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.

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