Connie’s Cottage.

Bangkok legends Jim Thompson, Constance Mangskau and Bill Bensley unite at Connie’s Cottage, a century-old Thai house perched in the grounds of riverside resort, The Siam. It’s a wild ride of a story, of glamour, mystery and intrigue.

Jim Thompson was an American architect and officer in the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, who found himself in Bangkok at the end of the Second World War and stayed. You couldn’t make his story up—although some of it invariably is—reading like a thriller by Ian Fleming or Graham Greene. The Quiet and Exuberant American, for example, or a more flamboyant, Bangkok-based James Bond.

Born in Delaware in 1906, Thompson competed in the six-metre sailing event at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, practised architecture in New York throughout the 1930’s despite the fact he never graduated as an architect, and did a stint directing the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo in 1938. After enlisting in the Delaware National Guard in 1941, he was recruited by ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, head of the OSS. He was sent to North Africa, Europe and Ceylon before Thailand, where—the Japanese had just surrendered—he was tasked with organising the Bangkok office of the OSS. Thompson then became one of the co-owners of The Oriental Hotel. He was by this time no longer officially in the intelligence services although the general consensus is that he continued to work undercover for the CIA.  

Jim Thompson, the 'Silk King' of Thailand.

Falling out with his partners over the renovation of The Oriental, Thompson famously switched to silk—an unregarded cottage industry at the time—having discovered a community of Thai silk weavers living in the centre of Bangkok. He convinced them to use better looms and bright colours, a move that not only lifted the community out of poverty but saved the nation’s silk industry from extinction, establishing the Thai Silk Company Limited in 1948.

The trajectory was in his blood. His father had been a successful textile manufacturer back in Delaware, and his flair for fabric and fantasy later cemented during his stint at the Ballets Russes. His mother was a prominent anti-suffragette, while his maternal grandfather, a Union General and friend of Ulysses Grant, spent a year in China after the American Civil War building a railroad and chronicling his adventures in the book, Travels in the Middle Kingdom, that would serve as his future grandson’s introduction to Asia.

Success was swift. Thompson hawked bolts of fabric from a suitcase at The Oriental and flew to New York to do the same, where he captured the attention of influential Vogue editor, Edna Woolman Chase. Irene Sharaff then used his silk in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I—both the 1951 musical and the film version five years later, for which she won the Academy Award. Another costume designer, Elizabeth Haffenden, used Thompson’s fabrics for costumes in the 1959 blockbuster, Ben Hur—also taking home the Oscar.

Coined the ‘Silk King of Thailand’, Thompson dressed the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Queen Sikrit and Princess Grace. In the case of Queen Sikrit, French couturier Pierre Balmain designed an entire collection of gowns in Thompson’s brightly hued silk. Behind the scenes, though, according to recently declassified documents, he was also running guns and supplies to anti-communist resistance groups in Cambodia, in cooperation with, if not not directed by, American intelligence services.  

Not all was fashion and spycraft. After moving to Bangkok, Thompson amassed an extensive collection of Southeast Asian art and antiques, museum quality and singular in style. Traditional Thai paintings from the 19th century were the first works to catch his eye, soon kept company by sculpture, such as a 7th-century Dvaravadi torso and a monumental, 13th-century sandstone head with half-closed eyes from Ayutthaya. There were Burmese wood carvings, Benjarong ceramics—Chinese porcelain made exclusively for Thai royalty—and a mountain of Ming blue-and-white.

There were also six traditional teak-wood stilt houses, incorporated into the home he designed and built on a parcel of land across the khlong (canal) from the community of silk weavers in Ban Khrua. Three of the houses hailed from Pak Hai in Ayutthaya, sent down river on barges; two were from Bangkok; and one, the oldest and most impressive, was a c.1800 weavers house from the Cham village of Ban Khrua. 

This collision of worlds—sublime Southeast Asian art, traditional Thai vernacular architecture and Thompson’s unique creative prowess—formed what is arguably one of the world’s most magical homes. The Bangkok-loving writer, Somerset Maugham, composed a thank-you note to Thompson after attending a dinner at the house in 1960. “You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste.” Other guests of these often nightly soirees included Eleanor Roosevelt, Truman Capote and Katherine Hepburn, as well as, according to one observer, “nearly every prominent royal or heiress in Europe.”  

His forays into Ayutthaya also yielded three traditional stilt houses for Constance Mangskau, his friend from the beginning of the story, dismantled and sent downriver where they were reassembled at her private compound in Soi Nana. Her name might be less famous than Thompson’s but her life was every bit as colourful.  

Bangkok-loving writer Somerset Maugham composed a thank-you note to Thompson after dinner at the house in 1960: “You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste.”

Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

Constance ‘Connie’ Mangskau was born in Chiang Mai in 1907, to an English father and Thai mother. She married a Norwegian rubber planter at the age of 18 but had to take secretarial work to support her two young daughters after she was widowed. By the late 1930’s, she was working for the British American Tobacco Company, where her boss was an agent of the Seri Thai, or Free Thai Movement, and at some stage during the war she began working for the underground. She was arrested as a spy by the Japanese and sent to a concentration camp in Cambodia. Somehow surviving, she returned to work at the OSS where she would meet Thompson in 1945.

After the war, Mangskau left the OSS to pursue a career in antiques, also establishing herself as one of Bangkok’s most glittering socialites. At her compound of traditional Thai houses, reassembled by Thompson, she entertained the likes of Doris Duke, Jacqueline Kennedy, Henry Ford and screen-spy Roger Moore. Many were also connoisseur clients. Duke must have dropped a pretty penny in Mangskau’s antique shop, Monogram (the heiress amassed an enormous collection of Thai and Burmese art alongside her legendary collection of Islamic art), as did John D. Rockefeller, William Holden and a host of other cashed-up Asiaphiles passing through Bangkok.  

Mangskau’s friendship with Thompson was close but probably platonic, with whispers that Thompson was gay. One source cites his sexuality as the reason for the breakdown of his short-lived wartime marriage to Patricia Thraves (1943-46), who left him for one of his friends, and part of the reason for a falling out with his sister. Another more questionable source even alludes to his taste for “rough trade”. Whatever his predilections—and there were relationships with women, including an 11-year affair with Irina Yost, the wife of US Minister to Thailand—what comes next is one of the region’s greatest mysteries.

On the Easter weekend of 1967, Thompson and Mangskau travelled to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia for a short holiday with their Singapore friends, Dr. Tien Gi Ling and his American wife, Helen. Thompson was apparently preoccupied and had been in a foul mood on their way to the highlands. Mangskau later said, “I could tell something was up.” On Sunday, the four friends attended church in the morning followed by a picnic lunch, where Thompson was especially restless and bothered, afterward returning to the cottage. The Lings took a nap while Mangskau began packing to leave for Singapore with Thompson the following day. Thompson meanwhile sat outside in the sun. 

Helen Ling remembered hearing footsteps on the gravel path and assumed Thompson had gone for a walk, which he did most days, the Cameron Highlands being famous for its cool and verdant jungle trails carved out by British colonialists decades before. However his cigarettes and lighter were left on a table on the veranda (he was a chain-smoker) alongside the medication for his painful gallstone attacks. And that was it. Jim Thompson was never seen again.

The disappearance was a big deal: he was one of the most famous Americans living in Asia at the time. He was in fact so well known that letters addressed to “Jim Thompson, Bangkok” supposedly found their way to him in a city of 3.5 million people. 

At daybreak the following morning, a mix of police, convalescing British soldiers and other volunteers began the search for the missing silk king. One volunteer happened to be a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, who was staying at the resort. As a result the following morning, the story was on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Within days, 325 policemen were searching for him. Indigenous trackers who lived in the jungle guided them on the ground, familiar with its dangerous terrain, while helicopters looked for signs of life from above. The 10-day search was the largest in Malaysian history but not a single clue was found.

A story with such spine-tingling ingredients was bound to have conspiracy theorists on the edge of their seats—not to mention the various hypotheses presented by the procession of soothsayers, clairvoyants and astrologists who joined the search—convinced Thompson was involved in some form of political skullduggery. The OSS background; possible undercover work for the CIA; being a wealthy American with left-leaning sympathies in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War; the life of glamour surrounded by the world’s elite; who disappears while holidaying with another ‘ex’ spy.

Was he an undercover agent killed by communists? Or involved in a planned coup back in Thailand? Thompson opposed the Vietnam war well before 1967; did his opposition make dangerous enemies back in the US? Was he on a secret mission to capture the leader of the communist party in Malaysia? Had he become a rogue arms dealer, selling caches of American weapons the US had left in Southeast Asia? Or was he taken out by business rivals? Other conjecture included kidnapping and ransom, even drug-trafficking.

Possible sightings were even more far-fetched. Thompson had dyed his hair red and was posing as a fortune teller in nearby Ipoh. He was being held in a two-storey house in Cambodia with a wagon wheel leaning against it. He also escaped to Hong Kong on a Norwegian ship. 

The most realistic-sounding sighting was by Edward Pollitz, who had known Thompson for “a number of years” and claimed to have seen him at a hotel in Tahiti on May 27, 1967. Pollitz was, in fact, so sure it was Thompson that he shouted out to him across the lobby. The man did not respond and Pollitz assumed he was on a mission for the CIA. 

By 1970, three years of intensive investigation had failed to turn over even one positive fact that had not been known by the end of the first day of the search. 

And what about Mangskau? Were there conspiracies surrounding her too? Was she concealing top-secret messages in the Thai antiques she was supplying to Stanley Marcus at Neiman-Marcus, to be passed on to the CIA? Invariably not but in this tale, no theory seems too out there. Friend and writer Carole Miller, with whom Mangskau corresponded, claims to have prodded her for answers on Thompson’s disappearance. “It should be obvious,” was Mangskau’s only response. 

The truth is probably hidden amongst the deluge of theories and relates to the following: jungles are dangerously good at hiding things and at the same time, spies who want to get lost can do so without a trace.

The truth is probably hidden amongst the deluge of theories and relates to the following: jungles are dangerously good at hiding things and at the same time, spies who want to get lost can do so without a trace.

Now we fast forward to interior designer and artist, Bill Bensley—another Asiaphile American living in Bangkok—who was tasked by the Sukosol family to create the interiors of The Siam. 

A decade or so after the disappearance, Manskau’s children were living abroad and she found herself with no one to care for the teakwood houses. She approached Khun Pornsri Luphaiboon,  the legendary PR director of The Oriental Hotel, to see if she was interested in buying them. As it happened, Khun Pornsri owned some land by the river in Minburi, around one hour from Bangkok.

“Khun Pornsri felt the houses would be perfect for her vacation home and bought them,” Bensley tells The Pursuit Of. “However in time, Khun Porsri’s children were also no longer able to care for the houses and it was she who was looking for a buyer… or perhaps just someone who would love and take care of them. She turned to her friend, Khun Kamala Sukosol, who at the time had plans to build The Siam. Given the history of the houses, Khun Kamala thought they would add a beautiful story to our hotel. She also felt that The Siam would be the perfect final destination for the Thai houses. 

After decades crafting some of the world’s most fabulous hotels and gardens, Bensley picked up a paint brush and easel three years ago and has been unstoppable ever since. The Bensley Gallery at The Siam occupies the upper level of Connie’s Cottage and sees his striking artworks rotate through the space for visitors to admire and purchase. Proceeds go to the Shinta Mani Foundation and Wildlife Alliance to support conservation and wildlife protection, causes close to his heart. 

And as for Jim Thompson, who began hawking silk from a suitcase, his business is now the largest producer of handwoven fabric in the world. Jim Thompson at The Siam, on the ground floor of the traditional Thai house he found in Ayutthaya for Connie, showcases the brand’s latest fashion and homeware designs. It follows the launch of the Jim Thompson Heritage Quarter, which brings together a four-storey art centre and a restaurant, alongside his home and garden, now one of the most visited museums in Bangkok and one of the loveliest house museums in the world.

It was just a year or two ago that only a handful of lucky guests got to experience Connie’s Cottage, one of the hotel’s most beloved and sought-after suites. “The opportunity to open Connie’s Cottage for the benefit of all guests and visitors was ultimately irresistible,” says Nick Downing, general manager of The Siam. “I could not be happier that we are partnering with such iconic brands as Jim Thompson and Bill Bensley; both of which bring additional style, energy and passion to the very centre of the hotel.”

Whatever the purpose, it’s difficult to imagine a more harmonious situation for Connie’s Cottage.  “Three years ago, Connie’s eldest daughter came to visit the houses from America,” says Bensley.  She said that her mother would be so proud and happy that their family home has finally found its resting place.” Thompson, one imagines, would be pretty chuffed too.