Back when Hitler was freshly dead and Britain still had a few shards of empire, the world's best-known author was an Englishman with the laughable name of W. Somerset Maugham. He'd been a professional writer since he was 22, meaning that for half a century he'd been turning out novels, plays, essays and tons of short stories. In his 30s he had four plays running in London, and at 70 he published a novel (The Razor's Edge) that in a single year earned him the equivalent of $6.6 million in today's dollars. In between he'd been doing just fine.
Maugham owned a villa in the South of France, he bought Renoirs for decoration, and he chummed about with great names like Winston Churchill. One time the ancient Maugham visited the ancient Churchill for lunch at Hotel de Paris, a luxurious establishment in Monte Carlo. On the way home after the meal, Maugham turned to his secretary. “I didn't enjoy it at all,” Maugham said. He was that kind of fellow, a charmer. The fine biography Maugham by Ted Morgan has this subhead in its index: “Maugham, W. Somerset (William), bitterness and vindictiveness of.” A dozen entries follow.
The biography contains much worse. When Maugham was 50 he rented a boy while visiting Mexico City, “a thin, large-eyed child who said he was fourteen.” The boy “undressed in Maugham's hotel bedroom, knelt to say his prayers, and crossed himself before getting into bed.” When Maugham was 69, he had an affair with another teenager. At least this fellow was 17 and the sex part was his idea, not Maugham's. The boy, an American, wrote a fan letter and showed up at the Ritz-Carlton, where Maugham was staying. The rest was history, though the only records they set had to do with age difference. “He wasn't particularly virile,” the younger man recalled, “but he was full of lust.” Maugham paid for the boy's education at Harvard.
Maugham was never good-looking, and as he lived on he became increasingly pinched and odd in appearance. An artist who painted Maugham when young responded rather cattily to another artist's portrait of Maugham as grand old man, or desiccated old thing: “To think that I have known Willie since 1902 and have only just recognized that, disguised as an old Chinese Madam, he kept a brothel in Shanghai.” Maugham's biographer describes the portrait this way: “His chin was raised with the defensiveness of someone about to be struck, and the downward-turning mouth conveyed resignation to a lifetime of pain and disappointment. The hooded eyes were the lenses of the inscrutable observer, the aloof and sardonic recorder of human frailty.”
Maugham had been orphaned at age 10, at which point he was shipped from France (where he'd born in the British embassy) to go live with his uncle, a vicar in the English boondocks. His uncle bullied and starved him except when the boy was at boarding school, where he was bullied by the other students and beaten and starved by the adults in charge. At some point after his parents' death he developed a stutter. His schoolmates seized on this with great pleasure. Maugham would never speak normally again; the stutter lasted his entire life.
Close to age 40, when he was famous for amusing theater audiences with smart dialogue, he sat down to write a massive novel called Of Human Bondage. It traced the boyhood, youth and young adulthood of the sensitive and neglected Philip Carey, an unfortunate soul who passed through pretty much the same ordeals as the young Maugham. Instead of a stutter he had a clubfoot, but his fictional classmates still enjoyed themselves, as in: “Then one of them had the brilliant idea of imitating Philip's clumsy run. Others saw it and began to laugh; then they all copied the first; and they ran round Philip, limping grotesquely, screaming in their treble voices with shrill laughter.”
Of Human Bondage slowly gathered a readership until it became Maugham's best-known work, which it still is. It's a story of misery: childhood misery and the misery later on of loving a nasty, uncaring bitch. In the book this bitch is a waitress “with narrow hips and the chest of a boy.” In real life she may have been a boy plain and simple, though Maugham's biographer isn't sure. Maugham did find (and divorce) a wife, but he was a good deal more interested in men than women. It was a preference that he never acknowledged in print. After Maugham died, his friend Noel Coward wrote a play about a Maugham duplicate whose hetero-seeming autobiography is described as literature's “most superlative example of sustained camouflage.” The point of the play, in modern terms, is that Maugham crippled himself by living in the closet.
He stuttered, he was in the closet, he was an orphan, he was miserable. His older brother was hetero, clear-spoken and popular, a hero at school and university who was always mobbed by friends and who collected prizes for sports and academics. Yet the older brother was at least as nasty and despondent as the younger. He became one of Britain's most successful lawyers and was raised to the House of Lords, but he still rattled his morning newspaper with suppressed rage as he considered the shortcomings of his colleagues, wife, daughters and son—of everyone on the planet except Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister who made him a peer.
“You know, he was a perfectly odious man,” Somerset Maugham remarked of his brother. He made the comment to his brother's son, who agreed enough to set down the remark in a memoir that recaps life with both men. The book contains a beautiful moment when the elder Maugham was writing his autobiography. Oddly, the manuscript had become a prolonged rehash of military history. Little space was left over for his family—in fact, he decided, just four lines. That was four lines too many for him to bother with. He called his son to the study and told him to write the bit instead.
Perhaps the two Maughams were born that way, designed to be jerks no matter what. It's certain that they grew no better as they became older. Somerset Maugham must be one of the few men to have snubbed his own grandson. At 16 the boy failed to wear a dinner jacket when dining at the villa. Six years later he crossed paths with his grandfather at a party in London. “Hello, grandpa, it's nice to see you,” the boy said. Maugham turned away. “Who is that young man?” he asked.
By now Maugham was entering decrepitude. He disgraced himself by writing a memoir in which he abused his late wife, and he made himself a laughingstock by adopting his secretary, a man of 58. This last was an attempt to keep Maugham's daughter from putting him away for senility. She was not necessarily planning to do so, though. He sold his art collection largely to spite her. At any rate, his mind did finally dissolve. “He would sit in a corner muttering angrily to himself,” writes Maugham's biographer, “and a stream of obscenities would pour from his lips. Then he would break down and sob and say that he was a horrible and evil man and that everyone who had got to know him had ended up hating him.”
He died at 91. Maugham had lived from the Victorian Age to that of the Beatles, and he had written books that pleased millions and are still in print. The world took notice of his passing. Whether anyone regretted it has not been recorded.