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
travelling 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 honour 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.
FOR FURTHER READING
Holden, Philip. 1996. Orienting Masculinity, Orienting Nation: W. Somerset Maugham's Exotic Fiction (Greenwood).
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).