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Richard Halliburton, ca. 1933
|Born||January 9, 1900|
Brownsville, Tennessee, United States
|Died||March 24, 1939 (aged 39)|
|Occupation||Travel writer, journalist, lecturer|
|Subject||Travel literature, Adventure, Exploration|
Richard Halliburton, ca. 1933
|Born||January 9, 1900|
Brownsville, Tennessee, United States
|Died||March 24, 1939 (aged 39)|
|Occupation||Travel writer, journalist, lecturer|
|Subject||Travel literature, Adventure, Exploration|
Richard Halliburton (January 9, 1900 – presumed dead after March 24, 1939) was an American traveler, adventurer, and author. Best known today for having swum the length of the Panama Canal and paying the lowest toll in its history—36 cents—Halliburton was headline news for most of his brief career. His final and fatal adventure, an attempt to sail a Chinese junk, the Sea Dragon, across the Pacific Ocean from Hong Kong to the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, made him legendary.
Richard Halliburton was born in Brownsville, Tennessee, to Wesley, a civil engineer and real estate speculator, and Nelle Nance Halliburton. A brother, Wesley Jr., was born in 1903. The family moved to Memphis, where the brothers, who were not close, spent their childhood. Richard attended Memphis University School, where his favorite subjects were geography and history; he also showed promise as a violinist, and was a fair golfer and tennis player. In 1915 he developed a rapid heartbeat and spent some four months in bed before its symptoms were relieved. This included some time at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, run by the innovative John Harvey Kellogg, whose philosophy of care featured regular exercise, sound nutrition, and frequent enemas. In 1917, family tragedy struck when, following an apparent bout of rheumatic fever, his brother, thought strong and in fine health, suddenly died.
At 5'7" (170 cm) and about 140 pounds (64 kg), Halliburton was never robust but would seldom complain of sickness or poor stamina. He graduated from The Lawrenceville School where he was chief editor of The Lawrence. In 1921 he graduated from Princeton University, where he was on the editorial board of The Daily Princetonian and chief editor of The Princetonian Pictorial Magazine. He also attended courses for public speaking and considered a career as a lecturer.
Leaving college temporarily during 1919, Halliburton became an ordinary seaman and boarded the freighter Octorara bound from New Orleans to England. He toured historic places in London and Paris, but soon returned to Princeton to finish his schooling. Travel inspired in him a lust for more travel. Voiced in different ways, seizing the day became his credo. The words of Oscar Wilde, who in works like The Picture of Dorian Gray enjoined experiencing the moment before it vanished, inspired Halliburton to reject marriage, family, a regular job, and conventional respectability as the obvious steps after graduation. He liked bachelorhood, youthful adventure, and the thrill of the unknown. To earn a living, he intended to write about his adventures, yet, with gentle irony, he dedicated his first book to his Princeton roommates, "whose sanity, consistency and respectability ... drove [him] to this book".
His father advised him to get the wanderlust from his system, return to Memphis and adjust his life to "an even tenor."
"I hate that expression", Richard responded, expressing the view that distinguished his life-style, "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.... And when my time comes to die, 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"
Halliburton idolized mountain climber George Mallory, who died in 1924 while trying to climb Mt. Everest. He knew and admired aviator Amelia Earhart. He knew journalist Lowell Thomas, who had made Lawrence of Arabia a living legend. Halliburton craved the celebrity of Rudolph Valentino, the great romantic screen star of the silent era.
He was acquainted with and looked up to swashbuckling cinema star Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., who was also a world traveler. Halliburton himself, though several times approached about film versions of his adventures (notably by Fox in 1933 for The Royal Road to Romance), only appeared in one movie, the semi-documentary Walter Futter-produced, India Speaks (1932; re-released in 1947 as Bride of Buddha or Bride of the East), which is lost except for the garden scene with co-star Rosie Brown (Rosita Schulze) and some stills. As with newsreels in which Halliburton appeared, notably of his second descent into the Mayan Well of Death and his crossing the Alps atop an elephant, a complete copy of the 78-minute 16mm film continues to be sought by Halliburton enthusiasts.
Halliburton's first book, published in 1925 by Bobbs-Merrill as The Royal Road to Romance, became a bestseller. Two years later he published The Glorious Adventure, which retraced Ulysses' adventures throughout the Classical Greek world as recounted in Homer's The Odyssey, and which included his visiting the grave of English poet Rupert Brooke on the island of Skyros. In 1929 Halliburton published New Worlds To Conquer, which recounted his famous swim of the Panama Canal, his retracing the track of Cortez' conquest of Mexico, and cast him in the role, in full goat-skin costume, of Robinson Crusoe (Alexander Selkirk), "cast away" on the island of Tobago. Animals figure prominently in this adventure as in many of Halliburton's adventures. (Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who had rejected Halliburton's overtures that he make a film version of The Glorious Adventure, did recall, almost as a tribute, Halliburton's recreation of the castaway in his Mr. Robinson Crusoe.)
Halliburton's friends during this time included movie stars, writers, musicians, painters, and politicians, including writers Gertrude Atherton and Kathleen Norris, Senator James Phelan and philanthropist Noel Sullivan, and actors Ramón Novarro and Rod LaRoque. Casual acquaintances were many, as lectures, personal appearances (notably to plug his movie India Speaks), syndicated columns, and radio broadcasts made his name a household word associated with romantic travel.
While Halliburton was attending Princeton, Field and Stream magazine paid him $150 for an article he submitted. This initial success encouraged him to choose travel and travel writing as a career. His first ventures abroad provided the basis for a book, but attempts at publication of the resulting manuscript were unsuccessful, as ten publishers rejected it as puerile and too purple in its prose. His fortunes changed when a representative of the Feakins Agency heard him deliver a talk, and soon Halliburton was given bookings for lucrative lectures. Despite a high-pitched voice and occasional discomfort on the dais, Halliburton displayed such enthusiasm and recounted such vivid recreations of his often bizarre foreign encounters, drawn from a repertoire of seven or so 'hit' escapades, that he became a delight to audiences young and old. On the strength of his lecturing and increasing celebrity appeal, publisher Bobbs-Merrill, whose editor-in-chief David Laurance Chambers was also a Princeton graduate, accepted his first book, The Royal Road to Romance (1925).
Halliburton never married. While young he dated several young women and, as revealed in letters to them, was infatuated with at least two. Later in his life, rumors of an impending marriage to Mary Lou Davis, who, with her two children from a previous marriage, resided at Hangover House during the Sea Dragon Expedition, were of little foundation.
Once an adult, and on the open road, Halliburton's sexual associations with members of his own gender became apparent. To protect the image of heroic masculinity he had cultivated to win over an admiring public, he kept secret his mature sexual orientation. He seems also to have kept it a secret from his doting parents, who longed for grandchildren from their one surviving son. Among those romantically linked to him were film star Ramón Novarro and philanthropist Noel Sullivan, both of whom shared his enjoyment of the bohemian lifestyle. Halliburton's most enduring relationship was with freelance journalist Paul Mooney, with whom he often shared living quarters and who assisted him with his written work.
In 1937 William Alexander Levy designed a house for Halliburton in Laguna Beach, California, which is now known as "a landmark of modern architecture." Alexander was a novice architect, a recent graduate of the New York University School of Architecture and close friend of Paul Mooney. Mooney managed the construction of the house, and offered occasional design advice, suggesting the creation of a small pond behind the house which, for its shape and size, he called "Clark Gable's ears." A mutual friend of Levy and Mooney, Charles Wolfsohn (born 1912), a penthouse garden designer, did the flower landscaping. The house, built of concrete and steel and bastion-like in appearance, contained a spacious living room, a spacious dining room and three bedrooms: one for Halliburton, which featured a wall-sized map of the world; one for Mooney; and one for Levy. Because of its position, perched 400 feet (120m) above a sheer canyon, it was called "Hangover House" by Mooney, and this title was cast into a retaining wall on the site. When he first saw the completed structure, Halliburton enthused, "it flies!" Writer Ayn Rand, who visited the house in 1937 when she was still an unknown writer, is believed to have based the "Heller House" in The Fountainhead (1943) upon Halliburton's home.
In 1930 Halliburton hired pioneer aviator Moye Stephens on the strength of a handshake — for no pay, but unlimited expenses — to fly him around the world in an open cockpit biplane. The modified Stearman C-3B was named the Flying Carpet after the magic carpet of fairy tales, subsequently the title of his 1932 best-seller. They embarked on "one of the most fantastic, extended air journeys ever recorded" taking 18 months to circumnavigate the globe, covering 33,660 miles (54,100 km) and visiting 34 countries.
The pair started on Christmas Day 1930, making stops along the way, from Los Angeles to New York City, where they crated the airplane and boarded it on the oceanliner RMS Majestic. They sailed to England, where their extended mission began. They flew to France, then Spain, the British possession of Gibraltar, and on to Africa at Fez, Morocco (where Stephens performed aerobatics for the first air meet held in that country). They crossed the Atlas mountains and set out across the Sahara to Timbuktu, getting special permission to use fuel caches of the Shell Oil Company. While in Timbuktu, both were guests of celebrated Frenchman Pere Yakouba, an Augustinian monk who had years before fled from the distractions of modern society and become patriarch and a noted scholar of the community. They flew to their destination without mishap, then continued eastward, spending several weeks in Algeria with the French Foreign Legion, and continuing via Cairo and Damascus, with a side trip to Petra.
In Persia (now Iran) they met German aviator Elly Beinhorn, who was grounded by mechanical problems. They assisted her and then worked out shared itineraries. Later, Halliburton wrote a foreword to her book Flying Girl about these and other of her adventures in the air. Now exhausted, and their plane tiring, Stephens and Halliburton continued their eastward journey. In Persia, Crown Princess Mahin Banu had a ride in the airplane. In neighbouring Iraq, the young Crown Prince Ghazi, had a ride; they flew him over his school yard.
In India, Halliburton visited the Taj Mahal, which he had first visited in 1922. In Nepal, as The Flying Carpet flew past Mt. Everest, Halliburton stood up in the open cockpit of the plane and took the first aerial photograph of the mountain. To the delight of an amazed Maharajah of Nepal, Stephens and Beinhorn performed daring aerobatics. In Borneo, Halliburton and Stephens were feted by Sylvia Brett, wife of the White Rajah of Sarawak. They gave her a ride, making Ranee Sylvia the first woman to fly in that country. At the Rajang River, they took the chief of the Dyak head hunters for a flight: he gave them 60 kilos of shrunken heads, which they dared not refuse but dumped as soon as possible. They were the first Americans to fly to the Philippines: in Manila the plane was again loaded onto a ship to cross the ocean. They flew the final leg from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
In Moye Stephens, Halliburton, a careful planner, had chosen his pilot well, and, in a reassuring letter to his parents (January 23, 1932), recited his many flight skills. Stephens, for instance, during one aerobatic display, astutely aborted a slow roll the moment he realized that Halliburton had not fastened his seat belt. Stephens later became chief test pilot of the Northrop Flying Wing, which evolved into today's B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. The around-the-world trip had cost Halliburton over $50,000, plus fuel; in the first year, the book he entitled The Flying Carpet (after his valiant plane) earned him royalties of $100,000, in those depression-era days a remarkably large sum. Barbara H. Schultz' Flying Carpets, Flying Wings – The Biography of Moye Stephens (2011), besides recounting the Flying Carpet Expedition from a flier's viewpoint as well as documenting Stephens' (1906–1995) contributions to aviation history, contains Stephens' extended reports of the adventure. With rare glimpses into the travel writer's art, these give historic balance to Halliburton's often romanticized renditions. A fictionalized account of his travels in India and Asia was created in the 1933 film, India Speaks.
Early in 1934 the Bell Syndicate Newspapers contracted with newspapers throughout the United States, beginning with the Boston Globe, to publish weekly feature stories prepared by Halliburton. Of about one thousand words each with pictures, ultimately fifty stories resulted. Among these were stories on the Seri Indians of Southern California; Fort Jefferson, where Dr. Samuel Mudd, convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, was imprisoned; Admiral Richmond Pearson Hobson, who deliberately sank his own ship during the Spanish-American War, and the Battle of Santiago de Cuba a month later; Henri Christophe and the Citadelle Laferrière in Haiti; Christopher Columbus, Lord Byron, and "The Girl from Martinique Who Wrecked Napoleon". Paid well, Halliburton traveled extensively to fulfill his end of the deal: to Cuba, Haiti, Martinique, to Miami, Washington, D. C. (to do research at the Library of Congress), to New York, to Europe, and ultimately to Russia. At the height of his popularity and self-fulfillment, he appeared on radio, attended celebrity parties (including one at the home of novelist Kathleen Norris who, like Halliburton, had stories regularly featured in the newspapers), and, after the purchase of a used Ford roadster, explored the heartland of California and the beauties of the Lake Tahoe area. Other commissions followed: United Artists, producing a movie about Benvenuto Cellini, asked him to do a story on the Renaissance artist's love life. The lectures continued. Halliburton even turned down "job" offers, one of which was for the considerable sum of $500 a week, for 26 weeks, from a radio company "to speak on a beer program". Meanwhile, besides the Memphis Commercial Appeal, newspapers in Milwaukee, Kansas City, Columbus, and Toronto published his syndicated stories. At the end of the year, he was again in Europe to commence his dream of emulating Hannibal and crossing the Alps on an elephant, one chosen for the task from a Paris zoo and given the name "Miss Dalrymple." The following year Bobbs-Merrill published Halliburton's Seven League Boots, filled with his latest adventures and arguably the last of the great travel works of the classic period.
On March 3, 1939, Halliburton began to sail a Chinese junk across the Pacific Ocean. The Sea Dragon, a gaudily decorated 75-foot (23 m) junk, was made to his commission in the shipyards of Kowloon by cartwright Fat Kau. Emblazoned with a colorful dragon and equipped with a diesel engine, the Sea Dragon was supposed to make its maiden voyage from Hong Kong to the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco (at Treasure Island), where it would dock, become part of the exhibition and take fairgoers on sailing cruises of San Francisco Bay. Halliburton had little practical navigation experience, so he hired Captain John Wenlock Welch as skipper and Henry Von Fehren as engineer. The crew included George Barstow III, a 21-year old student at Juilliard, Velman Fitch of Minnesota, a world traveler who had been given a ride aboard the Sea Dragon, and Dartmouth College senior Robert Chase. Mooney was also aboard for the journey. Two other young men from Dartmouth, John Potter and Gordon Torrey, had yachting experience; both of them left the crew after the junk's unsuccessful first voyage and later offered accounts of their experience.
Construction of the junk was marked by cost overruns, delays, and engineering errors, prompting Halliburton to write "If any one of my readers wishes to be driven rapidly and violently insane, 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 war with Japan." A trial run revealed its flaws. Nonetheless the expedition set out, and three weeks out to sea on March 23 the ship encountered a typhoon. The junk was last sighted by the liner SS President Coolidge, itself battling mountainous seas some 1900 km west of Midway Island. The US liner received a cheerful radio message from the junk skipper minutes later, "Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here instead of me." The next message was different: "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." That was the last message heard from the junk. At first the Coast Guard at Hawaii delayed searching for the missing ship, possibly thinking Halliburton staged his disappearance as a publicity stunt. Later an extensive US Navy search with several ships and scout planes over thousands of square miles and many days found no trace of the junk or the crew, and the effort was ended. As with Amelia Earhart, many rumours and reports of Halliburton's ultimate fate arose over the years, with fans hoping he might yet turn up alive. In 1945 a 30 foot skeleton of a 150 foot boat of oriental design washed ashore in California. It was suggested that this was the remains of the Sea Dragon.
Missing at sea since March 1939, Halliburton was declared dead on October 5, 1939 by the Memphis Chancery Court. His empty grave is at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis at the Halliburton family gravesite.
In his colorful and simply-told travel adventures Halliburton was the "innocent abroad", receptive to new ideas and with a quiet erudition. He displayed a romantic readiness which shone through his best prose, prose at once picturesque, gently informative, extroverted (yet self-engaged), and personally confiding. He often described his attaching himself to a famous historic person (and key event for which that person was known) or a revered place, such as the Taj Mahal. Acting as sort of an emcee, or performing some often cleverly garish stunt, he recalled that person and invoked a place associated with him; by so doing, he escorted readers into a different time and to a different locale, with of course some compelling modern touches. Thus he duplicated Hannibal's crossing of the Alps by elephant – naming the pachyderm he had gotten from a Paris zoo Miss Elysabethe Dalrymple; he emulated Ulysses' myriad adventures in the Mediterranean dressed often as a beach-comber or playboy; he re-enacted Robinson Crusoe's island solitude, adopting a menagerie of domestic pets with names such as Listerine, Kitty and Susie. Examples of the device filled his work and defined his public image: of further note, he retraced the fateful expedition of Hernando Cortez to the heart of the Aztec Empire; like his hero Lord Byron, he swam the Hellespont, metaphorically bridging Europe and Asia; and he lived among the French Foreign Legion in North Africa. He did not just view legendary places and landscapes, but often embraced them by some athletic feat ultimately intended to thrill armchair travelers as well as to educate them: he swam the Panama Canal, climbed the Matterhorn and Mt. Fuji (its first documented winter ascent), and twice he descended into the Mayan Well of Death, the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza. The occasional trouble that he received from authorities only contributed to the drama of his adventures: taking photos of the guns at Gibraltar (and being arrested for it as a breach of security); attempting to enter Mecca, which is forbidden to non-Muslims; hiding from gatekeepers on the grounds of the Taj Mahal, to experience in solitude the sunset as well as to swim in the pool facing the tomb under the moonlight.
Halliburton's books, free of gratuitous philosophizing or advocacy of a single point of view, were meant for the general reading public. What erudition they had was mild. Reliance upon the values that had resulted in World War I had eroded and new philosophies had become popular. Colonialism and the "white man's burden" were ending. Freedom and democracy had different nuances. These ideas influenced many of the writings of the time. What racial comments Halliburton made were casual and, for his time, not exceptional. For instance, describing a hiking trip in the Rocky Mountains at age twenty, he commented that his two Indian guides were "as irresponsible as our southern niggers." 
Halliburton's love of the world's natural wonders, and such monuments of mankind which seemed best to blend into those wonders, derives in part from the Romanticism of poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (acquaintance with whom may have been sharpened by his exposure at Princeton to English Professor Henry Van Dyke, a popular essayist and poet of his time, who also had been a teacher of Halliburton's editor David Laurance Chambers). As theirs, Halliburton's view of technology was dim, and he gently urged that one see the world's marvels before "modern Progress" obliterated them.
Halliburton subscribed to the notion that to the wise and good man the whole world is his fatherland; he also believed that one might become wise and good by exploring the world. Like Greek historian and geographer Herodotus, Halliburton was a cultural relativist: he adhered to the credibility of multiple perspectives and believed that "culture was king", stances which may explain his claim of purchase of a slave child in Africa–which did not happen according to Moye Stephens–or adopting the garb of a particular region to "go native." As a sort of cultural ambassador, he met heads of state from Peruvian dictator Augusto Leguia, to Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, to the Last Emperor of China, to King Feisal al Husain of Iraq and his son the Crown Prince.
Though Halliburton subscribed uncritically, in his books, to America's democratic ideals, as passages in Seven League Boots and the two Books of Marvels, especially those on Russian topics, show, his writings remain free of preachment other than the insistence that every young person decide upon a curriculum, before it is too late, of far-ranging travel as a means to self-knowledge, career choice and spiritual enlightenment. An early letter (1923) expressed his "virulent antipathy for democracy as practiced in America" and a hatred "for the laboring class", but these views contrast with the plight he shared with the downtrodden, as at Devil's Island, and his occasional working with rough-hewn seamen. His last writings, done in collaboration with journalist Paul Mooney, the four letters (of a projected seven) comprising Letters from the Sea Dragon as well as the fifteen articles comprising The Log of the Sea Dragon, suggest, in their descriptions of the displacement of peoples that the Japanese advance caused, the war-reportorial course his writing might have taken had he lived. A news correspondent's role is also suggested by his skilled interview with the executioner of the Romanovs, the last ruling dynasty of Russia. Distinguished by their readerliness, the essays of historic personages appearing in both his books and newspaper articles, notably of Spanish-American War hero Captain Richard Hobson and of Haitian leader Jean Christophe, show the skills of the natural biographer, and offer further hint of career evolution.
Halliburton admired English poet Rupert Brooke (1887–1915), whose Apollonian beauty and patriotic verse captivated a generation. Serving his country in World War I, Brooke died of a fever on his way to Gallipoli, and was buried on the Greek island of Skyros. The legend of the poet who perished in his prime grew, and he became one of the most heavily anthologised of the World War I poets. Brooke was bisexual and became infatuated several times, and the end of one of these affairs caused him to leave England to travel around the world. He settled for a time in the South Seas and "went native" to some extent; he documented parts of this trip with columns published in the Westminster Gazette. These elements—celebrity, travel writing, the beauty of youth, covert sexuality—would explain Halliburton's desire to know more of Brooke. Halliburton intended to write his biography and kept ample notes for the task, interviewing in person or corresponding with prominent British literary and salon figures who had known Brooke, including Lady Violet Asquith Bonham-Carter, Walter de la Mare, Cathleen Nesbitt, Noel Olivier, Alec Waugh, and Virginia Woolf. Halliburton never began the book, but his notes were used by Arthur Springer to write Red Wine of Youth—A Biography of Rupert Brooke (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952).
Halliburton wrote over a thousand letters to his parents. Bobbs-Merrill published (1940) a selection which his father had edited, as Richard Halliburton: His Story of His Life's Adventure As Told to His Mother and Father.
Publisher James O'Reilly, who reissued The Royal Road to Romance to celebrate the centenary of Halliburton's birth, characterizes him thus: "From the Jazz Age through the Great Depression to the eve of World War II, he thrilled an entire generation of readers." He was "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." He notes that Halliburton's "manhood spanned the brief interval between the two World Wars" and acclaims him as a "spokesman for the youth of a generation."
Halliburton wanted to be remembered as the most-traveled man who had ever lived. He was influenced by great travelers and travel writers such as Burton Holmes (1870–1958), creator of the travel lecture film, and Harry A. Franck (1881–1962); they may have out-miled him, but both men had a generation's headstart on him, and both substantially outlived him. In his day he had few rivals, though Eugene Wright (The Great Horn Spoon) and Martin and Osa Johnson (Safari) could as equally captivate.
Halliburton influenced his contemporaries Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Corey Ford and Ernest Hemingway. Writers Paul Theroux and Susan Sontag, among others, have offered debts of gratitude for his influence on their work. As the writer of a succession of bestsellers, and as a popular lecturer, Halliburton figured prominently in educating several generations of young Americans in the rudiments of geography, history and culture, especially through his two Books of Marvels, re-issued in one volume after his death.
Two structures commemorate Halliburton: Hangover House in Laguna Beach, California, and the Memorial Tower at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Architecture historian and writer Ted Wells considers Hangover House, which Halliburton commissioned, one of the "best modern houses in the United States". Nearly a quarter century after Halliburton's disappearance, his father donated $400,000 to build an imposing bell tower. It was dedicated in 1962 as the Richard Halliburton Memorial Tower, and the elder man died the following year at age 95.
In his Second Book of Marvels, Halliburton stated, "Astronomers say that the Great Wall is the only man-made thing on our planet visible to the human eye from the moon." Although untrue, this statement was a possible source for the urban legend that the Great Wall of China could be seen from space.
A 2009 book, Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Newsgathering Abroad, has a section devoted to Halliburton and travel writers like him.
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