Who was W. Somerset Maugham?
January 27, 2005
Although William Somerset Maugham rarely spoke publicly about his sexuality, he has been embraced as one of the most renowned gay or bisexual authors of all time. "I was a quarter normal and three-quarters queer, but I tried to persuade myself it was the other way round," he once said. "That was my greatest mistake."
William Somerset Maugham
Maugham was born in Paris on January 25, 1874, the youngest son of a British embassy official. His mother died when he was eight, followed by his father two years later. The young boy was then sent to live with his uncle, a vicar in Kent, England. Afflicted with a severe stutter, Maugham was taunted by his schoolmates and withdrew into the world of books.
After studying briefly at Heidelberg University – where he had his first homosexual experience – Maugham completed medical school and did an internship as an assistant obstetrician in London's East End slums, an experience that provided the material for his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897). The success of that work convinced him to abandon medicine and pursue his longtime dream of becoming a professional writer.
Maugham embarked on what would become a lifetime of travel, first around Europe and later to the Pacific islands and the Far East. After struggling for several years writing books and plays that failed to garner much interest, he finally achieved success with his 1907 stage comedy, Lady Frederick. By the following year, four of his works were being performed simultaneously on London stages.
In 1914, at the dawn of World War I, Maugham – then age 40 – volunteered as an ambulance corpsman. While working in Flanders, he began a relationship with a colleague, Gerald Haxton, a handsome American nearly 20 years his junior. Around the same time, Maugham commenced an affair with Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, a well-known interior designer and wife of pharmaceutical magnate Sir Henry Wellcome. Syrie gave birth to Maugham's daughter in 1915, and soon thereafter her husband divorced her and she married Maugham. Not long after that - despite his lack of familiarity with the country and his minimal fluency with its language - Maugham was recruited to work as an espionage agent for the British intelligence service, posing as a reporter. He was dispatched to Russia to try to keep the country engaged in the war against Germany and to help stave off the Bolshevik revolution.
Maugham's marriage – which biographer Jeffrey Meyers contends was an attempt to combat his homosexual desires – was a stormy one, and he spent much of his time traveling the world and living in the United States with Haxton, who had been deported from England in 1919 as an undesirable alien and a security risk, in part due to his indiscreet homosexual liaisons. By the late 1920s, Syrie could no longer tolerate Maugham's trysts with men, and the couple divorced. Maugham left England under a cloud of scandal, and bought a villa on the French Riviera where he and Haxton could live together. During World War II, however, the Nazi invasion forced the men to flee France; Maugham spent the war years first in South Carolina and then in Hollywood.
Maintaining the habit of writing for several hours each morning, Maugham produced some 30 plays, nearly two dozen novels, and more than 100 magazine articles. With his cynical wit and straightforward style, he was more popular among the middle-brow masses than the intelligentsia, and he always felt like an outsider to the literary establishment. Although Maugham's highly acclaimed works – including Of Human Bondage (1915), The Constant Wife (1927), and The Razor's Edge (1944) – made him the most famous and wealthiest author of his day, he never received the honor of knighthood.
After World War II, Maugham returned to his lavish life in the south of France, but without Haxton, who had died of alcoholism in New York in 1944. Along with his writing, Maugham spent his time traveling, collecting art, and holding court for celebrities and royalty. Among his guests were queer literary lights such as Noel Coward, T.S. Eliot, Christopher Isherwood, Virginia Woolf, and Edna St. Vincent Millay (who once reportedly praised the opulent surroundings with the exclamation, "Oh Mr. Maugham, it's fairy land here!"). At age 72, Maugham acquired a new secretary-boyfriend, 41-year-old Alan Searle, but this did not put a damper on his varied sexual liaisons, which included sailors from nearby port towns. Maugham's "happiest sexual encounters," he once confided to a friend, had been with "anonymous boys in far-off lands."
Maugham did not feature prominent gay or lesbian characters in his works, although he did occasionally include ambiguously queer minor figures. He remained publicly circumspect about his sexuality throughout his life, no doubt having felt the chilling influence of the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde for "gross indecency" in 1895. Maugham believed that "the homosexual has a narrower outlook on the world than the normal man," and maintained that, "the homosexual can never reach the supreme heights of genius." Although he lived openly with male companions – a lifestyle that could hardly go unnoticed due to his fame – he burned his unpublished manuscripts before his death in 1965, and asked friends to destroy any correspondence he had sent them.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.
Holden, Philip. 1996. Orienting Masculinity, Orienting Nation: W. Somerset Maugham's Exotic Fiction
Maugham, Somerset (edited by Jeffrey Meyers). 2004. The W. Somerset Maugham Reader: Novels, Stories, Travel Writing (Taylor).
Meyers, Jeffrey. 2004. Somerset Maugham: A Life (Knopf).
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