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.