THEO NEVER STOPPED DREAMING
Theo always hankered to go back to Tahiti for a visit. He never stopped dreaming. Maybe that is what makes an artist, dreams. It certainly was what made Theo. He often talked about it with Sandith and they both planned a trip. Maybe it was only talk but the thought did excite them. They really got all fired up when I began building and outfitting a 71-foot schooner on the Chao Phraya River down river from Bangkok. When Theo heard about the schooner it took him no time to get caught up in the romance of sailing the South Seas again. He envisioned himself and Prince Sandith sailing with me aboard Schooner Third Sea to Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia.
Theo was serious, so much so, that he took an active interest in the schooner. He did the woodcarvings for the main saloon, two ten-foot long works of art to serve as drip boards beneath the windows. They turned out to be a monumental task. He and his assistants labored for weeks on the work. It was not only the teak carvings for the saloon but he also did carvings for the main hatch and trim for the trail boards on the bow.
The schooner was moored in Bob Stevens’ Colorado Eastern boatyard in a small klong down river on the Chao Phraya where I was having it outfitted. Transporting the carvings, especially the ten-foot long pieces, was no simple matter.
First, I had to fit un-carved teak boards into place, boards that Theo had selected, and then remove them and take them to Theo’s workshop in Chiang Mai, traveling by train and then by bus. Theo sketched out patterns on the boards and then set to work with his assistants carving out the designs. I have to admit, when finished, they were beautiful.
Next, when the carvings were completed I carried them back to Bangkok by train and then put them aboard a bus for the final trip down river to the boatyard. There was no problem on the train. I arrived in Bangkok early in the morning and found the bus at the station nearly empty. I placed the carvings, which Theo had wrapped in cardboard, in the isle on the floor.
- Photo caption on page 240 of the book: Schooner Third Sea at anchor. Theo wanted to sail aboard the schooner and revisit Tahiti and the Marquesas, but his age was working against him. That, however, he would never admit.
But by the time I reached my destination down river, the bus was jam-packed, with those passengers in the isle standing on the carvings. It was pandemonium retrieving them. How I ever got them out of the bus and back to the schooner still baffles me.
Back aboard ship, carpenters installed the finished products in their proper places. They greatly enhanced the beauty of the schooner. Theo’s carvings aboard Third Sea became a showpiece for all who came aboard.
Theo also did a painting of a nude Thai girl to hang in the galley aboard the schooner. It hung there for years bringing attention to anyone who saw it.
- Photo caption on page 241 of the book: Theo painted this oil to hang aboard Schooner Third Sea.
Eventually I did sail the schooner to Tahiti and the Marquesas but, unfortunately, Theo and Sandith were not aboard. Age was catching up with them. Nevertheless, it was their dream, and as Joseph Conrad said-“Take away a man’s dream and there is nothing left.” I was most proud when people wanted to come aboard in Honolulu and Tahiti to have a look at the carvings. In time the carvings were more valuable than the schooner itself
Theo made good copy for my writing. Readers liked to read about this crazy European artist living in Chiang Mai. He was a character who led a life envied by many. Readers enjoyed hearing about life in old Tahiti, living with cannibals in the New Hebrides, walking across China with an easel strapped to his back and, of course, about his many years on Bali and later his living in northern Thailand. I wrote a number of articles about him for my column in Bangkok World and Bangkok Post, and he became a chapter in my book Asian Portraits. Soon other writers and journalists were making tracks to Chiang Mai to do stories about Theo, and his fame began to spread.
Roy Howard, Sales Director of Thai Airways International and editor of Sawasdee, the airline’s inflight magazine, went to Chiang Mai to interview Theo and he ended up spending several days with him. Theo’s story became the cover piece of the magazine and reached thousands of readers. It was Roy Howard who, in fact, encouraged me to write this biography of Theo.
- Photo caption on page 242 of the book: Theo drew this charcoal line drawing to hang aboard Third Sea but it was too large and I moved it to hang on the wall of my ranch in California.
Theo liked the coverage, that was certain, but I must say he never let notoriety get the best of him. He remained Theo Meier always. He loved his house, for example, but at the same time he gave praise to Jim Thompson for his unique construction concept, and when Jim Thompson mysteriously disappeared without a trace while visiting friends in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, Theo was visually upset. He was keen to know what happened to Thompson and he had his own idea about his disappearance. I had gone down to Cameron Highlands on assignment for the Bangkok World a few days after Thompson vanished, and when I returned Theo was anxious to know what I had uncovered, which wasn’t much. But speculation was running high. Everyone, from soothsayers to mystics, and to the man on the street, had their own ideas and opinions, all speculation mind you, which they freely expounded upon to the press and other media.
- Photo caption on page 242 of the book: Roy Howard, right, with Theo in Chiang Mai. Roy published a feature magazine piece on Theo in Thai Airways in-flight magazine, Sawasdee. Roy felt strongly that the Theo Meier story should be told, and a part of history preserved, and he encouraged me to write this biography of Theo. It took twenty years to get it started.
What made the Jim Thompson story intriguing was that Thompson was a former U.S. military intelligence officer who once worked for the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA. That should tell us something. He had disappeared while going for a walk on Easter Sunday, March 26, 1967. Thompson came to the Cameron Highlands with Connie Mangskau on Friday, March 24, 1967. Connie was the lady for whom Thompson had built his second Thai house in Bangkok. The two stayed at “Moonlight” bungalow owned by Dr. Ling, a Singaporean-Chinese chemist and Mrs. Helen Ling, his American-born wife. On Easter Sunday, March 26, they attended the morning services at All Souls’ Church. Later that day, while everyone took a nap, Thompson went for a walk but failed to return. And the mystery began.
Theo theorized that although Thompson claimed to have abandoned intelligence activities, he was still working under unofficial cover for the CIA. His closest friend, and former OSS comrade, was Brigadier-General Edwin Black who was in charge of United States Forces operating in Laos and Thailand. General Black, in fact, had hired Thompson to work for the OSS. Theo held that Thompson needed a cover if he was still an undercover agent, and the Thai silk business was it.
To add to the mystery about which Theo had his theories, Thompson was also a major collector of Southeast Asian art, which at the time was not well-known internationally. He built a superb collection of Buddhist and secular art not only from Thailand but also from Burma, Cambodia and Laos, frequently travelling to those countries on buying trips. But collecting valuable and often priceless art objects brought him enemies as well.
No one ever discovered the truth, or else let the truth be known, and the mystery goes on and on.
- Photo caption on page 246 of the book: Jim Thompson, known as the Thai Silk King, disappeared without trace while visiting the Cameron Highlands with long-time friend Connie Mangskau.