Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Most Famous Person from Haywood County That No One Knows

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Richard Halliburton

Richard Halliburton
was a fascinating explorer and writer who was actually born in Haywood County, TN. Around the time of the Jazz Age of the 1920s, he was one of the most well-known adventurers in the world, yet less than 100 years later he is remembered by only a few.

In his lifetime, Halliburton swam the Panama Canal, spent a night on the Great Pyramid of Giza, followed the path of Ulysses around the Mediterranean, descended into the "Myan Well of Death," crossed the Alps on an elephant, and climbed Mount Fuji. Throughout his travels he wrote many best-selling books and became a popular celebrity of his day.

In the Haywood County census of 1900, all eight of my great grandparents were living in Haywood County. Will Williams seems to have been living with his aunt and uncle while his future wife Janie Williamson was 13-years-old and living with her family in the Providence Community. William Day Brantley was three years old and his future wife, my great grandmother Allie Marbury, was only two. Jim Lovelace was living just down the road and was a young teenager at 15 while his future bride, Ruby Fowler, was 13. Bob and Zula Castellaw were already in their early 30s in 1900 and had recently buried an infant daughter.

A few miles away, in the actual town of Brownsville, which is the county seat of Haywood County, a young couple, Wesley and Nelle Halliburton were living as boarders in the home of the family of Richard G. Thomas along with their infant son, Richard who had been born on January 9.

According to this article about Halliburton from the May 2005 issue of "MUS Today," his father moved the family from Brownsville to Memphis hoping to make a profit buying and selling land in Arkansas. They were on the verge of being destitute when the sale of timber on some of Wesley  Halliburton's land quickly turned their situation around and they found themselves quite wealthy.

By 1910, the family had added another son and was living in Memphis. Richard, the future explorer, was 11 and his brother Wesley Jr. was 7. Wesley would die suddenly at 17 after a bout with rheumatic fever. At an early age, the two young sons were taught by Mary Grimes Hutchison who lived with the family and was the founder of Miss Hutchison's School for Girls. Hutchison evidently remained close with the Halliburtons because she is burried in a plot with the rest of the family.
"Richard attended Memphis University School and then left Tennessee to attend Princeton University.
On his fifteenth birthday, Halliburton became ill, withdrew from MUS for a long course of treatment, and never came back. He finished prep school at Lawrenceville Academy in New Jersey, and then went six miles up the road to Princeton...Halliburton ran away to Europe. He told his parents he was going to Brownsville, went to New Orleans instead, sent his parents a telegram telling them not to worry, worked his way across the Atlantic as an ordinary seaman, and then rambled across Europe for the next six months. He came back and finished his studies at Princeton, but Richard had found his calling: he would be an adventurer."
Crum, Carolyn. "Adventurer, Writer, Horizon Chaser." MUS Today May 2005: 18 - 19.

After much editing, his first book, "The Royal Road to Romance" was released and became a huge best-seller which led to more adventures, more books and eventually great fame. He wrote many magazine articles and books and hung out with the most famous writers and movie stars of the Jazz Age. At the time he was as well-known as Amelia Earhart and Earnest Hemingway and was a popular speaker on the radio and at events around the world.

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His many other adventures and books that followed included "The Flying Carpet: Adventures in a Biplane from Timbuktu to Everest and Beyond" in which Halliburton hired pioneer aviator Moye Stephens in 1931 and set out to circle the world in an open cockpit biplane named The Flying Carpet. "The Glorious Adventure: Through the Mediterranean in the Wake of Odysseus" recounted his journey through the Mediterranean in the shadow of Odysseus and in his final book, "Seven League Boots" he shared his adventures dining with Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, interviewing the infamous assassin of Czar Nicholas II in Russia, trying to sneak into the forbidden city of Mecca, and riding on an elephant over the Alps in the tracks of Hannibal.

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Movie poster for a film on which Halliburton
provided commentary and b-roll in 1939.

Envious of the movie stars of the day like friends Rudolph Valentino, Douglass Fairbanks, Sr.  and Ramon Novarro, Halliburton participated in a movie, "India Speaks." He spoke at some of the screenings at Radio City in New York and provided some commentary and acted in a few scenes that were actually shot in Hollywood. The movie was not well-received and no known prints of it exist today.
"It was produced, or rather assembled, by Walter Putter, who, after collecting a generous footage of scenes made in India, engaged Richard Halliburton, author and adventurer, not only to deliver a running microphonic comment but also to assume the role of the harassed hero who pops up during several melodramatic incidents which were photographed in Hollywood.

Although there is no denying the interest of the authentic scenes of 'the land of drama and romance,' it is somewhat disconcerting to be called upon to believe what the screen voice is saying at one moment and then appreciate that in the next breath one is listening to a fanciful escapade. It is a mixture which does not "jell," even though Mr. Halliburton refers to the travelogue as a photoplay."
Hall, Mordaunt. "India Speaks" New York Times. 8 May 1933.
While Halliburton did make a large amount of money, his bohemian lifestyle and taste for adventure was expensive to support and he spent even more than he made.

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Photo Source: The Orange County Register, 14 May 2011

Shortly before his death, he commissioned William Alexander Levey to design and build a house in South Laguna Beach, CA called "Hangover House." The name came from the fact that it was built on the edge of a cliff. It was recently purchased for 3.2 million and the new owner plans to preserve the home which is in disrepair. You can check out a great slide show of photos from inside the former Halliburton home here.

By 1939, he needed money badly so he planned an adventure that would assure him lots of press coverage and another best-seller. He planned to sail across the Pacific in a traditional Chinese ship he designed himself and named the Sea Dragon. He and his crew planned to depart from Hong Kong and arrive to great fanfare in San Francisco during the World's Fair.

On March 23, three weeks after they left Hong Kong in the rickety ship, the voyagers found themselves battling a typhoon and, after sending a radio message to a passing liner, the 39-year-old Halliburton and all 14 of his crew members were never heard from again.

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My girls and I at the Halliburton family plot at Forest Hill Cemetery

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Headstones of Wesley Sr., Nelle, Wesley Jr. and Richard Halliburton
and Mary Hutchison in the Halliburton family plot at
Forrest Hill Cemetery in Memphis.

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 grave site.

In 1945 some wreckage identified as a rudder and believed to belong to the Sea Dragon washed ashore in California.

A production company called Sunflower Circle Productions is currently planning a documentary film series about Halliburton and, in 2014, they plan to launch the Sea Dragon 2 which will complete Halliburton's attempt to cross the Pacific. They even have a Facebook page.

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Halliburton Tower at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN

If you happen to find yourself at Rhodes College, head to the Special Collections Reading Room where there are seven glass cases that hold a collection of letters, books and over 900 pages of news clips and photos of Halliburton. There is also a bell tower on the Rhodes campus called Halliburton Tower, that was built in his memory by his parents and dedicated in 1962. Outside the tower is a plaque with an inscription that reads in part, "He flew too close to the sun."

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Historic marker in Brownsville, TN erected in 2008 by
The Haywood County Historical Society and others.

Not forgotten by the town of his birth, the above historic marker in Brownsville commemorates Halliburton's life and notes that, "his life touched many people around the world."

For more, visit my Blog Home Page or the Haywood County Line Genealogy Page.

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