The Mysterious Disappearance of Jim Thompson

Most fashion designers die of natural causes after long, productive lives: Madame Gres passed away at 89, Givenchy at 91, and Madame Carven at 105! Some leaders in the fashion world survived disasters: Lucile was aboard the Titanic, Philip Mangone was on the Hindenburg, and Issey Miyake’s family lived in Hiroshima in 1945 when the Atom bomb was dropped on the city. However, a few met their ends unexpectedly: Versace was murdered, Laura Ashley either fell or was pushed down the stairs, and Jim Thompson — well nobody knows what happened to him. Jim Thompson is the Amelia Earhart of the fashion industry.

Born in Delaware in 1906, his father was a wealthy textile manufacturer. Jim graduated from Princeton University and was an Olympic athlete. He even represented the U.S. in sailing at the 1928 Summer Olympics. Jim then worked in an architectural firm until 1941 when he enlisted with the National Guard. He then joined the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) and worked with the French Resistance in North Africa. After VE Day he was re-assigned to help liberate Thailand from the occupying Japanese but the war ended before he was despatched. He was sent to Thailand anyway to organize the Bangkok OSS office.

After being discharged from the army in 1946, Jim Thompson stayed in Thailand and joined a group of investors to buy and restore the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. However, he had a falling out and left the group, and instead founded the Thai Silk Company Ltd. in 1948. Business was slow at first, but Thompson was determined to keep silk production as a cottage-based industry so that the weavers could work from home. He became highly respected by the Thai government as his work in promoting and exporting Thai silk saved the silk industry and brought prosperity to Thailand’s poorest class.

In 1951 costume designer Irene Sharaff used Thompson’s Thai silks for the Rodgers and Hammerstein broadway musical The King and I. Soon fashion designers were choosing Thai silk for making cocktail dresses, evening gowns, and pyjama ensembles. With the wealth he had accumulated, Thompson began building a spectacular home in 1958 using parts of old Thai dwellings for its construction. He filled it with his collected treasures: Ming pottery, Cambodian carvings, and Victorian glass chandeliers. The house today is a museum.

On Easter Sunday, March 26, 1967, Thompson attended church services and then went for a walk by himself. He returned within the hour and then went to lunch with three friends. After lunch he went for another walk by himself and was seen a couple of hours later, around 4 p.m. However, by 6 p.m. he had not returned. A search party was formed and over the next 11 days searches were conducted by hundreds of police, military personnel and volunteers but no trace of Jim Thompson was ever found.

Immediate speculation was that he had been kidnapped, but no ransom note was ever received. As no body was ever found and no clues ever emerged, it wasn’t clear if he had been murdered, had an accident, was eaten by a tiger, or had disappeared on purpose. Blood hounds lost track of his scent at a road, suggesting he had entered a car. In 1985 some bone fragments were found in the area of his disappearance, but it was not determined if they were even human, and DNA tests were not conducted at that time.

A few years ago a death-bed confession led investigators to reinvestigate an old theory as to why and how he had disappeared. The conclusion was that Thompson had been commissioned for one last mission. His lone walks were to meet with rebels from the Communist Party of Malaya. They grew suspicious after Thompson requested a meeting with Chin Peng, the party’s secretary-general, who was at that time Malaysia’s most-wanted man. It is conjectured Thompson went willingly expecting to meet with Peng, but was instead killed and his body disposed of in such a way that it would never be found.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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