By Cathryn J. Prince
Chicago Review Press
Given the scale of international fame and celebrity he achieved during the 1920s and ’30s, the most remarkable thing about charismatic travel writer and adventurer Richard Halliburton is how few people today have heard of him.
Halliburton’s undeserved obscurity might be redressed with a new comprehensive and assiduously researched biography of the man described by Time magazine as “an innocent sort of Byron”, who thrilled readers with tales of derring-do for the best part of two decades.
American Daredevil: The Extraordinary Life of Richard Halliburton, the World’s First Celebrity Travel Writer, by American reporter and author Cathryn J. Prince, explores his colourful, restless life.
“I wanted to examine Halliburton’s life from the perspective of what motivated him as a writer, how his writings and adventures fit into the context of the time, and how he fits in alongside other writers of that era,” explains Prince, who spent more than two years researching and writing the book.
American Daredevil contains many new sources of information both from the descendants of Halliburton’s close circle of friends and from unpublished documents at Rhodes College, in his native Tennessee, and Princeton University, in New Jersey, where his papers are housed. Prince forensically pieces together the 1900-born adventurer’s life, from his happy childhood in Memphis, through his early, swashbuckling globetrotting, to the tragic stunt begun in Hong Kong 77 years ago that cost him his life. Halliburton’s fatal attempt to sail a junk from Kowloon to San Francisco for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition formed the basis of a feature in Post Magazine published in March 2014, which is also referenced in the book.
Halliburton won his first major publishing deal at the age of 22 and despite some snooty reviews about him being too “flowery” in style and too “juvenile” in approach, The Royal Road to Romance (1925) launched itself into the United States bestsellers’ list and stayed there for four years, selling more than 100,000 copies.
Over the course of seven successful books, Halliburton scaled the Matterhorn, swam the length of the Panama Canal, flew over Everest in a biplane, climbed Mount Fuji and Mount Olympus, interviewed the Bolshevik guard who assassinated the last tsar of Russia, and crossed the Alps on an elephant.
And his readers loved it. Halliburton’s books were translated into more than a dozen languages and he often conducted about 50 lectures per month in packed halls and theatres. By the ’30s, he was a household name, a successful and wealthy author and a Hollywood A-lister who counted Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino among his friends.
Prince admits that Halliburton made no attempt to be an earnest foreign correspondent with his finger on the pulse of diplomatic affairs and his writing was “decidedly and deliberately apolitical and inoffensive”. She also examines his sexuality and his long-term relationship with writer Paul Mooney, who also lost his life in the junk tragedy. This is undertaken with considerable sensitivity and within the context of the social expectations of an era in which “popular culture continued to idolise prizefighters, cowboys, soldiers and sailors, heralding them as paragons of virility”.
“Being gay in the 1930s would have been ruinous for his career. He walked a tightrope between his public and personal life, and that was interesting to research,” writes Prince, who reveals that critics and contemporary writers could be quite cutting in their assessment of Halliburton’s writing, his commercial success and his adoring female fans.
Prince quotes critic Corey Ford as saying in a Vanity Fair article that middle-aged suburban housewives, impressionable girls, graduates, Thursday afternoon bridge clubs and sex-starved librarians all flocked to Halliburton. It was an Esquire article published in 1940 that suggested that while Ernest Hemingway was “trying to sell absinthe and cognac”, Halliburton was urging readers to take “nectar, liberally watered”.
It’s interesting to learn of the sneers and criticism from contemporaries, but Prince writes that “his audience wanted glamour and gloss, and he obliged”, which is a little unfair. Halliburton may not have been in the same league as Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he was an engaging and energetic writer. It is very difficult to read a single line of his prose and not find yourself propelled to the bottom of the page without realising it.
While Halliburton’s voice is skilfully woven into the book via his letters and quotes, more of his published work would have been welcome.
When Halliburton arrived in Hong Kong on October 22, 1938, to undertake the junk expedition, he was at the height of his career, but concerned that his star was waning and feeling immense financial pressure to deliver another startling adventure. Prince devotes three chapters to the Sea Dragon junk episode, from its origins as a PR stunt dreamed up in San Francisco, to an increasingly ill-fated voyage from Hong Kong and the profound disbelief and public hysteria when Halliburton and his crew were lost at sea on March 24, 1939.
It is probably the most engaging part of the book, even if you know the ending. Prince has included plenty of colour and eyewitness reports from people passing through Hong Kong at the time who met an increasingly despondent and exhausted Halliburton. The reader can sense the tension as preparations for the venture become further delayed and there is no turning back for Halliburton, burdened by the financial pressure to succeed, the need to protect his reputation and his self-imposed duty to entertain.
As the second world war unfolded, Halliburton disappeared from public consciousness just as suddenly as he had vanished in the Pacific Ocean a few months earlier, and Prince concludes her impressive biography with a rare moment of personal analysis of the great showman.
“The tragedy lay not in his dying, but in his fading glory,” she writes. At least his former glory can be rediscovered with this fitting epitaph.