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.” Richard Halliburton — world traveler, best-selling author, and popular lecturer — wrote those words in one of his books, The Royal Road to Romance (1925). The words also appear on the plaque at the base of the Halliburton Memorial Tower on the Rhodes College campus, a monument funded by his parents, though he never attended that school. Who, though, was the man Richard Halliburton, this “modern Icarus” (as the Rhodes plaque also reads) who “flew too near the sun”? Many of today’s Memphians may well wonder, and R. Scott Williams knows it. He’s titled his life of Halliburton The Forgotten Adventures of Richard Halliburton: A High-Flying Life from Tennessee to Timbuktu (The History Press), a brief biography but a fully illustrated one drawn from the Halliburton archives at Rhodes. Readers and lecture audiences in the 1920s and ’30s would have had no problem at all recognizing the name Richard Halliburton. Back then, he was seemingly everywhere one looked, and that included, yes indeed, the farthermost corners of the earth: the Taj Mahal, the Hellespont in Turkey, and the Panama Canal, to name a few. Except, in Halliburton’s case, it was immersive travel often taken literally. He swam in one of the pools at the Taj Mahal. Inspired by Leander of Greek mythology and the English poet Lord Byron, he swam the Hellespont. And he swam the Panama Canal — not across the canal but through the canal, all 51 miles of it over the course of 50 hours in nine days.
Halliburton called his crossing from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in 1928 a “whale of an adventure,” and he was protected from alligators and barracudas by a sharpshooter who accompanied him in a rowboat. Nothing, though, could save Halliburton and his crew aboard the Sea Dragon. That was the Chinese junk Halliburton was sailing from Hong Kong to San Francisco, until a typhoon brought that adventure — and all of Halliburton’s adventuring — to an end. His body was never recovered, but a simple headstone, inscribed “Lost at Sea,” marks his memory in Forest Hill Cemetery in South Memphis. The year of his death was 1939. He was 39.
How did Richard Halliburton go from being a “poetical,” sickly boy in Memphis warned not to exert himself to a star traveler the world over? R. Scott Williams is a good guide to answering that question. A Memphian himself, Williams earned a degree in journalism from the University of Memphis, once worked as director of marketing for Graceland, and is currently the director of marketing and communications at the Newseum, a museum of news and history in Washington, D.C.
As Williams reveals in his book, marketing was key to Halliburton’s success. Halliburton knew that from the outset. His parents, Wesley and Nelle Halliburton, despite early misgivings, understood as well. And so too Mary Hutchison, founder of the Hutchison School and Halliburton’s “designated grandmother,” who let him attend her all-girls school until he transferred to MUS. Lucky for Halliburton, all three older figures backed his desire to follow the “tenor of his way.” As Halliburton wrote to his father in 1919 from Paris during a break from Princeton:
“When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my ‘way’ as uneven as possible, then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making life as conglomerate and vivid as possible. Those who live in the even tenor of their way simply exist until death ends their monotonous tranquility. No, there’s going to be no even tenor with me.”
But there was going to be, after an initial shaky start on the lecture circuit, widespread celebrity. Halliburton’s travel books were hugely successful with Depression-era audiences. Newspapers routinely reported his whereabouts. Serving in the French Foreign Legion, holed up on Devil’s Island, asleep atop an Egyptian pyramid, jumping down a well where Aztec maidens were said to have been sacrificed to a rain god, crossing the Alps astride an elephant: The more “romantic” Halliburton’s adventures, the better the coverage. Halliburton, whose good looks made him camera ready, could endorse a brand of coffee as easily as he could befriend F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Ayn Rand visited the remarkable home Halliburton built in California — remarkable even to this day for its modernist use of poured concrete as building material. Despite the success, there could be detractors too. Questions were raised over the veracity of some of the adventures Halliburton described. And Clare Boothe (before she married Henry Luce) could, in the pages of Vanity Fair, include Halliburton in that magazine’s list of “We Nominate for Oblivion.” Let Boothe, in a June 1930 issue, count the reasons: “Because Richard Halliburton has made a glorious racket out of Dauntless Youth; because his books are marvelously readable, transparently bogus, extremely popular, and have made their author a millionaire; because his invariable picture of himself (patent pending) is that of a diffident, romantic boy; because he is the most popular ladies club lecturer in America, and every knock Vanity Fair gives him is just a boost.”
Harsh. But Moye Stephens, who piloted Halliburton on an around-the-world flight in 1931-32, was more forgiving. What he saw in Halliburton was a “boyishly handsome, vibrant young man” with a “remarkable fund of nervous energy and dogged determination.”
Both Boothe and Stephens at least stopped short of outing Halliburton. Williams doesn’t stop short. He explores, as far as evidence allows, the almost certain fact that Richard Halliburton was gay and only later in life overcame the isolation that had plagued him. As Halliburton wrote to his parents:
“I’m lonely. My affections are starved. I’ve no time to care about people. I wish I would fall in love. It would add some sweetness and sparkle to all the brass materialism. I lead an absolutely loveless life.”
That was in 1926. By the time Halliburton built his house in California a decade later, he’d met Paul Mooney, who served as his secretary and shared the Laguna Beach house with him. But Mooney would share in more: He went down with Halliburton and crew on the ill-fated Sea Dragon. Susan Sontag would go on to write about Richard Halliburton in the Oxford American in 2001. James Cortese of The Commercial Appeal remembered the man in Richard Halliburton’s Royal Road in 1989. And Guy Townsend recalled “Richard Halliburton: The Forgotten Myth” in City of Memphis magazine — today Memphis magazine — in 1977. Now, R. Scott Williams — with the help of Rhodes librarian Bill Short, who oversees the school’s Halliburton collection — has given new life to the man who was once the most popular adventure writer of his day and certainly the most famous Memphian of his time. As for me, I’ve never forgotten Richard Halliburton and the world of wonders I saw inside his Book of Marvels. I was in grade school, and the year was 1966.
For more on The Forgotten Adventures of Richard Halliburton, go to R. Scott Williams’ website, HalliburtonBook.com.