January 9, 1900– Richard Halliburton:
“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.”
As a kid, in my bookcase was a line of volumes titled The Book Of Marvels by Richard Halliburton. I loved them for the color plates of sexy shirtless, exotic men, and for the stories.
During the first half of the 20th century, three names came to mind when considering the worlds of adventure and travel: Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Halliburton. Even now, nearly two decades into the next century, even young people have heard the first two figures, but do you known the story of Halliburton? He was known in his era as “Daring Dick!”
Like Theodore Roosevelt, Halliburton grew up small and sickly. He compensated by pushing himself to extremes for the rest of his life. He climbed The Matterhorn, he was the first known person to reach the top of Mount Fuji in the wintertime, and he shot the first aerial photo of Mount Everest.
In 1931, along with a copilot, he flew around the world in an open cockpit biplane named The Flying Carpet. He provided the first airplane flights to the Royal families of Iran and Iraq, the Rajah and his wife in India, and the chief of the Nyak tribe of Borneo, who paid him in shrunken heads.
Hungry for adventure, Halliburton broke local laws and customs where ever and whenever he traveled. He sneaked into Mecca, was jailed for photographing the guns at Gibraltar, and spent the night alone in the Taj Mahal, savoring the solitude at sunset and swimming in the pool by moonlight. He registered his body as a ship, the S.S. Halliburton so he could swim the full 48 miles of the Panama Canal, remaining the only person to ever do so. He retraced other travelers’ trips in tribute, swimming the Hellespont like his hero Lord Byron and crossing the Alps on an elephant like Hannibal did in 218 BC. He hid from the guards in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. He fought pirates off Macau, spent a month in Bali; sneaked onto trains in India, avoiding the railway inspectors; joined the French Foreign Legion in Algeria, mapped the road from Cairo to Damascus, and slept atop a pyramid in Egypt. In Mexico, he unhesitatingly plunged 30 feet into the Deep Well Of Death in the manner of the ancient Mayans. He ran barefoot from Marathon to Athens.
He broke rules and pushed against convention at home too. Halliburton had a hot and heavy affair with gay film star Ramón Novarro, and, brazenly, he commissioned 27-year old architect William Alexander to build his landmark cantilevered home in Laguna Beach, named Hangover House, reflecting his witty sensibility. The home had three bedrooms: one for himself, one for his boyfriend, journalist Paul Mooney, and one for their mutual boyfriend, the architect himself. Just three confirmed bachelors living in a thoroughly modern arrangement. The home is the inspiration for Heller House in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1944).
Always careful to cultivate his public persona, Halliburton gave his narratives nameless, entirely fabricated, female love interests, yet he lingered over descriptions of male beauty in his stories, and his private letters are explicitly gay. Among his travel books are titles like The Royal Road To Romance (1925) and Seven League Boots (1935). He dedicated his first collection of adventure stories to his roommates at Princeton University, whose “sanity, consistency, and respectability” inspired him to take off.
Halliburton, in a letter to his father, wrote:
“Dad, you hit the wrong target when you write that you wish I were at Princeton living ‘in the even tenor of my way.’ 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’ 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. The more uneven it is the happier I shall be. 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, thrills, every emotion that any human ever had. I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed. So, Dad, I’m afraid your wish will always come to naught, for my way is to be ever changing, but always swift, acute and leaping from peak to peak instead of following the rest of the herd, shackled in conventionalities, along the monotonous narrow path in the valley. The dead have reached perfection when it comes to even tenor!”
He pushed himself to the limit, traveling the globe, all the while writing about his exotic exploits in books that thrilled his readers living a less exciting life.
“Realize your youth while you have it. Don’t squander the gold of your days. Let those who wish have their respectability, I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy. Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you. Be afraid of nothing. The romantic… that was what I wanted.”
Halliburton starred in his own documentary films and he gave many public appearances and lectures. He was daring in the face of danger, enthralling his public, yet Halliburton not only kept his sexuality secret from his adoring fans, he went to great lengths to suggest otherwise, leading them to assume that his conquests continued in the bedroom and involved the ladies.
Halliburton wasn’t just gay; he was gay-gay. He had a special fondness for staying at YMCAs. He was smitten with Hollywood and was approached by Fox Studios in 1933 about making films based on his many adventures. He idolized Rudolph Valentino for his good-looks and he courted a special friendship with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., also a world adventurer.
With the financial success of his books and popular speaking engagements, Halliburton Purchased a Chinese junk named The Sea Dragon and had it custom outfitted. In 1939, he and Mooney set out to sail it from Hong Kong to San Francisco for The Golden Gate International Exposition. Halliburton:
“If any one of my readers wishes to be driven rapidly and violently insane, and doesn’t know how to go about it, let me make a suggestion: Try building a Chinese junk in a Chinese shipyard during a war with Japan. Nothing that can happen on our voyage to San Francisco can possibly upset me now.”
His last contact, somewhere near Midway Island, was by radio from The Sea Dragon:
“Southerly gales, squalls, lee rail under water, wet bunks, hard tack, bully beef, wish you were here, instead of me. I’m With Fabulous. Having a wonderful time! Wish you were here. Stop.”
Halliburton and Mooney vanished and were never seen again. They were both just 40-years-old.
The US Coast Guard in Honolulu declined to search for The Sea Dragon, possibly thinking his disappearance was just another of his well-known publicity stunts. In 1925, Halliburton had faked a drowning death, causing The NY Times to erroneously report his demise.
Nine weeks later, the US Navy finally sent a ship and four seaplanes to look; they found nothing. A year later the crew of an ocean liner spotted what appeared to The Sea Dragon’s rudder, but that was never confirmed.
Like Amelia Earhart, who had vanished two years earlier, Halliburton’s disappearance brought on all sorts of rumors. Unlike Earhart, the public lost interest in Halliburton when the harsh realities of WW II made the world seem less romantic and his adventures seem silly.
Hangover House was sold for $3.7 million in 2011, but never restored. It still sits on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean, a ghost house.
Richard Halliburton was both Indiana Jones and Auntie Mame. I believe his story is ready for a movie treatment with Ryan Gosling starring and with me as Paul Mooney.