William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris in 1874, the youngest of four boys. While his older brothers were away at boarding school in England, young Willie basked in the exclusive adoration of his beautiful mother Edith. But that idyll was shattered when she died of tuberculosis. Maugham was only eight years old.
The loss was devastating. Willie’s father Robert, who served as legal counsel for the British Embassy in Paris, tried to make it up to him but only two years later himself died of cancer. Willie was sent to live in England with his uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham, Vicar of Whitstable in the County of Kent, and his wife Sophie.
Willie knew nothing of England; his halting command of the language was made more problematical by a severe stammer. Making matters worse – much worse – was the fact that the vicar was a cold, self-regarding individual, whose high opinion of himself rested on not much discernible evidence.
Eventually, Willie was sent to boarding school, a situation that presented a whole new set of torments for the boy. Ultimately he got through it and decamped for London, where he commenced studying for a career in medicine. He successfully completed both his studies and the subsequent training and was offered a position in an established practice. But he turned the offer down. By the time he reached adulthood, Somerset Maugham knew that he wanted to be a full time, professional writer.
Maugham’s career got off to a rocky start. For a while he was living the classic hand-to-mouth existence of the starving artist, contributing articles and short stories to various periodicals. By 1902, he had published several novels as well. But what what he really craved was success in the theatrical world. In 1903 he had written Lady Frederick, a comedy, and had shopped it around to various producers and agents, with no success. The chief problem was that the lead character had to make herself deliberately unattractive in front of the audience – and no actress was willing to take on the part. But suddenly Otho Stuart, a theater manager, had a play fail unexpectedly. He had six weeks remaining until the next dramatic work was booked to open. Lady Frederick was rushed into production as a last minute substitute. Here’s what happened next:
So great was its success that Maugham became famous almost literally overnight–“England’s Dramatist,” as he was dubbed by the press. Lady Frederick ran for more than a year, and by the following year, 1908, four of Maugham’s plays were running concurrently in the West End, a record that for a living playwright was to remain unbroken for a generation.
Thus Lady Frederick, a play rejected by seventeen theater managers, ultimately proved to be Maugham’s ticket out of penury and into wealth, fame, and the high life.
I’ve mentioned that Maugham was tormented by a stammer that he controlled only with the greatest effort. He was also deeply troubled by questions about his own sexuality. As a young man, he came to terms with his homosexual preference. At the same time, propriety in the public view was of paramount importance to him. He was ardent but discreet. He also had affairs with women, for one of whom he cherished a deep affection. She was a young actress, called by Selina Hastings “the irresistible Sue Jones”: . Sensuous, empathetic, and free with her favors, she knew and understood Maugham’s nature, and returned his affection. But when, in his late thirties, Maugham asked her to marry him, she turned him down. She was already pregnant by the younger son of an earl, whom she married a few months after declining Maugham’s proposal.
Terribly disappointed, Maugham still craved the outward respectability of marriage and family. For some time he’d been engaged in a desultory affair with Syrie Wellcome, the estranged wife of Henry Wellcome: . Syrie was exotic, intelligent, and ambitious. She was also, in contemporary parlance, high maintenance. This relationship had already resulted in the birth of a daughter, Liza. Maugham, ever correct and duty-bound, felt obliged to marry Syrie. This he did in 1917, as soon as her divorce from Henry Wellcome became final.
From time to time, one hears of marriages in which love has turned to hate. Unfortunately for Maugham, he never loved Syrie to begin with, and told her as much in no uncertain terms. He spent as much time away from her as he possibly could, but when they were together, they made each other miserable. Finally, in 1928, they divorced. Maugham then purchased an enchanting property on the French Riviera. Called the Villa Mauresque, it became his permanent abode for the remainder of his life. . (Villa Mauresque is now a boutique hotel. Click here for details – and to feast your eyes!)*
In subsequent posts, I’ll be discussing Somerset Maugham’s travels, his works, and the astonishing number of people from all areas of endeavor that crossed his path in the course of a long and eventful life. It is a fascinating story – stay tuned!
*I’ve recently received information indicating that neither of the properties pictured here is actually Maugham’s Villa. Please see the Comments below. (02/18/12)