Oct 6 2015

You've heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker... But have you heard of Moritz Thomsen? Probably not. But maybe someday his name will be as well-known as these others.

Read a little more about this former resident of the Bothell, WA, area and namesake of one of Anderson School's guest rooms.

"Thomsen could well be the finest American writer you've never heard of," according to one reviewer. Eminent authors like Paul Theroux, Larry McMurtry and Wallace Stegner all celebrated his work. Yet Thomsen's four published works still remain largely undiscovered by the public. So who was Moritz Thomsen? Well, he was once a local Bothell resident, for one.

Moritz was the only son born into one of the early 20th century's wealthiest Pacific Northwest families. In today's standards, the Thomsens were multi-millionaires, their wealth gained through milling and brewing ventures. In 1927, when Moritz was 12 years old, his father Charles built a beautiful estate in Moorlands (just beyond Bothell's southwest bounds) called Wildcliff Farm, a 7,000-square-foot French Provincial mansion with 27 rooms, a swimming pool, extensive gardens and, rumor has it, a secret tunnel leading to the nearby Sammamish River from which to foil Prohibition laws. (The estate is now a wedding venue: http://fusion.realtourvision.com/44185)

Family members recount an idyllic and privileged childhood throughout the late 1920s and '30s at Wildcliff (birthday parties around the pool, picking blueberries on the family farm). Moritz had spent his teenage years dividing his time at Wildcliff just outside Bothell and his grandfather's mansion in Seattle, then as a student at the University of Oregon. Thomsen and his wealthy friends enjoyed skiing, mountain climbing, fly-fishing and other Pacific Northwest pursuits.

However, despite Moritz's outwardly easy life, he and his father had a painfully abusive relationship that he wrote about in his memoir My Two Wars (published posthumously in 1996). This bitter tension between father and son stayed with Thomsen throughout his life.

Just after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Thomsen entered the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier, during which time he and his crewmates completed 27 missions over Europe. The stark brutality of the job haunted him:

Dropping bombs on people from twenty-five thousand feet -- what could be cleaner, more purely and simply scenic, than that? From five miles up..., there were no dying screams, no cries for mercy; hell, you couldn't even hear your bombs. ... how could we keep killing without going mad? - My Two Wars

Thomsen seems to have had trouble letting go of the horrors of his wartime duty. He rarely returned to his family in the Pacific Northwest, but spent the two decades after the war in California as an (unsuccessful) pig farmer. When his tyrannical father passed, Moritz was bequeathed a pittance, nothing in comparison to the millions other Thomsen family members had inherited.

In 1964, with WWII long having come to an end but Moritz Thomsen still waging an internal battle, he decided to join the first wave of Peace Corps volunteers, at the age of 48. He was assigned to a small town in Ecuador to assist in the farming efforts. There, as a millionaire's son living among the very poor, he became close with an Ecuadorian family and maintained what were probably the most authentic relationships of his life, detailed in his 1978 memoir The Farm on the River of Emeralds.

Thomsen published four books in total - two of them the aforementioned memoirs; Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle (1969), ranked as one of the best Peace Corps memoirs ever written; and The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers (1990), which includes an introduction written by his friend and fellow travel writer Paul Theroux.

In August 1991, Thomsen died of chronic illness in a dank apartment in Ecuador. Found among his meager belongings was a shoebox stuffed with checks totaling $40,000, including instructions on how to divide the money among his adopted Ecuadorian family, of whom he wrote in The Farm on the River of Emeralds.

While his writing garnered acclaim among his literary peers, Thomsen remains a little known entity. There is a fifth, as-of-yet unpublished manuscript that has languished on publishers' desks for more than a decade - so perhaps that will be the key that unlocks his legacy.

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