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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Birthday: America's first celebrity travel writer lived fast, died young, and left no corpse.

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Richard Halliburton (1900-1939)
Travel writer

Near the height of his fame in 1930, the travel writer and adventurer Richard Halliburton received a singular honor: Vanity Fair put him on its list of celebrities “We nominate for oblivion.”

In bestowing the prize, the magazine cited Halliburton for making “a glorious racket out of Dauntless Youth,” with tales it called “transparently bogus.” To be fair, it also admitted that Halliburton’s books were “marvelously readable… extremely popular, and have made their author a millionaire.”

As for oblivion, the magazine would ultimately get its wish. Today, except for readers who have stumbled across a cobwebby Halliburton book in their grandparents’ attic, he is all but forgotten.

-Greg Daugherty, “The Last Adventure of Richard Halliburton, America’s Forgotten Hero of the 1930s,” Smithsonian, March 25, 2014

Such stirring music was irresistible. I waltzed out of bed, hornpiped to my bath, boleroed into my clothes, fandangoed to breakfast, cancaned out the front door, and mazurkaed down the street in search of those mad, mad pipes.

-Richard Halliburton, on waking in Barcelona to the sounds of an Algerian band in the square outside.

The son of a successful Tennessee civil engineer, Richard Halliburton was a bookish, sickly kid (in his early teens, he was packed off for a time to Dr Kellogg’s sanitarium at Battle Creek for The Treatment) who, by his late teens, had determined to be the most famous, well-traveled man on earth.

After prepping at Lawrenceville, Halliburton edited The Princeton Tiger while studying for his degree. At 19, he told his parents he was visiting friends for the weekend, then signed on with a merchant marine vessel as an ordinary seaman for his first extended tour of the world.

The trip made plain to Halliburton tht it was now possible to go anywhere. He saw his future as one endless adventure, told to an admiring, homebound public. At 25 he published his first collection of travel adventures, The Royal Road to Romance. In it, he traveled down the Nile, headed over to India and Thailand, and climbed Mount Fuji in winter. It was a best seller and made him $70,000- just under a million in current cash.

For the next fifteen years, Halliburton published a book every eighteen months. He spent a year on the road, writing as he went- both the book, and syndicated columns. Then he barnstormed America, giving as many as fifty lectures a month. His model was the journalist Lowell Thomas, who’d made Lawrence of Arabia famous- and himself wealthy- with his lectures that included movie footage of the revolt in the desert.

His second book, 1927’s The Glorious Romance, featured Halliburton and some of his chums recreating the adventures of Ulysses, with laybys to visit the grave of Rupert Brooke and for Halliburton to reboot Byron’s swimming of the Hellespont in 1810.

New Worlds to Conquer (1929) featured Halliburton's tour of Central and South America, where he swam across the Panama Canal. Tolls for crossing the Panama Canal are assessed based on weight, and ships routinely pay over a hundred thousand dollars for a single crossing. But since Halliburton swam across, all 5’8’ and 140 pounds of him, his toll was just 37 cents — a record for the lowest toll ever. Cheeky as ever, he registered himself as a ship and covered the 51 mile trip in ten days.

Bending the rules became part of his routine. He like sneaking onto trains without paying the fare and then turning indignant conductors into comic foils in his adventures. Denied entry to places, he went anyway, overnighting in the Taj Mahal; sleeping atop the Great Pyramid. He dove twice into the Mayan Well of Death and described the skeletons littering the bottom.

The Writer’s Almanac picks up the itinerary:

On Christmas Day 1930, he set out on another one of his epic adventures. It was a trip around the world in an open-cockpit biplane. It would last 18 months and include stops in 34 countries, and it began in Los Angeles. There was a stop in New York, and then the British Isles, France, Gibraltar, Morocco. He and his co-pilot flew across the Sahara, made a stop in Timbuktu, spent time in Algeria, and landed in Persia (now Iran). They made a stop in Iraq, where they gave a joyride to the school-aged Iraqi prince, flying him up over his school's playground.

They headed over to India, where their crimson red plane did aerial stunts over the Taj Mahal. Then they flew to Mount Everest, taking the first aerial photographs of the summit. They flew to the Philippines. Once there, they crated the plane, and rode a ship with it back across the Pacific, landing in San Francisco. From there they flew back to L.A. so that they could complete their journey at its starting place.

Halliburton wrote a book about the aerial expedition called The Flying Carpet (1932), which was also the name of the plane. The book sold phenomenally well even though it was published in the midst of the Great Depression.

Despite the dash and glitter of his persona, Halliburton was a frequently lonely figure, a gay man in an age when his existence was a criminal act. As early as 1926 he wrote of his personal feelings of isolation in a number of over 1,000 letters to his parents, without explaining why. He invented glamorous liaisons with women in his books, but his relationships were with men, among them the silent film actor Ramon Novarro, philanthropist Noel Sullivan, aviation pioneer Moye Stephens- with whom he circumnavigated the planet by air in 1931- and, after 1930, the writer and journalist Paul Mooney, who acted as his assistant, editor and secretary for his last six books.

He told more about himself than readers realized in a early book:

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. 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.

Perhaps it was the realization that there was no safe place to settle down that drove Halliburton to recast himself as the endless adventurer, always on the move. Early on, he wrote his father, "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."

Halliburton was a man of his time: the endlessly chipper man-boy of the Twenties, like Rudy Vallee, Scott Fitzgerald and fictional peers Bertie Wooster and Lord Peter Wimsey. It didn’t play well with all. Vanity Fair’ curse was penned by Clare Booth Luce, author of the remarkably bitchy- even today, play The Women. She was decades from her now-frozen image as anticommunist helpmeet to her husband, Time’s publisher, and ostentatiously pious Catholic.

Hemingway- whose gaydar was improbably well-developed- despised Halliburton, Daugherty notes:

As a gag, he once sent Halliburton’s fellow Princetonian F. Scott Fitzgerald a picture of himself inscribed, “To Scott from his old bedfellow Richard Halliburton. Princeton 1931.” In a letter after Halliburton’s death, Hemingway dismissed him as “the deceased Ladies Home Journal adventurer.”

He had the opposite effect on most. In his memoirs, 1960s TV host Art Linkletter remembered working as a press flack for the 1936 San Francisco World’s Fair and receiving Halliburton:

I can still see him sitting there—lean, bronzed by the sun, impeccably groomed and tailored,” he wrote, “The starched cuffs of his shirt protruded two inches from the sleeves, and there was a silk handkerchief tucked into one cuff.”

Attending a Halliburton lecture persuaded CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite to seek a career in journalism:

He was a daring adventurer-journalist and best-selling author, as devilishly handsome as a movie star,” Cronkite recalled, and he “commanded his audience with superb theatricality.

Susan Sontag, the mandarin of American high culture, considered Halliburton's books among the most important of her life, recalling that he “had devised for himself a life of being forever young and on the move… my first vision of what I thought had to be the most privileged of lives, that of a writer.”

Modern travel writer Paul Theroux tips his hat to Halliburton. Even the controversial comic Lenny Bruce was a Haliburton groupie. There was something about him- a raffish yet wholesome Walt Whitman yawped barbarically while almost always traveling first class.

Bruce Chatwin, the greatest travel writer of the 20th century's second half, was a cooler, more detached Halliburton.

His last adventure taunted Fate too hard. He conceived the notion of sailing the Pacific in a Chinese junk. It was pure Terry and the Pirates/Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom fantasy.

Halliburton launched the project in 1936. A thousand men wrote to join the crew. He commissioned a Chinese shipbuilder to construct the vessel, just in time for the Japanese invasions. The project ran wildly over budget and the Japanese proved impervious to Halliburton’s charms.

It took him two years to complete and obtain the release of the vessel. He and his crew, including Mooney, left Hong Kong in early 1939. By March, they were west of Midway, radioing a liner about heavy weather. That was the last anyone ever heard.

Ironically, the Navy delayed a search for over a month, thinking the disappearance a publicity stunt. Conspiracy theories abounded, coming less than two years after the disappearance of Halliburton’s and Mooney’s pal Amelia Earhart.

The curse of the travel/adventure writer is that there’s rarely a following for what one has already done. It is the next adventure that feeds the beast. With Halliburton gone- a Tennessee court declared him dead in September, 1939- and a new world war on, his name vanished from sight and largely from memory.

His books lingered on in school libraries into the 1960s: I read them all by halfway through fourth grade. Copiously illustrated with photos, Halliburton’ books were a Boys’ Own Adventure series introduction to a world about to be paved over by atom bombs, rocket ships and technology. The last time a man swam the Panama Canal did so in 1962.

Halliburton did leave two lasting monuments. In 1962, his parents built a bell tower in his honor at Tennessee’s Rhodes College, with which he had never had any connection whatever. But they liked it, and left most of his papers to it. For its part, Rhodes was happy to assist in Mr and Mrs Halliburton’s sanitized and respectified version of his life. Not until last year did a biographer skip the whitewash pail and present Halliburton as the man he was.

The other came in 1936. Land bound for a while planning the Pacific voyage, Halliburton and Mooney commissioned an up-and-coming architect, William Alexander Levy, to design a house for them on a clifftop lot at Laguna Beach, California.

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Hangover House- named for both its location and its parties- rose from a huge concrete retaining wall 400 feet above a canyon and, Levy hoped, embodied Halliburton’s endless quest for new horizons.

Built of steel, concrete and block and plate glass, it was a pioneering International-style home on the west coast that dazzled an unknown writer called Ayn Rand so completely, she included her memories of a visit to it in creating Howard Roark’s famous Heller House in The Fountainhead six years later.

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Paul Mooney with the house’s nameplate before it was embedded in the retaining wall

Halliburton’s parents sold the house for $9,000 in 1942; the purchaser’s daughter died there in 2010 and it sold out of her bankruptcy estate the next year for $3.2 million. It has been undergoing a controversial modernization/restoration since.

He once summed things up about as well as anyone:

We are born strangers in a strange land, and remain so. Travel simply reminds us of this essential truth. The transmission of a powerful story, one human to another, is an alchemical activity in which we are enlarged and changed.

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