Architect, magnate, spy
The real story of Jim Thompson, the Silk King and a secret agent
June 8, 2015
He's known as the Silk King, having made a fortune bringing Thai silk to Europe and the Americas. But few know that American Jim Thompson doubled as a secret agent while living in his Bangkok house, now one of Thailand's most popular tourist attractions.
Born in 1906 in Delaware, Thompson worked as an architect before joining the military during World War II. During the war, he was assigned to the Central Intelligence Agency's predecessor, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, and began traveling around the world. He arrived in Bangkok in 1945, just as the war ended, and decided to stay.
In the years that followed, he built a two-story teak house where he displayed his growing collection of Chinese, Burmese, and Thai art, and established the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company, which continues to prosper today. While he seemed like a businessman to most, documents found after his death revealed that, behind closed doors, he was also a freelance intelligence operative.
Thompson, who had been a fixture at New York balls and cocktail parties in the 1940s, began hosting near-nightly dinner parties for globe-trotting writers, actors, and diplomats while in Bangkok.
"In letters to his nephew, sister, and few other family members, he spoke about how tired he was with the ritual of entertaining people, but by then it had become central to his business model," says Josh Kurlantzick, author of a book on Thompson's life titled, The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War. Kurlantzick adds that while there is no evidence that Thompson collected information during his dinners, he found in the course of his research that the CIA had issued the man a "burn notice" in the early 1960s, warning operatives to stay away from him, and that Thompson had expressed support for Asian insurgents.
"Thompson wound up unhappy with American policy and what happened in Southeast Asia," says Kurlantzick. "He had little contact with his family because some probably didn't understand why he was in Asia. Everyone who knew him knew he never learned the Thai language. He ended up feeling like he had no home at all."
On the Easter weekend of 1967, Thompson, an avid hiker, visited Malaysia with some friends but disappeared on a hiking trip. Some speculate that he had planned to die unannounced; some believe that he got hopelessly lost or fell down a ravine. Others say his disagreements with the CIA contributed to his disappearance.
The Jim Thompson House today is a museum most Bangkok tourists visit to learn about the American entrepreneur and lover of Thai culture. The estate, built with the original materials of six ancient teak Thai houses Thompson personally selected, displays his vast collection of Southeast Asian pottery, paintings, handmade furniture, and religious artifacts, including 12th-century stone Buddha heads and gold-lacquered bodhisattva statues. Visitors can also walk through the home's grounds of lush greenery and lotus ponds.
Entrance fees to the Jim Thompson house are 100 baht ($3) for an adult and 50 baht ($1.50) for a child, and include a 35-minute guided tour. Perhaps, while exploring one of the museum's hidden gardens, one might discover another Thompson secret.