W. Somerset Maugham was a spy, prolific writer and physician who took on the taboo subjects of adultery and sexual jealousy and reinvented the spy novel. Maintaining the habit of writing for several hours each morning, Maugham was able to produce 30 plays, 24 novels, and more than 100 magazine articles. With his cynical wit and straightforward style, he was more popular among the masses than the literary set, and he always felt like an outsider to the establishment.
Most people who know his name immediately think of his novel Of Human Bondage (1915), which has never gone out of print since it was first published. The main female character in Of Human Bondage was actually based on a feckless young man who had humiliated Maugham over and over again in Paris and in London, breaking what was left of Maugham’s heart.
Born at the British Embassy in Paris, Maugham’s first language was French, and as a young man he was teased for his bad English by his classmates. They also bullied him for being short, plus Maugham developed a stammer that stayed with him his entire life.
When he was only 32 years old, Maugham had four plays running at the same time in London. When he turned 42, he was already famous all around the world, having had ten hit plays and ten bestselling novels. He was so prolific and successful that he became extremely wealthy from his writing. Charming, cultivated and courtly, Maugham always dressed in the very best tailored clothing. He employed a chauffeur, a cook and a butler.
During World War I, he served with the Red Cross as an ambulance driver and with the British Secret Intelligence. While driving an ambulance in Flanders he met 21-year-old American Gerald Haxton, who became Maugham’s partner for the next 30 years. The couple traveled together to India and Southeast Asia, experiences that are reflected in Maugham’s books. They lived part-time on the island of Capri, a popular spot for gay men who pursued their artistic careers and one another.
Yet, somehow, Maugham carefully avoided gay themes and characters in his writing. Gay men of his generation lived in fear after Oscar Wilde‘s trial, which had taken place when Maugham was 21 years old. Haxton had been deported from England in 1919 after being caught having sex with a guy. To be together without risking jail, the two men had to travel outside England. And travel they did.
“I was a 1/4 normal & 3/4 queer, but I tried to persuade myself it was the other way round. That was my greatest mistake.”
Knowing that being exposed as a gay man could ruin his chances of continued success, Maugham had a child with Syrie Wellcome, whose husband sued for divorce over their affair. Maugham was already involved with Haxton and was reticent to actually marry Wellcome, who then tried to kill herself. They did end up getting married shortly after her divorce in 1917. As Syrie Maugham, she went on to become a very famous, influential interior designer for high society clients. The couple had nothing in common in taste, temperament or sex.
But, she loved being “Mrs. Somerset Maugham”, yet she eventually agreed to a divorce in 1929, finding her husband’s relationship with Haxton too tough to take. She received the house in London and all its contents, a Rolls Royce, plus alimony and child support. Syrie Maugham never remarried and she died in 1955. She was 76 years old and rich and famous when she left this world.
In the divorce, Maugham kept the couple’s 19th century villa on the French Riviera. Maugham described the French Riviera as “a sunny place for shady people” and it remained his home for most of the rest of his life, avoiding the taxes at home.
The villa was the scene of one of the greatest salons of the 1920s-1930s. It was also the spot for many all-male nude swim parties with plenty of cocaine and champagne. Guests were astonished at the degree of debauchery. I should have been there.
Maugham spent most of World War II in Hollywood, where he worked writing scripts, becoming one of the first literary writers to make serious money from film adaptations. Haxton lived with Maugham in California. But, he suffered from pneumonia and checked out from this life in 1944, at just 52 years old.
The grief-stricken Maugham, now in his 70s, took up with the much younger Alan Searle whom he had first met in 1928. A rough trade sort, Searle had already been “kept” by several older men. A friend described the difference between Haxton and Searle as: “Gerald was vintage, Alan was vin ordinaire”. Both of his lovers had been hired to be Maugham’s “secretary”, a charming euphemism used during that era.
In 1962, Maugham sold a collection of 25 valuable paintings which had been purchased in his daughter Liza Maugham‘s name as a valuable inheritance. Maugham was convinced that Liza only wanted money and property. Searle prevented Liza from visiting her father during his final years. She sued her father for selling her paintings and won an enormous monetary judgment.
Maugham publicly disowned Liza, claiming she was not his biological daughter, since Syrie Maugham had been married to her former husband at the time of Liza’s birth. Maugham sued his daughter for the return of all the gifts he had ever given her. He then legally adopted Searle and changed his will making him the heir to his estate. Liza contested the will, won the case and had Searle’s adoption nullified by the French government. Searle encouraged Maugham to publish an additional volume of his memoirs, vilifying both his former wife and daughter, and so he did.
Liza was named after her father’s bestselling novel Liza Of Lambeth (1914) and she was friends with the glitterati of the day. Noël Coward called her “Liza Boo”; Cecil Beaton photographing her.
Because of the bad publicity, Maugham was shunned by even his best friends. His reputation was ruined, and he lived his last years tortured by guilt and remorse.
Maugham left this world in 1965, just weeks before his 92nd birthday. He had been hospitalized in Nice after coming down with pneumonia. Searle stole his body and took it to the villa where he announced to the world that Maugham had passed away in his bed at home, avoiding the autopsy required by French law.
When Maugham’s last will was finally read, it was revealed that Liza was to inherit the Villa, but not its contents. Reports in the press essentially outed Maugham after his death.
Don’t be sad; Searle still ended up with a fortune, the contents of the villa, Maugham’s manuscripts, and a lifetime of revenue from Maugham’s royalties. He lived out his last years wealthy and lonely, traveling from luxury hotel suite to luxury hotel suite with his own butler. He spent the money he had inherited on boys, booze and bespoke suits. On his deathbed in 1978, he confessed that he regretted having caused the trouble between Liza and her father. Liza, on the other hand, lived a happy life; she married well as a titled lady, Elizabeth Hope, the Baroness Glendevon. She checked-out in 1996. In 2005, the villa was made into a luxury hotel.
Although Maugham’s highly acclaimed novels including Of Human Bondage, The Constant Wife (1927), and The Razor’s Edge (1944) made him the most famous and wealthiest author of his era, he never received the honor of a knighthood, probably because he was gay.
There are over 50 film and television adaptations of Maugham’s work, even into our new 21st century they kept being adapted, including the excellent The Painted Veil (2006), Being Julia (2004), and Up At The Villa (2000). For you vintage film fans, try Of Human Bondage (1934) with Bette Davis, or Rain (1932) with Joan Crawford.