Somerset Maugham led a closeted life, had a voice often borrowed
The prolific W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), novelist, playwright, and short story writer whose work was frequently compared to that of Guy de Maupassant, was the highest paid author in the world by the 1930s.
More works of his have been adapted for the cinema than of any other writer in the English language (some 98 films, his nearest rival being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with 94 big-screen adaptations of his Sherlock Holmes stories.)
Maugham was a man of many contradictions. He achieved fame and fortune as a playwright literally overnight in 1907 with “Lady Frederick,” was lionized by London society, and by 1908 he had four plays running simultaneously in London’s West End; yet he abandoned playwriting in 1933, said he hated the theater, and averred that he considered actors “less than human.” He professed to be a socialist, yet he assiduously collected friendships with aristocrats and royalty. He was obsessed with making money and the luxurious life, yet he was capable of great generosity and gave away large sums. He could be unbelievably kind and unforgivably cruel.
Above all, Maugham was a lifelong practitioner of homosexuality who pretended not to be. An inveterate letter-writer, in his declining years he burned all his extensive personal correspondence that might have revealed his same-sex proclivities, and wrote to his friends begging them to burn all his letters. This request had just the opposite of the desired effect, and a great many of Maugham’s letters repose today in British, American, and French universities and libraries.
In “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham,” just published by Random House, the British literary critic Selina Hastings, author of well-regarded biographies of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has given us a meticulously researched, admirably written, and endlessly revealing portrait of Maugham’s life, loves, and work.
It is one of Hasting’s great merits that she details Maugham’s extensive sex life, from his long-running affairs with men to his addiction to young gigolos and rent-boys, without either sensationalism or prudery. There is not the slightest subliminal tongue-clucking here, for Hastings is resolutely unshockable.
“Throughout his life an appearance of conventionality was of profound importance for Maugham,” she writes, and he “rarely revealed himself except to his closest intimates.”
Maugham was 21 when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for homosexuality under a law that remained in force until two years after Maugham’s death, and “the exposure of Wilde’s homosexuality and its terrible consequences, the loss of family, of home, of reputation, had made a deep impression on Maugham, who could hardly avoid seeing a number of potential parallels in his own situation.”
Maugham was also traumatized by the suicide in 1904 of his alcoholic older brother Harry, also a promiscuous homosexual, and persuaded himself that it was ‘because of the life he led.’”
As he told a friend in later life, “I tried to persuade myself that I was three-quarters normal and only a quarter of me was queer — whereas really it was the other way round.”
Maugham — “Willie” to his parents and friends — was born in Paris, where his father handled the legal affairs of the British Embassy, and learned French before he did English. The youngest of four children (his older brothers were already in boarding school), Willie was left an orphan at the age of 9 when first his mother (whom he adored) and then his father died in rapid succession. Packed off to live with a cold and cruel uncle who was the vicar of Whitstable in Kent, young Willie had a miserable childhood, especially when he was sent to a boarding school in Canterbury, another purgatory where he was continuously mocked for the inadequacies of his command of the English language and developed the intermittent stammer that stayed with him all his life.
Maugham subsequently was allowed to spend a year studying literature and German at the University of Heidelberg, where at 16 he had a passionate sexual affair with John Ellingham Brooks, a dashing English graduate student ten years his senior and with whom he remained on life-long friendly terms.
Although Willie had his heart set on being a writer, he was sent to medical school by his guardian the vicar (Maugham’s stammer had precluded his becoming a clergyman), and while there he used his experiences doing midwifery in the London slums to write his first novel, “Liza of Lambeth,” which was well-received by the critics and quickly sold out. Maugham left the medical profession and embarked full-time on his 65-year career as a man of letters.
His next nine novels never matched the success of his first, and so the penurious Maugham, after analyzing what he thought would please the play-going public, turned to the theater to make money. “Lady Frederick” was only the first of a series of deft but ephemeral society comedies that gave Maugham the wealth and recognition he so ardently desired.
Maugham’s large income allowed him to play the elegant Edwardian dandy, and his youthful good looks were extremely attractive to both women and men; his dalliances included a brief love affair with Princess Alexandra Kropotkin, the daughter of Prince Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist intellectual then living in London.
Maugham led a dizzying social life in London and then — after the celebrated American theatrical producer Charles Frohman took him up and brought a string of his plays successfully to Broadway — in New York as well.
Willie’s abominable childhood led to Maugham the man being rather shy and withdrawn, which together with his painstaking concealment of his same-sex private life gave the exquisitely dressed playwright something of an air of mystery. He became an observer rather than a participant, and often relied on the second-hand stories related by others about real people for the plots and sub-plots of his plays and fictions.
Weary of his contrivances for the theater, Maugham embarked on the semi-autobiographical “Of Human Bondage,” the 1915 work on which much of his literary reputation was built. It was made into the 1934 Hollywood film that made Bette Davis a star in the role of the working-class Mildred, with whom “Philip Carey” (Maugham) has a masochistic relationship. Hastings writes, “Maugham’s one-time lover, Harry Philips, who might be expected to know, definitely asserted that ‘she’ was a boy,” and this was hardly the only time that Maugham changed the gender of the real-life people on which he based his characters.
The vivid sequence in the book in which Carey’s life as a shop assistant is convincingly described was based entirely on a 6,000 word account Maugham had commissioned for 30 guineas from a young actor, Gilbert Clark, who had been employed in a Piccadilly department store: “‘Willie used my stuff practically word for word,’ Clark later recalled with satisfaction.”
At the outbreak of World War I, Maugham joined the British Red Cross’ ambulance drivers and saw risky duty at the shell-wracked front. One day when his unit joined up with a group of American Red Cross volunteers, he struck up a conversation with “a slender, handsome youth” of 22, Gerald Haxton, the son of a leading writer and editor at the San Francisco Examiner, who was a “charming and gregarious fellow out to enjoy himself” and spoke French perfectly without an accent. “Maugham said he wanted to write and to travel. What did Gerald want? ‘From you or from life?’ the young man asked provocatively. ‘Perhaps both,’ Maugham replied, ‘They might turn out to be the same thing.’” The two of them retired to Gerald’s billet, where he had a bottle of gin, and thus began his three decades as Maugham’s lover and companion until the younger man’s death.
A year after meeting Maugham, Gerald, then in England, was arrested with another man in a Covent Garden hotel and charged with six counts of gross indecency. “Both were acquitted, but the judge, convinced that Gerald was a bad lot, had him registered as an undesirable alien… and banned from ever setting foot in Britain again.”
Maugham, who had become trapped into a loveless marriage by the pregnant, ambitious American Syrie Wellcome, spent more time with Gerald than he ever did with his wife. Gerald served both as Maugham’s muse and as a collector of unusual acquaintances and stories for him. Maugham's stories were thinly disguised episodes involving his host or others he and Gerald had met on their voyages — circumstances that occasionally resulted in threats and lawsuits. The ever-libertine Gerald efficiently organized Maugham’s constant travels, across Europe, to the South Seas (where together they collected material for “The Moon and Sixpence,” Maugham’s novel about the painter Paul Gauguin), to the Far East (which produced “The Painted Veil” and “The Letter,” later another Bette Davis vehicle), and to India (“The Razor’s Edge”), voyages that also gave birth to a series of well-regarded travel books and an endless flow of short stories (including his best-known, “Rain,” thrice made into a movie). Gerald was also the organizer o
f what Maugham termed their “larks,” meaning the procuring of attractive young male bed partners, usually for pay.
By 1927, Maugham had divorced his wife Syrie, and purchased the sumptuous Villa Mauresque at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, where Gerald served as the famous writer’s secretary, majordomo (running the house and its large staff of servants), and master of revels, especially when the American fleet dropped anchor at the nearby port of Villefranche and the waterfront bars were awash in attractive sailors.
The Mauresque became one of the great literary and social salons of the 1920s and ’30s, with an endless stream of lavishly entertained guests, from established writers like H.G. Wells to younger (and attractive) queer ones like Glenway Wescott, and an impressive array of the rich and famous, including Winston Churchill and the duke and duchess of Windsor.
While Maugham kept to a rigorous morning routine of writing, Gerald would go sailing, often accompanied in the late ’30s by his cabin boy, Louis Legrand, “known as ‘Loulou,’ a ravishing sixteen-year-old male whore, slender, blond, tanned, with a soft mouth and a sweet smile; he wore gold bangles on both wrists and spent most of the day dressed only in a minute pair of faded swimming trunks. Gerald was infatuated with him, and when not on the boat Loulou passed much of his time at the Mauresque, at the disposal not only of Gerald and Maugham but of any male guest who desired his services, Gerald afterward discreetly settling the bill.”
A frequent visitor to the Mauresque was Maugham’s nephew, Robin, the son of his austere older brother F.H., who in the late 1930s had been named lord chancellor and later was made a hereditary peer. When Robin turned 17, Maugham began to take a particular interest in him; he was, in fact, infatuated with Robin, who was also homosexual and had literary ambitions (later becoming a novelist, playwright, and travel writer himself). Gerald, after an initial pass he’d made at Robin was refused, treated the lad as a younger brother, supervising his sexual education and introducing Robin to the delights of hustler bars and rent-boys, to whom the nephew in turn became addicted (on his death, Gerald left all his money to Robin and his apartment in Paris to Loulou.)
In 1928 on a trip back to London, Maugham met a young man, Alan Searle, a willowy working-class youth who appeared much younger than his 23 years and “who was well known in certain circles as ‘a modified version of rough trade,’ a common, sexy boy who was also quick-witted, good-natured, and eager to better himself. ‘I was quite a dish,’ as he himself said.” He had circulated as a kept boy among a number of Maugham’s homosexual friends, among them Lytton Strachey, who called Alan “my Bronzino boy.”
Mangham’s first attempt to bed Searle was frustrated because the lad, although willing, had already made a previous date with Ivor Novello, the darling of the West End musicals. But their affair was consummated the following night, and it began an association that would last 40 years.
“There was no question of Alan’s taking Gerald’s place,” Hastings writes, “but Maugham frequently had reason to make short trips within Europe, sometimes to see one of his plays, often just to wander around art galleries, and neither occupation was of particular interest to Gerald. Alan, on the other hand, was an enthusiastic traveling companion and had a passion for paintings.”
In the ensuing years, Maugham wrote every few days to Alan, saw him whenever he was in London, and invited him to the Mauresque as well as on his European jaunts. Gerald had always been a heavy drinker, and as his alcoholism got worse so did his temper, and his rows with Maugham ever more frequent. Increasingly, the now aging writer yearned for the undemanding presence of the pliable cockney lad.
Maugham’s two love objects were vastly different: “Gerald was vintage, but Alan was vin ordinaire,” as one friend put it.
Maugham occasionally put his foot down, and Gerald would become sober and his old enjoyable self for extended periods before backsliding into ferocious bouts of drinking and reckless gambling (with Maugham always settling the large debts his muse ran up). When the German invasion of France in 1940 forced Maugham and Gerald to abandon the Mauresque, separating them, Maugham was eventually sent off to America to perform propaganda chores for Britain, which was anxious to see America come into the war.
After a harrowing escape from France and a lengthy enforced stay in neutral Portugal, Gerald was finally able to join Maugham in the States in 1942, but resumed his heavy drinking and began to have horrific bouts of delirium tremens. Maugham, now 70, was emotionally exhausted, and seriously considered ending his relationship with Gerald. He made plans for a post-war life with Alan, then in uniform in England, but his alcoholic lover managed to get a minor job in Washington’s intelligence services, sobered up, and seemed so happy to have a real job for the first time in his life. Sadly, Gerald’s health weakened from the dissipated life he’d led, he came down with a severe case of pleurisy, and after a lengthy illness —during which Maugham lovingly tended him in various sanitariums — Gerald died in November 1944.
Maugham was distraught beyond words; old friends found him terribly aged, breaking into tears at the mere mention of Gerald’s name for months thereafter.
To his publisher’s wife, Ellen Doubleday, Maugham wrote of Gerald, “I can only think of those years when his vitality and his gift for making friends were of so much service to me. Without him I should never have written those stories that did so much for my reputation in the world of letters & it was he who helped me to get out of the commonplace life of the ordinary humdrum writer & put me in the way of gaining that wider experience of life which has made me what I am today… I cannot but weep because his long end has been so miserable and so worthless. I don’t know how much I am to blame. If I had been firmer, if I had had not tried to force a kind of life on him for which he was temperamentally unsuited, it may have been that he would have made less of a hash of things than he did… just at the moment I am broken.”
A year later, after the war’s end when Alan was finally demobilized, Maugham used his influence in Whitehall and Washington to get permission for his second love to get a priority travel permit for America. The two men had not seen each other for five years, “during which time Maugham had thought of him constantly, and had yearned for the presence of his sweet, sexy Bronzino boy.” But the figure who stepped off the plane was no longer that of the slender youth Maugham remembered but of “a stout, round-faced, middle-aged man… ‘You may have looked like a Bronzino once, but now you look like a depraved Franz Hals,’ Maugham commented sourly. Nonetheless, Maugham was happy and relieved to be reunited with Searle, who was to be his devoted companion for the rest of his life,” and “their sexual compatibility enjoyed a surprising longevity.”
The next year, 1946, Maugham and Alan returned to the French Riviera and reopened and restored the Mauresque to its former glory, Alan taking on the tasks of secretary, majordomo, and procurer formerly occupied by Gerald.
But Maugham never wrote anything worthwhile after Gerald’s death, although the advent of television increased his fame and his income with a series of made-for-TV films that aired in both Britain and America in which he himself presented dramatized versions of some of his earlier stories.
Alan Searle stuck with him to the very end, serving as nanny and body servant as Maugham became increasingly paranoid and demented, finally giving up the ghost in 1965 just a few weeks short of his 92nd birthday. Maugham’s will made Alan a very rich man.
Within a few months of Maugham’s death, he was outed in a series of handsomely paid articles in a Fleet Street tabloid by his impecunious nephew Robin, who followed up with a series of tell-all memoirs of his queer uncle.
What remains today of Maugham’s literary reputation? The old man could be quite lucid about himself at times. Late in life he said he belonged “in the very first row of the second-raters.” Hastings is astute in this book about much of Maugham’s writing, but overly generous about some of it. I personally have never had much of a taste for Maugham, and agree with the great American critic Edmond Wilson that his plain prose is “such a tissue of clichés that one's wonder is finally aroused at the writer's ability to assemble so many and at his unfailing inability to put anything in an individual way.”
Still, Maugham’s work continues to be turned into films, like the 2004 “Being Julia” (based on his novel “Theater”) starring Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons, and the 2006 “The Painted Veil,” with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts.
If Maugham had been able to live his loves openly and write about them without disguising them, rather than having to devote so much energy to dissumulation, if he could have been a more honest writer, might he have become a great one? That’s a question that cannot be answered.
In any event, “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham” will hereafter be considered the definitive biography, and it is a wonderful read.
THE SECRET LIVES
OF SOMERSET MAUGHAM
By Shirley Hastings
$35; 624 pages
Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/.