Dauntless Facts About Richard Halliburton, The Wanderlust Wunderkind

Brendan Da Costa

Before Instagram influencers and Tik Tok celebrities, there was Richard Halliburton. From the 1920s until his mysterious disappearance in 1939, the dauntless adventurer captivated the imaginations of millions of readers with his fantastical travel tales. Whether he was sleeping atop the Great Pyramid or riding an elephant across the Alps, he had an adventurous spirit that couldn’t be tamed—except, perhaps, by a typhoon. Read these dauntless facts about Richard Halliburton, the wanderlust wunderkind, and try to solve the mystery of his disappearance.


Richard Halliburton Facts

1. He Had An Adventurous Childhood

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To his millions of adoring readers, Richard Halliburton was the “boy adventurer”. Even if they had only heard about his childhood, they would have known how apt that name was. He was born in January 1900 to Wesley and Nelle Nance Halliburton in Brownsville, Tennessee. His adventures began long before he ever boarded his first—or his last—boat.

2. He Almost Never Grew Up

Both Halliburton and his younger brother suffered from poor health from the beginning. At 15, Halliburton developed an unusual heartbeat and had to spend time recovering in a sanitarium run by John Harvey Kellogg. But he was the lucky one. In 1917, his younger brother succumbed to a bout of rheumatic fever. This devastating loss so early in life might have influenced his later philosophy.

Certainly, Richard Halliburton became a man who never took life for granted.

3. He Got His First Taste Of Travel

Despite a successful start to college, Halliburton left Princeton in 1919. He took a job as an ordinary seaman on a freighter traveling from New Orleans to England. And that’s when the travel bug bit him. Halliburton wandered around London and Paris before returning to Princeton to finish his schooling. But something in him had changed forever.

4. He Was Kind Of A Jerk

Halliburton had a somewhat dry and caustic sense of humor that could come across as arrogance. For example, he dedicated his first book to his Princeton classmates whose “sanity, consistency and respectability” he ironically claimed “drove [him] to this book”. Suffice it to say, he made as many enemies in his travels as he did friends.

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5. His Father Disapproved

Early on, Halliburton fell in love with the writings and romanticism of figures like Oscar Wilde. He developed a wanderlust spirit and a zest for life that he knew he couldn’t satisfy with a boring life in Tennessee. But his desire for an unconventional life put him at odds with his father, who encouraged him to find an “even tenor”. Unfortunately for dad, those words would never describe Richard Halliburton.

6. He Was Impulsive

Halliburton balked at his father’s suggestion. He wrote, “I hate that expression and as far as I am able I intend to avoid that condition. When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible”. Fortunately, he was never short of impulse.

7. He Didn’t Want A Happy Ending

Halliburton fully embraced the dangers of his chosen lifestyle. “And when my time comes to die,” he wrote, “I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills—any emotion that any human ever had—and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed”.

At least he was spared that fate in the end.

8. He Attended Only The Biggest Parties

On one of his first big adventures, Halliburton witnessed the last imperial wedding in China. His account of the ceremony brought his readers right up to the altar. “At four in the morning this gorgeous spectacle moved through the moonlit streets of Peking en-route to the prison-palace…Then as I watched, the gates boomed shut and the princess became an empress”.

But that sight filled Halliburton with nothing but dread.

9. He Never Wanted To Commit

Halliburton’s account of the wedding gave his readers an insight into his views on marriage and commitment. “I followed close behind the shrouded chair, and wondered about the state of mind of the little girl inside. Headed straight for prison, she was on the point of surrendering forever the freedom she had hitherto enjoyed”.

He would never let go of his own freedom.

10. He Did Fall In Love

Halliburton was a confirmed bachelor. The only commitment he made romantically was to staying single and having a good time. Even as a teenager, Halliburton developed something of a reputation as a ladies’ man. However, letters that he wrote in his youth reveal that he may have actually been in love with a few of them. Or he was good at pretending.

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11. He Wasn’t Straight

While in Paris preparing for his adventure across the Alps, Halliburton revealed another scandalous side of himself. A report from the French authorities stated, “Mr. Halliburton is a homosexual well known in some specialized establishments. He is in the habit of soliciting on Saint-Lazare Street”. Even back then, however, Halliburton was open about his preferences.

12. He Mooned Over Mooney

As he got older, Halliburton clearly preferred the company of men—perhaps because there was less pressure to commit. Some of his notable “boyfriends” included the film star Ramón Novarro and philanthropist Noël Sullivan. Perhaps the closest he came to an actual commitment was with his long-time writing partner and secretary, Paul Mooney.

13. He Played By His Own Rules

Halliburton did his best to adhere to the rules of the places that he traveled to. But, sometimes, he just couldn’t contain his free spirit. For example, he tried to slip past the authorities to enter the city of Mecca. The historic city was, of course, closed to any and all non-Muslims. But, to Halliburton, rules were suggestions.

14. He Was Cheap

Despite the fact that Halliburton came from money (and made a lot of his own), he was a notoriously cheap traveler. One of the things he refused to do was pay for train tickets. He just hopped on whatever train he needed and hoped no one would bother him. Sometimes, it worked out. Sometimes…not so much.

On a train in India, he recalled, “One particularly obnoxious collector would have pushed me bodily off the train had I not pushed him off first”.

15. He Swam In Sacred Waters

On one of his trips to the Taj Mahal, Halliburton managed to slip past the guards into the restricted area. But breaking in was just the start of his plans. In the dark of night, lit only by a brilliant moon, he swam (maybe even skinny-dipped) in the sacred pool that faced the tomb. Suffice it to say, he wasn’t always the most culturally sensitive person during his travels.

16. He Had Some Backwards Views

Despite his own apparent openness, Halliburton wasn’t immune to the foibles of his time. For example, he wrote insensitive and prejudiced things such as, “When Chinese blood and foreign blood are mixed, especially if the foreign blood is Russian, Portuguese or French, the devastating result is something to write home about”.

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17. He Was A Snob

Paradoxically, Halliburton’s early travels made him even less tolerant. In his writing, he expressed a “virulent antipathy for democracy as practiced in America” and a strong dislike “for the laboring class”. But as life went on, he saw more of humanity. In later years, he worked right alongside gruff seamen and lamented the poverty-stricken regions to which he traveled.

18. He Gave Rise To A Myth

Halliburton gave rise to a popular urban myth that still endures today. In Richard Halliburton’s Second Book of Marvels: the Orient, he wrote, “Astronomers say that the Great Wall is the only man-made thing on our planet visible to the human eye from the moon”. It was just one of his many (potentially) exaggerated stories.

19. He Turned His Passion Into A Career

Halliburton had started his travel writing career while still attending Princeton. When the outdoor magazine Field and Stream paid him a small fortune to write an article, he realized that he could actually make a career out of his wanderlust. But people didn’t want to just read about it—they wanted to hear him tell the stories himself.

20. He Was Becoming Famous

Halliburton had an awkwardly high-pitched voice and was sometimes fuzzy on the details of his adventures. Nevertheless, his passion for travel enthralled audiences wherever he went, sometimes delivering as many as 50 lectures a month. With each fascinating story he told, Halliburton’s star grew bigger and bigger—and so did the adventures that he undertook.

21. He Reached The Summit

Halliburton published his first book, The Royal Road to Romance, in 1925. In it, he recounted his wild tales of summiting the Matterhorn and Mount Fuji in winter. He regaled his readers with tales from the Nile, the Kashmir region, and Bali. The book became an overnight bestseller and turned him into a star. But he was only just getting started.

22. He Was A Greek Tragedy

In his next book, The Glorious Adventure, Halliburton recounted his journey as he retraced Ulysses’ adventures as told in Homer’s Odyssey. Shortly after that, he followed Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mexico and swam across the Panama Canal in his 1929 book New Worlds to Conquer. His exploits made him the toast of the town. But it couldn’t last forever.

When you lived hard and fast like Richard Halliburton, things have a way of catching up with you eventually.

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23. He Was Too Cool For Hollywood

Halliburton’s wild stories turned him into a household name. He made friends with famous novelists and actors, including Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Despite repeated attempts from major Hollywood studios, Halliburton turned down the opportunity to become a film star, appearing in only one film in his life—the semi-documentary, India Speaks.

24. He Found His Wings

In 1930, Halliburton knew that he had to up the ante to keep his readers’ interest. On nothing more than a gentleman’s agreement, Halliburton convinced the aviator Moye Stevens to fly him around the entire world in an open cockpit biplane. The result was “one of the most fantastic, extended air journeys ever recorded”.

25. He “Reached” The Top Of Everest

Halliburton turned his aerial trip into yet another best-selling book titled Flying Carpet. And it was filled with groundbreaking stories. For example, while flying over the Himalayas, Halliburton stood up in the cockpit and took the first-ever aerial picture of Mount Everest. His other stories from the journey were a little more macabre.

26. He Lost His Heads

During their world-traversing flight, Halliburton and Stevens took the chief of the Dyak head-hunting tribe for a ride. In return, the tribe gifted them over 100 lbs of shrunken heads. Afraid to refuse the gift (lest they end up as shrunken heads themselves) Halliburton and Stevens accepted the heads. Of course, they threw them away at the earliest opportunity.

27. He Had A Magic Carpet

In all, it took Halliburton 18 months to complete his trip. He visited 34 countries and covered 33,660 miles. His book, Flying Carpet, was a success that provided much-needed escapism for his readers during the Great Depression. But his biggest—and unquestionably his most dangerous—adventure still lay ahead. But first, elephants.

28. He Crossed The Alps In Style

In 1937, Halliburton published Seven League Boots. In it, he talked about crossing the Alps on an elephant that he named “Miss Dalrymple”. The stunt was, he claimed, in honor of the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca. While the book was another resounding success, it seemed that Halliburton might have been turning the page on his adventure days.

29. He Built A House For Three

In 1937, Halliburton built “Hangover House” in Laguna Beach, California. The architect William Alexander Levy designed the “landmark of modern architecture” that hung over a sheer rock cliff. In all, the mansion only had three bedrooms; one for Halliburton, one for Levy, and one for Halliburton’s steady flame, Paul Mooney.

But he wasn’t settling down quite yet.

30. He Was Going To Sail In Junk

Halliburton’s next—and final—adventure was a plan to sail from Hong Kong, all the way across the Pacific Ocean, to San Francisco in time for the Golden Gate International Exhibition. The catch was that he planned to make the voyage in a Chinese junk. That’s not a joke. That’s actually the name for the type of full-masted ship that he intended to sail.

31. He Was Going Insane

Halliburton’s Chinese junk expedition got off to a rocky start with construction delays and cost overruns. “If any one of my readers wishes to be driven rapidly and violently insane,” he wrote, “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 [conflict] with Japan”.

32. He Owned A Dragon

Despite the obstacles, Halliburton managed to build the Sea Dragon in just a few weeks. “The Sea Dragon,” he wrote, “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”. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be enough to see him safely to San Francisco.

33. He Lost His Support

Finding funding for his latest venture was equally challenging. His usual corporate sponsors believed that the risks outweighed the benefits and backed out. Even the car manufacturer Buick refused to sponsor the expedition because they didn’t want their brand associated with anything called “junk”. Maybe he should have taken this as a sign, but Halliburton was going, with or without them.

34. His Crew Had His Back

Eventually, Halliburton had to tap into his other sources of funding. Turning to his family, Halliburton managed to secure a large amount from his cousin Erle Halliburton’s wealthy wife. The bulk of the funds, however, came from three wealthy crew members from Dartmouth College who had signed on for the daring expedition. It wasn’t long before the came to regret it.

35. His Ship Was Too Heavy

In January of 1939, Halliburton tested the seaworthiness of his Chinese junk, the Sea Dragon. Observers noted that the ship was top-heavy and that it “rode precariously low, rolling and heeling in moderately active waters”. Halliburton, however, insisted to his readers that the ship was seaworthy and ready for its maiden voyage.

36. His Ship Was Full Of Smoke

Chief Officer Dale Collins of the SS President Coolidge noted that the sails and masts on Halliburton’s ship were far too heavy. Others remarked that the diesel engine, added to a ship design that normally didn’t include an engine, released too many plumes of smoke and further weighed the ship down. It was all about to go up in smoke.

37. His Lover Lucked Out

Even before the ship set sail, Halliburton’s latest adventure was off to a terrible and ominous start. His secretary and live-in boyfriend, Paul Mooney, was meant to accompany him on the voyage but an accident prevented him from going. He broke his ankle falling off a ladder and had to stay in port. He was the lucky one.

38. He Had To Abort

Despite all of the warnings, Halliburton insisted that the voyage go ahead as planned. So, in February of 1939, he set sail for San Francisco. The accounts vary as to what exactly happened next, but something went terribly wrong out on the open ocean. After just one week at sea, they had to turn back for land—where they should have stayed.

39. His Crew Fell Ill

Some sources claim that the crew turned back because of an undisclosed illness among the crew, citing only “medical reasons”. It could have been that John Rust Potter—one of the wealthy crewmen from Dartmouth College—came down with a case of the clap. But that might not be the only thing that held him back.

40. His First Attempt Was A Fail

Other sources claim that Halliburton had to turn the ship around in order to get emergency medical attention for Potter. It’s possible that Potter sustained a severe injury when he was struck by the mainsail boom. Regardless of the reason, things aboard the Sea Dragon were not looking good on that first attempt. Or the second, for that matter.

41. He Made A Quick U-Turn

Several other crew members reported dysentery. Halliburton himself suffered from a rash that was likely the result of “high anxiety and nervous exhaustion”. Despite the challenges, when they returned to Hong Kong, Halliburton hastily repaired the ship, replaced injured crew members, and pointed the Sea Dragon back in the direction of San Francisco.

He should have taken the hint.

42. He Sailed Straight Into A Storm

Halliburton’s second attempt seemed to be going smoothly. That is, until the third week, when the travel gods turned on him and unleashed a typhoon with 40 to 50-foot waves. At the time, Halliburton was some 1,200 miles west of Midway Island, his next port of call. So far out at sea, he had to rely on nearby ships for help.

43. He Was Cool As A Cucumber

The nearest vessel was the SS President Coolidge. The first communications between the Sea Dragon and the SS President Coolidge suggest that Halliburton and his crew were in high spirits when the typhoon struck. A message from the Sea Dragon’s captain to the SS President Coolidge read “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here instead of me”.

44. He Went Silent

The next and final message from the Sea Dragon was a lot less playful. “Southerly gale. Heavy Rain Squalls. High sea. Barometer 29.46. True course 100. Speed 5.5 knots. Position 1200 GCT 31.10 north 155.00 east. All well. When closer may we avail ourselves of your direction finder. Regards Welch”. No one ever heard from them again.

45. He Just Wanted The Attention

After the storm passed, no one heard from Halliburton or his crew. Unfortunately, Halliburton’s arrogant attitude may have cost him. At first, the Coast Guard stationed in Hawaii believed that Hallburton’s lack of radio communication was an elaborate ruse meant to drum up excitement. But, after a week passed, Halliburton’s friends knew that something was wrong and forced the Coast Guard to act.

46. He Disappeared Without A Trace

Initial efforts to find the Sea Dragon turned up no results. Even when the US Navy got involved with scout planes, they covered an area of 152,000 square miles and still turned up no trace of the Halliburton party anywhere. When the first signs did appear, however, they told of a dire and grim fate for the once carefree adventurer.

47. His Family Gave Up Hope

It didn’t take long for Halliburton’s friends and family to accept that their beloved adventurer had finally gone too far. By June, less than two months after his disappearance at sea, Halliburton’s mother accepted that her son was no longer alive. Even so, people speculated that Halliburton, much like Amelia Earheart, was out there somewhere.

48. He Haunts Hangover House

As the years passed, the myths and urban legends about Halliburton’s final adventure proliferated. One of the most enduring myths is that Halliburton’s ghost managed to find its way across the Pacific Ocean and took up residence in his newly constructed home, Hangover House. Either that, or his ghost haunts the ocean floor.

49. He Left Some Clues

Even until today, no one has uncovered solid evidence of the Sea Dragon. About a year later, Captain Jokstad of the SS President Pierce discovered a barnacle-covered piece of flotsam that some believe belonged to the Sea Dragon’s rudder. More than six years later, a newspaper story erroneously claimed that a ship’s skeleton on a San Diego beach was the Sea Dragon.

But no one really knows what happened to the ship, its crew, and the famous adventurer aboard.

50. He Was Remembered Fondly

Halliburton’s publisher summarized him perfectly: “From the Jazz Age through the Great Depression to the eve of [WWII], he thrilled an entire generation of readers.” He described the adventurer as “clever, resourceful, undaunted, cheerful in the face of dreadful odds, ever-optimistic about the world and the people around him, always scheming about his next adventure”.

51. He Just Wanted To Be Free

In his first book, Halliburton expressed his wanderlust spirit. “Let those who wish have their respectability. 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”. Needless to say, he got his freedom and then some.

52. He Didn’t Think Anything Could Go Wrong

In light of how his sea expedition ended, some of Halliburton’s final words have an ominous tone. After the headache of constructing the Sea Dragon, Halliburton wrote to his readers, “Nothing that can happen on our voyage to San Francisco can possibly upset me now,” he added.

53. He Was A Bad Writer

Even those who didn’t care much for Halliburton’s style were sorry to see him go. Time magazine, for example, wrote, “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”. Ultimately, however, his father had the last word.

54. He Blazed Across The Heavens

Despite never settling down and finding an “even tenor” as his father had hoped, Halliburton still found his father’s approval. Even if it came several daunting adventures and one giant typhoon too late. After his ship disappeared, Halliburton’s father said, “Richard was a meteor…that blazed across the heavens…and was gone”.

Sources: 1, 23

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