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Posted October 23, 2002:

The Saga of the Thai Silk King
Twenty years later, James Thompson '28's disappearance remains a mystery
Originally published in PAW May 6, 1987

By Mark Jenkins

Mark Jenkins, a free-lance writer based in Boston, was born, raised, and educated in the Far East. This article is based on conversations with Thompson's friends and relatives, including Connie Mangskau and Henry Thompson III, and William Weaver's biography, The Legendary American: The Remarkable Career and Strange Disappearance of Jim Thompson (Houghton Mifflin).


Thailand's tropical sunset casts its final rays into the Bangkok household on the banks of the "River of Kings," and the half light catches polished wooden carvings and freshly cut flowers. Out of respect for their master. the faithful servants maintain the house as it was in 1967 — the year the owner, James Thompson '28, vanished.

The disappearance of Thompson, one of the most celebrated and flamboyant members of Asia's expatriate community, was so sudden and mysterious that it seemed as if he had literally walked off the face of the earth. His unusual career and the curious circumstances surrounding his vanishing two decades ago have fueled a widespread fascination with the still unsolved case. Indeed, documentaries on the story have been made by American, Japanese, and British film companies. William Weaver's biography, The Legendary American: The Remarkable Career and Strange Disappearance of Jim Thompson, was reprinted this year. and there is talk of a feature movie. In Thailand the story has become part of local legend.

Thompson's upbringing provided no clue of the exotic life he would lead. Born into a prominent Delaware family in 1906, he followed the prescribed route of a young man of his class and bearing, from lessons with governesses in the family mansion to prepping at St. Paul's. He entered Princeton in 1924, in the footsteps of his father. Henry B. Thompson 1877, and brother, Henry Jr. '20. His father, a lifetime trustee of the university, served as chairman of the Grounds and Buildings Committee. During his tenure many of the campus's distinctive Gothic buildings were added. His son Jim also was interested in design and majored in architecture.

From 1931 to 1940, Thompson worked for a New York architectural firm. Many of the Georgian-style mansions along the Eastern Seaboard that he designed are admired to this day. By all accounts, he was also a social success, well-known at debutante balls, hunting parties, and the theater. "Jim was quite the man about town," attested Alexander Griswold '28. "There was never a shortage of women trying to win his favor."

In 1938 he became a director of the Monte Carlo Ballet Company, the forerunner of the New York City Ballet. Thanks to a sizable inheritance, he. was able to indulge his fancy even during the Depression. But by the end of the decade, he withdrew from the city's social whirl and

criticized those who remained caught up in it. He became reclusive, refusing to talk even to family and college friends. "We didn't really know what came over Jimmy," said his sister Elinor Douglas. " But it seemed to be a great burden." Finally, Thompson quit his job and enlisted as a private in the National Guard. He finished basic training, attended OCS school and was commissioned, served for a year in a coastal artillery unit, and then was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

In 1942 Thompson married Pat Thraves, an ex-Powers model who shared his artistic interests. They were married for only six months when he was shipped to North Africa to assist the French war effort. His training in guerrilla warfare also took him to France and Italy, and eventually he headed a special unit ordered to parachute into the jungles of Thailand, link forces with the Free Thai resistance. and overthrow the pro-Japanese government in Bangkok. As it turned out, he was never required to do battle in Thailand. He and his comrades were en route when their pilot received word of the Japanese surrender. When he finally arrived in Bangkok, it was in the capacity of OSS station chief. His first task was to establish a temporary American consulate.

There is no doubt that Thompson was immediately captivated by Thailand, its culture and customs. Bangkok was an exotic city, and within days he convinced himself that he had no desire to return to America. One of his first friends was a young Eurasian widow, Connie Mangskau, who worked as an interpreter for the Allied Forces. Their close friendship lasted until the day of his disappearance. "Jimmy was enraptured by Bangkok," said Mangskau. "it was as if he had finally arrived somewhere he had belonged all along." As the re-occupation forces began withdrawing from Thailand, he cast around for an excuse to stay.

Thompson revealed his feelings in a letter to Elinor: "I am afraid that I like backward places that need to be developed far better than all the high-powered superhighways, motels, and great cities back home. There is so much to see and learn here." In early 1946, he and five other entrepreneurs bought the Oriental, Bangkok's legendary hotel, a former palace that had been featured in the work of writers such as Maugham, Conrad, Greene, and Coward.

Thompson returned to the U.S. to arrange his discharge from the OSS and to persuade his wife to go back with him to Thailand. The discharge presented no problem, but the couple's extended separation had taken its toll. Patricia refused to move to the Far East, and they divorced. With no reason to remain in the States, Thompson returned to his new-found home on the other side of the world.

He threw himself into the task of refurbishing the Oriental, drawing extensively from his background in architecture and design. He had strong disagreements with his partners over renovations, however, and within the year he resigned from the group, Nevertheless, he continued to live at the Oriental for another year, and his association with the hotel continued until his disappearance.

Thompson soon found another outlet for his considerable talents. The production of silk. in Thailand had suffered severely in the '40s with the influx of cheap fabrics from Europe and Japan. Thompson believed he could rescue the centuries-old industry from extinction and build himself a business empire rooted firmly in the soil of Thai culture.

With a suitcase crammed full of samples of the spectacularly colored silks, he flew to New York in early 1947. Through his network of Princeton friends he secured an interview with Edna Chase, editor of Vogue and the undisputed doyen of American fashion. She was captivated by the exotic fabrics and immediately arranged for them to be featured in her magazine. The enthusiastic reaction to Vogue's coverage convinced Thompson that there was a market for his product in the West. His next task was to find the means to satisfy the demand.

He returned to Thailand and located as many weavers as possible. Most were skeptical about the chances of reviving the dying craft. Nevertheless, in 1948, Thompson formed the Thai Silk Company and within a year had 200 weavers employed. Under his guidance the industry went through a revolution during the next 20 years. He initiated many technical advances in silk production, most significantly replacing traditional vegetable dyes with expensive, nonfading Swiss varieties.

Thompson's enthusiasm for Thai silk, however, was what really popularized the product. It was not unusual to spot him in the lobby of the Oriental, swathed in the brightly colored fabric, delivering an impassioned speech to passing tourists. Mangskau, who by this time (and with his assistance) was a successful antiques dealer, recalled his antics: "I was walking through the Oriental, where Jimmy had trapped yet another tourist — a rather well-proportioned American woman I think it was. He was standing behind her, wrapping her in silks and complimenting her continually while he made awful faces in my direction." Inevitably, the tourists bought.

Soon his silk was very much in the Western public eye. Thompson was commissioned to provide fabric for costumes for the Broadway production of The King and I and for the movie Ben Hur. London's Savoy Hotel used Thai silk to upholster its luxurious suites, and Pierre Balmain dedicated a whole collection to the fabric. By 1960 Thompson had fulfilled his dream. He was referred to as the "Thai Silk King" throughout the world and in Bangkok simply as the "Millionaire American." He recounted his success story for Time, Life, and Newsweek.

Knowledgeable about the politics of the region, Thompson was often sought out by embassy officials. A soft-spoken man, he had a captivating personality, and his circle of friends included the rich, royal, and famous. Celebrities made a point of including Bangkok on their travel itineraries, and he would invite them to sumptuous dinner parties at his house. His guests included Senator William Fulbright, Somerset Maugham, Cecil Beaton, Truman Capote, and Barbara Hutton.

Mangskau believed that Thompson kept up this lavish social life as "a way of surrounding himself with people. I think he was a very lonely man." His nephew and heir, Henry Thompson III '46. who visited him in Bangkok and hosted him on his annual visits to New York. recalls, "Uncle Jim would stand on the fringes of a group of people having a roaring good time and just observe them dispassionately."

Besides reviving the Thai silk industry, Thompson is credited with creating popular interest in Oriental antiquities, which at the time were virtually unknown outside the realm of experts and museum-goers. He had a penchant for traditional Thai painting, which, like silk weaving, was an art facing extinction. His collection came to be recognized as the finest in the world. (Selected pieces formed an exhibition that toured U.S. museums under the sponsorship of the State Department.) He maintained it in a home that was equally impressive. It was built in the traditional Thai style from sections of partly ruined palaces. Bangkok society had never seen anything like it, but both the local and expatriate elite followed his lead. The house is still a landmark in Bangkok, a vivid tribute to his imagination and inventiveness.

In late 1966 Thompson was forced to relocate his silk business. It was a time-consuming and tiring process, for he was not in the best of health. The following spring, Mangskau suggested they take a short vacation in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands, and Thompson jumped at the idea. The highlands are famous throughout the Far East as a place to escape the heat and humidity. The rolling green golf courses and tiny bungalows surrounded by manicured rose gardens are more evocative of pastoral English countryside than the teeming cities of Asia.

Their hosts were Dr. and Mrs. Ling, a couple from Singapore who owned "Moonlight Cottage" in the former colonial hill station. Thompson had stayed there before. Despite the enthusiasm with which he greeted this vacation, it was obvious that something was preoccupying him. Mangskau recalled that he was in an awful frame of mind during their journey, and though she didn't know what was wrong, she said that he wasn't his usual self. "I could tell something was up."

Ort-the day of his disappearance, he was especially restless and irritable, according to his companions. They all had agreed to attend the Easter service at the village church, but when the time came Thompson seemed reluctant. He finally insisted on walking to the chapel by himself and set off long before the others. After the service they picnicked in a field near the church, but Thompson seemed eager to return to the cottage. Before they had even finished eating, he was repacking the picnic basket. His behavior cut short the afternoon. and they returned to the cottage at about 2:00 p.m. The others were mystified by his uncharacteristic rudeness.

As is the custom on a lazy tropical afternoon, Mangskau and the Lings retired to their rooms for a nap before dinner. They left Thompson in an agitated state. It was the last time they ever saw him.

Just as the Lings were failing asleep. they heard the sound of an aluminum chair being dragged across the veranda. They assumed Thompson had decided to rest in the sun. When they heard footsteps crunching down the gravel path a few minutes later, they guessed that he was taking a stroll — he liked to hike the trails — and thought nothing of it.

Thompson's companions awoke to find him gone. They assumed he would be back by five o'clock, in time for afternoon tea. When he did not return by then, Dr. Ling drove to the golf club to see if he was having a drink there. The staff assured him that Thompson had not been at the club that afternoon. Ling then notified the police that he was missing. They said that with nightfall approaching, it was useless to begin a search. All they could do was put the word out to surrounding villages to keep an eye out for an unfamiliar foreigner. The Lings and Mangskau did not sleep that night. They kept a vigil in the living room, fully expecting Thompson to come marching through the door at any moment.

The official search began the next morning. It was an incredibly difficult undertaking, given the jungle terrain and the lack of any clues as to which direction he was walking. The first day's effort by local police and a number of volunteers was fruitless.

The following day, at the instigation of Thompson's former OSS colleagues, U.S. helicopters were dispatched to the Cameron Highlands. They joined what became the biggest manhunt in Malaysian history: it included 325 police and members of the Malaysian Field Force, 30 aborigine trackers, and all the children from the local missionary school.

At first everyone connected with the case assumed that Thompson had gone hiking in the jungle and lost his way. It was conjectured that he had fallen into a ravine, was eaten by a tiger, or disappeared into an aborigine animal trap. There were no signs of a struggle, and that — coupled with Mrs. Ling's assurance that she heard him walking alone down the driveway — supported this theory.

But it had its implausible aspects, too. Thompson was an expert in jungle warfare who regularly trekked in that kind of terrain, even in his later years. If he had met with an accident in the jungle. scavenging birds and animals would have alerted trackers to the whereabouts of his body. And, though a chain smoker, Thompson had left his cigarettes and lighter behind. as well as a container of painkillers which he relied on to relieve chronic gallstone attacks. These facts caused people to wonder whether he had indeed gone off voluntarily.

The argument that Thompson had died in the jungle was finally laid to rest when L Richard Noone got involved in the case. A Cambridge-educated anthropologist with much experience in Malaysia who had served as chairman of the Aborigine Affairs Commission, he arrived on the scene with a border scout from Borneo and an aborigine bomoh (witch doctor) who had once helped him find a missing man in the jungle. Thompson's OSS colleagues had recruited Noone to find out whether a Thompson had fallen into an illegal aborigine animal trap, and if so, whether the natives had disposed of his body. Noone was authorized to assure the aborigines immunity from prosecution. He emerged from the jungle 36 hours after beginning his search and announced that the aborigines had assured him that Thompson had not fallen victim to a trap. In fact, Noone was convinced that Thompson had never entered the jungle.

Could Thompson have been kidnapped? It was reported that on the day he vanished a caravan of cars was observed going up the normally traffic-free road to the highlands and coming down three hours later —about the time of his disappearance. But according to local police, foreigners were rarely the targets of kidnappers, and no one ever received a ransom note. "If he had been kidnapped," his nephew pointed out, "the reward of $10,000 [soon raised to $25,0001 would have undoubtedly elic-ited a response." The fact that the Lings heard no struggle, and that Mrs. Ling remem-bered specifically the footsteps of just one man walking down their driveway, tended to discredit the kidnapping theory.

Those who still subscribed to it, how-ever, said Thompson was taken not for money but for political ends. The Asian edition of Life magazine speculated that he might have been captured by commu-nists wanting to make him publicly de-nounce U.S. policy in Vietnam. Time mag-azine quoted OSS colleagues of Thompson arguing that he must have been abducted for "political purposes."

Two weeks after Thompson's disappearance, Peter Hurkos, a Dutch mystic who had gained worldwide fame for helping solve the "Boston Strangler" murders, was flown to Malaysia to help police. In his first trance, he announced that Thompson had been captured by bandits and was being held just north of the Thai-Malaysian border. After a few more well-publicized seances, Hurkos finally concluded that Thompson had been abducted by communist terrorists and was being imprisoned in Cambodia. When another psychic, Robert McGowan, declared that he had "located" Thompson in a small house in the village of Strung Tring, Cambodia, Thompson's friends went into action. They hatched a plan to fly a CIA Air America craft into Cambodia and feign engine trouble over Strung Tring. Upon landing, they would find the house that McGowan had described and rescue Thompson.

The CIA got wind of the venture and scotched the idea by forbidding the involvement of agency personnel and aircraft. Nevertheless, the Gurkha guide who had originally been recruited for the mission trekked into Cambodia and found his way to Strung Tring. After two weeks of tramping around the village, he gave up searching for the house, and by the time he left, he was convinced that Thompson had never been there.

The most intriguing theory was that Thompson had defected to the communists. It was known that he opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam and sympathized with the Indochinese nationalists. In a letter to Elinor, he complained that the U.S. always seemed to back the wrong horse. It makes me sick to see those little countries get torn to pieces by the communist powers and us." During his trips to northern Thailand on business or in search of rare antiquities, he regularly met with Indochinese communists. and he would neither confirm or deny allegations that he knew Ho Chi Minh personally.

Other observers of the case noted Thompson's profound dissatisfaction with the Thai government, which had pressured him to surrender part of his art collection to the National Museum. They argued that he had gone into the jungle to join the communists and plot the overthrow of the Thai regime.

Still others were convinced that Thompson had rendezvoused with Red Chinese officials who spirited him away to manage their fledgling silk industry. It was true that after a public confrontation with the Thai government, he had considered offers in other Asian countries interested in establishing silk export industries.

Despite the multitude of theories offered to explain Thompson's disappearance, none have provided any clues as to what might have happened on that sunny Easter Sunday 20 years ago. Nor have there been any other positive developments. Dozens of people have come forward, but they have all turned out to be publicity hunters, mental cases, or profiteers angling for the 5,000 reward.

Maybe one day someone will stumble over Jim Thompson's bones in the jungles the Cameron Highlands. Maybe it will be revealed that he was involved in a plot to overthrow the Thai government. Or maybe one of his abductors will reveal the whereabouts of the shallow grave in which his body was buried after a botched attempt at kidnap.

Meanwhile, the Thompson house is being preserved by a Thai charitable and cultural foundation. Some 40,000 people visit it every year, and so the legend of the Thai Silk King lives on.