Thompson, Thomas (1933–1982)

By: Sarah L. Greene

Type: Biography

Published: August 1, 1995

Updated: July 14, 2017

Thomas (Tommy) Thompson, journalist and writer, the son of Clarence and Ruth Thompson, was born on October 3, 1933, at Fort Worth, Texas. His father was a high school principal and his mother a teacher. After graduating from Arlington Heights High School, Thompson earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1955. He had started his own newspaper at age eight; by age twenty-three he was city editor of the Houston Press. Around 1958 he married Joyce Alford; they divorced in 1969. He joined Life magazine in 1961 and became an editor and staff writer. When Life ceased publication in 1972, Thompson turned to writing freelance magazine articles and books. His first two books-Hearts (1971), on the rivalry between Houston surgeons Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley at the dawn of the heart transplant era, and Richie (1973), the story of a Long Island man who killed his drug-addicted son-were based on stories that first appeared in Life. While doing research in Houston for Hearts, Thompson heard a story that inspired his most successful book, Blood and Money (1976). It was based on a true story of scandal and murder among Houston's social elite and involved the deaths of Joan Robinson Hill and her husband, Dr. John Hill, who was accused of her murder before he himself was killed by an alleged hit man. The book made Thompson a millionaire and the target of three libel suits. It sold four million copies in fourteen languages. Thompson said that he wanted to write about the psyche of Texas as reflected in this case, since he felt that it was still a frontier state and its violence had always concerned him. A prodigious researcher, Thompson flew around the world three times and spent two years in Asia doing research for Serpentine (1979), the bizarre story of convicted murderer Charles Sobhraj.

Thompson was said to be among the most consistently successful practitioners of the nonfiction novel pioneered by writers Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. Among other honors, he received the National Headliner Award for investigative reporting and the 1977 Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Blood and Money. After Serpentine, he turned to the challenge of fiction and produced one novel, Celebrity (1982). The novel described the impact of fame on three men who grew up in Fort Worth, one of them a journalist who covered the Kennedy assassination, as Thompson did. It received mixed reviews but stayed on the national best-seller list for six months. Thompson, who had taught writing at the University of Southern California and other institutions, agreed to become an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin on September 1, 1982. Before he could return to Texas from Los Angeles, where he had lived for six years, he became ill with liver cancer. It may have been caused by hepatitis he contracted while doing research in India for Serpentine. In response to the news, he said "If the Lord says it's my time to go, I can't complain. I've already done everything twice." His sons Kirk and Scott were at his bedside when he died in a Los Angeles hospital on October 29, 1982. Thompson's craft was his main religion. The nondenominational funeral services for him at the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church attracted many celebrities.

Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Vol. 14. Dallas Morning News, September 14, 1976, January 26, 1978, October 30, 1982. Houston Post, September 12, 1976, October 18, 1978, April 25, 1982.

  • Journalism
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Publications, Journals, and Magazines
  • Journals and Publications
  • Newspapers
  • Editors and Reporters
  • Historians
  • Nonfiction
  • Dramatists and Novelists
  • Fiction
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Sarah L. Greene, “Thompson, Thomas,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022,

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August 1, 1995
July 14, 2017

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