I WOULD APPRECIATE ANY COMMENT.
William R. Taylor
|Richard Halliburton biography – BOLD adventurer, globe trotter||
It almost seems as if Panamanian tour guides, tourist ship narrators, and authors writing articles about the Panama Canal are compelled by law to stress that the lowest toll of 36 cents was charged for transit of that hallowed body from end to end. Travel adventurer/author/amateur swimmer Richard Halliburton pulled off that feat in August, 1928, but further details of his singular accomplishment are usually missing.
Halliburton’s exploit of swimming the canal from end to end is almost always passed off as a prank engineered by a serial attention-seeker solely to advertise his travel adventure books. This is hardly a just assessment of his very physical and lengthy accomplishment.
The feat was an arduous and dangerous struggle which took place over a 10-day period during which he managed to cover about 47 miles while in the water for a total of 50 hours. Alligators, sharks, barracudas, and sunburn, not to mention the ever- present bacteria which could easily bring on serious and often fatal tropical diseases, were daily, constant hazards. Among the other hazards encountered were his accidentally bumping of a dozing alligator, a freighter which nearly ran him over, a case of severe sunburn and a surprise stalking by barracudas that suddenly appeared on the last day before he emerged victorious at Panama City.
At least some protection against the always present reptiles and dangerous marine life was provided by a 6-foot-8 Army sharpshooter on constant duty in a rowboat usually never more than 6 feet away. The sergeant had to prove his vigilance and the accuracy of his rifle more than once.
Although Halliburton had been the first American to swim the Hellespont, had leapt into the Mayan Well of Death twice, and had navigated the garbage-strewn canals of Venice, he was by no means an accomplished swimmer. Many ships’ passengers and well-wishers cheered him on but many also jeered his awkward side-stroke. Despite the catcalls, he gamely paddled away. At this stage of his life he was accustomed to critics.
The passage by the “S. S. Halliburton” through the canal was treated by the operators as routinely as the passage of the many other vessels which steamed through. Just like any other vessel, 27,000,000 cubic feet of water was necessary to lift him 85 feet into Gatun Lake. The toll he was required to pay, like any of the other ships, was based upon his tonnage. Since he weighed 140 pounds, or one thirteenth of a ton, he was charged 36 cents.
Halliburton survived the ordeal and all the physical strain, sunburn discomfort and sore muscles that came with it but he reported that he almost had a heart attack later when the plane carrying his 9000-word story of the Panama Canal experience crashed. Because he did not keep a carbon copy he had to hastily do a re-write from notes and memory to meet a deadline.
The Panama Canal swim was just one of Halliburton’s many risky adventures but it is the one he may be most remembered for because it is so frequently and faithfully mentioned. For further details of his many other incredible adventures, please see the well-researched biography, A Shooting Star Meets the Well of Death, Why and How Richard Halliburton Conquered the World.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? WAS HALLIBURTON A COURAGEOUS ADVENTURER, A FOOLISH PUBLICITY HOUND, A RECKLESS FOOL OR SOMETHING ELSE?
I WOULD APPRECIATE ANY COMMENT.
William R. Taylor
Undoubtedly, one of the most colorful characters Richard Halliburton encountered during his years of globe-trotting adventures was Florence “Pancho” Barnes, foul mouthed wife of Reverend Rankin Barnes, Executive Head of Episcopal Church Social Services in San Marino, California. Raucous and hard-drinking, she could just as well have been a lovable, loquacious saloon owner in the Old West. They met at one of her frequent free-wheeling gatherings of aviation practitioners, movie stars, and hangers-on of all types around 1930.
Pancho happily held sway over the southern California aviation scene and had a penchant for bringing together at her frequent parties dozens of unique characters from Hollywood, aviation and varied social stratas. She counted flyer Moye Stephens among her friends and would play a key role in establishing Richard’s association with Paul Mooney.
Pancho and Richard were very much unlike each other except that both challenged life with gusto. She was the ultra-gregarious, trail-blazing lady pilot who loudly spoke her mind and boldly bucked convention. Halliburton was an ultra-literate Princeton graduate and southern gentleman turned adventurer, risk-taker author/lecturer. Their acquaintance may not have been deep and long-lasting but it was striking because of their outward differences.
Moye Stephens, aviation great who rubbed shoulders with other aviation pioneers at the parties, introduced Pancho and Halliburton after he and the adventurer hashed out the details of their coming 1931-32 around-the-world flight in the two-winged open cockpit plane they dubbed, “The Flying Carpet.” Below excerpts from my book, “A Shooting Star Meets the Well of Death, Why and How Richard Halliburton Conquered the World,” capture salient details of the Halliburton – Barnes – Stephens – Mooney relationships.
In the first excerpt, I quoted from an interview with Moye Stephens by Halliburton expert Michael Blankenship of Roanoke about the meeting with Pancho which, incidentally, also turned out to be the first meeting of Halliburton and Mooney. According to Stephens;
“When Halliburton appeared and we made our arrangement, I took him out to meet Pancho. Quite a person. So, while he was there he met Mooney.”
Mooney was there because in late 1929 he had moved out to California searching for success in the writing field. Locating work had become impossible due to the growing Depression and, as Moye Stephens indicated, he (Mooney) was taken in by famous aviatrix Florence “Pancho” Barnes. It was at one of her lavish parties, as Stephens mentioned, that Mooney met and was attracted to Halliburton. In turn, Richard was impressed by Paul's wit, confident manner and credentials as a writer. They lived together when it was possible from that time on.
As far as his impressions of Mooney, Stephens had this to say;
“Yeah, I think I told you in one of the letters, Mike. Paul was.... I don't know if you'd call him a hanger-on. Pancho Barnes, the aviatrix, had a heart as big as all out-of-doors. I mean she'd take in stray puppies, or anything of that nature. She had a couple of them around her house, and Paul was one of them.”
In that same interview with Blankenship Stephens expanded on his rather bland impression of Mooney.
“You don't have any particular memories of Paul Mooney?.. I can’t understand what was special about Paul.”
“No. I don't. There wasn't anything special about Paul Mooney...... He wasn't an impressive person in any way.”
“I can't understand why he figures so importantly in Richard's life.”
“Well, Dick was a dominant sort of person, and Mooney was anything but. So maybe that was what brought them together. Of course, Mooney was undoubtedly intelligent. I mean I'm sure he helped Dick considerably in his writing.”
“Paul Mooney also wrote a book.”
“Yes. He ghost-wrote a book on Hitler.”
“Well, I'll be darned.”
“It was one of the very early Hitler books.”
“But, he wasn't a person that would impress you in any way that I can remember. He was around there, and I knew he was there. I just have almost no impression of what he even looked like.”
The relationship between Halliburton and Pancho was of the “pal” level and they met only occurred sporadically. However, he had intended to take her to Moye’s first wedding. As mentioned in my book he told of his intentions in a December 1932 letter to his parents,
“In the afternoon, Paul and I went to Pancho Barnes - the woman flyer I’m so fond of, and she took us to Ramon Novarro’s, - a lot of drunk movie people were there - so we left early.......I’m taking Pancho to Moye’s wedding on Dec 4. Tomorrow night.”
It never happened because of a mishap that befell Halliburton shortly afterwards while filming his only movie, “India Speaks.”
“During the filming of one scene Richard and Rosie Brown, his ‘love’ interest in the movie, were drenched with a fire hose to simulate a torrential downpour. His dousing caused incubating flu germs to flare up, relegating him briefly to a hospital bed. He was crestfallen that the illness prevented him from taking Pancho Barnes to Moye Stephens’ first wedding.”
The Happy Bottom Riding Club and Pancho Barnes continued to flourish as a popular institution in Southern California. Attending its joyous events became almost a rite of passage for Astronauts, test pilots, and other adventurers of various stripes such as Halliburton and Mooney. Pancho’s colorful flight through life came to an end March 30, 1975. She was mourned by many of aviation’s greats and the many peripheral hanger-on’s who met at her joyous parties and briefly flitted through her life.
Incredible Adventurer/traveler/author Richard Halliburton burst upon the literary scene in the middle 1920’s with his first best-selling book, “The Royal Road to Romance.” It was a fresh, incredibly exciting romp around the world for a recent Princeton grad whose headlong celebration of Youth, love of beauty, architecture, poetry, art. geography and history exploded from every page and captured the imaginations of armchair travelers throughout the world. He followed up on that success with six more adventure/travel best-sellers before his dramatic death in 1939.
Young Halliburton was many things to many people. To some he was an extremely brave and daring adventurer who pulled off unique feats such as; leaping into the Maya Well of Death twice, being the first to climb Fujiyama alone in the winter, swimming the length of the Panama Canal while dodging alligators and barracudas, risking nights with Devils Island prisoners to record their tragic stories, plus engineering countless other off-the-wall exploits. To others he was a showman who toyed with the gullibility of armchair travelers to enrich himself and feed his craving for self-glorification.
Members of the Press began showing their distaste for his showmanship early in his career while he was adventuring in the Mediterranean gathering material for his second book. In an effort to generate publicity he faked his own drowning but botched the attempt badly, causing him to be a frequent target for the rest of his short life whenever he pulled off something out of the ordinary such as riding an elephant over the Alps to emulate Hannibal.
Moye Stephens, the respected aviation pioneer who flew around the world in an open cockpit, two-winged plane with Halliburton for eighteen months in 1930-31 and became his loyal lifetime friend candidly related that the author on occasion stretched the truth. But at the same time as he deflated some of Halliburton’s embellished tales about the trip Stephens lauded him for his extraordinary courage and pointed out that the vast majority of his stories about events they experienced were genuine and had happened just as Halliburton described them.
Richard’s father, Wesley, who was his sometime editor and full time defender, also commented that his son sometimes threw a bit of “red paint” on his narratives to make them sound more dramatic and exciting but, like Stephens, he pointed to the originality and daring of his son’s many genuine adventures as a sort of compensation.
For the most part Halliburton ignored the ridicule of the Press over the years but he deeply resented their wholesale labeling of all his adventures as bogus. He finally lost his cool and struck back at those critics in a 1937 Sunday newspaper supplement in which he categorically countered the charges of exaggeration for many of his most memorable feats.
In my biography of Halliburton, “A Shooting Star Meets the Well of Death, Why and How Richard Halliburton Conquered the World,” I quoted many details of his article in a whole chapter in which I scrutinized his spirited defense.
I found his protests were logical and convincing but because he put them to print so long after the fact they probably didn’t alter the opinions of many of his critics. In my view it was unfortunate that he had to make this public defense of his claims at all, considering that he accomplished so many feats of considerable consequence. I summed up my feeling of regret this way in my book:
“But even his most ardent supporters would have to admit there were occasions when Halliburton was selectively objective when he wrote about his experiences. For a man whose life was chock-full of legitimate feats of daring and courageous accomplishments, his occasional inventiveness is unfortunate because it caused the line between fiction and reality as he reported it to always be blurred.”
What do you think? Was Halliburton an opportunistic showman out to bilk his millions of followers or was he just “guilty” of being too exuberant in tossing too much red paint on otherwise genuinely thrilling adventures to make them even more entertaining?
William R. Taylor, author.
Halliburton's six-chapter treatment of his Devil's Island interlude in his third book, New Worlds to Conquer, was an example of how he could quickly alternate between light-hearted gambits such as his tours with Nino the monkey as an itinerant organ grinder and starkly somber subjects such as his exposures of the infamous French penal colony. My book, A Shooting Star Meets the Well of Death, Why and How Richard Halliburton Conquered the World, relates how by ruse he gained access to that hell hole, obtained information from prisoners, and was shaken by the results of the wretched conditions he exposed.
His treatment of the sprawling prison is worth closer examination, both for his guile in finding a way to place himself there at all and for the effect it had on those French officials who allowed him free access.
He arrived at Cayenne, the capital of French Guyana, on the first plane ever to land there, a flying boat making a fueling stop on a 1929 inaugural flight from New York to Buenos Aires. This was one year before air mail would begin to be flown from Miami to South America. Knowing the French were always wary of prying eyes toward their harshly administered penal colony and that they would never have granted a writer the chance to visit if asked, he masqueraded as a temporarily left-behind member of the plane’s crew. His guise as an aviator, an adventurous rarity in those days, automatically conferred on him celebrity status. The ruse worked well. He was feted by the Commandant himself, invited to stay as a house guest, and given carte blanche to wander wherever among the islands as he desired. Wander he did for a number of weeks, poking into the squalid corners of the several islands of the penal archipelago and surreptitiously recording horrific tales of mistreatment as endured by prisoners. By bribing the guards, he was able to obtain a convict's suit and to spend nights somewhat uncomfortably, if not dangerously, among the wretched prisoners. He saw, smelled and heard their abject misery firsthand. He also spent a week as a doctor's aide in the dispensary, binding wounds, performing menial tasks and recording more horror stories.
That the six Devil’s Island chapters he wrote were starkly somber and filled with sordid tales told by the hapless unfortunates he encountered was hardly a surprise. For years there had been rumors and reports about utter privation and cruelty in that penal colony. He chronicled what he saw and heard objectively and vividly. The results were serialized in Ladies Home Journal magazine and later in his book New Worlds to Conquer. Although these terrible conditions had been known to exist for years, the glaring publicity generated by Halliburton's writings brought about the sacking of the Commandant and hasty changes.
In an October letter, he wrote, "I want to do another Devil's Island story, using the manuscript and letters I've received. A flock of them came yesterday, some informing me that the kindly old commandant of the islands had been court-martialed because of my visit. He'll probably be shot when my book appears! I'm distressed. The letters from his sister and daughter are pathetic." But he was also comforted by letters of gratitude from relatives of prisoners and prisoners themselves praising the changes his expose had produced on their behalf. Better food became available because graft was reduced and better living conditions brought on by the glare of publicity at least ameliorated the convicts’ miserable existence. He never got around to writing that second story but there was no doubt that his first efforts had a profound impact and led to significant, more humane conditions for the unfortunates imprisoned there.
William R. Taylor www.rhalliburtonstar.com.
The choice of the rugged, reliable Stearman C3B aircraft for the eighteen month around the world flight of adventure and exploration was an excellent choice by Richard Halliburton and Moye Stephens, although there were initial problems brought on by good intentions of a well-meaning mechanic. As I recounted in my book, “A Shooting Star Meets the Well of Death, Why and How Richard Halliburton Conquered the World,” it happened this way.
“In November of 1930, the plane Richard finally settled on was the open-cockpit, two-winged Stearman that Stephens recommended for the short runways and rugged landing fields they would encounter. The lengthy search for pilot and plane was finally over.
He had the plane painted in keeping with his exuberant, free spirit. In contrast to the gold of the wings and tail, the body was painted scarlet, the motor and its cowling a shiny black, and the legend The Flying Carpet emblazoned along the sides in black on a golden stripe.
After a long wrangle over aviation fuel, Shell Oil Company finally agreed to provide it throughout the flight at wholesale prices then refund the money if Halliburton and his pilot survived the trip.
Their long and involved preparations for the air travel adventure came to fruition at the end of January, 1931. They flew their gaudily painted craft to New York City where they packed it aboard a liner bound for Europe. But the flight east was not without incident, according to Moye’s son. (I had interviewed Moye Stephens Jr. about the flight in 1999 – author).
‘They had something like five forced landings going across the United States. The plane and the power plant were purchased separately. They put oversize wheels on the plane and a larger Wright engine than the Stearman normally had. It was the same 225 horsepower model Lindbergh used in his Spirit of St. Louis. At that time it was one of the most reliable radial engines around. They had it rebuilt in Southern California. The man who worked on it knew my father and knew what he was going to do so he thought he would do him a favor. He added a liquid gasket material to the gland duct seals on the pushrod housings. What happened as a result was, when the cylinders heated up, the gasket material chemically reacted with the gland packing material. Then it would turn sticky and grab the push rods. Eventually it would hold the valves open. When about four cylinders had their valves held open, the engine would quit. After they reached New York, my Dad took the plane up to the Wright factory. It took them a day or so to analyze what was going on but once they figured it out they rectified it and that was the only problem they had with the plane.’
Soon after the sticky valve problem was fixed, the plane was crated and loaded aboard the Majestic which would take the colorful craft and its crew to England.”
Considering the fact that the plane faithfully transported Halliburton and Stephens some 33,000 plus miles through the great weather extremes, including wet and dry, encountered in jungles, deserts, extreme high and low altitudes, it was a remarkably reliable mechanical performance.
William R. Taylor.
According to most accounts, the Sea Dragon disaster was brought on by Halliburton’s trifling with the basic construction details of the classical sea-worthy Chinese junk design such as adding skylights for illumination below deck and other well-intended but impractical variations as a diesel motor and too high a poop deck. A lack of funds and lack of time to test and revise were contributors also. Most of these variations are discussed in interviews as shown below from my book, “A Shooting Star Meets the Well of Death, Why and How Richard Halliburton Conquered the World.”
In a 1990 interview in Meadows of Dan, Virginia with Richard Halliburton‘s closest surviving relative, first cousin Juliet Halliburton Davis, his misgivings about the finances of the ill-fated junk trip came to surface. " Richard came to visit me in Greensboro in 1938 or thereabouts. He was lecturing in the area. He told me about his plans to sail a junk from China to San Francisco. I was very concerned about the danger and I told him so. He seemed fatigued, serious, and somewhat worried about the trip. 'I have to do it for the money,' he confided to me. He said he was tired and that the public was no longer intrigued by his exploits and the time had passed when people were interested in reading about travel to faraway places."
There was little doubt that ever increasing debt was a major factor that drove him to continue his attempt to cross the Pacific to the San Francisco Exposition in that beautiful but flawed junk. He was sure that once tied up at the Exposition he could recoup his losses, revive his fading fame, capitalize on the publicity, and produce another best-seller dealing with the adventure.
As Bill Alexander told me in a 1994 Hollywood Hills interview, he was in Connecticut on an architectural commission when he heard of the Sea Dragon's disappearance. He was quick to point to the weighty engine as the probable cause. "Why would they put that huge engine in there? Junks are sailing vessels. They don't need engines. Take a look at that monster," he said, pulling a picture from his filing cabinet of several men winching a huge slab of metal about six feet high, five feet long and three feet wide into the hold of the ill-fated ship. "It probably broke loose in the storm and knocked a hole in the hull," he complained.
Alexander was not the only doom-sayer as far as Halliburton’s custom designed junk was concerned. Gordon Torrey, a young but experienced sailor from Maine and Dartmouth, who traveled to Hong Kong to be a member of the Sea Dragon’s crew, chose not to sail once he took a close look at the craft with an experienced eye.
Torrey's abrupt decision not to sail with Halliburton after arriving with the rest of the crew in Hong Kong was a closely guarded story. Halliburton hoped the young mariner's predictions that Sea Dragon would never survive the ocean because of the design modifications Richard had made to the ship and because of the inexperience of the crew would not come true. Torrey was quite knowledgeable but hopefully was way off the mark as far as the structural integrity of the ship was concerned, Halliburton hoped. But though Halliburton’s design changes might have adversely affected the vessel’s seaworthiness, he thought they were worth the gamble. After all, hadn’t he always challenged convention and come out on top?
Chief Officer Dale E. Collins of the liner President Coolidge had good things to say about the junk’s construction but quickly added his concerns about the size and weight of the masts in the same breath. "I was aboard the Sea Dragon before and after her completion and she certainly seemed to be a sturdy craft and well-constructed. Her masts, especially the main mast, appeared very heavy and loft in proportion to the size of the junk. Her poop deck was about ten feet higher than most Chinese junks of this type due to the fact that they wanted a galley, radio and chart room located there."
John “Bru” Potter echoed the observation about the heaviness of the masts during an interview with the author in 1994 as he described how he acquired the serious injury that caused the Sea Dragon to return to Hong Kong, terminating the first attempt to cross the Pacific. He also was critical of the ship’s overall seaworthiness and was not very complimentary about Captain Welch. “She was very touchy and not stable at all with all those great, big, heavy wooden masts and all those transverse battens in the sail. There was a lot of weight up aloft and she wouldn’t go to windward at all. As far as the tiller goes, it was eighteen feet long and we had to move it with a block and tackle. You can imagine how hard it was to keep her on a course with a person on each side of it with a block and tackle. The guy who was on the tiller with me let it come up into the wind and the ‘main’ moved, slugged me in my middle and busted my pancreas and some ribs. That’s why they took me back to Hong Kong.
“The ship was very unstable and not at all seaworthy. I don’t like to bad mouth anything but I ‘ve thought about it a lot, in retrospect of course.”
Sea Dragon, the most beautiful Chinese junk ever to sail, had wallowed dangerously and leaked on their rocky, short-lived shakedown cruise back in January of 1939. The hasty addition of ten tons of concrete ballast might have ameliorated the problem but there had been no time to test its effect. All the leaks hopefully had been plugged afterward, the keel tarred, and repairs to the steering gear made. The ship was far more seaworthy than before, Halliburton assured his parents a few short weeks previous in a March 3 letter. However, he wished he had actually had the time to add the fin keel he had fibbed about in a letter just to reassure them. It would have minimized the dangerous rolling they had encountered in past brief tests. Any rising seas would surely test its absence as it would test the mettle of the mostly amateur crew, Halliburton feared.
The monster typhoon of March 23, 1939 did indeed test the mettle of the crew and, more importantly, the effects of Halliburton’s design changes. Unfortunately, a massive but delayed search by U.S. Navy planes and ships almost two months later yielded no clues as to the ultimate fate of the men or the Sea Dragon, the most beautiful Chinese junk ever built - in spite of its fatal flaws.
In my biography of Richard Halliburton, “A Shooting Star Meets the Well of Death,” I quoted part of my 1990 interview with his first cousin, Juliet Halliburton Davis, concerning her somewhat astonishing report that both Richard and his mother had told her of his intention to marry a woman named Mary Lou Davis.* I was anxious to get the details right from the source.
"Yes.” Juliet replied, “I also included that in the letter I wrote to Smithsonian magazine after they published the article about Richard recently. My information on the woman who Richard introduced to his parents as the one he intended to marry came from Aunt Nelle (Richard’s mother) and very briefly from Richard himself. He talked about having a fence put up along the edges of his property in Laguna so her (Mary Lou’s) young son wouldn't accidentally fall off."
Michael Blankenship, who accompanied me during the interview, was keenly interested in this subject too. Of all the sources we both had, Juliet was the only one from which we heard this story about Richard.
"The Laguna woman,” Blankenship commented, “apparently, was Mary Lou Davis who had a young son, Tommy, to whom Richard was very attached. Mary Lou also had a teenage daughter, Dorothy. I have a number of pictures of them taken at Hangover by Bill Alexander in 1939 or 1940. One shows the boy with a model of the Sea Dragon Richard sent him. Richard had also asked Bobbs-Merrill in a 1939 letter to send Tommy a copy of his new Marvels book, The Orient."
Juliet continued. "Richard’s parents met her while they were visiting Richard in California. Aunt Nelle did not seem to take kindly to the marriage idea but that may have been because the lady in question had a previous marriage and was a working woman - not a society girl. Aunt Nelle referred to her as a 'shirtwaist' person."
The term puzzled me. "And just what is a 'shirtwaist person'?"
"Years ago, a woman who wore a 'shirtwaist' was a working person and therefore, in Aunt Nelle's opinion, someone of 'lesser' social standing. She had higher aims in mind for her son. The description was her way of showing disapproval."
"It's possible Richard introduced Mary Lou as someone he was thinking of marrying just to get his parents off his back and to disguise his gay lifestyle," Michael suggested.
"That could be,” Juliet observed, then added, "As far as the subject of marriage is concerned, there was a rich society girl in Memphis who was very interested in Richard. She used to call Aunt Nelle asking when he would be returning from his trips, but he never seemed to be very interested."
In 1994 when I visited Bill Alexander, Halliburton’s good friend and architect of Hangover House, I asked him what he knew about Juliet’s report.
"Richard's cousin Juliet said he told his parents he was going to marry Mary Lou Davis, the woman who lived at Hangover with her two children. Do you know anything about that?"
"That’s unlikely. Richard knew them, of course. He even sent a Sea Dragon model to her young son. But as for being close to her, where would he have found the time? He was usually lecturing or in San Francisco getting organized for the junk trip."
"Did he know them before they moved into Hangover?"
"I don't think so. I think Mooney found them. They were hired as caretakers, working for a real estate company or something. I visited them after the Sea Dragon went down but I don't remember much about them except that they were very nice people. Mrs. Davis told me the Halliburtons came out to California after Richard disappeared, took one brief look at the house then left. Wesley hated the place.”
On one of my visits to Princeton’s Firestone Library to research their collection of Halliburton letters, I felt there was a need to pay especially careful attention to the letters of 1937 through 1939, to search for any light that could be shed on the mystery of Mary Lou Davis and Richard’s possible marriage plans with her as described by his cousin Juliet.
Disappointingly, I found no references to Mrs. Davis at all. The only mention found of ANY Davis family member during many, many hours of careful reading was in a 1938 Hong Kong letter from Richard to David Laurence Chambers in which he requested that a copy of one of the Marvels books be sent to Mary Lou’s son Tommy in Laguna.
Tommy Davis may still be alive at 86 or so and may have the answer to the mystery. I tried many times to track him down but never succeeded. If you are out there Tommy, please contact me.
*Per 1940 Federal Census, names of the 3 people living at Hangover were Dorothy, 40 (head), Meredith, 18 (daughter) and Tom B.
Mysteries, deceptions, turmoil, vicissitudes, delays and architectural challenges – they all dogged the construction and later history of Halliburton’s famed Hangover House in Laguna Beach from the time it was built in 1937-38 until the present. I took this photograph while visiting the unique structure in 1994 along with Bill Alexander, Hangover’s architect and builder. Unfortunately, Halliburton was only able to spend eight weeks living in this monumental structure before he met an untimely death in a ferocious 1939 Pacific storm that swallowed his custom built Chinese junk, the Sea Dragon.
Halliburton alternately excoriated Alexander for delays and cost overruns while he spun a much more harmonious tale about the place in letters to his parents.
Hangover’s involved story is told in chapters of my book, “A Shooting Star Meets the Well of Death, Why and How Richard Halliburton Conquered the World,” available on Amazon and most bookstores.
Globe trotter Richard Halliburton enjoyed unique Christmas Eves during his many world trips but few provided the contrasts he encountered as those of 1921 and 1922 prior to his first book, “The Royal Road to Romance.” The differences in his mental state between the two occasions might have been because of the stark differences in climate or, on the other hand, might be a reflection of how his outlook had changed due to his year’s encounters with reality.
Quotes from my book, “A Shooting Star Meets the Well of Death, Why and How Richard Halliburton Conquered the World,” show the changes from lyrical to somber between the 1921 and 1922 events. As I recounted in my book, the former was leisurely and lyrical.
“He even spent a good part of Christmas Eve alone at the Alhambra wandering among the old battlements while he wistfully communed with the spirits of dead Moors. While doing so he was amazed there were no others paying homage along with him on that chilly night.
“He was always surprised that something of extraordinary beauty, a song, a statue, a building like the Alhambra could stir his emotions so much. It could have been, of course, that it was a case of classic symmetry that called out to him, commanding his admiration. Alternately, he wondered whether he was so moved by this structure because of the warm memories generated by stories of fabled castles told him by his parents and Ammudder when he was a boy or was it because he had been educated to appreciate beautiful things? He wondered how a caveman, uneducated and never exposed to such beautiful symmetry would have reacted if he had wandered out of the brush and suddenly laid eyes on such an architectural masterpiece. Would he be as deeply moved or would he just stare dumbly at the masterpiece then move on because he had no standard to compare it to?
“He pondered this and his inner contentment as he walked, then decided he was becoming too philosophical. The remainder of the night he passed with live Christians, celebrating Yuletide mass in the huge cathedral, it too a former Moorish structure.”
Conversely, Halliburton’s 1922 Yuletide experience came while engulfed in frigid temperatures and not so romantic or inspiring an environment as he struggled among the teeming masses of people displaced by the Russian revolution. As set forth in my book;
“He spent his second Christmas Eve away from home in the frozen port of Harbin, enduring the piteous crush of Russian Orthodox refugees at Holy Mass. From Harbin he shivered on the train to Vladivostok where he passed a somber several days observing a dismal mix of Cossacks, more Russian refugees, and ardent Bolsheviks balefully regarding each other. Appropriately enough, his brief visit to Russia ended in a New Year’s blizzard. “
His spirits and outlook would soon revert to his usually upbeat mood as his ship neared Japan where he would become the first person to climb Fuji alone in the winter time.
William R. Taylor www.rhalliburtonstar.com
I interviewed affable James Cortese, retired Sunday Editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, in May of 1989. He had written a book about Halliburton, Richard Halliburton’s Royal Road, and was known to be a fount of knowledge about the adventurer/author. He was the only person I knew of who had roller-skated across Texas - and he did it the long way. In my biography of Halliburton, A Shooting Star Meets the Well of Death, Why and How Richard Halliburton Conquered the World, I recounted part of that interview as follows:
“Cortese’s study was everything you would expect of a retired newspaper man. Books, souvenirs and nostalgic clutter co-existed in equal splendor. One item that caught my eye immediately was a cartoon prominently displayed on a wall portraying a much younger Cortese on roller skates. He anticipated my question.
“Halliburton got into my blood early and goaded me into adventurous, offbeat things. That cartoon is about my roller skating jaunt across Texas—the long way. Took me six weeks.”
“That certainly qualifies as an ‘adventurous and offbeat thing.’ What were some of the others?”
“I played ‘Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony’ at dawn in the Grand Canyon, gave the Gettysburg address from the same spot as Lincoln, walked up the steps to the top of the Empire State Building instead of taking the elevator and spent a week in a New Jersey nudist colony. I also swam across the Mississippi before I was forty.”
Clearly, Cortese had not been just an armchair adventurer.
“How did you ever get involved with Wesley Halliburton and what prompted you to write your book?”
“At the Commercial Appeal, where I worked for many years, there was a regular stream of people who inquired about Richard. Staff members referred them to me. If they seemed sincere, not just curious fans, I would call Wesley and maybe take them out to his house. He never turned anyone down and was always eager to discuss his son. Many talked of wanting to follow in Richard’s footsteps. Wesley never discouraged any of them. The old man and I hit it off well from the start. From these occasional meetings grew a warm relationship. In fact, we became so close that my wife Anne and I named one of our sons ‘Michael Wesley’ in his honor.”
A warm friendship with Jim grew out that first encounter and provided many more worthwhile contacts for me to follow up on during my quest to learn more about Halliburton. The other interviewees provided valuable insights but none had emulated Richard’s adventuring spirit more energetically or fully than James Cortese.
As was the case with fellow Memphian Elvis Presley, the news of Richard Halliburton’s untimely disappearance was hard to accept by followers and detractors alike. Speculations abounded as to whether his fondness for the spectacular might have prompted him to stage a dramatic faux death for publicity purposes and that he would miraculously turn up after all. As I recounted in my book, A Shooting Star Meets the Well of Death, Why and How Richard Halliburton Conquered the World;
“The disappearance of the Sea Dragon did not trigger an immediate search. In fact, it wasn't until a full six weeks had passed that the U. S. Navy rather reluctantly mounted one. Recriminations concerning the costs of the massive and unsuccessful search for Amelia Earhart almost two years previous were still on the minds of Depression-strapped politicos. In addition, there were those who wouldn't have put it past Halliburton to have staged a ’disappearance’ to generate additional publicity for his stint at the 1939 San Francisco Exposition. There had been reports that he had confided in friends before the voyage that he ‘might just disappear.’ ”
There were other, more off the wall speculations, some of which were quite bizarre like the one which suggested that he might be emulating Rip Van Winkle and would pop up again twenty years later then write a book about it. One less bizarre but still quite off the wall was as recalled in my book;
“The Halliburton legend did not die slowly. Reports of sightings kept cropping up. In a letter sent to Bill Alexander by a mutual acquaintance some time after Halliburton's disappearance came this fanciful surmise. ‘We keep hearing strange rumors about Halliburton - the latest being that they were in Mexico - having brought over a cargo of opium and couldn't get back into the United States - I didn't understand quite why - but that one's supposed to have come from two sources - I don't know what to think - I still keep hoping Paul's alive, naturally --.‘ ”
As time passed it became obvious that all speculation, bizarre and otherwise, was unfortunately just that. An American icon of his times was irretrievably gone. The last line, "The rest is silence," in the1940 Bobbs Merrill book composed chiefly of his letters to his beloved parents, Richard Halliburton His Story of His Life’s Adventure, aptly sums up the ultimate truth.
The audience for a lecture I was giving about Halliburton recently was a diverse group. Some not familiar with his colorful exploits and exciting books hung on my every word in surprise and wonderment. Others who had previously thrilled to his adventures nodded knowingly as if hearing welcome news of an old friend. The highlight for me though was when one lady surprised and pleased me with the news that her Home Schooling group used Halliburton’s Books of Marvels (the Occident and the Orient) as guides to teach young people about geography and history. She added that Home Schooling groups all over the country did the same. In spite of the years of research I had spent exploring his colorful life I had never come across this fact. But on reflection I was not surprised. As a youngster I had discovered Halliburton’s Books of Marvels in a school library and the world opened up to me as it had never before. Macchu Piccu, Angkor Wat, the colossal statue of Helios at Rhodes, the intriguing story of Toussant L’Ovedture, the black king of Haiti and his mountain redoubt, the sad story of Maximilian and Carlotta in Mexico plus many more exciting tales had thrilled and educated me. It made happy to hear that the ghost of Halliburton was still working his magic on new generations.
I took this picture of Bill Alexander in 1994 during a fast-paced but delightful interview session for my book. Bill was showing me an impressive collection of awards he had received for supporting the arts in the Los Angeles area and beyond. The imposing document in his hands, signed by the Mayor, was
awarded for his long time support of Arts in general. In the background, among a proliferation of other awards, is a Certificate of Merit from Friends of Music. Arts admirer and supporter was one of the many titles Bill could genuinely claim. Others were, architect, owner/operator of popular art/antique shop "The Mart," movie bit actor, bon vivant, and who knows what else. Bill was a fascinating spinner of tales who left us too early.
Not a very good picture but you can spot Halliburton right in the middle of it, plunging down 70 feet into The Mayan Well of Death. He did it twice - the second time so someone could document the event so his detractors couldn't claim he falsified the accomplishment. Of course these days the photo would be easy to create but in 1928 the process would have been much more challenging. Miraculously, Halliburton escaped serious injury while making those impetuous plunges but did acquire a painful shoulder in the process.
Halliburton was a "shooting star" because he burst upon the world scene unexpectedly and brilliantly in 1925 when his first trail blazing travel/adventure book THE ROYAL ROAD TO ROMANCE was published. He was the Pied Piper to millions the world over, spewing forth seven best-sellers filled with adventure, history, geography, poetry, physical feats, and humor until 1939 when his gaudily beautiful Chinese junk SEA DRAGON was lost in a massive Pacific storm. The onset of World War II insured a quick oblivion to the memory of his frenzied but thoroughly entertaining passage across the imaginations of the world's armchair travelers and adventurers. His life was brief and brilliant - like a shooting star - and he "met" the Well of Death not once but twice.
Spurred on by a tip from William Stoneman, Moscow correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, Richard eagerly rushed off to the Siberian city of Sverdlovsk, formerly Ekatrinberg, to search for Peter Zacharovitch Ermakov who was rumored to be one of the assassins of the Romanov family. When he found Ermakov, the man claimed to be on his deathbed and seemed anxious to blurt out as he was dying the “true story” in his own words of the Romanovs’ fate and the disposal of their remains. It was a dramatic performance filled with drama, horror, and gore. Halliburton captured it well in all its graphic details. He did not know the recitation was laced with half truths and that the disposal of the Romanovs and heir retainers’ corpses was purposefully misstated for political and other reasons. He also did not know that Ermakov was faking his “terminal” illness.
After the Russian coughed out the horrific chain of events that produced the sea of blood in the murder house, he bragged of how they disposed of the remains. Halliburton captured it and the whole tragic story of the Romanovs in six chapters of his fifth book, Seven League Boots. From A Shooting Star Meets the Well of Death, Why and How Richard Halliburton Conquered the World.