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    Richard Halliburton: ‘The Royal Road to (Gay) Romance’

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    He ascended the Matterhorn, swam the Hellespont, retraced Ulysses’ journey home from Troy and the route Cortez took through Mexico, slept atop an Egyptian pyramid, and took the first aerial photographs of Mount Everest. Given his bestselling books and sold out lectures about his ongoing world travels, his adoring followers knew everything about him and his exploits except that the rugged, romantic daredevil of their dreams was gay.

    During the two decades between the 20th century’s world wars, Richard Halliburton (1900–1939) was the most famous adventurer in the world—the very personification of a globetrotting, swashbuckling explorer. Tall, slender and with luxuriant brown hair and blue eyes, he was dubbed “Daring Dick,” “Romantic Richard” and “The Prince of Pilgrims” by press agents.

    The inspiration for his endless wanderlust? Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). “Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, or giving your life to the ignorant and the common,” Lord Henry had told Dorian. “Live the wonderful life that is in you.” These are worthy goals, but are difficult for a gay man to achieve in an era when same-sex intimacy was illegal everywhere in the United States.

    Determined not to be “haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to,” Halliburton concluded that the best—perhaps only—way he could be his own true self was to trade the respectability of the sedentary for “the romance of the seas, and foreign ports and foreign smiles.”

    He did just that, seeking, he wrote, the “freedom [and perhaps the privacy] 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.”

    Halliburton’s first travel book, The Royal Road to Romance, was published in 1925. A best-seller for three years and translated into 15 languages, it is still in print. There were no charter tours to Budapest then, and no cruise ships stopping at Cairns. Travelers could not yet order a sausage McMuffin for breakfast in Cuzco or pause for a skinny cinnamon dolce latte in Singapore. At a time when few could have afforded the journeys, his escapades captured the imagination of readers far and wide.

    Some pundits derided his exploits as self-serving, publicity-seeking stunts, but many were pioneering. Leander may have been the first (of many) to swim the mile-wide Hellespont between Asia and Europe thousands of years before him, but only Halliburton ever swam the 48-mile length of the Panama Canal. The exploit cost the ancient Greek the highest toll possible—his life—but Halliburton’s transit cost him only 36 cents, still the lowest toll ever paid.

    Halliburton knew that knowledge of his sexual orientation would end his career, so he created a public image of a thoroughly heterosexual man. Even so, his narratives often included descriptions of male beauty: “[A] dugout appeared … manned by an extraordinarily fine-looking young Dyak. His trim muscular body, shining in the sun … made a perfect picture of natural grace and strength. Thick, straight, jet-black hair hung in bangs across his forehead.”

    His homosexuality was not a secret among his friends and co-workers. Moye Stephens, Jr., his pilot during a trek to 34 countries in 1931–32, not only knew about Halliburton’s sexual orientation, but he also understood the need to keep his private life private. “During the trip,” he said many years later, “I met some people, some homosexual people that he met along the line.” However, “He didn’t discuss his partners at all.” All Stephens asked was for a separate bedroom.

    The French authorities also knew of his sexuality. They noted in his file not only that Halliburton, then living at 1 Rue Scribe in Paris, “crossed the Alps at the Grand Saint-Bernard pass on his elephant Dolly” in 1935, but also that he “is a homosexual very well known in some specialized institutions [établissements spécialisés].” They even included a vivid description of his visits to the Rue Saint-Lazare, a popular gay district, where he offered sexual gratification “to passersby.”

    By then Halliburton had known Paul Mooney, his last and most gifted “secretary,” for almost five years. Theirs was not an “exclusive relationship,” but it endured. Mooney helped him with—some say ghost wrote—his last four works, including the Book of Marvels: the Occident (1937) and the Second Book of Marvels: the Orient (1938), possibly the most influential young adult travel books ever written. He also was there for Halliburton’s final adventure.

    On March 4, 1939, Halliburton, Mooney and a crew of 12 sailed from Hong Kong in a 75-foot Chinese junk to San Francisco, where the ship was to become an attraction at the city’s Golden Gate International Exposition. On March 24 they encountered a dangerous storm with gale-force winds and 40- to 50-foot waves. All were lost at sea.

    Many of Halliburton’s critics, who in their sourest moments had dismissed his adventures as mere antics, simply ignored or misunderstood their greatest importance: the significant and lasting inspiration they provided to his readers young and old, not to duplicate his efforts, but to imagine their own daring moments; to dream their own glorious adventures in distant realms; to experience, however briefly, the joy and excitement of a carefree life.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.