Who Was Richard Halliburton?

My Hero

As a grown woman, I feel a little silly when I tell people I have a hero.  A hero is something you’re supposed have as a child, when you’re still too young to understand that the life you lead creates the person you become, not the other way around.  Instead, as a kid, you point at a person  (or in some cases a bird or a firetruck) that you think is totally awesome, and you say, “I want to be that when I grow up”, assuming that simply being your Aunt Lucy or a Red-Tailed Hawk or Engine #62 will make you awesome, too.

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A portrait of Richard Halliburton. Wasn’t he handsome?

As a [supposed] adult, I think of a hero in a slightly different way than I did as a kid.  To me, a hero is someone who has lived their life in such a way that I think my own life could be improved by emulating theirs.  So when I say Richard Halliburton is my hero, it’s not because I want to be an idealistic gay man when I grow up, but rather because I admire the tenacity with which he followed his dreams, and the imagination he used to bring history to life, and the lighthearted joy with which he tackled all his adventures.  I would count myself very fortunate if I were to embody those traits in my own life.

A Brief Biography

Richard was born at the start of Twentieth Century, on January 9, 1900.  He was raised in Memphis, Tennessee with his younger brother, Wesley.  Their parents were well-off, and they had all the privileges one could want growing up, traveling to visit family friends in nearby states, attending private school, and eventually Princeton University for Richard.  Sadly, Wesley had health problems and passed away in 1917.

Wesley’s death seemed to galvanize Richard into action, and during summer vacation in 1919, he ran away to Europe via a ship from New Orleans.  He only intended the trip to last the length of the holidays, but delays in his departure and the excitement he found in Europe convinced him to extend his trip all through the fall semester and Christmas, returning to Princeton in January 1920.  After that, despite the siren calls of the Eastern Hemisphere, he managed to buckle down and complete his education before forever leaving behind a normal life.

From July 1921 to February 1923, Richard took a whirlwind tour through most of Europe, Asia and the South Pacific.  The stories he gathered along the way are enough awaken wanderlust in the most steadfast homebody.  I won’t bother listing the extraordinary adventures he had (after all, that’s what I’ll spend the next two years doing), but I will tell you that the feats he accomplished on that trip would have overwhelmed anyone else.

After returning home, he found an agent and began a lecture circuit, and just about killed himself touring the country at a breakneck pace.  During this time, as his fame steadily rose, he struggled to write a book about his travels.  Though it eventually became one of the hottest sellers of the time, it took two years for him to find a publisher willing to take The Royal Road to Romance (1925).  (As a side note, I can’t recommend that book enough. Richard wrote in such a uniquely zealous manner that you can’t stop flipping the pages, devouring the stories like a delicious meal at the end of a long fast.  His words are medicine for the stuck soul.  A reprinted edition came out a few years ago, and you can buy it here)

After he was published, Richard was unstoppable.  Between 1925 and 1935 Richard completed four more globally-scaled travels: one around the Mediterranean on the path of Homer’s Odyssey (The Glorious Adventure, 1927), one south through the Americas (New Worlds to Conquer, 1929), one around the world in a little biplane (The Flying Carpet, 1932), and a ticket-to-anywhere adventure through the parts of Europe and Asia he hadn’t yet explored (Seven League Boots, 1937).  Between each of these adventures, he wrote books and toured every corner of the U.S. on lecture tours.  For Richard, traveling wasn’t a hobby, it was a career. 

Sadly, though not unexpectedly, it was a short-lived career.  In March 1939, while sailing a Chinese Junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco, Richard was lost at sea along with the rest of his crew.  No trace of his ship was ever found.  In the end, he was spared the “stupid, common death in bed” he’d avoided with such determination.

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Taking two Princesses for a ride in the Flying Carpet in Teheran

What about his personal life?   It’s difficult to construct a full personality from the books he wrote and edited so carefully, but in his letters home to his parents, many of which are compiled in Richard Halliburton:  His Story of His Life’s Adventures, (1942)one is provided a glimpse into the psyche of a man who was constantly at odds with the conventions of the time.  Though his books were always cheery and vigorous, he was in reality often lost in bouts of depression, self-doubt and bad health, spells of which would last anywhere from a few days to half a year.  He was endlessly curious about the world and its people, though his interactions were sometimes cruelly tainted by the racism and bigotry with which he was raised in the 1900’s American south.  He was also a gay man in a time when homosexuality was considered an abomination, and though he wrote frequently of beautiful women whom he fruitlessly chased, he was never once in an open relationship.  He was, however, in a long-term relationship with another restless soul, Paul Mooney. Given the times and consideration for his parents, that relationship was never public.

Richard Halliburton was a unique man who lived during a unique era.  He traversed the globe during the pause between two World Wars, at a time when airplanes and cameras were new inventions, and Everest hadn’t yet been climbed.  It was an exciting period of history, and no one was more ready to ride that excitement to the finish than he.  And by writing about all he’d seen and done, he inspired thousands of people to go see for themselves what all the hype was about, myself included.  For that, I am forever in his debt.

7 Comments

  1. Sarah — Here’s a fairly recent newspaper piece about Richard Halliburton by a like-minded soul: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0413-martelle-book-20140413-story.html

  2. SARAH Should you be interested: at age 11 a few months before Haliburton set sail from Hong Kong I was so enchanted by my first read of “Royal Road” that I pledged to devote my life to travel and vowed to try duplicate as many feats as my hero. I am now 87 and must be satisfied with what I’ve (before 90) accomplished. I’ve climbed the Great Pyramid and an Alp, fought off diving into Chichen-Itza’s cynoptic well, lived substantial time in six major European cities from London to Athens plus three years in Africa and in full-moonlight I waded in a pool of the Taj Mahal, yes, I’ve done more BUT I have failed to swim the Panama, climb Mt Fuji and am terrified to visit Hong Kong for fear of buying a junk.
    There’s really little time left but….

    • Wow, that all sounds amazing! I always love hearing of other RH fans, though I don’t think I’ve yet met any as devoted as you. I’m continuing the journey a month from now and can’t wait to see more of the places RH traveled!

  3. Sarah, I’m so interested to read your thoughts (and dreams) inspired by RH! I, too, was fascinated by him when I was very young – probably 10 or 11 yrs. There was a book in my parents’ collection that had been given to my father when he was a boy, called Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels. I was mesmerized by his writing style, which introduced a mysterious and exciting world to a very wide demographic. He told beautiful stories that poured from all the wonders of the ancient and the modern world. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t a superstar and a legend. None of my friends had ever heard of him. When in college, I lent the book to my best friend. My bad, I know. When I asked her about it a year or so later, she said she had given it to a college boyfriend who was now gone God knows where. I was crushed.

    Well, I’m 70 years old now. I never forgot that book and the wonderful excitement it held. Last year I finally remembered that eBay has everything and I found a copy there. It wasn’t, of course that original edition. There were some differences in the way it was presented, plus it didn’t have my father’s name written in calligraphy on the inside cover. But that wonderful feeling it gave me was still inside. And now it’s back on my shelf where it belongs.

    I haven’t seen that title listed here – I hope you have had the pleasure of owning and enjoying it as I have. He’s a legend & superstar as far as we are concerned, isn’t he?

    Thanks,
    Becky

    • A legend and a superstar, certainly! Thanks so much for writing and sharing your own RH story. He touched the lives of so many, and it baffles me to no end that he’s forgotten these days. I do indeed own the Complete Book of Marvels, and flipping through its pages never fails to reignite my wanderlust. I’m currently working and saving money to continue my RH odyssey, and I hope you’ll continue to follow along!

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