Ranting

Memphis Marvel

June 6th, 2019

“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.

Published in The Daily Memphian

Richard Halliburton

THE REAL-LIFE ADVENTURE SERIAL

The imposing bell tower on the Rhodes campus is named for him, but you probably didn’t know that. A collection of his work, and reflections on his life and time are housed in The Richard Halliburton Archive in the library at Rhodes, but you probably haven’t visited.

You should.

There’s a world of adventure in there, and millions have turned the pages before you and ridden them around the globe on Richard Halliburton’s magic carpet. It’s fair to say that his romantic images shaped people’s view of the world as much as any one person did across the years of his many travels.

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.

Born in Brownsville, Tennessee, in 1900, and 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 Richard Halliburton Memorial Tower was given by his parents, but perhaps his home, the acclaimed Hangover House in Laguna Beach, California, 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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