‘Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs.’ – Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery, by William Warren

November 1, 2020 at 5:06 pm (Book review, books, True crime, Uncategorized)

It started with a comment about the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. This came about because of a Zoom class I was taking on the great choreographers of the American musical theater. We were focusing on Jerome Robbins. For me, Robbins’s genius is most clearly manifest in West Side Story, both the Broadway show and then the film. He was fired from this latter enterprise for being impossible to work with – but before that happened, we got  this:

Okay, that was a total digression, but it’s one of my all time favorite YouTube videos, so I couldn’t resist.

Anyway, back to The King and I. Robbins did the choreography for that show as well, a fact of which I was previously unaware. The presenter of this class did us the great favor of screening one of that production’s most famous scenes, the March of the Siamese Children. Here it is:

In the course of his remarks on The King and I, the presenter mentioned the sheer gorgeousness of the costumes. The silk was supplied, he informed us, by Jim Thompson, founder of the Thai Silk Company – “You know, the guy who went missing in Malaysia.”

No I don’t know. Never heard of him. While the presenter went on to other topics, I remained fixated on the missing man. I found a book on the subject and read it, with great interest.

Born in 1906, scion of a prominent Delaware family, Jim Thompson seemed headed for the kind if life and career that would be expected for one of his background. Having graduated from Princeton, he aspired to be an architect, but he was unable to pass the qualifying exam that was required for licensure. Nevertheless, was able to work in that field, for a time. Then World War Two broke out.

Having begun his military career in the Delaware National Guard, Thompson was eventually recruited to serve in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), which later came to be known as the CIA. Just as he was being posted to Bangkok, the war ended. But for Jim Thompson, Bangkok was a new beginning. He took up residence there and never wanted to leave.

Not long after his arrival, Thompson discovered a corner of Thailand which housed some Muslim silk weavers. They were barely eking out a living, yet the fabric they re producing was gorgeous. He turned Thai silk weaving into a business with a future. The Thai Silk Company became a hugely successful enterprise, especially after its product was showcased in The King and I.

Meanwhile, Jim Thompson had a rich and rewarding life in Bangkok. He built a beautiful house for himself, where he entertained numerous friends and business associates. Among these were a Dr. and Mrs T.G. Ling, and a widow, Connie Mangskau. In 1967, the Lings invited Mrs Mangskau and her friend Jim Thompson to join them at Moonlight Cottage, their holiday home in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. The invitation was accepted.

Moonlight Cottage, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

On their first full day at Moonlight Cottage, the party busied themselves with a picnic and other activities, returning to the house in the afternoon to rest before dinner. All had retired to their respective bedrooms, but Jim Thompson did not remain in his. Restless, an inveterate hiker, he decided to follow a trail that led downhill from the house.

He did not return and was never seen again.

The disappearance of this prominent American businessman caused a sensation. William Warren describes in great detail the search that took place, over a period of days, weeks, stretching into months. Everyone from military personnel to psychics took part or offered theories at to what had happened to Jim Thompson. Had he strayed into the jungle area adjacent to the trail and gotten lost, or fatally mauled by a tiger? (If so, where were the remains?) Or perhaps, had an accident? Was he still involved in intelligence work for the U.S. and gotten into some sort of trouble because of this connection? Had he deliberately disappeared, wanting to end his life? Had he been preyed upon by Malaysian communists? Had he been kidnapped by aborigines, who lived in the region?

Each of these possibilities was looked into and run to  ground as  far as was possible. Large numbers of people were interviewed. The area around the trail was searched and searched again. Nothing.

Jim Thompson was 61 years old at the time of his disappearance. He had some physical issues but was generally speaking in good health.

(A mere six months after Thompson went missing, his sister was murdered in her home in Chester County, Pennsylvania. As far as I know, this crime remains unsolved.)

As the years have passed, various theories have emerged concerning the disappearance.  Claims to have solved the mystery have invariably been proved misleading or downright false – at least, until 2017. In that year, a film entitled Who Killed Jim Thompson was screened at a film festival in Eugene, Oregon. In it, producer Barry Broman claims to have uncovered evidence leading to the determination that Thompson was killed by members of the Communist Party of Malaya.  Even so, Broman admits that he would like to have more evidence to verify this conclusion.

It would be great to be able to view this film, but so far, I haven’t been able to figure out how to do  that.

Meanwhile, Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Company is still very much a going concern. His house in now maintained by a foundation as a museum, where one can view his impressive collection of Asian art in the house which he himself designed.

In 1959, W. Somerset Maugham, celebrated author and restless sojourner, was Jim Thompson’s guest for dinner in this same house. It was in the way of a farewell tour for the elderly Maugham, who throughout his years of travel had come to love the Far East. In his thank-you note to his host, Maugham wrote:

You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste.

(The quotation in the title of this post is from Maugham’s novel The Moon and Sixpence.)

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Melanie Carlson Peterson said,

    I lived in Bangkok in the 80’s, and decorated my house with prints I bought from the museum. Some I still have. I use the napkins from there all the time. I also found his story fascinating, and while living in Malaysia I went to where he vanished from.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Many thanks for this, Melanie.

  2. alison41 said,

    I visited his house in Thailand , a magnificent teak house. I found the story intriguing. Clearly one of life’s mysteries

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