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Orange County | Orange Peeled A LOOK AT LIFE INSIDE

January 27, 2003|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

The road begins low, almost at sea level, then follows a sinewy line up a steep hillside until it nears the crest of the ridge, a wind-swept pivot point between inland arroyos and the wide-open Pacific off South Laguna.

It's an improbable place for a house, so of course someone has built one. Made mostly of concrete in a 1930s vision of modern, it features overlarge windows that give it the look of both bunker and terrarium. Over the years, the concrete steps have crumbled at the edges and nature has reclaimed the yard -- low cactus and stiffened chaparral dot the gravelly ground, and a steady breeze whispers through doe-colored grasses.

I'd never been here before, yet the visit evokes memories anyway, tracing the tenuous connection between youthful imagination and the yearning of age. A childhood hero built this house, the first atop this now-crowded hillside, and I'm here as an act of self-indulgence.

Three generations ago, during that fallow era between "the war to end all wars" and the war that proved the lie, adventurer Richard Halliburton forged a career by pursuing the romantic. He climbed the Matterhorn because he liked the look of it. He spent a night on Mt. Olympus because to do so was to challenge the gods. He slept in the Taj Mahal because it was forbidden, and he flew to Timbuktu because he liked the name. Then Halliburton wrote about it all in a series of best-selling travel and adventure books.

A Special Discovery

Those books made their way to a shelf in my grandmother's house, the wellspring of these memories, for I found the books there and in them discovered the world. The Sahara that Halliburton flew over. The Bosporus he swam. Malaysia and Afghanistan, Macchu Picchu and Devil's Island, all places Halliburton explored simply to have been there.

In retrospect, Halliburton -- scion of a well-to-do Tennessee family -- was a bit of a charlatan, a romantic vagabond who sold that image to pay for more trips. He was a relentless self-promoter, and his words reflected the dominant ethnic and class biases of the day. Book critics generally savaged him for cheap romanticism.

Yet to a young boy whiling away slow hours in rural Maine, the books teased with the idea of the unknown being knowable. Halliburton set a hook, and to this day nothing stirs the blood like the prospect of going somewhere new, of seeing a place for the first time. The Blue Mountains of Jamaica. The dusty heart of Mongolia. The jagged beauty of the Alps and the haunting nothingness of the Canadian Northwest.

And there are, to paraphrase one of Halliburton's titles, still new personal worlds to conquer. Such a deep-set hook does not fall out easily.

Halliburton was an extravagant personality. He rode the lecture circuit, gave interviews and rubbed elbows with the celebrities of the day, both Hollywood and literary (F. Scott Fitzgerald owned a personally inscribed copy of Halliburton's "The Glorious Adventure").

For many women, Halliburton was a matinee idol come to life. Few knew he was gay -- his lovers included Ramon Novarro, the original Ben-Hur in 1925 -- and most believed that his male traveling companions really were secretaries. After all, how could a vagabond be expected to settle down with a wife?

Out of the public view, Halliburton was struggling. It takes a lot of energy to sustain a life of constant travel and constant writing, and Halliburton, a regular visitor to Southern California, was running out of steam for both. During one horseback ride Halliburton was smitten by the rugged and then largely empty coast near Laguna Beach, and in the mid-'30s he bought a 600-foot-high ridge just south of where Aliso Creek enters the ocean. It was the perfect place to call home for a man growing increasingly world-weary.

"It is a sensational vista and stops people in their tracks when they stumble unexpectedly on it," Halliburton wrote to his parents in Tennessee. "I went back over and over just to look at the peaceful valley on one side and the full sweep of the ocean on the other.... The view enchanted me and every time I saw it I had a vision of a house on this spectacular ridge."

The house, completed in 1937 to critical raves, was designed by William Alexander early in a career that evolved into real estate development and made him a wealthy -- and generous -- benefactor of the arts in Los Angeles. Halliburton named it Hangover House, for the sense of suspension the building evoked. For him, living "so far away from man and so close to God" made him feel as though he "was floating in space."

Halliburton's life ended tragically two years later, at age 39, while he and a small crew sought to sail a Chinese junk named the Sea Dragon from Hong Kong to San Francisco.

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