Amazingly, till the end of his life, and especially in his most foolish exploits, Halliburton seemed protected as much by his innocence somehow as by his cunning and wit.

Richard was back in Memphis for Christmas, 1926. The Royal Road to Romance was out and meeting with decidedly mixed reviews. By the end of January, however, it had made the best-seller list, and by year’s end it had sold 100,000 copies. Halliburton’s lecture tour during this time was a fantastic success, and his 1926 earnings totaled $70,000 — quite a lot for a 26-year-old vagabond. August and September he spent holed up in his parents’ apartment in the Parkview Hotel (overlooking Overton Park) working on his second book. The book, which Richard entitled (again to his publisher’s embarrassment) The Glorious Adventure, was due at Bobbs-Merrill in November. It was published in May 1927.

Despite the celebrity and financial success he achieved during this time, Halliburton was the object of increasing critical disdain for the superficiality and shallow romance of his works. Though he repeatedly — and proudly — justified his adventures by claiming they were what the public truly desired — and he had the sales to back him up — Richard occasionally took on the mantle of self-doubt himself as to the worth of his writings. Some of his closest companions even chided him from time to time that he was wasting his talents, that he was capable of more significant contributions to the literature of the day. It was perhaps in response to this feeling that Richard sailed for England in mid-1927, where he spent several months gathering material for a biography of Rupert Brooke. Ironically, his hero’s mother proved to be one of the few elderly women alive capable of resisting Richard’s charms, and she absolutely forbade him to write about her son while she was still living. Halliburton returned to New York in October with masses of notes, but the biography was never written, not even after Mrs. Brooke’s death a short time later. Neither did Richard ever turn his hand to “serious” writing again.

Back in the U.S., Richard returned to the lecture circuit where his popularity was, if anything, even greater than before. Despite his substantial fees and the royalties from his second best-seller, however, he seemed to be perpetually broke. He could never explain even to himself where the money went. In 1928, he earned some money by endorsing Lucky Strike cigarettes, though he didn’t smoke, and his chaotic spending habits forced him to agree to another trip, despite a weariness of travel that had suddenly settled over him. Ladies’ Home Journal would pay him $3,000 apiece for ten articles on Latin America, which he could later rework into a book.

In April 1928, he sailed from New Orleans to Mexico, where he retraced on foot Cortez’ conquest of the country and climbed Popocatapetl. In the Yucatan he visited the ancient Mayan site of Chichen-Itza, where young virgins had been ritually thrown into the “Well of Death” to appease the rain god. Standing alone at the lip of the Well, 70 feet above the dark surface of the water, Halliburton was suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to experience what those maidens had felt centuries earlier; before he could think twice, he had stepped off the ledge and was falling. Later, climbing back up the cliff-like walls of the pool, he realized the romantic potential of his action. Also mindful of the skepticism with which some of his earlier feats had been greeted, Richard leapt again into the Well on the following day — this time with a camera faithfully recording the event.

For his next stunt, Halliburton swam the Panama Canal through the locks; though he made the swim in stages over eight days in mid-August, it was a difficult, and occasionally dangerous, feat which managed to bring him still more notoriety.

Breaking off his adventures in January 1929, Halliburton returned to the States to spend some time on the lecture circuit, where he now commanded a $900-per-week guarantee. His books also continued to sell at a brisk pace. After a hero’s welcome in Memphis in May, he went back on the trail again to complete his obligation to the Journal. That summer he spent several weeks at the infamous French Prison on Devil’s Island, living for a time as a prisoner, and for the remainder of his stay as a guest of the governor. He later stopped off on the island of Tobago, where he played Robinson Crusoe for two weeks, complete with a man “Tuesday,” before returning to New York in late August. Halliburton’s stories had increased the Journal’s circulation so much that the magazine gave him a $2,000 bonus, and he went into seclusion at an Atlantic City hotel to convert the articles into a book. Published in November 1929, it was entitled, in the unmistakable Halliburton style, New Worlds to Conquer.

 

The Great Crash of 1929 caught Richard Halliburton with $100,000 in the stock market, of which he lost more than 80 percent. Wesley Halliburton’s construction and real estate business in Memphis also suffered indirectly, and Richard felt he had to help his parents out. Unfortunately, the Depression was not a good time for book sales or lecture tours, either. New Worlds to Conquer quickly scaled the best-seller list, but even best-sellers weren’t selling particularly well. There was nothing left for Richard to do but mount yet another trip and write yet another book. Without much enthusiasm, he decided to fly around the world in a light plane, stopping for adventures at any likely places. Bobbs-Merrill liked the idea, and Ladies’ Home Journal tentatively agreed to buy another series of articles. The only problem with the plan was that Halliburton did not know how to fly and had no desire to learn. The problem was solved, but not without frustrations, by the hiring of an experienced young pilot named Moye W. Stephens. Richard scraped together enough money — in part by endorsing Chase and Sanborn coffee — to buy a Stearman two-place open cockpit biplane which he christened The Flying Carpet.

After numerous delays, The Flying Carpet began its adventures in March 1931, with extensive flights around North Africa, highlighted by a daring 1,300-mile flight across the Sahara and a visit to Timbuctoo, where Richard observed the workings of the slave trade. The Journal, in the meantime, backed out of its agreement to buy Richard’s stories, leaving him with no immediate source of income. At this point, however, Halliburton was too heavily committed to the trip to have backed out had he wanted to.

This downturn of luck was immediately followed by a series of near-disasters. Richard acquired a sunburn so severe in swimming across the Sea of Galilee that he had to be hospitalized in Jerusalem for a week. In Nepal he failed to secure his seatbelt and almost fell out of the cockpit when Stephens rolled the plane. Flying high up the slopes of Mt. Everest on his 32nd birthday, Richard nearly caused the plan to stall by standing up in the air stream to snap a picture of the summit. In Singapore he almost got himself killed by catching an anchor line in the propeller of the now pontoon-equipped Flying Carpet. Finally, in April 1932, after a pleasant bit of hobnobbing with headhunters in Borneo, the weary travelers headed home.

Halliburton returned to the U.S. not merely broke, but $2,000 in debt. Before returning to the lecture circuit, he spent several months at the Alexandria, Virginia, home of Paul Mooney, a younger writer he had met in California who would collaborate with Richard on the new book. Entitled, reasonably for once, The Flying Carpet, the book appeared in late November, 1932. This time out, the reviewers discovered in Halliburton’s accounts a new maturity for which they applauded him roundly. Unfortunately, the book market was still in a slump.

In 33 years of life, Richard Halliburton had not made a single move towards establishing a definite home for himself. In the spring of 1933, he made a tentative one by purchasing a dramatic ridge-top lot near Laguna Beach, California. This might also have been a hint of emerging maturity had the acquisition not been financially absurd. Halliburton could hardly afford the property, and the result was that he had to undertake another “adventure” in July; he was to be paid $200 each for 50 2,500-word newspaper articles. The trip took him from Baja, California, to the Caribbean, then on to Europe and Asia, where his most notable achievement was an exclusive interview in Siberia with a man who claimed to have overseen the execution of the Russian royal family and the disposal of their bodies. He also rode an elephant Hannibal-style across the Alps. By the time he returned in August, Richard’s newspaper articles had increased his popularity beyond anything it had ever been before, and he was once again in great demand for lectures. But he was tired, and he dreaded the work necessary for readying his new book, which he entitled (in a regrettable lapse into his old ways) Seven League Boots. He finished it, however, in a month’s visit to Memphis, and though it received generally favorable reviews, surprisingly it did not sell very well.

Richard was travel-weary at this point, and after a whirlwind lecture tour he took an apartment in San Francisco and settled for a while. In time, Bobbs-Merrill approached him with the idea of doing a book for children, combining adventure and geography, and Richard was taken by the idea, particularly since it would not require any additional travel. The book, to be called Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels, would be done in two volumes, one on the East and the other on the West. Halliburton spent the summer of 1936 working on it before resuming his lectures in the fall.

It was about this time that Halliburton’s attention first turned toward what was to be his last adventure. A friend gave him the idea of sailing a junk from China to San Francisco for the 1939 World’s Fair; the more Richard thought about the idea, the more he liked it. Such a scheme would cost far more, of course, than he then had access to, but the World’s Fair was still three years away, so he had time to work on the finances.

For the moment, Richard turned his attention to more immediate matters. He moved to Laguna Beach, brought his friend Paul Mooney out from Alexandria for companionship and assistance on the Book of Marvels, and turned at last to building a home for himself on the lot he had purchased three years earlier. The avant garde structure, which Halliburton dubbed “Hangover House” due to its position on the ridge, took 15 months to build and cost $36,000 — characteristically, almost four times the original estimate.

In October, Halliburton embarked on his 1936-37 lecture tour, leaving Mooney to complete the first volume of the Book of Marvels. Mooney finished in March, but Richard had to rewrite it because it smacked too much of Mooney and not enough of Halliburton. When the first volume finally appeared, sales were tremendous and the critics, for once, were virtually unanimous in their praise. Richard turned over the second volume of the Book of Marvels to Bobbs-Merrill in June 1937.

For the rest of the summer Halliburton concentrated his efforts on raising money for his upcoming ocean crossing. He was not very successful, and he was finally reduced to fund-raising among his friends and relatives, supplementing this by mortgaging his new house, and in effect, persuading several wealthy young men to pay for the privilege of accompanying him on the adventure. Finally, on September 23, 1938, Halliburton boarded the President Coolidge bound for Hong Kong.

After his arrival in Hong Kong, matters went  quickly sour. The Sea Dragon, as Halliburton christened the outsized junk he had specially built for the voyage, was poorly designed and constructed, and as usual, it cost far more than he anticipated. In addition, the captain Halliburton had hired, one John Wenlock Welch, turned out to be, in Richard’s words, “a regular Captain Bligh.” On top of all this there was some question as to whether the Japanese, who had already begun their aggressions in Asia, would allow the vessel to pass through their waters unmolested. Finally, however, the Sea Dragon sailed from Hong Kong on February 4, 1939, bound for San Francisco. Six days later she limped back into Hong Kong harbor for repairs and modifications. Two of Halliburton’s young patron-companions took advantage of the return to disassociate themselves permanently from the venture (as did Halliburton’s Phillipine cook), thereby saving their lives.

The Sea Dragon put to sea again on March 4th. It was last heard from, via radio, on March 23, 1939, encountering heavy weather near the International Dateline.

Inevitably, Richard Halliburton changed as he grew older, and the change was reflected in his writing. His critics applauded it as the tardy but welcome onset of maturity; Richard saw it, at times, as the loss of his joie de vivre. He rightly perceived, late in his still young life, a more significant change — a change in the world around him. The appetite of the public for his special kind of fare was waning — his “unreasoned thrills” were becoming less and less “irresistible.” The twentieth century was approaching its forties; the world was no longer young.

Richard Halliburton fulfilled in his lifetime what most of us only dream of in ours. In the process he brought a little adventure and excitement — and a little inspiration, perhaps — into a great many otherwise placid lives.


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