Between the wars, few young American boys would not have read at least one of Richard Halliburton’s books. Chronicling his remarkable exploits and daring escapades, Halliburton travelled across the globe, undertaking and invariably completing labours that would have put Hercules to shame. Born in Brownsville, Tennessee on 9th January 1900, at first, Halliburton’s slight frame and fragile constitution made him appear to be an unlikely adventurer; however, he forbade any physical limitations from inhibiting his formidable character.
From Paris, where Halliburton spent several months in 1919, he replied to his father, who had written to express a desire for his son to adopt a more ‘even tenor,’ that instead, ‘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.’
After returning to America, Halliburton graduated from Princeton in 1921, and briefly toyed with the possibility of becoming an academic, but his unsatisfied wanderlust soon put paid to such ambitions. In September 1921, he climbed the Matterhorn before heading to Gibraltar, where he managed to get himself arrested on suspicion of being a German spy. Egypt and India were his next ports of call; he saw the Taj Mahal and then went on to Japan, where he scaled Mount Fujiyama, before arriving home in Tennessee on 1st March 1923.
Realising that people would pay good money to hear about his incredible experiences, Halliburton gave a series of lectures and in 1925, published his first book, The Royal Road to Romance. Summing up his attitude to life, and the path he had chosen for himself, he claimed in the text, ‘Youth – nothing else worth having in the world…and I had youth, the transitory, the fugitive, now, completely and abundantly. Yet what was I going to do with it? Certainly not squander its gold on the commonplace quest for riches and respectability, and then secretly lament the price that had to be paid for these futile ideals.’ For good measure, he attempted to paint himself in a rebellious light, adding, ‘Let those who wish have their respectability – I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic.’
Departing from New York on 4th July 1925, Halliburton was already planning his next book, for which he had decided follow in the footsteps of Ulysses, as depicted in The Odyssey. Not only did he emulate Lord Byron and swim the Hellespont, Halliburton, who had long been an admirer of Rupert Brooke, also journeyed to the poet’s grave on the island of Skyros.
The description of this visit, as recounted in The Glorious Adventure, published in 1927, reveals Halliburton’s personal feelings and affection for Brooke’s poems and for the poet, whom he clearly believed to be a kindred spirit. Indeed, Halliburton admitted, ‘just as he had never been a dead poet to me, so had he never been a stranger,’ for he thought that ‘I had scarcely a friend about whose mind and heart I knew as much as I felt I knew about Rupert Brooke’s, and I had learned it all from the small volume of his poems which I had that moment in my pocket.’
It was then that Halliburton became convinced he must travel to England to meet with Brooke’s mother, as well as friends and contemporaries of the poet, including Virginia Woolf. Halliburton remained true to his word, and also met Noel Olivier, who was struck by how he had approached her ‘made-up’ to resemble her former flame. Mrs Brooke was less than impressed and refused Halliburton’s proposal for a biography of her son, although his notes would eventually be used by the Canadian novelist Arthur Stringer for his 1948 book about the war poet’s life, Red Wine of Youth.
Back in America, it would seem that Halliburton’s writing career was beginning to take off, with The Royal Road to Romance being listed as a best-seller in January 1927. He continued to give lectures, as well as write for several publications, such as Ladies’ Home Journal, which commissioned a number of articles about Latin America. In April 1928, with the intention that these articles would form the basis for his next book, New Worlds to Conquer, Halliburton set off for Mexico and it was on this trip that he performed and accomplished one of his most spectacular feats – swimming the Panama Canal. Halliburton classified himself as a ship and, as the toll was calculated by weight (he weighed only 140 pounds) paid a mere 36 cents. Since then, no-one else has succeeded in swimming the canal’s entire length, which totals over 50 miles.
The Wall Street Crash of October 1929 adversely impacted upon Halliburton’s financial security, and as a result, he was compelled to travel for another book almost immediately afterwards. Despite not knowing how to fly a plane, Halliburton refused to let such a minor drawback stand in his way, insisting that he was ‘going to fly across deserts, over mountains, rescue imprisoned princesses and fight dragons.’ To assist him with his new venture, he hired Moye. W. Stephens to pilot his plane, The Flying Carpet, which set off for North Africa in March 1931. The high point of his trip was a flight over Mount Everest, on which another of his heroes, the mountaineer George Mallory, had met his death in 1924. A book, named after the plane, appeared in print in November 1932.
Several months later, in early 1933, Halliburton purchased what was to be his first and last home in Laguna Beach, California. The purchase necessitated further articles and in July 1933, he left for Europe, where he crossed the Alps on an elephant and also interviewed a witness to the execution of the Romanovs in 1917. A product of these trips was his 1935 book, Seven League Boots.
Accompanying Halliburton of his travels was his companion and ghost-writer, Paul Mooney, with whom he was now living in his Californian property which the pair had christened ‘Hangover House.’ It has long been speculated that Halliburton and Mooney were in fact lovers, something that has apparently been verified by Gerry Max in his 2007 biography, Horizon Chasers: The Lives and Adventures of Richard Halliburton and Paul Mooney.
In 1936, Halliburton was approached to write a set of children’s books, one about his journeys west, the other east; the two volumes, Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels: the Occident and Richard Halliburton’s Second Book of Marvels: the Orient, were published in 1937 and 1938 respectively. By then, Halliburton had embarked on what was to be his ultimate adventure. To celebrate the San Francisco World’s Fair, he resolved to arrive from Hong Kong by Chinese junk, in order to herald the occasion in his inimitable style. Appealing to other audacious young men to join him and Mooney as crew members, Halliburton was flooded with offers, although had to settle on only twelve. They left America in September 1938, aboard the SS President Coolidge and were scheduled to pick up The Sea Dragon – a junk specifically constructed for Halliburton, in Hong Kong. After numerous setbacks, The Sea Dragon finally set sail on 4th March 1939, and although it was now too late for an appearance at the World’s Fair, Halliburton claimed, ‘Nothing that can happen on our voyage to San Francisco can possibly upset me now.’
On 23rd March 1939, The Sea Dragon was besieged by a typhoon; before radio contact was lost with the vessel, Halliburton sent the message, ‘Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here instead of me.’ Although they were never found, presumably, Halliburton and the rest of the crew perished soon afterwards. In October that year, Halliburton was declared legally dead, and a memorial stone simply stating ‘Lost at Sea,’ was erected for him at the family plot in Forest Hills Cemetery in Memphis. Sharing the pioneering zeal and valour possessed by many other great figures throughout history, Richard Halliburton is not only symbolic of the emerging battle between tradition and modernity that characterised the twentieth century, his life and achievements serve as an encouraging reminder that ‘Sometimes, once in a long, long while, sentimental dreams come true.’
The Royal Road to Romance – Richard Halliburton (1925)
The Glorious Adventure – Richard Halliburton (1927)
Horizon Chasers: The Lives and Adventures of Richard Halliburton and Paul Mooney – Gerry Max (2007)