Jim Thompson ’28: Princeton’s Man Who Knew Too Much

jimthompson_1The CIA’s on campus this week searching for new recruits.  While I won’t be signing up for an interview (OR WILL I?  ESPIONAGE!), their arrival did make me think of my favorite Princeton spook, Jim Thompson, whose life – and death – reads like something straight out of a spy novel.

Born to a wealthy family in Delaware, then educated at St. Paul’s School and Princeton (Class of ‘28), Thompson left a career as a high-society architect in New York to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to today’s CIA.

His first job after World War II was to set up the OSS’s bureau in Bangkok, Thailand.  By day Thompson made contacts with Southeast Asia’s radical leftists, hoping to sway them to the American side; by night, he established himself as a fixture of Bangkok’s reemerging expat scene.  After retiring from the OSS in the late ‘40s, Thompson set his sights on a new venture: silkmaking.

Working closely with artisans from the country’s impoverished northeast, Thompson set about reviving the dying art of traditional Thai silk weaving. The venture made him millions and earned him worldwide fame as the “Silk King”.  Thompson used his earnings to build a huge, antiquities-filled mansion in the heart of Bangkok (which you can still visit today; it’s a must-see for any Princetonian in Thailand).

Then, on Easter Sunday 1967, Thompson vanished while walking alone in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands.  He was never heard from again.

What happened to Jim Thompson, one of Southeast Asia’s richest men?  No one can say for sure. But as related in two separate Princeton Alumni Weekly articles, sinister theories abound:

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