The Last Adventure of Richard Halliburton, the Forgotten Hero of 1930s America

Seventy-five years ago, the idol of America’s youth set out on what would be his final journey

Richard Halliburton in Hong Kong
Richard Halliburton in Hong Kong. Courtesy of the Michael E. Blankenship Collection in the Halliburton Archives, Rhodes College

Near the height of his fame in 1930, the travel writer and adventurer Richard Halliburton received a singular honor: Vanity Fair put him on its list of celebrities “We nominate for oblivion.”

In bestowing the prize, the magazine cited Halliburton for making “a glorious racket out of Dauntless Youth,” with tales it called “transparently bogus.” To be fair, it also admitted that Halliburton’s books were “marvelously readable… extremely popular, and have made their author a millionaire.”

As for oblivion, the magazine would ultimately get its wish. Today, except for readers who have stumbled across a cobwebby Halliburton book in their grandparents’ attic, he is all but forgotten.

It didn’t help that within a decade of Vanity Fair’s put-down, Halliburton achieved a fatal dose of oblivion, vanishing without a trace in the sinking of a Chinese junk in March 1939. He had just recently turned 39.

Still, Halliburton managed to pack a lot into his relatively brief lifetime, following a philosophy he expressed in his first book, 1925’s The Royal Road to Romance. “Let those who wish have their respectability,” he wrote. “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.”

That’s pretty much what he did from the day he left college in 1921, creating a life of perpetual motion he chronicled in books with titles like The Glorious Adventure and New Worlds to Conquer, numerous magazine and newspaper articles, and as many as 50 lectures a month.

Along the way, he climbed the Matterhorn, got himself incarcerated at Devil’s Island, hung out with the French Foreign Legion, spent a night atop the Great Pyramid, rode an elephant through the Alps a la Hannibal, played Robinson Crusoe on his own desert island, retraced the path of Odysseus, met pirates and headhunters, and bought a two-seater airplane he named the Flying Carpet and flew off to Timbuktu. He swam the Nile, the Panama Canal, the Grand Canal of Venice, and even the reflecting pool at the Taj Mahal. Indeed, he seemed to find it nearly impossible to keep his clothes on in the presence of water.

Richard Halliburton, 1934-35. Courtesy of the Michael E. Blankenship Collection in the Halliburton Archives, Rhodes College
Richard Halliburton operates the electric drill to help with some work on the Sea Dragon. Courtesy of the Michael E. Blankenship Collection in the Halliburton Archives, Rhodes College
Richard Halliburton in Hong Kong, where the Sea Dragon was built. Courtesy of the Michael E. Blankenship Collection in the Halliburton Archives, Rhodes College
Richard Halliburton in Bailey's Shipyard, where the Sea Dragon was built. Courtesy of the Michael E. Blankenship Collection in the Halliburton Archives, Rhodes College
The Sea Dragon in Bailey's Shipyard in Hong Kong. Courtesy of the Michael E. Blankenship Collection in the Halliburton Archives, Rhodes College

Though Princeton educated and the son of well-off Memphis parents, Halliburton liked to characterize himself as vagabond and traveled on as little money as possible. He was especially frugal when it came to railroad tickets, often not buying them at all and defying train conductors to do something about it. Passing through India, he recalled, “One particularly obnoxious collector would have pushed me bodily off the train had I not pushed him off first.” 

Halliburton’s romantic notions of travel seem to have had an especially enchanting effect on the youth of his day. Among his young fans: Lady Bird Johnson, Lenny Bruce, and Vince Lombardi. Walter Cronkite caught one of Halliburton’s lectures as a young college student and credited it with convincing him that that journalism could be a glamorous career. “He was a daring adventurer-journalist and best-selling author, as devilishly handsome as a movie star,” Cronkite recalled, and he “commanded his audience with superb theatricality.”

The literary critic Susan Sontag discovered Halliburton at age 7 and claimed his works were “surely among the most important books of my life” in her 2001 essay collection, Where the Stress Falls. Halliburton, she wrote, “had devised for himself a life of being forever young and on the move… my first vision of what I thought had to be the most privileged of lives, that of a writer.”

Halliburton was not to everyone’s taste, however. Many critics found his boyish exuberance and occasionally purple prose style a bit much. Consider, for example, his description of waking up one morning in Barcelona to the sounds of an Algerian orchestra playing in a nearby square:

“Such stirring music was irresistible,” he wrote. “I waltzed out of bed, hornpiped to my bath, boleroed into my clothes, fandangoed to breakfast, cancaned out the front door, and mazurkaed down the street in search of those mad, mad pipes.”

Or this one, about setting sail in his Chinese junk:

“The Sea Dragon… had turned into a fantasy of a ship, a picture of a dream-junk from some ancient Chinese painting, a poetry-ship devoid of weight and substance, gliding with bright-hued sails across a silver ocean to a magic land.”

Halliburton’s less than macho prose seems to have been particularly grating to the ever-macho Ernest Hemingway. As a gag, he once sent Halliburton’s fellow Princetonian F. Scott Fitzgerald a picture of himself inscribed, “To Scott from his old bedfellow Richard Halliburton. Princeton 1931.”In a letter after Halliburton’s death, Hemingway dismissed him as “the deceased Ladies Home Journal adventurer.”

Many others questioned whether Halliburton embellished his adventures or simply made some of them up—a reputation that would later play a role in his tragic death.  

What might have been Halliburton’s greatest adventure began in 1936, inspired in part by Art Linkletter, then a young promoter but later to become a television celebrity. Linkletter was working for the San Francisco World’s Fair, which needed a special event to mark its opening day. What better attraction than to have the world-famous adventurer pull up in his Chinese junk, just arrived from across the Pacific.

Linkletter recalled their meeting in his 1960 memoir, Confessions of a Happy Man. “I can still see him sitting there—lean, bronzed by the sun, impeccably groomed and tailored,” he wrote, “The starched cuffs of his shirt protruded two inches from the sleeves, and there was a silk handkerchief tucked into one cuff.”

When a colleague of Linkletter asked Halliburton if he harbored any doubts about the triphe replied with characteristic self-assurance: “None at all.”

The plan was for Halliburton and his crew to sail a junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco, where it would dock and become a part of the exhibition, taking fairgoers on cruises around the San Francisco Bay. Halliburton would also write articles as the adventure progressed, posting them from ports along the route, and presumably yet another bestseller after the voyage ended. Once word got out, nearly 1,000 would-be adventurers applied to join his crew, according to Gerry Max, author of Horizon Chasers, a dual biography of Halliburton and his longtime companion Paul Mooney.

After numerous delays in the building of the ship and one failed attempt at a voyage, the Sea Dragon finally set sail from Hong Kong on March 4, 1939. It was already too late to make the fair’s opening, which had happened a month earlier.

“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,” Halliburton had written in an article that January. “Nothing that can happen on our voyage to San Francisco can possibly upset me now,” he added.

Aboard, in addition to Halliburton and Mooney, were about 12 other men; no one knows for sure, according to author Max. Also along for the ride was a pair of black Chow puppies. Halliburton had wanted to bring a panda on the voyage but learned it would get too seasick.

Some two and a half weeks into what would have been a three-month trip, the Sea Dragon hit a monster storm, with gale-force winds and estimated 40- to 50-foot waves. Among its last radio messages, sent by the ship’s captain but sounding a good deal like Halliburton, concluded: “HAVING WONDERFUL TIME WISH YOU WERE HERE INSTEAD OF ME.” Later that day radio contact with the Sea Dragon was lost.

The Coast Guard in Honolulu declined to search for Halliburton’s missing junk, possibly suspecting his disappearance was just another of his well-known publicity stunts, author Jonathan Root speculated in his 1965 biography, Halliburton: The Magnificent Myth. He had faked his drowning before, causing The New York Times to report in 1925 that he was feared dead.

It wasn’t until May that the Navy finally sent a cruiser and four seaplanes to look; they found nothing. A year later the crew of an ocean liner spotted what appeared to be a chunk of the Sea Dragon’s rudder, though that was never confirmed.

Like Amelia Earhart, who had vanished two years earlier, Halliburton’s disappearance gave rise to all kinds of rumors, and many fans clung to the hope that he might still turn up alive. Unlike Earhart, however, the public soon lost interest in Halliburton, probably because the harsh realities of World War II made the world seem less romantic and his antics seem silly.

But he’d had a good run. “Halliburton had his 15 years, rather than 15 minutes, of fame,” author Max points out.

Struggling to sum up Halliburton’s life just a year after his death, Time magazine wrote that, “Halliburton was something more than a bad writer, a rather hard-to-take public figure. He was an appealing, confused individual, a U.S. phenomenon, a U.S. symbol."

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