October 04, 1976 12:00 PM

In 1970 Houston surgeons were saving lives—and electrifying the world—with heart transplants. But the talk that summer in the Texas city was not of life but of death—the mysterious death of socialite Joan Robinson Hill.

At the time author Thomas Thompson was in Houston researching his book, Hearts, about the transplant era. “I would be in a scrub suit,” Thompson remembers, “watching the surgeons work. Contrary to public opinion, it’s not all dedicated men in white in the operating rooms. They were boiling with gossip.”

Now Thompson has reconstructed the drama of Joan Hill’s death and the violence and intrigue that followed it in Blood and Money. “I wanted to call it Crime and Punishment,” he jokes, “but somebody had gotten there first.”

The facts of the case are as complex as an oil lease. After Joan Hill died, her millionaire father, Ash Robinson, accused his son-in-law, Dr. John Hill, a plastic surgeon, of poisoning her. Instead Hill was charged with murder for failing to give his wife proper medical care. But a mistrial was declared, and before he could be brought into court again he was murdered in his own home during a purported robbery. His killer, a small-time hood named Bobby Vandiver, himself died in a police shootout unrelated to the Hill case. Finally, Lilla Paulus, a seemingly respectable Houston matron who turned out to have astonishing underworld connections, was tried and convicted of arranging Dr. Hill’s murder. Who paid to have the plastic surgeon killed is a tantalizing unanswered question in Thompson’s book.

The case is not settled yet. A $7.6 million lawsuit for Hill’s death is pending against Lilla Paulus, who was sentenced to 35 years, and Ash Robinson. It was brought by Hill’s mother, his widow—his third wife—and his 16-year-old son by Joan.

To piece together this sordid story, Thompson interviewed 500 people, “everybody,” he says, “from high society to professional assassins.” After 18 months of research, Thompson spent six months at the typewriter. The result is a book that is simply un-put-downable.

Yet three publishers rejected it. “They only wanted to hear about Patty Hearst,” Thompson says. Doubleday’s advance of $55,000 turned out to be a wise investment. Blood and Money is a Literary Guild selection and has already brought $500,000 for paperback rights. Thompson is dickering with movie producers.

For the Fort Worth native, the book in some ways was a labor of love—for Texas. “I thought I could take this case and hang out my own wash about Texas at the same time,” he says. “The state has a powerful hold on me. It’s mother church. It never lets go.”

Though he once toyed with the idea of becoming an actor (encouraged by a talent scout who saw him in an amateur musical in Houston), Thompson started his journalistic career at 8. His father, a high school principal, and his mother, an English teacher, gave him a toy printing press for his birthday. “I instantly put out a neighborhood newspaper,” says Thompson, “with such items as Mrs. Wilson buying a new dish drainer from Woolworth’s.” He worked on school papers and went to the University of Texas on a journalism scholarship. “I ran for editor of the paper but was beaten by a girl. I wondered if it was the end of my career.”

Not quite. At 23 he became city editor of the Houston Press, the youngest on any major daily in the country. In 1958 he married Joyce Alford, a drama teacher who appeared with him in amateur theatricals. They had two sons and were divorced in 1969. In addition to his job on the Press, Thompson began to send in stories to LIFE magazine. “My first weekend as a stringer, Hurricane Carla wiped out Louisiana, and I got a 10-page story in LIFE. I’ve always blessed Hurricane Carla,” says Thompson. That led to a staff job on LIFE, where he eventually became entertainment editor.

In 1972, with a $250,000 paperback sale from his second book, Richie, as a cushion, Thompson quit. “I OD’d on my 400th profile of Frank Sinatra,” he recalls. Richie—the grim story of a Long Island father who killed his drug addict son—is being made into an ABC-TV movie starring Ben Gazzara. It will be aired in January.

Like many of the stars he once wrote about, Thompson, 42, divides his time between a beach pad at Malibu and an elegantly furnished three-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills. There the fireplace mantel in the living room is lined with photographs of stars. “I keep them there to remind me what a terrible world that is,” he says.

Thompson is a disciplined writer trained to deadlines. When he is working, he stays at it from 8 a.m. to noon, turning out an impressive 20 to 30 pages each day. “The most important thing about writing is knowing how to type fast,” he says. He has one unbreakable work rule: “It is very important that you get out of your bathrobe and into clothes.”

Although always on the lookout for book ideas, he has not been tempted to write fiction. “I couldn’t make up a plot as interesting, ” Thompson says, “as any story that can be found in any newspaper any day.”

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