Somerset Maugham: The Writer, The Lothario, The Monaco Local
The man who called the Riviera "a sunny place for the shady" - and fit into that category himself - was also one of the most literary fertile writers of his generation. One of many expatriate writers who congregated to the beautiful stretch of coast between Nice and Monaco before World War II, Somerset Maugham held court at the Villa Mauresque, his mansion in the glamourous Cap Ferrat. Here was the setting of nude bathing parties, copious amounts of drug and alcohol use, and nightly seductions of both men and women. The predatory bisexual writer had so many affairs that he was described by some of his partners as the most sexually voracious man they had ever known.
Despite Maugham's reputation as a lothario, few refused an invitation to his Riviera mansion. T.S. Eliot, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, Noel Coward and even Winston Churchill all headed south to stay with him. Though lately overshadowed by his contemporaries, Maugham was prolific in those days. At the age of 30 he had four plays on in the West End of London at the same time. And by the time he had written his masterpiece Of Human Bondage in 1915, a semi-autobiographical work that described a young man's perverse enslavement to the wayward woman he loved, Maugham was hailed a literary genius.
Born in Paris, where his father ran a law firm, William Somerset Maugham was orphaned at the age of ten. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was eight and his father followed two years later from cancer. The young boy was sent across the Channel to England, where his three older brothers were already in school. The young boy lived with a strict uncle in Whitstable, Kent, but he detested this suburban domesticity. He was sent to boarding school in Canterbury and, by the age of 16, was allowed to travel to Heidelberg to study literature, philosophy and German.
Faced with the necessity of earning a living, Maugham returned to England and, in 1892, enrolled in medical school, having excused himself from following his late father and brothers into the legal profession. At St. Thomas's Hospital, where he studied, the aspiring writer came face to face with the diseased and unemployed, sewing the seeds for his first novel, Liz of Lambeth. Many critics call the five years Maugham studied medicine a "creative dead end," but he felt the opposite. In maturity, Maugham recalled the literary value of what he saw as a medical student: "I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief ..."
Soon he was on the move again, this time to the island of Capri with his male lover from Heidelberg. He said later that he came alive for the first time when he saw the beautiful Italian island. The 21-year-old Maugham felt liberated, both creatively and sexually. Settling in France, Maugham bombarded literary agents and theatre managers, but continued to struggle since none of his manuscripts lived up to the critical and public popularity of Liz of Lambeth. Finally, in 1907, one of his light comedies drew interest, a play called Lady Frederick. Its overnight success was enough to convince Maugham, who had qualified as a doctor, to drop medicine and embark on his 65-year career as a writer. He returned from France to London where soon play after play was staged, making Maugham both a literary sensation and a very rich man. However, his professional success still outweighed his private life.
Along with many homosexual liaisons, the writer fell passionately in love with a minor actress named Sue Jones. He tried to cast her in his plays, but she eventually jilted him to marry into an aristocratic family. On the rebound, the unhappy Maugham turned his sights on Syrie Wellcome, the daughter of the great reformer Thomas Barnardo. Though Syrie was already married to the rich American founder of the Burroughs Wellcome pharmaceutical company, she was determined to trap the successful playwright and soon became pregnant by him. This did not bode well for Maugham, so he used the onset of World War I to make his escape.
Forty and too old to fight, Maugham joined the Red Cross. Stationed in Boulogne, he met a fellow volunteer, the 22-year-old American Frederick Gerald Haxton, who would become his companion for the next 30 years. It was only after the war, however, that Maugham agreed to marry Syrie. Living in London, the couple put on a great display in public, hosting glamourous parties. In private, however, they loathed one another, especially since Maugham was still pining for Gerald. It has been said that Maugham regarded Gerald as indispensable to his writing since, next to the painfully shy Maugham, Gerald was an extrovert who gathered human material that his lover could steadily turn into fiction.
In 1920, following a trip to Hollywood, Maugham and Gerald took off together again. This time they traveled to Honolulu, Australia, Singapore and Burma. Maugham and Gerald had now been together for 10 years, but the younger man was dangerously addicted to gambling and drink, as well as sex. His preference was adolescent boys who he found in Paris's notorious Rue de Lappe, later immortalized by Maugham in The Razor's Edge.
Though Syrie was anxious to remain married to her famous husband, Maugham was determined to get rid of the "tart who ruined his life." In 1928, the same year that Maugham, now 50, found the Villa Mauresque in the South of France, Syrie finally agreed to a divorce. In Monaco, amidst the villa's 12 acres of wooded grounds, Maugham could do what he pleased and surrounded himself with beautiful young men who were more than happy to run through his money. This locale would be Maugham's home for the rest of his life, as well as one of the great literary and social salons of the ‘20s and ‘30s.
His appalling reputation soon drew the attention of Scotland Yard, who warned his older brother F.H., a recently appointed High Court judge. The writer disregarded his brother's advice and, in 1928, at a dinner party in London, met the young man who would eventually replace Gerald. Alan Searle was a 23-year-old working-class man from Bermondesy, London. Throughout the ‘30s Maugham oscillated between Alan and Gerald, all the while frolicking in his Riviera villa and continuing to cement his reputation as the greatest living writer.
With the German occupation of France during World War II, Maugham had to abandon the villa. Back in London, he launched himself into war work, making propaganda broadcasts until he was dispatched to the U.S. to win American support for the war. Maugham spent the war first in Los Angeles, where he started his screenwriting career, and then in South Carolina, where his American publisher had an estate. He was nearing 70 and, though Gerald had joined him in the U.S., Maugham was making plans to retire to France without him. Then, in 1944, Gerald died of tuberculosis at only 52. Though it was the same disease that killed Maugham's mother when he was ten and he bawled uncontrollably at the funeral in New York City, Maugham quickly arranged for Alan to join him.
In 1946, the pair returned to Villa Mauresque. Maugham died twenty years later in Nice at the age of 91, having concluded that he was not in the first rank of writers and that, surprisingly, he had never had enough sex.
The history of Maugham's villa dates back to King Leopold of Belgian, who built a villa for each of his three mistresses and one for his priest, to be always on hand. When Maugham bought the priest's house in 1928, he named it La Mauresque due to its Moorish design influences. The attraction of Cap Ferrat, even in the ‘20s, was its privacy that permitted the wealthy an openly gay lifestyle that would not have been tolerated in the more repressed European high society. So the villa, which saw the mistresses of King Leopold, evolved into a different lifestyle among the sexually curious writers and artists that flocked to Maugham's estate during the ‘30s. Since Maugham's death in 1965, the plot has been broken-up by developers. Someone does occupy the remains of this piece of history, though all that can be seen is a sign from the roadside.