When an early literary effort sold out within a few weeks of publication in 1897, Maugham gave up medical studies at age twenty three to become a full-time writer. He became so successful that by the 1930s he was the highest paid writer in the English-speaking world, and his literary career lasted sixty-five years until his death at age 91.
Born at the British Embassy in Paris, his first language was French, and he was later teased for his bad English by his classmates at Canterbury. They also taunted him for his short stature, and Somerset ultimately developed a troubling stammer that stayed with him his entire life. He so hated his English school that he relocated to Germany, where he studied at Heidelberg University. While in Germany he had a sexual affair with John Ellington Brooks, an Englishman ten years his senior. Soon thereafter he returned to London to study medicine.
After switching to writing, he met with stupendous success. In 1907 “Willie,” as he was known to his friends, had four plays running simultaneously in London, and by the age of forty he was famous, having already published ten plays and ten novels. He was so prolific and successful throughout his career that he became extremely wealthy from his craft. Charming, suave and dignified, Willie always dressed in fine, tailored clothing of the highest quality, as he could well afford, and he was ferried about via chauffeur-driven limousine.
However, Maugham (photo at right) carefully avoided homosexual themes and gay characters in his works. As American novelist Glenway Wescott, pointed out, Willie's generation lived in mortal terror of the Oscar Wilde trial, which had taken place when Maugham was 21 years old. Before his relationship with Gerald, Maugham had fallen deeply in love with a man named Harry Philips, a failed Oxford divinity student. They were so paranoid of their relationship being exposed that they feared returning to England, living instead as a couple in Paris. Gerald Haxton had himself been deported from England in 1919 for being caught committing a homosexual act. Thus, in order to be together, Maugham had to travel outside England for Haxton's companionship. And travel they did.
On his many travels Somerset was always accompanied by Haxton (photo at left), whom Maugham regarded as indispensable to his success as a writer. Somerset was painfully shy and had to cope with his stammer, so the extrovert Haxton went out to gather material which the author converted to fiction. Haxton possessed what Maugham lacked. Haxton’s outwardness, amiability and popularity compensated for Maugham’s shyness, reserve and stiffness. Acquaintances were often astonished at how spoiled and controlling Haxton appeared, demanding that Maugham fetch drinks for him, cover his gambling debts and the like.
Haxton had a love affair with alcohol, and one drunken evening in 1930 he dove head-first into a half-empty swimming pool at a neighbor's house and cut his head open, dislocated his spine and broke a vertebrae, from which he recovered enough to walk about independently, although his posture was forever affected, and he could no longer turn his head. For all the trouble he was, Somerset's friends came to realize that Haxton was nevertheless exactly what Maugham desired. He virtually lit up inside whenever Haxton entered the room.
In 1926, three years prior to his divorce from Syrie, Somerset bought the 19th century Villa Mauresque, a 9 acre property on the French Riviera at Cap Ferrat, between Nice and Monaco. While Maugham described the French Riviera as "a sunny place for shady people," Cap Ferrat was his home for most of the rest of his life (his tax status stipulated that he could spend no more than 90 days a year in England). In 2005 the property was converted into a boutique hotel of eleven rooms and suites (below).
This villa was the scene of one of the great literary and social salons of the 1920s and -30s, but it was also host to all-male nude bathing parties, drugs, an over-abundance of alcohol and nightly seductions of the local lads. Visitors were invariably astonished at the level of debauchery. Photo below: poolside at Villa Mauresque. Maugham (lying under the lad seated atop the wall) enjoys nude sunbathing with his younger male guests:
In late middle age Maugham spent most of WW II in the United States, first in Los Angeles, where he worked on many scripts, becoming one of the first authors to make significant money from film adaptations. To date 35 film adaptations have been made of his works. For a time he also lived in South Carolina, where his publisher had an estate, to wait out the European war. Nelson Doubleday custom built a cottage for Maugham's exclusive use, staffed with a cook, maid and gardener. Located two miles from the main manor house, this private cottage provided a hideaway perfect for writing, away from the interruptions and obligations of city life.
After his companion Gerald Haxton was able to join him in the United States, Gerald suffered an attack of pneumonia. When he died of pulmonary edema in 1944 at age 52 in New York City, Maugham returned to England. Willie never really recovered from Gerald's death, and it was a grief-stricken Maugham who returned to his villa in France, where he lived out his days.
In 1962 Maugham sold a collection of several dozen valuable paintings, a few of which had been purchased in Liza's name, knowing that they would become a valuable inheritance. However, Alan detested Liza and her husband, fearing that they would stand in the way of an inheritance that would allow him to be able to live independently after Maugham's death. Tragically, Alan drove a wedge between Liza and her father, ruining what had become a treasured relationship. Alan convinced Maugham that Liza was amiable toward her father only because of the money and property she was to inherit, and Alan prevented Liza from speaking to or visiting her father during his final years. She then sued her father for selling her rightfully owned paintings and won a judgment of £230,000, an enormous sum at the time.
At Alan's urging Maugham publicly disowned her and claimed she was not his biological daughter, since Syrie had been married to her former husband at the time of Liza's birth. In retaliation for her lawsuit, Somerset sued Liza in 1962 for the return of all gifts bestowed upon her in previous years, legally adopted Alan and made changes to his will to elevate Alan to principal heir. Liza contested the changes to Maugham's will, won the case and had Alan's adoption nullified by the French government. To make matters worse, Alan encouraged Maugham to publish a further volume of autobiography, which was serialized in an English newspaper. In its columns Maugham cruelly vilified his former wife, and in doing so broke the Englishman's code of civility. Old friends vanished, and Maugham was ostracized whenever he appeared in public. Maugham was a broken man, devastated to have his reputation ruined, and he lived his last years tortured by guilt and overcome with remorse.
Nevertheless, Maugham lived to the ripe old age of 91. His long life, which had begun just a decade after the American Civil War, had witnessed the inventions of the telephone, automobile, radio, films and television. He was already 51 years old when Al Jolson thrilled audiences with his talking film, The Jazz Singer (1927). His life span of nearly a century took him from the days of horseback to jet airplane travel.
In December of 1965 he suffered a fall and was hospitalized in Nice after coming down with pneumonia shortly thereafter. Lying in a semi-comatose state for a week, he died quietly during the very early hours of December 16, five weeks shy of his ninety-second birthday. Under cover of darkness his body was returned to Villa Mauresque, where Alan announced to the world that Maugham had died in his bed at home, thus avoiding an autopsy that would otherwise have been required by French law.
When Maugham's will was read, it was revealed that Liza was to inherit Villa Mauresque, but not the contents. Within weeks of Maugham's death, his nephew Robin published a series of memoirs about his uncle, outing Somerset as a gay man and airing other unsavory family matters. Maugham's reputation thus took additional hits.
In spite of Liza's doings, Alan Searle still ended up inheriting £50,000 in cash, the contents of Villa Mauresque, Maugham's manuscripts and most importantly, a lifetime revenue from royalties. Alan lived out his final years as a wealthy, lonely man, traveling from luxury hotel suite to luxury hotel suite with his own manservant. He spent Maugham's inheritance on boys, clothes and rich meals to the point that he grew enormously fat. He suffered from arthritis and Parkinson's disease and was eventually confined to a wheelchair. Before his death he confessed to one of Somerset's friends that he regretted having caused such trouble between Liza and her father.
"The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham" is a juicy, gay-drenched highly readable biography by Selina Hastings (Kindle and other e-reader formats). Her biography of Evelyn Waugh won the Marsh Biography Award.
1941 portrait of Somerset Maugham by George Platt Lynes:
Geoff Puterbaugh: p.783/4 Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (ed. Wayne Dynes)
Selina Hastings: The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography