William Somerset Maugham was born in the British Embassy in Paris on 25th January, 1874. William's father, Robert Ormond Maugham, a wealthy solicitor, worked for the Embassy in France. Maugham's mother died of tuberculosis when he was seven and his father of cancer three years later.
Maugham later wrote in Summing Up (1938): "My parents died when I was so young, my mother when I was eight, my father when I was ten, that I know little of them but from hearsay...He was forty when he married my mother, who was more than twenty years younger. She was a very beautiful woman and he was a very ugly man. I have been told that they were known in the Paris of that day as Beauty and the Beast.... I have a little photograph of her, a middle-aged woman in a crinoline with fine eyes and a look of good-humoured determination. My mother was very small, with large brown eyes and hair of a rich reddish gold, exquisite features, and a lovely skin." Lady Anglesey told Maugham that she had once said to his mother: "You're so beautiful and there are so many people in love with you, why are you faithful to that ugly little man you've married?" His mother answered: "He never hurts my feelings."
After the death of his parents he was sent to live with his uncle, the Rev. Henry Maugham, in Whitstable, Kent. His biographer, Bryan Connon, has pointed out: "French was Maugham's first language and when he attended King's School, Canterbury, he was taunted for his inadequate English and as a result developed a defensive speech hesitancy which never entirely left him and intensified in times of stress. He moved to Heidelberg when he was sixteen to learn German and came under the influence of John Ellingham Brooks, who seduced him. Ten years his senior and an ostentatious homosexual, Brooks encouraged his ambitions to be a writer and introduced him to the works of Schopenhauer and Spinoza. Maugham returned to England when he was eighteen and, instead of becoming an accountant or a parson as his uncle proposed, enrolled as a student at St Thomas's Hospital, London, where he believed he would have personal freedom and the time to write."
While training to be a doctor Maugham worked as an obstetric clerk in the slums of Lambeth. He used these experiences to help him write his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897). The book created a great deal of controversy as it dealt with Liza, a fun-loving factory worker, and her affair with Jim, a married man. The Daily Mail complained about one scene that involved a street fight between the pregnant Liza and Jim's wife which leads to Liza's miscarriage and death. One reviewer claimed Maugham had "imitated" a story by Arthur Morrison called by Liza Hunt of Bow that appeared in Tales of Mean Streets (1894). The critic claimed "the mimicry, indeed, is deliberate and unashamed". The book sold well and he decided to abandon medicine and become a full-time writer.
Maugham achieved fame with his play Lady Frederick (1907), a comedy about money and marriage. By 1908 Maugham had four plays running simultaneously in London. A cartoon by Bernard Partridge in Punch (24th June 1908) showed a worried Shakespeare in front of the playbills. Bryan Connon, the author of Somerset Maugham and the Maugham Dynasty (1997), pointed out: "Maugham's success was repeated in New York, and he celebrated his good fortune by moving into a lavishly appointed house in Mayfair, London, with Walter Payne. As well-to-do bachelors, both men were socially popular. Contemporary photographs show Maugham, a small man, to be good looking, sexy, and fashion-conscious. His dandyism was captured by Sir Gerald Kelly in a full-length portrait of 1911".
In 1914 Maugham met the 22 year old American, Gerald Haxton, in London. The two men became lovers. On the outbreak of the First World War, Maugham, now aged forty, and Haxton, joined a Red Cross ambulance unit in France. In 1915 they parted when Haxton joined the American Army. Maugham went to live in New York City and in 1915 he published his most famous novel, Of Human Bondage.
Maugham had sexual relationships with both men and women and in 1915, Syrie Wellcome, the daughter of Dr. Thomas Barnardo, gave birth to his child. Her husband, Henry Wellcome, cited Maugham as co-respondent in divorce proceedings. After the divorce in 1916, Maugham married Syrie. The marriage was unhappy and after they divorced he denied that Liza was his natural daughter.
In 1916 Maugham was invited by Sir John Wallinger, head of Britain's Military Intelligence (MI6) to act as a secret service agent. Maugham agreed and acted as a link between MI6 in London and its agents working in Europe. The following year he became involved in events in Russia.
When the Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on 13th March, a Provisional Government, headed by Prince George Lvov, was formed. On 5th May, Pavel Milyukov and Alexander Guchkov, the two most conservative members of the Provisional Government, were forced to resign. Guchkov was now replaced as Minister of War by Alexander Kerensky. He toured the Eastern Front where he made a series of emotional speeches where he appealed to the troops to continue fighting. Kerensky argued that: "There is no Russian front. There is only one united Allied front." Kerensky now appointed General Alexei Brusilov as the Commander in Chief of the Russian Army. On 18th June, Kerensky announced a new war offensive.
The Provisional Government made no real attempt to seek an armistice with the Central Powers. Lvov's unwillingness to withdraw Russia from the First World War made him unpopular with the people and on 8th July, 1917, he resigned and was replaced by Kerensky. Ariadna Tyrkova, a member of the Constitutional Democrat Party, commented: "Kerensky was perhaps the only member of the Government who knew how to deal with the masses, since he instinctively understood the psychology of the mob. Therein lay his power and the main source of his popularity in the streets, in the Soviet, and in the Government."
The British ambassador, George Buchanan welcomed the appointment and reported back to London: "From the very first Kerensky had been the central figure of the revolutionary drama and had, alone among his colleagues, acquired a sensible hold on the masses. An ardent patriot, he desired to see Russia carry on the war till a democratic peace had been won; while he wanted to combat the forces of disorder so that his country should not fall a prey to anarchy. In the early stages of the revolution he displayed an energy and courage which marked him out as the one man capable of securing the attainment of these ends."
Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the head of MI6, decided that the British government should do everything possible to keep Kerensky in power. He contacted William Wiseman, their man in New York City and supplied Wiseman with $75,000 (approximately $1.2 million in modern prices) for Kerensky's Provisional Government. A similar sum was received from the Americans. Wiseman now approached Somerset Maugham (to whom he was related by marriage) in June 1917, to go to Russia. Maugham was "staggered" by the proposition: "The long and short of it was that I should go to Russia and keep the Russians in the war."
Maugham, who could speak Russian, was asked by Wiseman to "guide the storm". Maugham told Wiseman: "I was staggered by the proposition. I told Wiseman that I did not think I was competent to do that sort of thing that was expected of me." He asked for forty-eight hours to think it over. He was in the early stages of tuberculosis, had a high fever and was coughing up blood. Maugham later wrote: "An X-ray photograph showed clearly that I had tuberculosis of the lungs. But I could not miss the opportunity of spending certainly a considerable time in the country of Tolstoi, Dostoyevski, and Chekov; I had a notion that in the intervals of the work I was being sent to do I could get something for myself that would be of value; so I set my foot hard on the loud pedal of patriotism and persuaded the physician I consulted that under the tragic circumstances of the moment I was taking no undue risk."
Maugham was supplied with $21,000 (worth approximately $350,000 today) for expenses and travelling from the west coast of the United States, through Japan and Vladivostok, Maugham reached Petrograd in early September 1917. With him went a group of four Czechoslovak refugees headed by Emanuel Voska, Director of the Slav Press Bureau in New York City. Maugham described Voska as the perfect spy: "Ruthless, wise, prudent and absolutely indifferent to the means by which he reached his ends... There was something terrifying about him... he was capable of killing a fellow creature without a trace of ill-feeling." Voska made contact with Tomáš Masaryk in the hope of mobilizing Czech and Slovak elements in Russia to work for the Allied cause. Maugham was impressed by his "good sense and determination" and helped set up a press bureau to disseminate anti-German propaganda.
While in Petrograd Maugham met a former mistress, Sasha Kropotkin, the daughter of Peter Kropotkin, who had a good relationship with Alexander Kerensky and the Provisional Government. Maugham entertained Kerensky or his ministers once a week at the Medvied, the best restaurant in Petrograd, paying for the finest vodka and caviar from the funds supplied by Wiseman. Maugham later recalled "I think Kerensky must have supposed that I was more important than I really was for he came to Sasha's apartment on several occasions and, walking up and down the room, harangued me as though I were at a public meeting for two hours at a time".
Maugham also met Boris Savinkov, a member of the government and a former terrorist. Maugham described Savinkov as "the most remarkable man I met." He found it difficult to believe that Savinkov had been personally responsible for the assassination of a number of senior imperial officials in the years before the war. Maugham wrote, he had the prosperous look of a lawyer." Savinkov believed that if the Bolsheviks gained power they would "annihilate" opposition leaders. Savinkov therefore wanted the government to arrest Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks: "Either Lenin will stand me up in front of a wall and shoot me or I shall stand him in front of a wall and shoot him."
Somerset Maugham worked closely with Major Stephen Alley, the MI1(c) station chief in Petrograd. On 16th October Maugham telegraphed Wiseman recommending a programme of propaganda and covert action. He said that Voska and Masaryk could both conduct "legitimate propaganda" and act as a cover for "other activities" in support of the Mensheviks and against the Bolsheviks. He also proposed setting up a "special secret organisations" recruited from Poles, Czechs and Cossacks with the main aim of "unmasking... German plots and propaganda in Russia".
On 31st October 1917 Maugham was summoned by Kerensky and asked to take an urgent secret message to David Lloyd George appealing for guns and amununition. Without that help, said Kerensky, "I don't see how we can go on. Of course, I don't say that to the people. I always say that to the people. I always say that we shall continue whatever happens, but unless I have something to tell my army it's impossible". Maugham was unimpressed by Kerensky: "His personality had no magnetism. He gave no feeling of intellectual or of physical vigour."
Maugham left the same evening for Oslo to board a British destroyer which, after a stormy passage across the North Sea, landed him in the north of Scotland. Next morning he saw Lloyd George at 10 Downing Street. After the agent told the Prime Minister what Kerensky wanted, he replied: "I can't do that. I'm afraid I must bring this conversation to an end. I have a cabinet meeting I must go to." On 7th November, 1917, Kerensky was overthrown by the Bolshevik Revolution. Maugham later recalled: "Perhaps if I had been sent to Russia six months sooner... I might have been able to do something."
After the First World War Maugham returned to writing. Another successful book, The Moon and Sixpence, was published in 1919. Maugham also developed a reputation as a fine short-story writer, one story, Rain, which appeared in The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), was also turned into a successful feature film. Popular plays written by Maugham include The Circle (1921), East of Suez (1922), The Constant Wife (1926) and the anti-war play, For Services Rendered (1932).
William Somerset Maugham died in Nice on 15th December 1965.