Good Biographies Make Good History Books

Book reviews Jorges Orgibet and Roy Howard
by Harold Stephens

“You have a good memory,” people often say to me when they are referring to something I have written pertaining to history. I will pass on a trade secret. It isn’t memory. It’s knowing where to look for history. And one of the best sources is found in biographies.

My bookshelves at home keep my kids busy

For example, for years I have had a book on my shelf that I keep referring to, and it’s From Siam to Thailand by Jorges Orgibet. Another book just came into my possession, and when the author sent it to me I assumed it would be the standard book that someone wants to hand down to their children, one that has no literary significance. The book is So Far, So Good by Roy Howard. I began reading and I was enthralled from being to end. The reason, it deals with history, people, places and events. It’s also the history of Thai Airways International in a capsule.

Jorges died a score of years ago, and I was fortunate to have known him. I now wish I had spent more time talking to him—which is always the case after one dies—but I do have an autographed copy of his book that he gave me. Jorges was a former newspaper publisher and foreign correspondent, and the Senior Editor of Business in Thailand magazine. His popular BACKDROP column had been a regular feature in that magazine for twelve years. Jorges’ career began as a US diplomat to Thailand, which he gave up to become a correspondent, cameraman and director who filmed 341 documentaries for NBC news. In 1953 he opened the Associated Press bureau in Bangkok. And he was also co-founder of the Foreign Correspondents Club.

But most interesting, Jorges was the oldest permanent American resident in Thailand, and that in itself is testimony that he had a story to tell. In his autobiography, From Siam to Thailand, he gives us a graphic picture what the Kingdom was like before it became Thailand. He gives readers an intimate view of kings and prime ministers, cabaret girls, bandits and high society-—plus some of the strangest private train trips on record. And he knew everyone, those who were someone and those who wanted to be someone in Thailand.

Jorges Orgibet’s book is packed with history.

If you want to know what it was like to drive from Don Muang Airport to Bangkok in 1945, Jorges tells you. When you look at the photographs in the book you will be dumfounded, at a time when there were 30,000 British in Bangkok and less than a handful of Americans, about 50.

As an OSS officers (forerunner of the CIA) turned diplomat, when the Japanese were still in Bangkok, Jorges set up the American legation and USIS. He was a close friend with Jim Thompson who started the Thai silk business and with Alexander MacDonald founder of Bangkok Post.

Jorges has an interesting tale to tell about traveling form one end of Thailand to the other with Jim Thompson. His account of how Jim Thompson became the Thai Silk King is somewhat different than the one we usually hear.

But anyone interested in past lifestyles, Jorges’ descriptions of Bangkok and Thailand are most interesting. This is how he describes Bangkok’s nightlife before there was a Patpong.

“Although varying somewhat in size they were all open air, had large dance floors surrounded by low wicker chairs grouped around equally low rattan tables. All had orchestras of sorts ranging from awful to fairly good, and in each were scores, even hundreds, of peppermint-sipping dance partners. That was, of course, in the days when dancing was dancing and not a display of individual exhibitionism. Making the rounds was known as hitting the peppermint circuit.”

In From Siam to Thailand one learns about sounds, bells, trams and samlors, rickshaws, mosquito nets, accommodations when there were only three decent hotels in the capital, and if you wonder what it was travelling like back then, the book tells it all.Compared to Jorges, Roy Howard was a latecomer. Still, he arrived when Bangkok was evolving from a small provincial town in Southeast Asia to a budding and up-coming metropolis. He came when Thailand in 1959, before Thailand had an airline.

Roy Howard came to Asia with his English wife aboard the P&0 liner Cathay, a ship nearing the end of her days. It was reminiscent of the days of Somerset Maugham in which they met aboard civil servants, traders and rubber planters.

Their route took them via the Straits of Gibraltar through the Suez Canal with stops in Aden, Bombay, Colombo, Penang and Singapore. While visiting a rubber plantation in northern Malaya—Maugham again—Roy unexpectedly received a telegram forwarded from Cathay Advertising in Hong Kong offer­ing him a job as assistant manager at their Bangkok office. He arrived at Don Muang airport in June, 1959, having just turn 24.

Roy Howard’s book is the history of Thai Airway

From here his book is an introduction to people and events, both of which shaped Southeast Asia. The Cathay office was located on Patpong Road on the top floor of the Gestetner building. In 1959, he writes, all the ad agencies in Bangkok, and indeed throughout most of Asia, were run by expatriates.

“In1959, the expatriate community was quite small. The majority of Thais could not speak English, so most expatriates learned the local language,” he wrote. He gives us some great descriptions of living in Bangkok at the time, from renting apartments, putting up with the heat and getting around.

His work at Cathay involved helping launch a brand-new airline—THAI Airways International, and here Roy reveals the history of the birth of an airline. He writes that THAI International was a joint venture between the Thai government and Scandinavian Airlines System. The management of THAI International consisted mainly of SAS executives, with a Thai chairman and managing director recruited from the Thai air force. When the management of THAI offered Roy the job of advertising manager, with full expatriate conditions, he accepted. For the next thirty-three years he was involved with THAI, and he helped the airline grow in 1960 from three DC­6Bs provided by SAS to a fleet of nearly a hundred planes making it one of the largest airlines in Asia.

What makes the book so interesting is the people we meet through the author. We meet Dr. Gertie Ettinger, an Austrian Jewish refugee, who, together with her husband, Egon, also a doctor, had arrived in Bangkok before the war and had proceeded to look after the majority of the European expatriates.

There’s Neils Lumholdt, the son of the publisher of one of Denmark’s leading newspapers, who became a leading figure at Thai Airways. Roy names Phil Murray, one of the most interesting characters he met, and another American character, Keith Lorenz, a freelance writer who reputedly worked for the CIA, and who drove around Bangkok in his car with a bear in the passenger seat. He writes about a “charming lady,” Mrs. Chitdee at THAI who was joined by a PR consultant from London named Robin Dannhorn. Robin arrived in Bangkok with his wife and two young children, wearing conservative suits and horn-rimmed glasses, which soon changed.

He also tells how through Bob Udick, the editor of the Bangkok World newspaper, he met an American writer who was half-way through driving a Toyota Land Cruiser 42,000 miles around the world. Bob was looking for someone to write travel articles and “Steve,” the round-the-world driver, agreed to write them––little realising that Steve would eventually write more than 3,000 arti­cles for the Bangkok World and the Bangkok Post.” I was that “Steve” and so began my career in Asia. I finished my motor trip and returned, and never left.

In the advertising game Roy throws out names like Michael Briely, Hans Lindberg, Russ Jones, Paul McKeon and Evan Maloney He tells us about Sam Peck, a laid-back Californian who had joined THAI from the SAS organisation in the USA. He tells us about his starting to jog with Al Eberhart and eventually becoming a Marathon runner with a dozen runs to his credit.

We learn something about Swiss artist Theo Meier who settled in Bali before the war, and with the help of Prince Sanidh moved to Chiang Mi where he spent the last 22 years of his life, and whose paintings are now much sought after today.

And there are others, so many others, many who would be forgotten had it not been for Roy Howard to keep their names alive, and to give me material for my research. My thanks to Roy Howard and Jorges Orgibet for their fine books.