Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Pride Month Profile: Willie always said, It's a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it."

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William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)
Author, playwright

Maugham’s was one of the longest and most successful, literary careers in history, spanning eight decades and encompassing fifteen nonfiction books; 36 novels, 21 collections, the editorship of 19 editions of others’ works; 36 plays, and over two hundred articles. His stories and novels have been filmed nearly a hundred times, and in his seventies, he was on of the best-paid adapters of fiction into screenplays in Hollywood.

He came from a family of lawyers. His father was legal attache in the British Embassy at Paris and arranged for Willie’s birth in the embassy- legally British soil- to avoid French law making anyone born on la terre des francais subject to conscription.

His mother died when Maugham was a boy; his father, a few years later. Willie was shipped to his uncle, a bullying Victorian vicar. Packed off to school, Maugham was mocked by his classmates for his shortness, his stress-induced stammer, and his poor English, he having been raised in French. He developed a rapier wit that wounded unintentionally as often as not. At sixteen he dropped out, and his uncle agreed to let him study on the Continent. At the university in Heidelberg, he wrote his first book- a biography of the composer Meyerbeer- and had his first affair.

At eighteen his uncle had to decide what to do with Willie. A stammering priest would embarrass the family; the civil service was no longer a career for gentlemen, having recently adopted entrance exams anyone could take. The family physician recommended medicine, and Maugham moved to London to become a doctor.

Life in the metropolis suited him. He had his own rooms, and got a wide view of strata of society he’d never known. Continuing to write, he got a novel about adultery in the slums, published in 1897. Liza sold out in a few weeks. Though he qualified as an M.D. that year, Maugham embarked on a writing career and never looked back.

His first decade was one of steady but not runaway, success. In 1908 he got his first play produced in the West End. It was such a hit that within a year he had four running at once, and Punch published a cartoon showing Shakespeare scanning the marquees and biting his nails.

When the war broke out, Maugham had ten novels and ten plays under his belt. Too old to enlist, the forty-year-old joined the British Red Cross Ambulance Corps in France, falling into the literary drivers’ set that included Dos Passos, Hemingway and E.E. Cummings. He spent 1915-16 and 1917-18 doing espionage in Switzerland and Russia. Through it all, he kept writing. Of Human Bondage appeared in 1915, to mixed reviews; Philip Carey’s clubfooted, closeted character challenged many readers until Theodore Dreiser championed it in America and made it a best-seller. Maugham spent 1916 in the South Pacific, gathering material for a novel based on Gaugin, published in 1919 as The Moon and Sixpence.

During his Red Cross days, Maugham met and fell in love with another driver, an American called Gerald Haxton. Maugham also conducted affairs with a London actress, and Syrie, daughter of the British philanthropist Thomas Bernardo. Syrie was the wife of pharmaceuticals magnate Henry Wellcome.

What Maugham intended as a fling, Syrie saw as bagging the trendiest writer of the day. Their very accidental child, Liza, was born in 1915. Syrie’s husband sued for divorce, naming Maugham as a respondent, after having tracked them to Rome, where Maugham installed her to await the birth. While Maugham put off marriage as long as he could, the affair was just the scandal Maugham needed to fend off persistent rumors about his sexuality, and in 1917 they wed. Maugham acknowledged Liza, giving her his surname.

Haxton, staying in a Covent Garden hotel, was arrested for gross indecency by police doing a dragnet for military deserters in 1915. He and his co-defendant insisted on a trial, and were acquitted. He accompanied Maugham on his South Seas trip. En route to South Africa aboard Japanese steamer in September 1917, Haxton- and the rest of the crew and passengers- were taken prisoner by a German raider. He was held on ship until it returned to Germany in early 1918, then imprisoned. Attempting to re-enter Britain in 1919 he was declared an undesirable alien and banned for life; his file was sealed for one hundred years.

Maugham took Haxton on as his secretary and used research trips as a means of carrying on the relationship on the Continent. Maugham and Syrie separated in 1925. In 1926 he bought a villa on the French Riviera- built by the notorious King Leopold II of Belgium for his personal confessor- and installed Haxton there. Of their nearly thirty-year relationship, Christopher Hitchens wrote,

He had found the great entanglement of his life, and though Haxton was every bit as bitchy and greedy as Syrie, and exhibited many other vices as well, he seems never—or at any rate seldom—to have been boring. For the next several decades it was part of Maugham's job to look after the person whom he'd ostensibly hired to look after him, and to keep him out of jail.

Syrie, by then a society London decorator, wearied of Maugham’s endless absences and the obvious presence of Haxton. The 1929 divorce was, doubtless, a relief to both. Hitchens wrote of the union,

Maugham was a young man during the Oscar Wilde scandal, and he developed all the habits of subterfuge that were necessary to his survival. It seems certain that he married Syrie Wellcome partly as "cover," and thereby doomed himself to decades of misery and litigation. But Meyers [whose life of Maugham Hitchens reviewed in 2004] allows us to speculate that he did this, and also embarked on a dismal exercise in fatherhood, in order to satisfy himself as a writer that he had done everything at least once. (My contribution to the gay-marriage debate would be this: remember what vast unhappiness was generated in the days when homosexuals felt obliged to marry heterosexuals.) Syrie was a greedy and impossible bitch to begin with, and did not improve upon intimate acquaintance, or want of acquaintance, of that kind.

Syrie got 2,400 pounds a year for life, a Roll-Royce and the Maugham’s London house. Liza, who grew out of a lonely childhood amid the cold war of her parents’ marriage, grew into a society belle who married the Swiss ambassador’s son in 1936. Maugham gave them a stack of stock certificates and a London house.

Maugham, permanently relocated to Villa Mauresque, become the highest paid writer in the world. In the early Twenties, Hearst paid him $2500 a story; the story “Rain” (1921) earned a million dollars in royalties alone.


When France fell in 1940, he became the world’s wealthiest refugee, making his way to Hollywood. He gave pro-British talks to urge America’s entry into the war, and became a highly paid script doctor for the studios. Haxton died in a New York hospital, of tuberculosis at 52, in 1944; two years later, Maugham returned to France and remained there rest of his life, his villa the center of a glittering social circle that led Noel Coward to dub Villa Mauresque “the other Vatican.” He sheltered both his personal life and his vast earnings there for the next twenty years. He collected art and louche characters; his library and wine cellar were regularly depleted by guests.

Haxton, whose dashing looks and easy manner opened social doors for the shy Maugham, was- one friend said- a classic vintage. Maugham replaced him with “vin ordinaire’- a rough character called Alan Searle, whom he’d first met in 1928. Maugham, in his early seventies, grew bored and spiteful. He could hardly become any more famous, or wealthy, and his fame ensured his safety from exposure. Even Winston Churchill, who wintered nearby in retirement, was a frequent guest.

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As Maugham grew older, and older, his visage became a reverse of Dorian Gray’s. Searle, looking to his own future, tried to convince Maugham that Liza, now married to a British lord, and having provided him with the respectability of grandfatherhood, was not his real daughter. Having set up a company in 1954 to hold Villa Mauresque, and given the shares to Liza, Maugham began to imagine she intended his eviction. Maugham favored his nephew, Robin, son of a former Lord Chancellor and high court judge, over Liza, showering him with gifts.

Claiming poverty, Maugham sold some of his art collection, including pieces already in granted to Liza in return for foregoing the royalties to his books, in 1962. She sued and got a 230,000 pound judgment for the value of the art. He published a memoir savaging his marriage and denying Liza was his biological child. The book caused a scandal in Britain, where it was serialized in the papers; on his last visit to London, no one would speak to him at his club. Maugham declared his intention to disinherit her and adopt Alan Searle as his son and heir, claiming, at once, that she was not his daughter and that she had failed to care for him in his old age.

Liza, now Lady Glendevon, wife of a Scots peer, went to court in France and got the adoption annulled. Searle was bought off with 50,000 pounds cash, the contents of the villa, and the rights to Maugham’s royalties for thirty years.

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Amid these nightmares, Maugham’s nephew, Robin, wrote that he’d been offered $50,000 to write his uncle’s biography. His own books provided a decent income, he said, but he had no capital. Notwithstanding, he had assured the American publisher he couldn’t consider a memoir during Uncle Willie’s life. Willie, whose mind was fading, was still sharp enough to see through the letter, and sent Robin a check for $50,000 by return post.

Maugham died in hospital at the end of 1965, weeks before his 91st birthday. Searle waited 24 hours to tell anyone: time enough to move the body home and claim Willie died there, this avoiding an autopsy. He then moved on, becoming enormously fat and spending his inheritance on luxury hotels and rent boys. Liza enjoyed a quiet, happy second marriage, a well-loved figure in the Royal Family’s circle, before dying in 1998. When she inherited Villa Mauresque, she promptly sold it; the house is now a luxury hotel.

Robin Maugham- who inherited his father’s title, becoming 2d Viscount Maugham in 1948- published the first of his two scandalous memoirs of Willie in 1966. The scandal jumpstarted his career, and he became a bestseller in his own right. He mined his Uncle Willie files once more in 1978, before dying in 1981.

Syrie Maugham lived to age 76, dying in 1955.

The posthumous revelations of Maugham’s real nature: vicious, greedy and sexually omnivorous, might have sunk his literary reputation. After Liza’s death biographers unearthed a cache of tapes Liza made, recording her life- and the beastliness of her father- for a never-written memoir.

The Maugham literary reputation was so huge, however, that it has only slowly declined as tastes have changed and his generations of readers died off. In life, he self-deprecatingly placed himself “firmly in the front ranks of the second-rate.”

His work, well-plotted always, but wooden in dialogue and so much set between the Edwardian Era and the twilight of Empire, was always most popular with readers who cared little for “literature” but liked a good, easy story. He  lacked imagination; his endless travels were mostly to go and find places and people to write about. Today he would probably be successful all over again, in the mold of James Patterson or Danielle Steele, out of the closet and giving interviews to People and Entertainment Tonight on his villa’s terrace, a gay Hugh Hefner.

Every so often, however, Maugham takes another torpedo from Literature. Christopher Hitchens described one especially well-targeted strike:

Here is the opening sentence of Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers (1980)—incidentally, one of the most underrated English novels of the past century: "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."  

One knows at once who is the object of this pastiche.

Maugham’s most lasting gift was his endowment, in 1947, of the Somerset Maugham Prize,  $25,000  travel grant to the best under-35 English writer of the year. Winners have included both Amises, Ted Hughes, V.S. Naipaul, Seamus Heaney, Julian Barnes, A.N. Wilson, Carol Ann Duffy and Zadie Smith.

#HenryBemisBooks #Literary Birthdays #SomersetMaugham #Charlotte #LGBTAuthors

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