Fancy Houses and Fabric: Jim Thompson’s Rehoboth Beach Connection

On Easter Day in 1967, American businessman and “Thai silk king” Jim Thompson went for a Sunday stroll in the jungle in the Cameron Highlands vacation area in central Malaysia. He never came back and no trace of him has ever been found, despite extensive searches of the surrounding jungle.

Lots of theories abound – suicide, kidnapping, killed by the CIA, devoured by tigers – but no explanation for his disappearance has ever come to light.While mostly forgotten today, back in 1967 during the height of the Vietnam War, the story of Thompson’s disappearance was followed by the world’s leading newspapers, including The New York Times, The London Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Thompson was a well-known businessman, socialite, and art collector. Many say he was the best known American living in Southeast Asia at the time. He is credited with bringing Thailand’s silk industry back from the brink of extinction. “Thompson silk,” as it became known, was sought by the best Paris fashion houses and was even used in Windsor Castle. In 1951, his silk fabric was featured in the Broadway production of “The King and I” and in the movie “Ben Hur.”

Thompson kept company with authors, politicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and the idle rich. His home in Bangkok was a non-stop dinner party to which came an assortment of interesting people – Barbara Hutton, Truman Capote, and Cecil Beaton, among others. Ethel Merman once serenaded his pet white cockatoo to the tune of “Hello Dolly” while they dined al fresco beneath the flickering light of coconut oil torches.

Thompson had many gay friends and associates and it was rumoured that he was gay, with a taste for “rough trade.” His only marriage was early and short-lived (nine months). And, many whispered too about alleged ties to the opium trade and to the CIA. After all, he had worked for the military intelligence in Asia during WWII and then decided to stay on. The fact that his sister was murdered mysteriously in her own home in Delaware the same year he disappeared has only fueled the espionage rumours.

Jim Thompson is a fascinating fellow whose life is filled with intrigue and innuendo. And though many of the gay boys I talk to know about Jim Thompson and his silk, not so many know about his Rehoboth connections or his impact on Thailand’s preservation movement.
Jim Thompson was born to a wealthy and influential family in Greenville, Delaware, in 1906. His father was president of a successful textile business. His mother was none other than Mrs. H.B. Thompson, the society matron who was hell-bent on ridding Rehoboth of its mosquitos. (I wrote about Mrs. H.B. Thompson in the June 3 edition of Letters.)

After studying at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, Jim Thompson practiced architecture in New York City from 1931 until 1940. And though never officially licensed, he designed vacation and country homes for family friends in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. His talent extended to gardens and interiors. He had a flair for color.

His first architectural commission, interestingly, was the bandstand and public lavoratory in Rehoboth Beach (since torn down and replaced). For many years, Thompson’s Rehoboth Avenue bandstand was pictured on souvenir postcards. The common assumption is that he helped design his mother’s home in Rehoboth. Built in 1928 and based on an 18th centure home from nearby Lewes, Delaware, the home was named Mon Plaisir (“my pleasure” in French). It’s the tasteful shingled cottage at the corner of Park Avenue and First Street. Thompson is also credited with designing the home owned by Roger and Jennifer Townsend at 20 Columbia Avenue. This house, named “Mer Pines,” is one of my favorites in Rehoboth, with its big wrap-around screened porch, hydrangeas, rambling roses, and a beautiful roof that has a vaguely Asian look to it. And, speculation is that Jim Thompson may have had a hand in designing the white house at 47 Pennsylvania Avenue, which was also built by his mother.

I’ve also learned that from 1938-1954, Jim Thompson owned “The Red House,” a cottage built in the 1890’s that sits directly on the beach at the end of Carolina Street in Rehoboth-By-The-Sea. It’s owned by the Obrecht family of Baltimore and was recently featured in Style Magazine and in Dewey Beach History and Tales by Barbara Dougherty. Barbara tells me that one of Jim Thompson’s nieces lives in Henlopen Acres….

Thompson carried his love of architecture with him to Thailand. In 1959, he built a traditional Thai-style house in Bangkok, which was veryunusual for the time. Bangkok real estate developers at mid-Century werequickly building American ranch style homes to meet what they thoughtwere the needs of all the foreigners pouring into the city. This attitude changed quickly after he erected his traditional house, which became one of the sights to see in the capital city, as celebrated as its temples and floating markets. The house today is a museum that showcases Thompson’s vast collection of porcelains, carvings, paintings, and Buddhist objects.

After Thompson built his house, it soon became quite fashionable among locals and foreigners to build elevated, wooden Thai-style residence, with raisedthresholds (for good luck), plenty of doors and windows to allow a freecirculation of air, and those swooping, elegant roofs. Thompson may not have saved Thai architecture, as he certainly saved Thai silk, but he played a powerful role in restoring it to prominence and in proving that old houses could be adapted to suit contemporary needs without destroying their essentialcharacter.

There’s a good book about Jim Thompson. It’s called Jim Thompson: the Unsolved Mystery. It was written by William Warren, who knew him well.

As I spend more and more time in Rehoboth, I’m constantly learning about the interesting characters who have run through this little beach town that I like so much. I look forward to telling their tales too.

Before it was Poodle Beach

The best known gay beach in Rehoboth for more than two decades has been Poodle Beach, at the south end of the city’s boardwalk. Last year, USA Today even annointed it one of America’s best gay beaches.

What USA Today didn’t mention was the origin of the Poodle Beach name. Maybe that’s because nobody really knows for sure how it came about. I like the “two cousins theory” where these two cousins from Maryland would drive up to the end of the Boardwalk in a big Cadillac convertible and then bring their poodle dogs onto the beach and set up camp. Another theory says its because the gay guys sit on the beach, all coiffed and groomed, much like a poodle. And I’ve heard a redneck contractor suggest the name stems from the way the gay guys walk around with their butts in the air, just like a poodle dog in heat.

Until the late 70s, however, Poodle Beach was known as Carpenter’s Beach — physically it was just beyond the two current Carpenter (du Pont) houses, down towards Dewey Beach across from Silver Lake. Back in the 30s and 40s, du Pont heiress and well-known lesbian Louisa Carpenter was said to have entertained her gay and lesbian and bisexual theatre and Hollywood friends on the beach in front of the family compound.

Two friends of mine who began visiting Rehoboth back in the mid-70s tell me there was nothing but beach and sand dunes at Carpenter’s Beach. None of the big houses you see now. And, no women. Guys would spend the entire day on the beach, slathering themselves with Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil or a concoction of baby oil and iodine. You played volleyball and Frisbee and drank Seabreezes and dropped Quaaludes. Boom boxes blasted disco music. And everyone wore their RayBan aviator sunglasses.

A Washington Blade article from 1978 talks about Carpenter’s Beach attracting 300-400 gay guys on a holiday weekend. It also points out that the Carpenter/du Pont family occasionally throw eggs. I have an eyewitness report of a well-remembered walter balloon incident. A few teenagers were up on the dunes outside the Carpenter house launching water balloons. A couple of guys finally stormed up to the house and got into an argument with the kids and a middle aged blond haired lady about rights to the beach and the watermark laws. Her response: “Darling, it comes down to the haves and have nots….we are the haves and you are the nots.” Then she called the teenagers into the house and that was about it.

Carpenter’s Beach was cruisy, of course, but it wasn’t an outdoor bathouse. The beach was too too public and not private enough. If you wanted sex on the beach, you went up to the beach at Gordon’s Pond. As its popularity grew, the beach gradually spread out and moved back towards the Boardwalk. For a year or two it was called “Lazy Gay Beach” because guys got tired of walking so far from the Boardwalk.

I’ve also been told that gays and lesbians gathered in the 50’s on the beach at the end of Olive and Virginia Streets — very near the Pink Pony, a well-known bar that catered to gays and lesbians up until its destruction by the great nor’easter of 1962. The Pleasant Inn, in the house that now stands at the corner of Olive and Second Streets, had a word of mouth reputation as a gay-friendly establishment. It had been in the Ocean block of Virginia Street before it was moved. According to one old boy I know who began visiting Rehoboth in the early 50’s, the gay guys would play volleyball on the beach and it was the way to meet guys that way. And, if you were staying at the Pleasant Inn you didn’t even have to sneak ’em into your room. Peck Pleasonton, the somewhat closeted gay owner of the Inn passed away a few years ago. He and his mother had run the Inn and were known for their cocktail hour with guests. I’ve even heard that his mother preferred to rent to gay men because she didn’t get any trouble out of them.

Gays also frequented the beach at Nomad Village, a now defunct hotel and bar complex eight miles south of Rehoboth in Bethany Beach, after it opened in 1960. It catered mainly to those staying at the Nomad hotel and it attracted some lesbians. I’ve also heard that the beach area just north of the boardwalk was as a place where gay guys had cocktail parties on the beach — all dressed up in madras shorts and nice shirts.

The Crowd at Verandas

Late one Friday afternoon, two men in Washington, DC, load up a big Cadillac convertible and begin their 150 mile drive to Rehoboth Beach. They leave the city via Constitution Avenue, which turns into Route 50 heading east.
In Annapolis, they stop for dinner and a couple of drinks at the Chesapeake Inn and wait for the traffic to die down. Already there is a several mile back-up of cars waiting to cross over the just-opened Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

This is the first trip to Rehoboth Beach for 31 year old Bill, an up-and-coming realtor in Washington. Bill usually spends his summer vacation on Fire Island or in Provincetown because he enjoys the gay life there. He has a friend in Provincetown who owns several cottages and from whom he occasionally rents.
This year, though, he has decided to explore Rehoboth. It’s the closest ocean beach to Washington. And, with the Bay Bridge having opened, it’s more accessible than ever. What intrigues Bill most is the potential for close, affordable beach real estate and the hushed talk about more and more gay men spending time there.

Joining Bill that summer in 1952 is his friend Don, a big, easy-going 25 year old Air Force captain. Though recently married, Don has been to Rehoboth before, and at his recommendation they check into the Pleasant Inn, which has “a reputation.” Don knows that if you “get lucky,” either on the beach or at the Saturday afternoon beer bash at the Bottle and Cork down in Dewey Beach, you can safely bring a fellow home. Bill and Don enjoy vacationing in Rehoboth the next couple of summers. During this time, Don leaves the Air Force and he and his wife move to south Florida. But he still comes back to vacation with Bill in Rehoboth.

In 1957, Bill buys a house on Columbia Avenue in Rehoboth’s Pines neighborhood and christens it Verandas, because it has a prominent two-story screened front porch. Like many summer homes in Rehoboth,Verandas was a 3-season house, meaning it was closed down in the fall and then reopened each spring.

Right after he purchased it, Bill began to insulate some parts of the house. He updated the kitchen and installed a stone fireplace. And, he decorated the place with striped drapes and awnings and white wicker rocking chairs on the porch. The living room was comfortable, with wing-back chairs and a sofa. A huge wrought-iron chandelier hung over the dining room table.

According to Don, Verandas quickly became a social hub, as Bill opened his house and his life to an increasing number of gay friends visiting each weekend from Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. “He had a sleeping porch with 2 beds and 3 bedrooms and a berth bed in the kitchen, and they were usually filled—double stacked sometimes, if you know what I mean.”

Don especially remembers the parties. Drunken, loud, and campy are the words he uses to describe them. In his soft Southern voice, he reminisces how after dinner “Bill liked to push his old, upright piano out onto the screened front porch and play and sing old Baptist hymns…and he would wear these silk, high-heeled pumps—lord, he had a whole collection.” The local police paid regular, usually polite, visits to Verandas when things got too loud. If they showed up a second time during the same night their visits were not so friendly and were often peppered with threats and insults to “the god damned queers.”

The 50s, Don reminds me, weren’t a good time for gay men, with the McCarthy witch hunts for communists and gays. And while dancing and romancing may have been the order of the day at Verandas, the conversation around the dinner table was often about the purging of gays from government jobs and from the military. Everyone always knew someone who had lost a job. In Washington and in other cities, policemen routinely raided bars that catered to gays. Blistering anti-gay rhetoric appeared in newspapers nationwide.

In such a climate, a lot of gay entertaining took place in one’s home with the drapes pulled. Revelers at “Verandas” bucked this trend somewhat. Drinking and singing out on the screened front porch, Bill and his guests felt a fledgling sense of freedom and community and anonymity they didn’t have back in the cities where they lived and worked. The men were, however, still cautious. A lot of Bill’s friends in Washington, however, were too afraid to visit Verandas.

The crowd at Verandas in the late 50s was part of a small but growing social network of closeted, out-of-town gays who would visit Rehoboth on summer weekends. Life revolved around the cocktail party. According to Don, “every Saturday and Sunday afternoon there was a cocktail party somewhere around town and they always had a pitcher of Martinis and a pitcher of Manhattans—you drank one or the other.”
Though there were no gay bars per se in Rehoboth, there were many with gay reputations. Don recalls the Bottle and Cork in Dewey Beach and the bar where today’s Frogg Pond is on 2nd Street as places one could cruise discreetly and meet other men. The latter place, says Don, attracted a “younger, local, working-class crowd—I always made out like sin.” The bar at the Dinner Bell Inn was supposedly gay one night per week. And, the Pink Pony, on the Boardwalk and Olive Street, had a gay clientele. Gay men also found cruising opportunities along the boardwalk late at night or among the dunes in the late afternoon.

Verandas is still standing. It’s up the street from my cottage, in the second block of Columbia Avenue. Its paint has faded, as have the black and white striped awnings. And as time passes, so do the memories of the crowd at Verandas.