Jim Thompson (designer)

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Jim Thompson
Jim Thompson missing.jpg
James Harrison Wilson Thompson

March 21, 1906
Greenville, Delaware, United States of America
DisappearedMarch 26, 1967 (aged 61)
Cameron Highlands, Pahang, Malaysia.
StatusDeclared dead in absentia by a Thai court in 1974(1974-00-00) (aged 67–68)
Alma materPrinceton University
University of Pennsylvania
OccupationCo-founder of the Thai Silk Company Limited
Known for

James Harrison Wilson Thompson (March 21, 1906 – March 26, 1967 disappeared) was an American businessman who helped revitalise the Thai silk industry in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time of his disappearance he was one of the most famous Americans living in Asia. Time magazine claimed he "almost singlehanded(ly) saved Thailand's vital silk industry from extinction".[1]

Early life[edit]

Jim Thompson was born in Greenville, Delaware in 1906.[2] He was the youngest of five children of Henry and Mary Wilson Thompson. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer; his mother was the daughter of James Harrison Wilson (1837–1925), a noted Union general during the American Civil War.[3]

Thompson spent his early years of education at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. He graduated from Princeton University in 1928,[4] and represented the United States in the 6-Metre Sailing event at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.[5] Post-graduate studies followed at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Architecture, but he did not complete his degree at this institution due to his weakness in calculus.[4][6]

From 1931 to 1940, he practised in New York City with Holden, McLaughlin & Associates,[7] designing homes for the East Coast rich. During this period, he led an active social life and sat on the board of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.[3][8]

In 1941, he quit his job and enlisted with the Delaware National Guard.[4] Before the outbreak of the Second World War, he was transferred to a military outpost in Fort Monroe, Virginia.[9] While he was here, he got to know Second Lieutenant Edwin Fahey Black, a fresh graduate from the US Military Academy, West Point.[9] It was Black who encouraged him to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.[10]

World War II activities[edit]

U.S. major general William J. Donovan

At the height of the Second World War, Thompson was recruited by major general William Joseph Donovan (1883–1959) to serve as an operative in the OSS.

His first assignment was with the French Resistance in North Africa. He was then sent to Europe. After Victory in Europe Day (May 7–8, 1945), he was transferred to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to work with the pro-Allied Free Thai Movement (Seri Thai). Their mission was to help liberate Thailand from the occupying Japanese Army. The group had the support of Pridi Panomyong, the regent to King Ananda Mahidol of Thailand, and Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador to the United States.

In August 1945, Thompson was about to be sent into Thailand, when the surrender of Japan officially ended World War II. He arrived in Thailand shortly after Victory over Japan Day and organised the Bangkok OSS office. It was here he got to know Constance (Connie) Mangskau, an Allied Services translator, who later became one of his closest friends.[8]

In the spring of 1946, Thompson went to work as a military attaché at the United States legation for his former Princeton classmate Charles Woodruff Yost, the US Minister to Thailand. It was the start of Thompson's eleven year affair with Yost's wife, Irena. In 1950, she had a child, but neither Thompson nor Yost could establish paternity prior to DNA testing.

Thompson used his contacts with the Free Thai and Free Laos (Lao Issara) groups to gather information and defuse conflicts on Thailand's borders. Working with him in the legation was Kenneth Landon, an American missionary whose wife, Margaret Landon, was the author of Anna and the King of Siam, which was the inspiration for the 1946 film of the same name, and the 1956 film The King and I.[11][12]

Return to private industry[edit]

Thompson's private collection of silk garments which were used for the stage musical The King and I.

In late 1946, Thompson headed for home to seek his discharge from the army. After his divorce from Patricia Thraves (1920–1969), he returned to Thailand to join a group of investors to buy The Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. While working on its restoration, he had some differences with his associates and this resulted in him giving up his shares in the company. He subsequently switched his focus to silk trade.

In 1948 he partnered with George Barrie to found the Thai Silk Company Limited.[13] It was capitalized at $25,000. They each owned 18% of the shares, and the remaining 64% were sold to Thai and foreign investors.

The firm achieved a coup in 1951 when designer Irene Sharaff made use of Thai silk fabrics for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I.[14] From then on, the company prospered.

Besides inventing the bright jewel tones and dramatic colour combinations today associated with Thai silk, Thompson raised thousands of Thailand's poorest people out of poverty. His determination to keep his company cottage-based was significant for the women who made up the bulk of his work force. By allowing them to work at home, they retained their position in the household while becoming breadwinners.[14] It was only after Thompson's disappearance that the Thai Silk Company relocated its weaving operations to Korat, a city which serves as a base of operations for the Royal Thai Army. Although it abandoned home-based weaving in favour of factories in the early 1970s, the Thai Silk Company's Korat facility looks more like a landscaped campus than a factory.

Thompson's "House on the Klong"[edit]

Jim Thompson House: Main building (c. 2013).
Jim Thompson House: Service building and gift shop.
Jim Thompson House: Pond reflection of retail store.

Thompson was unlike any other figure in Southeast Asia. He was an American, an ex-architect, a retired army officer, a one-time spy, a silk merchant and a renowned collector of antiques. Most of his treasures, if not all, were amassed after he came to Thailand.[15]

In 1958, he began what was to be the pinnacle of his architectural achievement – the construction of a new home to showcase his objets d'art.

Using parts of old up-country houses – some as old as a hundred years – he succeeded in constructing a masterpiece that involved the reassembling of six Thai dwellings on his estate. Most of the units were dismantled and brought over by river from Ayutthaya, but the largest – a weaver's house (now the living room) – came from Bangkrua. On arrival, the woodwork was offloaded and pieced together.[15][16]

In his quest for authenticity, he saw to it that some of the structures were elevated a full floor above the ground. During the construction stage, he added his own touches to the buildings by positioning, for instance, a central staircase indoors rather than having it outside. Along the way, he also reversed the wall panels of his quarters so that it now faced inside instead of it having an external orientation.[17][15]

After he was through with its creation, he filled his home with the items he had collected in the past. Decorating his rooms were Chinese blue-and-white Ming pieces, Belgian glass, Cambodian carvings, Victorian-era chandeliers, Benjarong earthenware, Thai stone images, Burmese statues, and a dining table which was once used by King Rama V of Thailand.

It took Thompson almost a year to complete his mansion. Now a museum, the Jim Thompson House can be reached by public or private transport.


Thompson disappeared from Malaysia's Cameron Highlands on Sunday, March 26, 1967. His disappearance from the hill station generated one of the largest land searches in Southeast Asian history, and is one of the most famous mysteries in the region.[18][19][20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Business Abroad: The Silk King". Time. April 21, 1958.
  2. ^ "Jim Thompson: A legend is born". Jim Thompson Fabrics. Archived from the original on January 11, 2019. Retrieved October 7, 2018.
  3. ^ a b "A brief history of Jim Thompson". Jim Thompson. The Thai Silk Company.
  4. ^ a b c Alioto, Daisy (May 9, 2016). "The Architect Who Changed the Thai Silk Industry and Then Disappeared". Time. Retrieved June 24, 2019.
  5. ^ "Jim Thompson Bio, Stats, and Results". Olympic Sports. Sports Reference LLC. Archived from the original on May 23, 2015. Retrieved March 18, 2015.
  6. ^ Pezzati, Alessandro (2011). "Jim Thompson, the Thai Silk King" (PDF). Expedition. Penn Museum. 53 (1).
  7. ^ "HOLDEN New York Stories/Jim Thompson". Jim Thompson Fabrics.
  8. ^ a b Jenkins, Mark (May 6, 1987). "The Saga of the Thai Silk King: Twenty years later, James Thompson '28's disappearance remains a mystery". Princeton Alumni Weekly. Retrieved June 24, 2019.
  9. ^ a b Warren, William (1998). Jim Thompson – The unsolved mystery. Archipelago Press. p. 39. ISBN 981-3018-82-8.
  10. ^ De Souza, Edward Roy (2010). SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King (2nd ed). Word Association Publishers. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-59571-505-0. LCCN 2009944204.
  11. ^ The American largely responsible for bringing about this relationship was Dr. Kenneth Landon, a former Presbyterian minister who had spent ten years in Thailand as a missionary. Archived October 23, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Morgan, Susan (2009). ""Shall We Dance?": Anna and U.S.-Thai Relations". Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess. Univ of California Press. pp. 216–220. ISBN 9780520261631.
  13. ^ "The Thai Silk Company Founded in 1948". The Jim Thompson House. Archived from the original on March 6, 2016. Retrieved June 19, 2016.
  14. ^ a b McMurray, Clem (January–February 2013). "Jim Thompson – Thai Silk King" (PDF). Passage. Friends of the Museums (Singapore). Archived from the original (PDF) on February 17, 2017.
  15. ^ a b c Wallace, Lary (April 15, 2013). "Silk Thread: The Strange Mystery of Jim Thompson". The Paris Review. Retrieved June 24, 2019.
  16. ^ Jotisalikorn, Chami; Bhumadhon, Phuthorn (2012). "The Jim Thompson House". Classic Thai: Designs, Interiors, Architecture. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 9781462906864.
  17. ^ De Souza, Edward Roy (2010). SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King (2nd ed). Word Association Publishers. pp. 13–14. ISBN 978-1-59571-505-0. LCCN 2009944204.
  18. ^ Kent, Jonathan (March 25, 2007). "Mystery of missing Thai Silk King". BBC News. Kuala Lumpur. Retrieved June 24, 2019.
  19. ^ "Thailand: A Walk in the Jungle". Time. April 7, 1967. Retrieved June 24, 2019.
  20. ^ Toulmin, Llewellyn (May 7, 2015). "The exotic life and death of Thailand's 'Silk King'". The Montgomery County Sentinel. Retrieved June 24, 2019.



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