Richard Halliburton Biography

Biography of one of America's greatest adventure travel writer.
Richard Halliburton was born on 7 January 1900 in Brownsville, Tennessee. When he was still young his parents, Wesley and Halle Halliburton, moved to Memphis and this is where he grew up. As the only, talented, and very good-looking son of well-to-do parents, Richard led a charmed life - from the beginning there was perhaps hardly anyone that he couldn't turn around his little finger - to, of course, his own advantage. Richard was a lovely rogue.

In Memphis, he began his education at the Hutchison School of Girls - his mother was a teacher here and perhaps they thought it would be a less nerve-racking introduction to the education system - and then transferred to the Memphis University for Boys. He finished his primary school here and then transferred to a Prep School at Lawrenceville. From here he went on to Princeton - the Class of 1921.

Towards the end of his second year at Princeton, Richard grew somewhat bored with academics and so did a bunk to New Orleans. Here he signed up as a sailor on a ship bound for England. However, as he soon found out, running away to sea was more romantic in concept than in actual terms. It was hard, wearisome work and his fellow sea-men were more likely to spout foul-mouthed epithets than any sea-worthy philosophy. It became too much for young Richard and he 'jumped' ship at Norfolk, Virginia. This was where his parents were vacationing and scurrying under the parental wing when things get a bit too hot to handle is not an unknown phenomenon for most of us. However Richard's parents - especially his mother - decided this wasn't the time for cosseting, but for some tough lessons. They insisted he return to his ship and fulfill the obligations he had undertaken. It was a decisive growing up moment. Richard returned to the ship and continued the voyage. This time around though, to his surprise, he took to life at sea very well - not really surprising, actually; when a prodigal isn't welcomed back into the fold, he, unless he's the sort that enjoys moaning and groaning and finds an audience that enjoys it as much, usually gets his act together and adjusts to the circumstances.

Richard reached England and then spent the next six months traveling around England and France. It was an intoxicating experience and it occurred to him that perhaps he could spend his entire life adventuring around the world in this manner. The very idea of settling down eventually to a stable, normal existence was anathema to him, as we see from a letter he wrote to 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 . . "

Returning late to Princeton for the Spring Term - with an unapologetic, worldly air, it must be mentioned - Richard was further convinced of the practicality of pursuing an unpractical (from everyone else's point of view) life after the 'Field and Stream' magazine bought an article by him for $150. Immediately after graduation - supported by a monthly $100 allowance from his parents and a $35/article contract with 'The Commercial Appeal' magazine - he was off on his first world tour, traveling extensively through Northern Europe and the Low Countries, then through Egypt, India, and South-East Asia. This trip saw him climbing in turn the Matterhorn and Mount Fujiyama both, without having any climbing experience and in foul weather. It also saw him being detained briefly in Gibraltar for taking photos of British Military Installations, taking a midnight swim in the pool before the Taj Mahal, and cadging ticketless rides on Indian Railways. In Japan, since he was out of money for a return journey, he signed on as a sailor on the President Madison Liner and arrived back home on 1 March 1923.

He was broke and he found, to his consternation, that flooding the travel writing market with his work was not as easy as he had imagined. After getting rejected just about everywhere, he decided to try his hand at the Lecture Circuit, never mind that he wasn't particularly good at public speaking. He signed up with the Feakins Agency and, amazingly enough, soon became their star lecturer. It brought in some money, but not long after the demanding schedule led to a break down and a long rest in a Sanitarium. It was here that Richard transformed his articles and notes into the first of the five books he was to eventually write - a book that was published by the Bobbs-Merrill Publishers as 'The Royal Road To Romance'. It was a tremendous success, selling over 100,000 copies in 1926.

Meanwhile, on 4 July 1925, Richard was already sailing away on the Mauretania liner seeking his next adventure - a reenactment of Ulysses' s travels as described in Homer's Odyssey. During this trip he swam across the Hellespont - as had his hero Byron and a score of other people - but none of them had his talent for publicity and the swim (a difficult one, admitted) became 'a great, extraordinary feat'. This trip resulted in the second book 'The Glorious Adventure', brought out again by Bobbs-Merill and another best-seller. This, together with an ever-increasing popularity as a speaker, made Richard a very rich man by 1927. However he wasn't very good at money management and soon spent most of what he earned. The following year, an urgent need for money saw him endorsing Lucky Strike Cigarettes and undertaking a journey to Latin America to collect material for articles for the Ladies Home Journal.

This time he followed the route taken by the conquering Cortez and in the course of it climbed Mount Popocatapetl, dived into the infamous Well of Death (into which young virgins were once thrown to appease the Rain gods) at the ancient Mayan site of Chichen-Itza, and later swam the Panama Canal. Then back home briefly to recount his experiences on the lecture circuit before taking off again, this time to experience the dubious comforts of the notorious French Prison on Devil's Island and the quiet pace in Tobaga. The book that resulted from these trips was titled 'New Worlds to Conquer.'

It made the best-seller list, but America was in the midst of the Great Depression now and people weren't exactly crowding to buy books right then. To add to this, the stock market crash had relieved Richard of almost $100,000 of his life-savings. He was once again in need of money and to earn it decided to fly around the world in an airplane. Since he didn't know how to fly he hired a pilot named Moye W. Stephens and the two of them took off in a Stearman two-place open cockpit biplane, christened The Flying Carpet, in March 1931.

The high points of this trip were - a 1300 mile journey across the Sahara, a visit to Timbuktu, a swim across the Sea of Galilee (and resulting hospitalization for sun-stroke in Jerusalem), flying up to Mount Everest, and visiting Singapore and Indonesia. The travelers returned home in April 1932, and Richard was now not just broke, but also in debt. Richard, undaunted, finished his third book 'The Flying Carpet', in collaboration with his friend Paul Mooney, and, although book sales were still low, went ahead and bought an expensive piece of property at Laguna Beach. He couldn't afford it, of course, but he didn't consider that such a big deal. He simply undertook a new trip.

Starting from California this time, he traveled across the Caribbean to Europe and from thence to Asia. This time he crossed the Alps on an Elephant and interviewed the Executioner of the Russian Royal Family in Siberia. All the while, of course, he sent back articles to the newspapers back home and there were discussions about him on the radio. He was easily one of the most popular personalities of the period - in the throes of Depression, it was heartening for people to hear that at least someone was having a bit of fun. Richard kept up that illusion though actually he had rather wearied of the constant traveling by now. On his return, he furnished the experiences into the book 'Seven League Boots', and then, since it didn't sell as well as expected, took to the Lecture Circuit once again. Then, after a brief rest in San Francisco, he went to Laguna Beach to build an expensive (and eccentric) house that he called 'Hangover House' - no tongue-in-cheek alcoholic reference here, the house simple hung over the cliff. While he was here, he and Paul Mooney collaborated on the two volumes of 'Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels'. These were intended for children and were an instant, resounding success.

So now he had enough money again. So what next? Well, thought Richard, why not build a Chinese Junk and sail it from Hong Kong to San Francisco? The World Fair of 1939 was going to be held in San Francisco and he could well imagine the publicity as he sailed into harbor in the midst of that. To this end, he mortgaged his brand new house, touched everyone he could think of for loans, borrowed left and right, talked people into paying to join him on the venture, and then, in 1938, finally had enough to set off for Hong Kong.

Richard, unfortunately, had always been a better adventurer than an organizer, and things went wrong with the new venture from the very beginning. His custom-built, out-sized Chinese Junk - the Sea Dragon, as he called her - turned out indeed to be junk - top-heavy and not seaworthy, as more experienced sailors warned him. The Captain was, in Richard's own words, ' a regular Captain Bligh', most of the crew resigned in protest and a new one had to be found. Then Japan, which the Sea Dragon was to pass, was in a belligerent mood and could possibly attack - if the numerous pirates that infested these waters didn't get to them first. Difficulties, however, made no sense to Richard unless facing them first hand, and so, on 4 February 1939, they sailed. Six days later they were back in harbor for repairs and didn't put out again until 4 March.

This was to be Richard's last adventure. The Junk ran into a storm and the last radio contact was on 23 March 1939. It was a message from Richard, still cheerful as ever in face of approaching doom - "Southerly gales, squalls, lee rail under water, wet bunks, hard tack, bully beef, wish you were here, instead of me."
By Sonal Panse
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