James Harrison Wilson Thompson was born in 1906 in Greenville, Delaware in the United States. He was the youngest of five children by some fourteen years. His father Henry was a textile manufacturer, whilst his mother Mary was the daughter of James Harrison Wilson, a prominent Union General. The family was comfortably well off and highly regarded amongst Delaware society. Thompson spent his senior secondary education at the acclaimed St. Paul’s boarding school.
Princeton followed, where he studied from 1924-1928. Thompson then enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in the School of Architecture. Despite never finishing his course, Thompson spent
the years 1931-1940 working as a practicing architect for Holden McLaughin Associates in New York City, designing homes for the East Coast elite. It was during his time in New York that Thompson first found an interest in costume design and textiles whilst working on the board of the famous Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1941, Thompson surprised his family and friends by enlisting in the Delaware National Guard. When war broke out, Thompson spent the majority of the duration working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA, and was stationed all over the world. After a time in North Africa and Europe, in 1945, Thompson was transferred to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where preparations were underway to invade Thailand. Japan’s surrender eliminated the need for such an invasion and in August of the same year, mere days after the end of World War II, the man whose name was to become synonymous with Thai silk arrived by military plane.
Thompson decided to stay in Thailand and took on a project to restore the venerable Oriental Hotel. However, he withdrew before his plans came to fruition due to some differences that he had with his associates. This allowed him to concentrate on a new interest in Thai silk. At the time, the legendary textile was only being produced in small quantities, mostly for personal use. He began sending the fabrics he acquired home to his friends, whom he felt would appreciate the cloth’s beautiful texture and vibrant colours.
By 1947, Thompson was pursuing the commercial possibilities of his newfound interest. Thompson’s first major breakthrough came upon the discovery, and later employment, of an enclave of Thai, Muslim weavers who lived in an idyllic small canal-side community called Ban Krua, right in the heart of Bangkok. Thompson had his fresh portfolio of hand-woven silks sent to New York, a collection which was to captivate some of the leading names in fashion, including Edna Woolman Chase, the influential editor of Vogue Magazine.
Following on from an excellent reception in New York, Thompson’s Thai Silk business prospered and in 1950 he opened his first shop on the iconic lower Surawong Road, selling an eclectic array of beautiful silk textiles.
In 1951, the Thai Silk Company Limited was officially registered as a company. Thompson continued to work with the local weavers in Ban Krua, who helped him produce some of the most exquisite fabrics.
Silk was not Jim Thompson’s only passion throughout this time. During his first decade in Thailand, he acquired an increasingly large collection of art, mostly Thai but also Khmer, Burmese and Chinese. By the late 1950’s, his collection was so extensive that he decided to build a place that would efficiently house his splendid, unique antique collection. Thompson’s famous House on the Klong, made up of six old teakwood houses in Bangkok (Banh Krua) and Ayutthaya province (Pak Hai), was completed in 1959. Thompson lived happily here for many years, expanding his business and entertaining scores of influential guests in his impressive home.
In 1967, Thompson took a holiday to the Cameron Highlands with some friends. While there, Sunday 26th March, he went for a walk from which he never returned. His disappearance triggered a major search operation, the biggest the region had seen, with 400 men dispatched to search, but to no avail. No remains of Thompson were ever found. Abounding theories surrounded his disappearance, ranging from kidnapping, assassination, tiger attacks and suggestions that he simply lost his way. While the name Jim Thompson may be synonymous with silk, in Malaysia it is his legendary disappearance that continues to puzzle generations. The truth remains a mystery to this day.