Monday, May 20, 2013

Dashing Society Guy

Dashing society guy; designer; government spy; divorced man; eccentric visionary; successful businessman. It’s a list that reads like a description of a character in a steamy novel or a good thriller that gets turned into a movie in the genre of “White Mischief” or “The Letter” or even “Out of Africa.”

The Letter

He was an American businessman who in the 1950s and 1960s was the most famous American living in Asia. “Time” magazine claimed that he "almost single handed saved Thailand's vital silk industry from extinction".

James Harrison Wilson Thompson was born (March 21, 1906) in Greenville, Delaware. He was the youngest of five children of Henry and Mary 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.

Dashing society guy; designer; government spy; divorced man; eccentric visionary; successful businessman

Thompson spent his early years of education at St. Paul's boarding school. He graduated from Princeton University in 1928. Post-graduate studies followed at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture, but he did not complete his degree. From 1931 to 1941, he practiced in New York City with Holden, McLaughlin & Associates, designing homes for the East Coast rich and a band shell in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
From The New Yorker in 1934 - "Talk story about ready-made houses, exhibited at the Industrial Arts Exposition, these "prefabricated" dwellings are made at the factory and merely bolted together at the site of the construction. Holden McLaughlin and Associates, who designed and made the one at the exhibit have already sold a number of them."

He led a very active glamorous social life in the 1930s, and sat on the board of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He also became politically active, but his liberal politics alienated him from his conservative family.

Ballet Russe 1938 - Perhaps the exoticism attracted Jim Thompson

In 1941, he quit his design job and enlisted with the Delaware National Guard regiment. He became a commissioned officer shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the height of the Second World War, Thompson was recruited to serve in the Office of Strategic Services (which in 1947 was disbanded in place of the newly formed Central
Intelligence Agency).

Candidates for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) learn how to set up radio antennae. National Archives and Records Administration photo

His first assignment was with the French resistance forces in North Africa. He was then sent to Europe. After Victory in Europe Day, he was transferred to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He was assigned to contact the pro-Allied Seri Thai or Free Thai Movement, which was planning an uprising against the occupying Japanese Army. 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 organized the Bangkok OSS office. In the spring of 1946, Thompson went to work as military attaché at the United States legation for his former Princeton classmate Charles Yost, the U.S. Minister to Thailand. Thompson used his contacts with the Free Thai and Free Lao 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 movie of the same name, and then the original Broadway production of “The King and I” in 1951.

Thai silk weavers in the 1940's

Jim Thompson with a silk worker in Thailand

Thompson left the army in 1946. After his divorce, he devoted himself to revitalizing a cottage industry of hand-woven silk in Thailand. In 1948, he partnered with George Barrie to found the Thai Silk Company. The establishment achieved a coup in 1951 when designer Irene Sharaff made use of Thai silk fabrics for the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I. From then on, the company was on the map and prospered.

Th King and I - The silk from Jim Thompson's company was used

I was reminded of the story of Jim Thompson when I was asked by a textile conservator to source a striped silk fabric for a vanity stool from the 1960s being restored for The Historic New Orleans Collection. The age-destroyed fabric reminded me of the silks Jim Thompson had produced, and I was lucky enough to find a vintage remnant from the 1960s just big enough for recovering the seat.

I was asked to find a silk fabric to replace this

The conservator is dying the fabric to match the original. It is a fascinating process. A new fabric would be acceptable, but somehow using a vintage fabric is more special. The conservator did her own research on Jim Thompson and was amazed by his life story, and sent me some of the tidbits I now share with you. She was so excited and asked if I knew who he was. I did know the broad strokes, but her detailed information made me appreciate the incredible man and his life (and want to turn it into a movie).

Jim Thompson went native in Thailand

Jim Thompson loved Thailand. He went native in many ways. 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.

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 by reassembling six Thai dwellings on his estate. 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. 

Authentically raised off the ground

After he was through with its creation, he filled his home with the many items he had collected over the years. Decorating his rooms were Chinese blue-and-white Ming pieces, Belgian glass, Cambodian carvings, Victorian chandeliers, Benjarong earthenware, Thai stone images, Burmese statues, and a dining table once used by King Rama V of Thailand. It took Thompson almost a year to complete his mansion. It still stands today, now as one of  Bangkok’s most charming museums. It can also be rented for weddings.

Along the way, he also reversed the wall panels of his quarters so that it now faced inside.

Cambodian carvings, Victorian chandeliers, Benjarong earthenware, Thai stone images, Burmese statues

Sadly, so few images are available of Jim Thompson or his home

In 1961 Jim Thompson took an afternoon walk in familiar surroundings near his home in Thailand. He never returned. He disappeared. It is still one of the greatest unsolved and tragic mysteries. To be continued in another post….

Jim Thompson started the Thai Silk Company

What happened to the dashing Jim Thompson?

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  1. Fascinating...can't wait to read part 2!

  2. I am forever fascinated by textiles,history, and the folks that made the two. This was a wonderfully informative post and intriguing too.

  3. I absolutely LOVED this post Valorie, and can't wait for part 2! I had heard the stories about Jim Thompson and his mysterious disappearance, but none of the detail of the many facets of his life to that point. Thank you for such a well-researched post!

    Will you be showing the finished vanity stool, with the Thai silk in part 2? I hope so!

  4. How fascinating! It also reminds me to tell you that I imagine you would have made (in fact, still would make) a great spy -- your attention to detail and your ability to fit into any mix of people would serve you well. And while I know you have the Best dance partner, just imagine the secrets you could learn on the dance floor!

  5. What an interesting man you brought into our lives! Love the silk fabric connection since I am so touchy, feely. I tried to capture all the silk on his home! Must research myself and can't wait for part 2 girls!

  6. Wanted to pop in and say hello to my fellow designer, I mean, decorator ;) Lovely post...I just love hearing about glamorous beginnings, and it doesn't hurt that Mr. Gatsby is on the forefront of our minds and Pins! I'll actually be in New Orleans this weekend & I'm surprised I haven't bumped into you already!

    Stacy Naquin

  7. I love Jim Thompson fabrics, I have carried this line for some time.
    His story is so fascinating. I read that he was killed by the local
    people for mixing the silks from different villages, which is taboo
    there. I have his Crescent in Camel on my living room sofa!

  8. Both my daughter/blog partner and I have been to Jim Thompson's house in Bangkok. She went this year, and I was there two years ago. It was really cool. We also both have some of his pillows (we bought the tops there and added the pillow form when we returned to the USA), and I have read his biography. Thank you for this blog post. I get the feeling not a lot of Americans know about him.