In the early 1950s he was the high priest of pulp. In his crime novels he wrote about a world where greed is god, where the Ten Commandments don’t contain the word not, and where all the crosses are double.
James Myers Thompson was born in 1906 in Anadarko, Caddo County, Oklahoma Territory fourteen months before Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory became the forty-sixth state.
His father, James Sherman Thompson, was Caddo County sheriff. Clip is from the February 7, 1905 Dallas Morning News.
But in 1907 Sheriff Thompson, just months after his son was born, packed up his family and left the county after being accused of misappropriation.
After several restless years of gathering no moss, in 1919 the Thompson family rolled to a stop in Fort Worth. The Thompsons lived on the East Side, first on Handley Drive, then on Rosedale, then on Lancaster Avenue in a big house that Mr. Thompson built near Tandy Lake. In 1920 young Jim caddied at Glen Garden Country Club and enrolled at Poly High School. In 1921 he worked as a copyboy for the new newspaper in town: the Fort Worth Press.
This sketch in the 1921 Poly yearbook shows the first Poly school that Jim Thompson attended: the 1907 building located on Nashville Avenue where William James Junior High is today. Samuel Selkirk Dillow was head of the Polytechnic independent school district.
When the Thompsons arrived in Fort Worth in 1919 the west Texas oilfields had been booming for two years; Prohibition was still one year in the future. In Fort Worth the senior James Thompson dabbled in various ventures, including drilling oil wells and speculating in the stock market. He made a lot of money but lost it. By 1923 the Thompsons were broke.
To help with family finances, in 1923 young Jim got a job as a bellboy at the Texas Hotel. By 1923 west Texas oil was still flowing, but legal liquor was not. Jim the bellboy quickly learned to profit from the abundance of the former and the shortage of the latter. He led a double life: By day he attended Poly High; by night he worked as a bellboy. Even by night he led a double life: bearer of baggage in the bright lights of the hotel lobby and bearer of drugs, bootleg booze, and prostitutes in the shadows of the hotel hallways.
The Texas Hotel, like many other hotels during the wide-open 1920s, was a carpeted clearinghouse of high-rolling oilmen, dice-rolling gamblers, drunk-rolling opportunists, conmen, suckers, golddiggers, and grifters. Jim Thompson rubbed elbows and hip flasks with them all as he supplemented his bellboy income by providing under-the-table favors to hotel guests.
In his autobiographical Bad Boy, Thompson wrote, “Nominally there were strictly enforced rules against such things as getting drunk on duty, intimacy with lady guests and forcing tips from the stingy. But the management could have knowledge that you were guilty of all those crimes, and as long as you did them in such a way as not to give rise to complaints or disturb the routine of the hotel, nothing would be done.”
Thompson earned $15 a month as a bellboy. His tips sometimes totaled $1,000 a month. Jim bought himself a new car and new clothes.
The 1924 city directory lists Jim as a bellboy living on Handley Boulevard (Lancaster Avenue east of Fort Worth). His father was listed as an oil operator working out of the Dan Waggoner (father of W. T.) Building and living with wife Birdie on the Dallas Road (East Lancaster Avenue, probably the home near Tandy Lake).
Thompson is shown in the 1924 Poly yearbook. After classes each day he worked long night shifts at the hotel. He made it through the night with a little help from his friends: three packs of cigarettes a night, cocaine, and especially booze. One biographer says that in 1924 Thompson suffered a breakdown caused by alcoholism, tuberculosis, and nervous exhaustion. He was eighteen years old.
Thompson’s sister recalled that her brother was “eighteen going on fifty.”
Jim Thompson was burning the candle at both ends and pouring gasoline on the flames. But somehow he managed to attend classes at Poly, which by 1924 was housed in the new building two blocks from the 1907 building on Nashville Avenue. While at Poly, under the encouragement of an English teacher, Thompson began to write, occasionally getting into print in minor magazines.
One of these teachers in the 1925 yearbook may have been the English teacher who encouraged Thompson. Some of those teachers, such as F. F. Leissner and Maurine Martel, are remembered by students who attended Poly High forty years later. Music teacher Charles X. O’Brien and Martel wrote the school song. And shop teacher J. P. Moore would become superintendent of Fort Worth schools.
With his strenuous school-job schedule, Thompson attended Poly High on and off for six years. He was a member of the Press Club and the yearbook staff. Jim Thompson left Poly High in 1926. He may or may not have graduated. By the time the Poly High School class of 1926 held its graduation ceremony, Jim had already migrated to west Texas, where he worked in oilfields and gambling joints. And he continued to write.
In 1928 he returned to Fort Worth and did another hitch at the Texas Hotel and again provided his special services. Hotel guests must have been glad to see the return as the magic genie in a bellboy cap. In the 1930s Thompson married, moved back to Oklahoma, became the father of three, and flirted with communism (he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era). And he continued to write—now for true-crime magazines, incorporating many of the people and plots he had been exposed to at the Texas Hotel.
But throughout the 1940s Thompson continued to fight the bottle, was hospitalized several times. Despite that battle, in 1942 his first novel, Now and on Earth, was published. His first crime novel, Nothing More Than Murder, was not published until 1949. But then Jim Thompson’s muse seemingly took a deep drag and a strong swig because Thompson caught fire and burned with a blue-tipped flame from 1952 to 1954, writing a dozen novels.
As he pounded the typewriter Thompson continued to fictionalize his experiences at the Texas Hotel. A Swell-Looking Babe (1954) is about a bellboy at the mythical Manton Hotel in Fort Worth. Crooks of his acquaintance at the Texas Hotel would breathe life into characters in Roughneck (1954) and The Getaway (1958). His The Grifters (1963) features a “short con” swindle that Thompson learned at the Texas Hotel.
The son of a sheriff not surprisingly also sometimes made small-town lawmen central characters in his novels. An excerpt from The Killer Inside Me (1952):
I took it out of the drawer, a .32 automatic, just as she came in with the coffee tray. Her eyes flashed and she slammed the tray down on a table. “What,” she snapped, “are you doing with that?”
I opened my coat and showed her my badge. “Sheriff’s office, ma’am. What are you doing with it?”
She didn’t say anything. She just took her purse off the dresser, opened it and pulled out a permit. It had been issued in Fort Worth, but it was all legal enough. Those things are usually honored from one town to another.
“Satisfied, copper?” she said.
“I reckon it’s alright, miss,” I said. “And my name’s Ford, not copper.” I gave her a big smile, but I didn’t get any back.
In 1955 Hollywood rang, but it didn’t have to ring twice. Director Stanley Kubrick hired Thompson to write the script for Kubrick’s 1956 film noir classic The Killing. But Kubrick took the script credit and gave Thompson only a dialogue credit.
In 1957 Kubrick again hired Thompson—to write the script for Paths of Glory. Some sources say Thompson again wrote most of the script, but again Kubrick took top billing among the three screenwriters.
Despite that tarnished introduction to Tinseltown, the Thompsons moved to Hollywood in 1960. Jim Thompson wrote for TV, including episodes of Dr. Kildare, Tales of Wells Fargo, Mackenzie’s Raiders, and Convoy.
In 1970 Robert Redford paid Thompson $10,000 ($59,000 today) for a script for Bo, a film about a hobo set during the Depression. The film was never produced. Clip is from the August 21 Dallas Morning News.
In 1972 The Getaway was filmed, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw. Clip is from the December 12 Dallas Morning News.
Thompson even briefly stepped to the other side of the camera. In 1975 he had a small role as Charlotte Rampling’s husband in Farewell, My Lovely starring Robert Mitchum.
But by the 1960s Thompson was writing less and suffering more physically. His body of work from the 1950s was largely forgotten. When Jim Thompson died in 1977 his thirty novels were out of print in the United States. James Myers Thompson died in Los Angeles, having worn out one body and an undetermined number of typewriters.
But for the high priest of pulp, there was life after death: He was discovered by a new generation. His novels were reprinted, his legacy re-evaluated. Now Jim Thompson is considered among the most influential of American crime writers. Said Stephen King: “My favorite crime novelist—often imitated but never duplicated—is Jim Thompson.” Thompson today is sometimes mentioned in the same breath even with the trinity of Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), Chandler (Double Indemnity), and Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice).
In 1990 Thompson’s The Grifters was filmed, starring Anjelica Huston and John Cusack. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards.
Also in 1990 After Dark, My Sweet was filmed, starring Jason Patric and Rachel Ward.
In 2010, thirty-three years after he died, Thompson’s seminal noir, The Killer Inside Me, was filmed, starring Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, and Jessica Alba. Stanley Kubrick called the novel “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.”
Yes, Jim Thompson’s career finally had found the one element for success that it had been missing: his death. That career move surely would please the cynical characters who people his novels.
(Thanks and a tip of the bellboy cap to historian Harry Max Hill for suggesting this subject.)