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W. Somerset Maugham
January 25, 1874 – December 16, 1965
 

 

 

W. Somerset Maugham, or Somerset Maugham, as he is usually referred to, was perhaps the most respected English author of the 20th century to achieve a major presence in films; not only were many of his novels, short stories, and plays adapted into movies, but Maugham had the distinction of being portrayed on screen twice by no less a figure than Herbert Marshall. William Somerset Maugham was born of English parents in Paris, France, in 1874, and lived in France -- speaking only French -- until he lost both of his parents when he was 11 years old. As an orphan, he was brought back to England by an uncle and attended King's School in Canterbury. Maugham's boyhood was blighted by insecurities, including a stammer that forced him to withdraw from most social interaction -- this was a central motivation for Maugham to become an observer of life, and an author. He later studied in Heidelberg, Germany, with a special emphasis on philosophy and literature, and it was during this period that he discovered the homosexual side of his personality, which became still a further source of anxiety and withdrawal. (The prosecution and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde -- then the leading literary light of his day -- for "indecent acts" was a contemporary event and had the effect of driving even the most upper-crust and successful gay men completely underground.)

Maugham studied medicine and became a surgeon, spending a year practicing as a physician in some of London's poorest neighborhoods. Already, however, his writing career was manifesting itself in a serious way -- Maugham's first novel, Liza of Lambeth, was published in 1897, when he was 23, and sold well enough to allow him to give up his medical practice. His subsequent books included The Making of a Saint, The Hero, Mrs. Craddock, The Merry-Go-Round, and The Bishop's Apron. In 1903, his first play, A Man of Honour, was unsuccessful, but four years after that, he found success on the London stage with Lady Frederick. By 1908, four of his works were running concurrently in theaters in London, and that same year, two new novels, The Explorer and The Magician (the latter based on the life of Aleister Crowley), also reached print. In 1915, one of Maugham's most enduring works, the novel Of Human Bondage, was published; the book, inspired by Maugham's memories of his own anxieties as a youth, went on to be filmed three times. His burgeoning writing career was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War, and he joined the Red Cross, serving in France; it was there that he made the acquaintance of Gerald Haxton, a young San Franciscan who was assigned to the same ambulance. The two fell in love, and Haxton was later the basis for the character of Tony Paxton in Maugham's 1917 play Our Betters. In 1917, Maugham also took the first of his voyages to the Far East and the South Pacific, which began building his reputation as a travel writer and social satirist -- two of his most successful books were On a Chinese Screen (1923) and The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930), both devoted to travel.

Ironically, Maugham was so successful in hiding his relationship with Haxton and his homosexuality that, by 1917, he was serving (at the invitation of Sir John Wallinger, the head of MI6) as a secret agent on behalf of His Majesty's government, which would have prosecuted him, given half the chance. Acting as a liason between headquarters in London and agents in the field, Maugham's work took him to Geneva and later to Russia. Maugham's experiences in espionage work became the subsequent basis for his "Ashenden" stories, usually referred to under the composite title Ashenden, which became the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 thriller The Secret Agent. Meanwhile, Maugham himself was leading a fairly risky personal life -- he married Syrie Wellcome and the two had a daughter, but he devoted most of his energy to traveling with Haxton, who was deported from England in 1919, the year that Maugham published his romans à clef based on the life of artist Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence. In 1921, he published his short story Rain, part of a collection called The Trembling of a Leaf, which was so popular that it was later adapted into three feature films (and also figured peripherally in the script of one major film in 1932, Howard Hawks' Scarface). Maugham and Haxton subsequently lived together on the French Riviera, and Maugham and his wife divorced in 1928, the same year that he published Ashenden. He then purchased a villa on the Cote d'Azur, naming it Villa Mauresque, and, except for the interruption of World War II, he resided and conducted most of his personal life from that locale for the remainder of his life. His guests there included such luminaries as Garson Kanin, Winston Churchill, Ian Fleming (who later admitted that Maugham's Ashenden stories provided a partial inspiration for his own James Bond books), Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Rudyard Kipling, and Rebecca West. Following the outbreak of war in France in 1940, Maugham spent the next six years living in the United States.

Maugham's work began reaching the screen in 1915 with The Explorer, and the silent era saw such subsequent movie adaptations as Jack Straw (1920), The Ordeal (1922), East of Suez (1925), The Magician (1926), and Sadie Thompson (1928), with the first adaptation of The Letter appearing in 1929. Lewis Milestone's 1932 film Rain was the first film of Maugham's work during the sound era to endure in popularity past its initial release, and, in 1934, Of Human Bondage, starring Leslie Howard and Bette Davis, became the first film version of his novel of the same name. That movie, usually regarded as the best of the three versions, has been handed down in generally substandard editions, however, as the studio failed to preserve a negative or a fine grain 35 mm print of the film after the 1946 remake was produced. Maugham was the highest paid author in the world during the 1930s, a decade in which (though he stopped writing plays after 1933) he also enjoyed his heyday on the screen, as adaptations of his writings appeared annually. Some, such as Hitchcock's The Secret Agent, were less than satisfying (though not through any fault of Maugham's), while others, such as The Beachcomber (1938), proved inspired vehicles for their directors and casts, and one, The Letter (1940), proved a Hollywood classic. The Moon and Sixpence came to the screen in 1943 as an independent production and played a peripheral but important role in bringing future producer/director Stanley Kramer into the movie business as a filmmaker; the latter movie also marked the first of two occasions on which Herbert Marshall portrayed the author on the screen.

Maugham's work, which generally took an anti-war stance that had grown out of his experiences during the First World War, all but disappeared from films during World War II. The major exception was a genuine oddity in his output, The Hour Before the Dawn (1942), which Maugham wrote at the request of the British Ministry of Information on behalf of the current war effort and which told the interesting story of a pacifist English nobleman who marries an Austrian refugee and then discovers that she is pro-Nazi and has been spying for the Germans. He kills her and, in an effort at redemption for his errors in judgment, volunteers for commando service on the European continent. Maugham refused to allow the book to be published in England, but as the newest work of a major author, it was snapped up in America and the screen rights were purchased by Paramount Pictures. The resulting script was assigned to Paramount's top thriller director, Frank Tuttle, with Franchot Tone cast as the nobleman and Veronica Lake, the studio's most popular female lead, as the spy; the latter was a major embarrassment, as Lake proved incapable of delivering a line or a word in even a quasi-German accent without evoking laughter from audiences and critics alike. The 1944 movie, which later passed into the hands of Universal when Paramount's pre-1948 film library was sold to Universal, hasn't been shown or seen in many years, and Maugham refused to include the novel in his official cannon of works, although it bounced in and out of print at least until the end of the 1950s.

The same year that The Hour Before the Dawn appeared in theatres, Maugham published his last major novel, The Razor's Edge. A pacifist work that took place between the two World Wars, and which was partly set in Chicago (where Maugham spent a major part of his stay in America), it was a critical and popular success, and set the stage for a new wave of screen activity. The end of the war saw a new interest in Maugham's work, represented in Hollywood by a poor remake of Of Human Bondage (1946) and a dazzling, ambitious adaptation of The Razor's Edge (1946), starring Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, and Clifton Webb, with Marshall again portraying the author. British producers began availing themselves of Maugham's short works in the late 1940s with Quartet (1948), Trio (1950), and Encore (1951), all of which were popular anthology films that also included small, uncredited appearances by the author himself, and in 1950 and 1951, he appeared as the host of the television series Somerset Maugham Theater, which presented live adaptations -- made necessary as the "film" rights had already been sold -- of many of his best known works, including a version of The Moon and Sixpence starring Lee J. Cobb. Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) brought Rita Hayworth in a new adaptation of Rain, Robert Newton starred in a remake of The Beachcomber (1954), and Three Cases of Murder (1955) marked another successful anthology film based on Maugham's short works.

Although none of his novels after The Razor's Edge was commercially successful, screen adaptations of his work continued to appear intermittently during the 1960s, most notably After the Fox (1966). By that time, the author's private life was something of an open secret -- he had returned to France in 1946 and was living openly with Alan Searle (Gerald Haxton had died in New York in 1944).

Noël Coward (who had hidden his own homosexuality for decades, until the laws and social attitudes changed) dedicated his 1955 play, Point Valaine, to Maugham and used the older writer's life as the basis for a roman à clef entitled A Song at Twilight in 1966, one year after Maugham had passed away at the age of 91. Adaptations of his work continued to grace television and occasionally reach the big screen, among them the 1984 big-budget remake of The Razor's Edge starring Bill Murray. Maugham was also cited definitively as one of the major authors of the 20th century in the rush to qualify and quantify at the end of that 100-year cycle. ~ Bruce Eder, All Movie Guide
 


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William Somerset Maugham (January 25, 1874 – December 16, 1965) Well known British novelist, playwright and short-story writer, who achieved outstanding recognition as the highest paid author of the 1930s as well as his literary talent. Although his skills in handling plot-handling were compared to those of Guy de Maupassant by some critics and he was popular among many readers, Maugham’s works were not as well received by the some critics.

Maugham was born in France in 1874 as the sixth and the youngest child of an English family. His father worked as the solicitor to the British Embassy in Paris and he spoke only French till he was 11, when he was orphaned and came to England to live with his religious uncle and his family. Maugham attended King's School, Canterbury, and Heidelberg University, where he studied literature and philosophy. Later on he moved on to specialise in medicine at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, which he completed in 1897 and became a doctor. However, Maugham did not practise medicine for a long time and gave it up altogether to become a full time writer when his first novels and plays proved successful.

Maugham’s first novel Liza of Lambeth was published in 1897, which was based on Maugham’s experiences as a doctor, especially those which acquired during the days he attended women in childbirth. His first play, A Man of Honour, was produced in 1903, which was followed by his other plays, four of which were on show in London in 1904 simultaneously. Some of Maugham’s famous plays, many of which were staged both in Europe and the United States, are: The Circle (1921), Our Betters (1923) and The Constant Wife (1927).

As well as his plays, Maugham became popular as a novel writer as well, most famous of which is Of Human Bondage (1915). An autobiographical book loosely based on his own life story, it tells the story of club-footed Philip Carey. Philip, having lost his parents at an early age and is brought up by his aunt and uncle and becomes a doctor like Maugham himself. Of Human Bondage was the book which established him as a well known author and to this day has been considered his most successful work.

In 1917, Maugham married his mistress Maud Gwendolen Syrie Barnardo, who was a famous interior decorator who became well known especially for her trademark all-white rooms in the 1920s. Also in 1917, during the Russian Revolution, Maugham was sent to Russia as an agent of the British Intelligence, MI6. It was during this time that he met Gerald Haxton, who subsequently became his partner until Haxton’s death in 1944 (after which Maugham lived with Alan Searle). He visited Russia, appearing to be a reporter however due to his stuttering and health problems, he had to give up his career as an agent.

Owing to the popularity of his books and plays along with several film adaptations and the profit he obtained from these, Maugham was able to lead a financially carefree life. He travelled across Asia, the Pacific Islands and Mexico mostly with Haxton till 1926, when he settled in French Riviera and spent most of his days there. Unsurprisingly, Maugham’s stormy marriage to Syrie ended in 1928, due to Maugham's homosexuality and on going relationship with Haxton. They had one daughter, Elizabeth Mary Maugham (a.k.a. Liza), from this marriage.

The most popular short stories such as ‘Rain’ and ‘The Letter’ and novels of Maugham take place abroad, concentrating mostly on the the life lead in the the Far East by British colonists and the negative effects of their isolation on their psychology. Maugham achieved to display their emotional tribulations effectively while avoiding being melodramatic owing to his clear, restrained prose.

The Moon and Sixpence (1919) retells the story of famous French painter Paul Gauguin;

Ashenden: Or, the British Agent (1928) was heavily based on Maugham’s experiences as a spy in Russia during the World War I and it inspired some of the eminent authors of this genre such as Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré.

The Summing Up(1938) is a collection of his literary experiences and has been used as a guidebook for creative writing.

The Razor’s Edge(1944) is the story of a young American who strives for spiritual fulfillment.

In his later years, Maugham mostly dedicated himself to writing of essays which were collected in The Art of Fiction: An Introduction to Ten Novels and Their Authors (1955).

One of Maugham’s important contributions to the literary world is surely the Somerset Maugham Award, which he personally started in 1947. The award, which is still given, aims to acknowledge and celebrate the success of the best British writer or writers under the age of thirty-five who published a work of fiction during the previous year. Some of the famous names who notably have won this award are Kingsley Amis and Thom Gunn.

Maugham enjoyed greater popularity abroad than in England after 1930s. During his 80th birthday, there was a revival in his popularity and his Cakes and Ale (1930), a satirical novel giving a glimpse into London literary circles, was re-published.

Somerset Maugham died in Nice, France on December 16, 1965.
 


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British novelist, playwright, short-story writer, highest paid author in the world in the 1930s. In spite of his popularity and international fame, Maugham did not receive critical attention for his fiction in Britain. Expressing his frustration with the situation Maugham wrote in his autobiography THE SUMMING UP (1938), that he stood "in the very first row of the second-raters". Maugham's skill in handling plot has been compared with the manner of Guy de Maupassant. His stories are told in clear, economical style with cynical or resigned undertone.

"I have never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many. It is a misfortune for me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favor with the intelligentsia. In endeavour to bear my misfortunes with fortitude." (from Creatures of Circumstance, 1947)

William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris, the sixth and youngest son of the solicitor to the British embassy. Maugham learned French as his native tongue. At the age of 10, Maugham was orphaned and sent to England to live with his uncle, the Reverend Henry MacDonald Maugham. Educated at King's School, Canterbury, and Heidelberg University, Maugham then studied six years medicine in London. He qualified in 1897 as doctor from St. Thomas' medical school, but abandoned medicine after the success of his first novels and plays.

Maugham lived in Paris for ten years as a struggling young author. In 1897 appeared his first novel, LIZA OF LAMBETH, which drew on his experiences of attending women in childbirth. Maugham named his daughter and only child, Elizabeth 'Liza' Mary Maugham, after the title character. His first play, A MAN OF HONOUR, was produced in 1903. Four of his dramas ran simultaneously in London in 1904. Maugham's breakthrough novel was the semi-autobiographical OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1915), which is usually considered his outstanding achievement. The story follows the childhood, youth, and early manhood of Philip Carey, who is born with a clubfoot. Philip never knew his father and his mother only for a brief space. He is raised by a religious aunt and uncle, but the real process of his education, after the end of an unsatisfactory social life, begins in Heidelberg. Philip goes to Paris to study art, and at the age of thirty he qualifies as a doctor. Finally he marries Sally Athelny, a normal, healthy, happy girl.

Disguising himself as a reporter, Maugham served as an espionage agent for British Secret Intelligence Service in Russia in 1916-17, but his stuttering and poor health hindered his career in this field. He then set off with a friend on a series of travels to eastern Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Mexico. In many novels the surroundings also are international. Maugham's most famous story, which became the play RAIN and was made into several movies, was inspired by a missionary and prostitute among his fellow passengers on a trip to Pago Pago.

THE MOON AND THE SIXPENCE (1919) was the story of Charles Strickland (or actually Paul Gauguin), an artist, whose rejection of Western civilization led to his departure for Tahiti. There he is blinded by leprosy but still continues painting. Maugham reused elements of his Pacific diaries in TREMBLING OF A LEAF (1921), which included the story 'Rain,' adapted to the stage by John Colton and Clemence Randolph in 1922.

In 1928 Maugham settled in Cape Ferrat in France. His plays, including THE CIRCLE (1921), a satire of social life, OUR BETTERS (1923), about Americans in Europe, and THE CONSTANT WIFE (1927), about a wife who takes revenge on her unfaithful husband, were performed in Europe and in the United States. During World War II Maugham lived in Hollywood, where he worked on the screen adaptation of his novel RAZORS EDGE (1944). "This book consists of my recollections of a man with whom I was thrown into close contact only at long intervals, and I have little knowledge of what happened to him in between," Maugham said in the beginning of the story. "I have invented nothing." Maugham tells of a young American veteran who moves through superbly described settings: Italy, London, the Riviera, Montparnasse. He seeks in the end relief in India from the horrors of war and gains a sense of being at one with the Absolute, through the Indian philosophical system known as Vedanta. Maugham himself had in 1938 visited India, where fainted in an ashram, and met a holy man named Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi.

As an agent and writer Maugham was a link in the long tradition from Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and Daniel Defoe to the modern day writers Graham Greene, John Le Carré, John Dickson Carr, Alec Waugh and Ted Allbeury, who all have worked for the secret service. It is said that the modern spy story began with Maugham's ASHENDEN: OR THE BRITISH AGENT (1928), a collection of six short stories set in Switzerland, France, Russia, and Italy. It was partly based on the author's own experiences. The protagonist, Ashenden, appeared also in CAKES AND ALE (1930) and The Moon and the Sixpence. Alfred Hitchcock used in Secret Agent (1936) specifically the stories 'The Traitor' and 'The Hairless Mexican'. In the film, set in Switzerland, an agents kill a wrong man and then goes after the right one. A chocolate factory is used by the crooks' as a headquarters.

Maugham believed that there is a true harmony in the contradictions of mankind and that the normal is in reality the abnormal. "The ordinary is the writer's richest field," he stated in THE SUMMING UP (1938), which also has been used as a guidebook for creative writing. In the satirical short story 'The Ant and the Grasshopper' Maigham juxtaposed two brothers, the unscrupulous and carefree Tom and the hardworking, respectable George, who expects that Tom would end in the gutter. However, Tom marries a rich old woman, she dies and leaves him a fortune. "I burst into a shout of laughter as I looked at George's wrathful face. I rolled in my chair, I very nearly fell in the floor. George never forgave me. But Tom often asks me to excellent dinners in his charming house in Mayfair, and he occasionally borrows a trifle from me, that is merely from force of habit."

Although Maugham became world famous he was never knighted. His relationship with Gerald Haxton (1892-1944), his secretary and companion, prompted speculations. While in Capri, Maugham enjoyed the company of the homosexual and lesbian colony there. With the homosexual esthete John Ellingham Brooks and Edward Frederic Benson he purchased shares of the Villa Cercole. Maugham's closest woman friend was Barbara Nash Back, the wife of Dr. Ivor Back, who was left penniless in 1951 after the death of her husband. Maugham died in Nice on December 16, 1965. It is said that as he lay dying he asked Sir Alfred Ayer visit him and reassure him that there was no life after death. Maugham was married to Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, an interior decorator; they were divorced in 1927-8. Maugham's efforts to disgrace his wife in LOOKING BACK (1962) caused a deep rift between the author and his daughter Liza.

A number of Maugham's short stories have been filmed. Quartet (1948) consists of four stories introduced by the author - 'The Facts of Life', 'The Alien Corn', 'The Kite', and 'The Colonel's Lady.' In 'The Kite' the protagonist, Herbert, starts to fly kites with his parents in childhood. After marriage Herbert continues his hobby, although his wife Betty considers it childish. When Herbert wants to buy a new kite, Betty packs his bag and Herbert returns to his parents' house; Betty smashes the kite. The magistrate orders him to pay Betty alimony, twenty-five shillings a week, but Herbert refuses to obey the order and chooses the prison. "It may be that in some queer way he identifies himself with the kite flying so free and so high above him, and it's as it were an escape from the monotony of life. It may be that in some dim, confused way it represents an ideal of freedom and adventure, And you know, when a man once gets bitten with the virus of the ideal not all the King's doctors and not all the King's surgeons can rid him of it."

After the 1930s Maugham's reputation abroad was greater than in England. Maugham once said, "Most people cannot see anything, but I can se what is in front of my nose with extreme clearness; the greatest writers can see through a brick wall. My vision is not so penetrating."

Interest in Maugham revived again in his 80th birthday, which he celebrated by the special republication of Cakes and Ale, a novel satirizing London literary circles and 'Grand Old Men'. Maugham portrayed himself as Ashenden, Thomas Hardy was Driffield, and Hugh Walpole was Kear. Barbara Belford listed in Violet: The Story of the Irrepressible Violet Hunt and Her Circle of Lovers and Friends (1990) Maugham among the lovers of Violet Hunt, along with such names as H. G. Wells and Ford Madox Ford. The novelist Hugh Walpole portrayed Maugham as the arrogant pessimist in John Cornelius (1937), he appeared as John-Blair-Kennedy in Noel Coward's South Sea Bubble (1956), Leverson Hurle in Gin and Bitters by A Riposte, the homosexual novelist in Noel Coward's Point Valaine (1935), Kenneth Marchal Toomey in Anthony Burgess Earthly Powers (1980), Willie Tower in S.N. Behrman's Jane (1946), and Gilbert Hereford Vaughn in Ada Leverson's The Limit (1911). Maugham collected his literary experiences in The Summing Up, which has been used as a guidebook for creative writing.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008