He was the most successful celebrity travel writer and adventurer of his generation and 75 years ago this week Richard Halliburton’s ultimate adventure – a trip in a sailing junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco – ended in tragedy.
Halliburton was what we now might call an adrenalin junkie, a publicity seeker and a professional celebrity, but he was also an accomplished writer whose bestselling books introduced international travel to thousands of homes in Middle America during the interwar years.
Those books narrate in enthusiastic Boys’ Own prose how the swashbuckling explorer swims the entire length of the Panama Canal, secures the deathbed confession from the executioner of the Russian royal family, follows in the footsteps of Carthaginian general Hannibal by riding an elephant over the Alps and photographs Mount Everest from a biplane.
Considering he was a charismatic adventurer who courted publicity and enjoyed massive international fame, it is bewildering that, unlike contemporaries Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, his name faded from public attention so quickly. He spent the final few months of his life in Hong Kong but hardly anyone here has heard of Richard Halliburton.
He turned his travel and adventures into a lucrative business, with bestselling books, newspaper serialisations and lucrative lecture tours. He was invited to meet United States president Herbert Hoover, rubbed shoulders with senators and gossip columns linked him with high-profile movie stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Basil Rathbone and Charlie Chaplin. With his dashing good looks he was invited to star in his own Hollywood movie and dined with leading literary figures such as fellow Princeton University student F. Scott Fitzgerald. Renowned television news anchor Walter Cronkite, American intellectual Susan Sontag and travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux have all acknowledged Halliburton as a major influence on their professional lives, but you rarely see his work on the shelves of modern bookshops.
As if the life and personality of Halliburton needed any further embellishment, he was bisexual in an era when handsome macho adventurers in the mould of Indiana Jones were strictly heterosexual, at least as far as their adoring audiences were concerned.
Seventy-five years ago, Halliburton was at the height of his fame. Before setting sail for California, he was to be found drinking grenadine and soda in the Hong Kong Hotel – according to Don’t Die in Bed, a biography of Halliburton by John H. Alt – and preparing for his biggest adventure yet.
With his life partner, writer Paul Mooney, he left Victoria Harbour in a Kowloon-built sailing junk called Sea Dragon and was never seen again.
The big adventurer did not get to celebrate his 40th birthday.
“Halliburton introduced me as a child to literature, history and geography through his Books of Marvels,” says Gerry Max, author of Horizon Chasers, another biography of Halliburton, and a member of Sunflower Circle Productions, a small team of American authors, filmmakers and researchers who want to commemorate the ill-fated voyage of the Sea Dragon. “I read them or had them read to me in the late 1940s and early 50s; they are still among the best such books for young adults.”
Halliburton was described by his Princeton classmates as “an original” who rejected his father’s pleas to adopt an “even tenor”, settle down and raise a family in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. He defied convention and expressed an unquenchable thirst for the unknown and the dangerous. He was driven by impatience, by a great awareness of the ephemeral nature of life, perhaps explained by the sudden and untimely death of his younger brother from illness in 1917.
“Halliburton wanted to be remembered as the most-travelled man who had ever lived,” says Max.
As a 19-year-old he enlisted as an ordinary seaman on a steamer in New Orleans, having told his parents that he was seeing friends for the weekend.
Instead he took passage to Europe and went travelling on foot across the continent.
On graduating from Princeton, he set his goals on writing a travel book that would redefine the genre and introduce romance and adventure into every American sitting room. His first book, The Royal Road to Romance, published when he was only 25, reached The New York Times bestseller list and earned him more than US$70,000 in royalties.
“He dedicated his first book to his Princeton roommate, ‘whose sanity, consistency and respectability … drove [him] to this book’,” says Max.
Nearly 15 years (and eight books) later, Halliburton’s boyish enthusiasm for adventure was wearing thin but his love of a Hollywood lifestyle and the need to finance it was not. He and Mooney had built a lavish home in California, perched on top of a canyon overlooking the Pacific Ocean, called Hangover House, and the budget had run out of control. His publisher suggested a “Book of Marvels” series, which would bring the wonders of the world to schoolchildren. The books would be tied in with America’s latest civil engineering feats. The Bay and Golden Gate bridges, in San Francisco, opened in 1936 and 1937, respectively.
It was at a meeting with Walter Gaines Swanson, publicrelations manager for the new bridges and the Golden Gate International Exposition, to be opened in February 1939, that the idea was fashioned for a publicity stunt. The great Halliburton would sail in a traditional sailing junk from China to San Francisco and pass under the Golden Gate Bridge to a barrage of media attention, just as the exposition opened.
It was this that brought Halliburton back to Hong Kong. He had first visited in 1921, during an extended break from Princeton. During that first visit, while returning from a day trip to Macau, his steamer was attacked by pirates, who robbed him of all his belongings. Perhaps Hong Kong was an unlucky place for him, for the Sea Dragon project appeared doomed from the start.
He first looked for suitable junks in Xiamen before arriving in Hong Kong on October 22.
“Construction of the junk was marked by cost overruns, delays and engineering errors,” says Max.
As his boat was being built, Halliburton involved himself in the promotion of an orphanage in Kowloon, run by a woman from New York, and made trips to Tokyo and Canton, to try to obtain official permission from the Japanese military to permit the voyage.
By January 1939, Halliburton’s easy-going personality and positive attitude were being severely tested. His Kowloon boatbuilder, Fat Kau, was running overschedule and overbudget, Welch had little idea of boatbuilding and still less about people management while the exposition organisers were applying pressure to get the Sea Dragon to San Francisco as soon as possible.
Financing the project had also proved more challenging than expected.
The leading businessmen of San Francisco’s Chinatown could not see the attraction of a junk voyage and suggested a floating casino instead. Buick Motor did not want its brand associated with the word “junk” and no one in Hong Kong saw anything newsworthy in a type of vessel that was a ubiquitous sight here. Instead, the money was put up by wealthy friends and family, including the wife of Halliburton’s cousin, Erle Halliburton, founder of the US oil conglomerate that still bears his name.
When sea trials eventually commenced, the builder admitted he had never been to sea before and the vessel lurched and rolled at alarming rates even in moderate seas. Naval officers drinking at the Hong Kong Hotel delighted in teasing Halliburton that if his junk didn’t sink within five minutes of exiting the harbour, it would be blown out of the water by the pugnacious Japanese Navy, which was patrolling the South China Sea.
“Very low to the water and somewhat top heavy with the poop, as well as burdened with a 100-horse-power diesel engine, the junk had little chance going forward in weather in which the waves were five feet high, let alone 20 feet high,” says Max.
The Sea Dragon set sail for San Francisco on Saturday, February 4, but was back in port within five days. The crew had met strong winds and heavy seas in the Taiwan Strait and the junk did not respond well.
The first mate, John Potter, had given himself a hernia trying to reef the mainsail and Mooney had broken an ankle falling down a companionway ladder. The great Halliburton was looking at failure and embarrassment.
Any sailor who has experienced the interminable 40-knot winds that blow off the Penghu Islands, off the northwest coast of Taiwan, from October to March, will know this is probably the last place in Asia to test an inexperienced crew in a new vessel. In his report to his subscribers in the US, though, Halliburton applied a typically heroic spin.
“We swung the tiller with a mighty swing, spun the ship about and set course back to China,” he wrote.
Back in Hong Kong, crewmembers were taken to hospital while others retired gracefully and took the next steamer back to the United States.
Numerous vessel modifications were ordered. Those who remained had a bad feeling about the vessel and an even worse one about Welch, who did not seem to have the experience and know-how to match his CV. He also managed to alienate everyone on board, including Halliburton.
At lunchtime on the day before his second departure, Halliburton would have seen the new giant Boeing clipper aircraft touching down on the water near Kai Tak, at the end of what the China Mail called “an epoch making flight from San Francisco”.
When the Sea Dragon slipped out of the harbour on Saturday, March 4, it seems very few people in Hong Kong even noticed. Beyond a small item headlined “Junk off at last” in the March 6 edition of the South China Morning Post, there was nothing reported about the boat’s departure in the local newspapers, which were full of stories of the build-up to the second world war in Europe and Japanese atrocities against Chinese civilians in Canton (Guangzhou). The front-page headlines of the China Mail on March 4 were of resistance failing in the Spanish civil war, the secret transfer of Jews from Danzig and the calling up of reservists in Italy. The new pope, Pius XII, was reported calling for world peace and, on a lighter note, Shirley Temple was starring in Little Miss Broadway at the Majestic cinema, in Kowloon.
“Unknown to a world preparing for war, the Sea Dragon and its crew, with some new members to replace the old [the crew included a German engineer, three local seamen – Sun Fook, Kiao Chu and Wang Ching-huo – and messboy Liu Ah-shu], quietly sailed off. A few people … waved it goodbye, as they might have done were it any ship,” writes Max, in Horizon Chasers.
The master of publicity seems to have overlooked the fact that, with a world war brewing and the Japanese army only a few miles away from Hong Kong, no one would be interested in his junk trip.
Of more pressing concern than public relations, though, was safety, and the weather forecast from the Hong Kong Observatory was for moderate to fresh easterly winds and overcast skies with drizzle and light rains. Not ideal for the beginning of an 8,000-nautical-mile voyage east.
In his last letter home, Halliburton assured his parents that all was well.
“My spirits have sprung back again now we are getting [away] from Hong Kong and its troubles,” he wrote.
Initially, radio signals from the Sea Dragon were encouraging and the SS President Coolidge, which was in the same region, intercepted more of the junk’s transmissions but, by March 22, they were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – approximately 1,000 nautical miles west of Midway Atoll – and reporting southerly gales, heavy rain, squalls and high seas.
The last message received from the Sea Dragon, on March 24, reported: “Southerly gales. Rain squalls. Lee rail under water, wet bunks. hard tack.
bully beef. having wonderful time. Wish you were here instead of me.”
The storm developed into a typhoon and the President Coolidge, reduced to a dead slow, confined its passengers to their bunks as it reported “experiencing very high seas”. The ship posted extra lookouts on March 25, the day it should have passed close to the 75-foot junk, but there was no sight or sound of the Sea Dragon. She was lost with all 15 hands.
By March 29, US newspapers were reporting that Halliburton was lost at sea while some speculated that the story could be another publicity stunt and that the brave adventurer would miraculously return to shore with more tales of derring-do. He didn’t – and was officially declared dead on October 5, after an exhaustive search by the US Navy.
As the events of the second world war unfolded, memories of Halliburton and the Sea Dragon were buried under them.
“I FELL IN LOVE WITH Richard Halliburton when I was in the fourth grade … the teacher would read his stories when we could not go out to play. I would put my head down, close my eyes and dream about sailing a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco,” says Sunflower Circle Production spokeswoman Carolyn Treanor, who has been trying to find ways to recreate that fateful voyage (although not completely faithfully, of course) and to commemorate Halliburton as someone who could inspire young people through travel and adventure. Last summer, she held preliminary discussions with Hong Kong-based junk expert Dr Wayne Moran.
Moran came to Hong Kong from Britain in 1980 to work as a locum doctor and to purchase an authentic sailing junk. He later bought and renovated a three-masted shrimp trawler and then built a 23-metre replica of a Fuzhou pole junk, to retrace the sea route from China to the Persian Gulf that Marco Polo took in 1292. The project won a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 1990 and, the same year, the Cocachin set sail up the coast of China, reaching Shanghai before returning to Hong Kong the following year.
Now semi-retired, Moran lives in a converted outer islands ferry in a far corner of Aberdeen typhoon shelter. To visit him means taking a sampan to the Jumbo floating restaurant and waiting for one of his staff to complete the transfer in a small white sampan.
“I am building a new 100-foot sailing junk for my retirement home. I have been working in the treatment field for alcoholism and addiction so I would also like to do a few cruises as a retreat for recovering addicts,” says Moran.
He looks at the pictures of the Sea Dragon, clearly unimpressed, and hazards a guess that it might have been the result of a Chinese junk created with some Western ideas that couldn’t be properly communicated to a local boatbuilder. He also points to the problem of installing an engine in a junk with a variable depth tiller and questions why the Sea Dragon had stays (lines supporting the mast) when one of the main characteristics of a sailing junk is that it does not have them.
“I have to say it looks more like a film prop than a seagoing vessel,” he says.
So could Moran be tempted to help recreate Halliburton’s final voyage if the right backing was in place?
“Why would I?” he asks, incredulously, adding that he would rather be involved in a voyage inspired by the travels of Marco Polo.
“[The Halliburton trip] is quite feasible. Hundreds of junks have been across the Pacific,” says Moran, “but it’s not very interesting, historically.”
Hong Kong, it seems, is no more interested in Halliburton’s fateful junk trip now than it was 75 years ago.