A Memphis Marvel

June 2nd, 2011

“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.”

You go, Richard. You go.

As published in The Daily News, June 3, 2011, and in The Memphis News, June 4-10, 2011

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“I’m going to see Halliburton Tower,” I told the Rhodes College guard.


Why indeed. On what appear to be the tower’s main doors a sign says, ironically, “Please use main door.” The tribute to Richard Halliburton that I’m told used to grace the space behind those locked doors has been covered in carpet, now the office of a college vice president. Not only is it difficult to find much evidence of Halliburton in Memphis, you can’t find much of him in his own memorial bell tower.

Richard Halliburton wrote a steamer trunk of best sellers and syndicated articles, but to call him merely an author would be like calling Indiana Jones merely an anthropologist. However, while Indy’s unbelievable fictional adventures are just that, Halliburton’s unbelievable adventures were real. His books had Saturday movie matinee titles like The Royal Road to Romance, The Glorious Adventure, The Flying Carpet and Book of Marvels. His followers included a maharajah or two, the odd despot, the last Emperor of China, contemporaries like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and an entire generation of readers. His home is said to be the model for Ayn Rand’s “Heller House” in The Fountainhead.

Memphis-raised and Princeton-educated, he was never comfortable in traditional roles. Not in how and where he lived. Not in even one minute of his much larger-than-life life. For Halliburton, not just one descent into the Mayan Well of Death would do, so he jumped in twice. Like Lord Byron, he swam the Hellespont. Like Hannibal, he rode an elephant across the Alps. He re-enacted Robinson Crusoe’s island ordeal, retraced Cortez’s expedition to the heart of the Aztec Empire, and followed Homer’s Odyssey and Odysseus across the Mediterranean. He climbed the Matterhorn, was the first to climb Mount Fuji in winter, and stood in the open cockpit of a biplane to photograph Everest while circumnavigating the globe. He lived with the French Foreign Legion, hid by day in the Taj Mahal to swim in the pool by moonlight, and swam the length of the Panama Canal after famously paying the lowest toll in its history for his passage. 36¢. He commissioned The Sea Dragon to be built – a jaunty, 75-foot Chinese junk – to take him from Hong Kong to San Francisco in 1939, and, at age 39, he would go down with her in a typhoon. Like his friend Amelia Earhart, lost at sea.

One of the world’s most-famous characters in his time, his time was past. Just as that typhoon took him down, the storm of World War II broke over Europe and his unabashed romanticism was as out of date as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron who inspired it.

The tower was given by his parents, but perhaps his home, Hangover House in Laguna Beach, is the better symbol of his life – an adventure unto itself, dangling, seemingly suspended, above the Pacific Ocean.

I’m a Memphian, and if we don’t remember our extraordinary shooting stars, we’re left with just the ordinary light of day. 



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