The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings, Review

A new biography of famed British author Somerset Maugham explores his complicated love life and defends his literary genius. Brad Gooch salutes a life given meaning.

Alfred Eisenstaedt, Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Somerset Maugham begins his novel Cakes and Ale with one of the more suave, and lethal, openings in modern lit: “I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, and it’s important, the matter is more often important to him than to you…. So when I got back to my lodgings with just enough time to have a drink, a cigarette, and to read my paper before dressing for dinner, and was told by Miss Fellows, my landlady, that Mr. Alroy Kear wished me to ring him up at once, I felt that I could safely ignore his request.” Bait set; trap sprung; a dry Gibson gin martini served straight-up.

Maugham and Haxton, an American Red Cross volunteer, had a drunken talk where the handsome youth, nearly 20 years his junior, blurted that what he wanted from life was “fun and games…someone to look after me and give me clothes and parties.” He got his wish.

A strong quality of such a Maugham paragraph is that you can’t read just one. Maugham, who preferred the job description “story-teller,” could be as withering about his own talents as about the foibles of others: “I know just where I stand, in the very front row of the second rate.” Yet many of these “second rate” works have proved more durable than those of literary lights of his day (Galsworthy, Bennett), in part because of the guilty pleasure of cozying up to a hologram of Maugham: “Willie” Ashenden, narrator of Cakes and Ale, in those few lines evokes the author we carry in our heads: a bespoke gentleman in 1930s literary London, playing bridge at the Garrick Club, lounging at home in his silk dressing-gown, and not suffering fools lightly (Hugh Walpole being the object of satire in Cakes.)

The frisson between art and his outsized reputation was a mega-force during Maugham’s lifetime. “It is very difficult for a writer of my generation, if he is honest, to pretend indifference to the work of Somerset Maugham,” wrote Gore Vidal. “'He was always so entirely there.” He was surely the most successful writer of his day, producing 78 books, including the classics Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence; four collections of travel essays; the 31 plays that earned him the label “England’s Dramatist;” another Guinness record—most works (98) adapted for film and TV, all while ensconced in the Villa Mauresque on the Riviera, a coveted summer invite. Yet behind the bling was ever a hint of more: more of the dark we feel in the chilling love of club-footed Philip for the cruel waitress in Of Human Bondage; more of the light of the man who mused, on Capri, “What is the meaning of life?”

Selina Hastings, in her often breathtaking new biography, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, proves that there was indeed more—much more. Maugham was paranoid of biographers, and spent many evenings in later life systematically shredding and burning private papers, while imploring friends to do likewise, a request that Hastings wryly points out had just the opposite effect, and “ensured not only that they were kept but that most were sold for very large sums to American universities.” Benefiting from a recent tectonic shift in policy by the Maugham estate in London, Hastings was the first to be given access to this correspondence, and to a frank transcript of Maugham’s daughter Liza spilling the inside story of her father’s domestic life. Not surprisingly, the biographer discovered that the secrets “so important to keep concealed…were to do with his homosexuality.”

Maugham once claimed that he was three-quarters “normal” and a quarter “queer.” While he may have gotten got his percentages backward, he was indeed a bisexual closet-case, though never enjoying what he called “the bliss of requited love” from either side of the equation. His proposal of marriage was turned down by the actress Sue Jones—model for the earthy Rosie in Cakes and Ale. Instead, he married Syrie Wellcome, separated from the American pharmaceutical mogul, after she bore Maugham’s daughter; the couple’s pressured wedding, in 1917, led to what Hastings describes as “the longest, most miserable, and most bitterly destructive relationship of his life.” An interior decorator, famous for her self-explanatory “white rooms,” Syrie knew how to push Maugham’s buttons. He claimed the unforgivable crime was her sale of his writing desk to a client. They finally divorced in 1929.

Yet the source of most of the rows between Syrie and Willie wasn’t furniture, but rather Gerald Haxton—the template for Maugham’s taste in not-so-nice young men, beginning as infatuation and winding up as “secretary.” On the night the two met in France during World War I, Maugham, an ambulance driver, and Haxton, an American Red Cross volunteer, had a drunken talk where the handsome youth, nearly 20 years his junior, blurted that what he wanted from life was “fun and games…someone to look after me and give me clothes and parties.” He got his wish. Maugham took Haxton on all his trips to the South Seas, Borneo, China, and Japan, the trade-off being that Haxton would charm stories from passengers that Maugham was too shy to elicit because of his stutter. Their dynamic did pop a few eyes at Villa Mauresque as guests watched “Master Hacky,” as Maugham dubbed him, petulantly demanding a cocktail and “the aging genius” dutifully complying. “Yet what such onlookers failed to grasp,” writes Hastings, “was the complicity…of the sexual power games.” When Haxton, the perennial bad-boy, died of tuberculosis, 30 years later, Maugham’s output steeply declined.

Maugham’s seductive tales were often read by his contemporaries framed in their notion of the author’s life. This was a game two could play—in his 1944 novel, The Razor’s Edge, he simply made his narrator “Maugham,” writing from Cap Ferrat. By adding dimension to the actual life of Maugham, Selina Hastings pushes the refresh button on the fiction, too, making it all updated and new. With her biography in our left hand, the character of Elliott Templeton in Razor’s Edge registers so clearly as a high-society queen, in the style, say, of Nancy Reagan’s friend Jerry Zipkin, a frequent visitor to Villa Mauresque. But, so too does Maugham’s fuzzy alter-ego in that novel, Larry Darrell, who disappears to India in search of wisdom, in what Pico Iyer in the introduction to The Skeptical Romancer—a volume of Maugham’s travel writings—calls “the first hippie novel.” Maugham once confided to Christopher Isherwood his unrealized wish, when he turned seventy, to return to India and study Shankara. The pang of the author Hastings informs us read pages of philosophy each morning—eager for meaning—is now more palpable at novel’s end when, of all his characters, only the elusive Larry finds “happiness.”

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Brad Gooch is a professor of english at William Paterson University in New Jersey. His latest book is Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor.