Cathryn J. Prince is the author of the new biography American Daredevil: The Extraordinary Life of Richard Halliburton, the World's First Celebrity Travel Writer. Her other books include Death in the Baltic and A Professor, a President, and a Meteor. She has worked for The Christian Science Monitor and contributes to The Times of Israel. She lives in Connecticut.
Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Richard Halliburton?
A: The seeds for the book were planted a long time ago. When I was growing up my father used to tell the story of how he absolutely had to see the Taj Mahal because one of his favorite books when he was a boy was Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels.
He’d talk about the way Halliburton used words to bring the monument to life, so much so that when he was serving in in the Air Force in Vietnam he used a rare R&R to travel to the Taj Mahal. The story stayed with me.
Then in 2013 my parents took my daughter to Memphis. While there they visited Rhodes College and saw the Richard Halliburton exhibit that Bill Short maintains as part of the Richard Halliburton collection.
At the time I was working on Death in the Baltic, which was a dark, somber subject to say the least. So when I heard them talk about their visit to the college, and the many things of Halliburton that were there, something clicked.
I could so easily visualize him, his boundless energy, his swashbuckling good looks, and all the things he did - from flying around the world in an open cockpit plane, to swimming the Panama Canal.
I felt compelled to write the book because I believed that not only what he did - his adventures and writing - but who he was - a fearless and hardworking person - would resonate today.
As an author and journalist I was inspired at how he doggedly pursued his dream and how hard he tried to live life on his own terms.
Q: Halliburton was well known during his lifetime, along with other such daring people as Amelia Earhart. Why is he not a household name today?
A: I think the foremost reason he slipped into history is because of World War II. He went down in the Pacific just as the world was being torn apart and by the time it started to come back together, people’s tastes and interests had changed. Also, travel had become easier, the world seemed a little smaller and more manageable.
Radio and soon television were replacing the kinds of books he’d written and the kinds of lectures he gave. It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when literally thousands of people would pack into an auditorium to hear someone tell adventure stories.
And I think his early prose seemed a bit too breathless, a bit too plush for modern tastes. Although his Complete Book of Marvels has held up and I do think his dispatches from Canton and his later books showed signs of a maturing voice, one where he started to take himself out of the narrative.
Q: How did you research this book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: I read all of Halliburton’s books as well as numerous articles he wrote for magazines, such as Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest.
I spent a lot of time doing research at Princeton University where I immersed myself in the Richard Halliburton Papers. I read the thousands of letters he wrote to his parents, letters he received from fans, rough manuscripts, journal entries and ephemera. I went through boxes of photographs, some never published.
I spent time at Rhodes College where I paged through scrapbooks whose bindings cracked, read letters, and read transcripts of interviews. I read newspaper and magazine accounts of his adventures and book reviews.
My previous books were about events - American airmen shot down and forced down over Switzerland during World War II, a Confederate raid on St. Albans, Vermont, the World War II sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
American Daredevil is the first time the heart of my book is about one person, and so I knew I needed to find out as much as possible about how others perceived him.
To do that I tracked down and connected with people who met him, and who heard him speak. I spoke with children and grand children of his college roommates and I found distant cousins. In most cases these were cold calls.
I was most surprised at how Halliburton remained incredibly dignified in the face of tremendous, and often mean-spirited, criticism by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Variety magazine and The New Yorker.
I admire how in spite of his rock star status he remained loyal to his earliest and closest friends, as well as his parents. He never forgot where he came from.
As for his writing, I was most surprised, and impressed, with the reporting and writing he did in the former Soviet Union and Canton in the early days of World War II. It’s a part of his repertoire that I think has been overlooked.
What touched me most was how sad I felt for him that he had to hide his homosexuality and deep love for his longtime partner Paul Mooney. So much so that his father made sure all references to Paul in Richard’s correspondence were never published. You can see his father's pencil marks on these letters.
I also felt so sad for his parents - they lost both of their sons - and their grief was so palpable.
Q: What would you say is Halliburton’s legacy today?
A: Richard Halliburton inspired generations of authors and journalists including Walter Cronkite, Paul Theroux, Charles Kuralt, and Susan Sontag.
He also touched everyday people to push their own limits, to explore the world. I think his legacy lives in his zest for life, his desire to push boundaries, and his endless curiosity.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Aside from reporting for The Times of Israel, I’m looking into the life of two late 19th century and early 20th century mountaineers: Fanny Bullock Workman and her rival Annie S. Peck.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I admire the way [Halliburton] gave of himself to his fans - no matter how tired, how worn down, he delivered and he answered their letters.
And then there is the grueling schedule he kept, he demanded a lot of himself, he knew what he wanted, he worked incredibly hard, but he made it look so easy. As Moye Stephens, who flew with him around the world in “The Flying Carpet," said: “He had guts."
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Cathryn J. Prince, please click here.