Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham

Maugham by Carl Van Vechten, 1934

‘I bought it cheap because it was so ugly … there was nothing to do but to pull it down and build another in its place’.
So wrote Somerset Maugham in his memoire Strictly Personal.

Cap Ferrat is one of the pearls of the Riviera, its rocky peninsula thrusting itself into the sea between Nice and Monaco – more precisely between the smaller towns of Villefranche and Beaulieu. Originally an ancient hamlet considered part of Villefranche, in 1904 it became an independent district. In spite of its rocky contours it has a verdant beauty dotted with cypresses and umbrella pines and embracing the sea. It was here, in 1927, that Somerset Maugham bought 40,000 square metres of land in the Sémaphore, or lighthouse, area of the Cap and it was here he remodelled the existing house. In the manner of a game of Whispers, many biographers have attributed the work to Henri Delmotte, a Niçoise architect, but the detailed records of François Fray of the Patrimoine de France make it quite clear that it was the American Barry Dierks who was responsible. Delmotte would, in fact, do restoration work on the house after damage inflicted by various troops during World War II.

By 1927 Maugham was 53. A small man at five feet, six inches, his face had not yet become creased and reptilian with age, but the stutter which had begun in childhood had not been cured and would still cause distress. As his parents wanted his birth to be on British territory he was born, the youngest of three brothers, at the British Embassy in Paris. His father, Robert, was a Paris-based lawyer who advised the staff of the Embassy. His mother was Edith Snell, a fragile beauty who would die of tuberculosis when Maugham was eight. Two years later his father died of cancer. Orphaned by the time he was 10 Maugham was sent to live with an unsympathetic uncle, Henry Maugham, the vicar of the town of Whitstable in Kent. Henry would eventually appear thinly disguised as the snobbish and remote uncle in Cakes and Ale, Maugham’s wonderfully waspish novel written in 1930. Schooldays at the King’s School, Canterbury, were no happier than home life with his uncle and aunt, and he demanded that he be allowed to leave King’s at sixteen.

After a more enjoyable year studying in Germany, where he formed what was probably his first satisfying physical and emotional relationship with a German youth, he began to cast around for a suitable profession. Finally deciding on medicine, rather than following in the footsteps of his family in the law, Maugham enrolled in 1892 at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. Practising as a doctor, the surroundings and patients in that vibrant and impoverished part of the city would provide fertile ground for his first novel Liza of Lambeth, published in 1897. This was an immediate success. Maugham had found his true profession.

Always a disciplined and prolific writer, by the outbreak of World War I Maugham was already famous, having written ten plays and published ten novels, including Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, (a life of the painter Gauguin), and The Painted Veil, set in China. Now considered too old at 40 to enlist, he joined a British Red Cross ambulance unit based in northern France and attached to the French Army, becoming one of the ‘literary ambulance drivers’. A more interesting assignment arose in 1917 when he was sent by the Secret Service Bureau to Russia in an effort to connive in keeping the provisional government in power. In this they failed but his experiences would give rise to Ashenden, an account of the adventures of a spy with a conscience – and a precursor to the genre of the British spy novel.

Left – By Uncredited – The Bystander, p. 282, Public Domain,

It was while he was with the ambulance unit in France that Maugham met Gerald Haxton. Brought up in San Francisco,bHaxton, who would remain the centre of Maugham’s life for 30 years was outgoing, sociable and charming. He was also promiscuous, a drinker and gambler. The relationship was a mutual dependency. Maugham, shy by nature but craving company and adulation, needed Haxton to act as travelling companion, secretary and to make contact with those Maugham wished to meet for both social and private reasons. Misbehaving in London – as he would do increasingly on the Riviera as the years went on, Haxton was eventually deemed persona non grata in England. Frederic Maugham, Somerset’s elder brother, was by now an eminent lawyer who would eventually become Lord Chancellor at the end of the 1930s and this didn’t mix well with a Maugham–Haxton ménage. Maugham had been much affected by the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde for ‘gross indecency’. Homosexuals in France were permitted to live their own lives in the midst of the, often disapproving, French bourgeoisie among whom they dwelt.

Initially bisexual, the great female love of Maugham’s life was said to have been the actress Sue Jones, the model for Rosie Driffield in Cakes and Ale. His elegance and rather enigmatic air made him attractive to women and a subsequent liaison with the married Syrie Wellcome would make him a reluctant father. Syrie was the daughter of Thomas Barnardo who, although he never qualified as a doctor, founded the Dr Barnardo’s homes for destitute children. When she met Maugham, Syrie’s husband was Henry Wellcome whose pharmaceutical company would eventually become Burroughs Wellcome. This was an unhappy marriage during which Syrie had several affairs, including one with the American Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London. As soon as Syrie’s baby, Liza, named after Maugham’s novel Liza of Lambeth, was born Wellcome sued for divorce, citing Maugham as correspondent. Maugham, doing the honourable thing, married Syrie in America in 1917 and quickly regretted it. The state of marriage appeared to bring an end to his diversions with women and confirmed the exclusively homosexual life he would now lead. Their rancorous divorce, finalised in 1929, coloured Maugham’s life, eventually affecting his relationship with Liza. Noel Coward would say that Maugham had no illusions about people ‘but in fact had one major one, that they were no good’.

Although a passionate traveller, whose journeys would take him to the furthest outposts of the British Empire in order to find material for his novels and stories, Maugham nevertheless had to have some kind of home. For the perfectionist he was, this had to be impressive, charming and with a level of comfort to entice guests. He desired warmth and beauty, spoke excellent French and felt at home in France. Nearly two kilometres in length at its furthest tip, Cap Ferrat splits into peninsulas, one of which is the smaller Cap de St Hospice and the other Cap Ferrat itself. It is Cap Ferrat which has a lighthouse at its tip and most of the grand villas, but it is St Hospice that has the history. Here, in the year 560, a cluster of stone huts made up one of the first Christian settlements in this part of the Mediterranean. St Hospice was a missionary who led his few followers to this spot. He was said to have had the gift of miracles and prophecy, warning of the savage fate which would befall the south at the hands of barbarians. Having frightened himself thoroughly he retreated to an ancient tower on the Cap to live as a hermit until his death. When he died in 580 he was buried by his abandoned followers at the foot of the now vanished tower. Somewhere at the tip of the Cap lie the bones of St Hospice.

Of closer relevance to Maugham and his new home was the story of the odious King Leopold II of the Belgians. Remembered mainly as the creator and owner of the Congo Free State, Leopold was known not only for his immorality but above all for his brutality. From 1885 he ruled the Congo through cruelty and terror. If quotas were not met, executions and mutilations were freely meted out by his paid mercenaries. Great wealth flowed from this misery, mainly through the collection of ivory and rubber. This merciless regime was allowed to continue for 30 years, until international opinion eventually obliged the Belgian government to concede the Free State to Belgium itself in 1908. As he grew older, and probably for spiritual insurance purposes, the king decided he needed a father confessor close at hand. He appointed a retired missionary by the name of Monseigneur Felix Charmettant to be his chaplain and in 1900 set him up comfortably on the Cap. The Monseigneur had spent much of his working life in Algeria and an unknown architect created an overtly Moorish style villa complete with horseshoe windows and a cupola on the roof. Not being particularly self-effacing, he named it after himself – the Villa Charmettant. The views from the grounds of the house, perched on its small outcrop of rock, were magnificent, the eye following the glittering Mediterranean in a wide sweep from east to west. The mountains of the Alpes Maritimes, adorned with their perched villages, rose high in the background.

Maugham dining in the central courtyard

Charmettant’s neglected villa was not, in fact, pulled down as Maugham wrote in his memoirs, but was extensivelyremodelled. While Maugham lived at the Villa Lawrence on the Antibes ramparts a two-storey house was created by the American Barry Dierks, centred around a courtyard open to the sky. Around the courtyard ran a gallery of two stories with an arcade at ground floor level. A vaulted ceiling and black marble floor tiles graced the entrance hall. From here a curved marble staircase led up to five bedrooms, each with large light-filled windows, and three bathrooms. Downstairs were more bedrooms. In the long high-ceilinged drawing room, with paintings by Zoffany on the walls, was a large fireplace of Arles stone. A staircase tower, housing a library and service rooms, was built onto the side of the building and had a roof of Roman tiles. Beyond the tower was a flat roof, upon which was built Maugham’s very private box-like writing room. Inside, French windows ran along one wall and bookcases filled the other. From the gate of the villa a curved drive led up to a double door, visitors being greeted by a sign that warned ‘Beware of the agapanthus.’ There was a symbolic engraving of the hand of Fatima, destined to keep out the evil eye. This symbol was also carved in red on the entrance wall to the property and would be printed on Maugham’s letter heading, table napkins, in his first editions and below the title of the film adaptation of his book The Razor’s Edge.

The garden at the villa rose in steep terraces planted with, in addition to the agapanthus, orange, lemon and avocado trees as well as oleanders – those obedient flowering shrubs which edge the drives of so many gardens in the south of France. Mimosa scented the air in February and jasmine and roses in May and June. On the top terrace a 16-metre marble swimming pool was surrounded by lush vegetation, with a lead pineapple at each corner and, at one end, a mask of Neptune, carved by Bernini, its mouth gushing water. Maugham would say that the great luxury on the Riviera was grass. And there were lush green lawns around the house. These were the days of plentiful labour. The thirteen servants, which included seven gardeners, were housed in apartments in a separate building, probably part of the former estate.

Maugham in a relaxed pose at the end of the swimming pool

By the time Maugham was settled at La Mauresque at the end of 1927 he was able to live his life as he wished, being finally divorced from Syrie in 1929 on the grounds of incompatibility. He was now a rich man and could maintain his status among the beau monde of the Riviera. Among his neighbours in the great houses on the Cap were Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, the third son of Queen Victoria, who had the villa Les Bruyéres on the same road as La Mauresque. A widower and President of the Boy Scouts Association the Duke was held in high esteem by all who knew him. Accompanied by his mistress Leonie Leslie, the sister of Winston Churchill’s mother Jenny Jerome, he would dine occasionally at La Mauresque.

Others were Thérèse de Beauchamp who had built her stunning Italianate Villa Fiorentina, pieds dans l’eau, in 1917 on the point of the Cap St Hospice. At the beginning of the 1920s, before going on to buy La Leopolda at Villefranche, Thérèse sold Fiorentina to an Australian, Sir Edmund Davis, a mining millionaire and art collector. It is Davis whom one must thank for creating much of the littoral path around Cap Ferrat, which walk gives pleasure to so many people. Davis also owned Chilham Castle in Kent in England.

The lovely Lady Kenmare would buy Fiorentina in 1939 and finally leave as the Germans swept across Europe. With her son, Rory Cameron, she returned after the war to restore and create one of the most stunning houses and gardens on the Riviera. It was from a small house on the estate that her son wrote his best-selling book The Golden Riviera. At the Venetian-style Château St Jean, Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy, an acclaimed artist and a Hungarian princess, took long walks with her lion cub, Goldfleck. Paris Singer, son of Isaac Singer of sewing machine fame was at his new villa (later called Les Rochers) on the Cap. Now separated from the dancer Isadora Duncan, he had married Annie Bates, an English nurse from Devon. The ex-Duchess of Marlborough, née Consuelo Vanderbilt, rented the Villa Lo Scoglietto (on what is now the Place David Niven). Consuelo was newly married to the aviator Jacques Balsan – an extremely happy union, in stark contrast to her former life with the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim. And at the Grand Hôtel du Cap Ferrat, built in 1908, the rich and aristocratic came and went throughout the years. Not universally liked, but much sought-after, Maugham settled down to hold court at La Mauresque. In spite of the fact that he was known to be sexually avaricious, certain of his guests chose to ignore this fact, so highly prized was an invitation to La Mauresque. Others felt quite at home.

Politicians, authors, artists, actors, socialites, as well as the odd title, all came for the splendid meals created by Maugham’s cook Annette and the comfort provided by the rest of the 13-strong staff. From Harpo Marx to Evelyn Waugh to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor they came, along with Churchill and Prince Pierre of Monaco. Matisse, Chagall, and later Picasso, were also guests. Elegant dinners on the terrace were enjoyed on soft, balmy evenings graced by fireflies and the wafts of scent from orange blossom. Guests also came to admire the important collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and other objects of interest and beauty that Maugham had collected over the years. During the day there was tennis on the garden court and swimming in the pool. As Bryan Connon in his Maugham Dynasty wrote: ‘Beautiful but obscure young men were part of the scenery’. Bathing was invariably in the nude unless women were present. And, as Beverley Nichols in A Case of Human Bondage remembered: ‘A young Noel Coward made his exits and his entrances in a flurry of white flannels’.  Nichols, ever courteous, was, apart from one breach of house etiquette quickly forgiven, always welcome at La Mauresque. For as long as guests behaved comme il faut and didn’t irritate their host, visits were enjoyed and most left hoping to be invited again. On Christmas day of 1936 an unpopular and besieged Wallis Simpson drove over from Lou Viei, her temporary home in Cannes, and joined the house party for lunch.

Throughout these years, Gerald Haxton played the triple role of secretary, lover and enfant terrible. While Maugham strove, in spite of his own promiscuity, to create some sort of atmosphere of decorum at La Mauresque, keeping his own liaisons as discreet as possible, Haxton was a loose cannon. Frequent visits to the casino at Monte Carlo and the ports of Nice and Villefranche to encounter willing young men were accompanied by embarrassing bouts of drinking. In spite of this behaviour Maugham was consistently loyal, even when Alan Searle, a young Englishman from the East End of London whom he met in 1928, began gradually to supplant Haxton in usefulness. The crash of 1929 and Britain’s withdrawal from the Gold Standard in 1931 affected everyone, with the exception of some of the very rich. Maugham weathered the storm due to a constant stream of royalties and his relentless output of work. And, apart from frequent trips abroad, life at La Mauresque continued in this pleasurable vein during the last golden years of the Riviera. However, it was now difficult to ignore the ebb and flow of European politics. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had been a rude shock to the aristocracy and bourgeoisie alike, not only in France but across Europe. The enduring fear that the old order could be brought down around them contributed to the rise of many right-wing and fascist organisations who felt they were acting in defence of civilisation against communism. There was one common wish in France – that they should on no account be drawn into another bloody war. But in 1939 fresh hostilities loomed ever closer. Now, wishing to contribute in some way to the war effort, Maugham was given a project by the Ministry of Information in Britain to write a series of articles on the French war effort and the attitude of the French towards the British. He visited London for several months before returning to tour France and assess the general feeling among the populace. In April the German Army invaded Denmark and Norway and day by day France grew more confused and unsettled. When German forces swept into and occupied the ill-prepared nation, Maugham became a refugee, escaping with hundreds of other Britons on one of two overcrowded coal boats which left from Cannes for England in July 1940. An extremely unpleasant experience which he related in Strictly Personal. Gerald Haxton, as an American whose country had not yet entered the war, stayed on at La Mauresque to pack up Maugham’s precious collection of paintings and ornaments. Stored safely away from the villa, they would survive the war intact.

Maugham spent the following years in the United States, first in Los Angeles and then South Carolina, script writing for Hollywood films, composing articles and giving interviews and propaganda talks in favour of the Allies. In November 1944 Gerald Haxton died of tuberculosis in New York, aged 52. Although grief-stricken, Maugham quickly summoned Alan Searle to be Haxton’s replacement and general factotum. Finally in 1946, they returned to a hungry and exhausted Riviera. La Mauresque had suffered badly during the years of war. Although occupied by the Italians and the Germans, it was the Allied Fleet which had caused the most damage while shelling the lighthouse on the Cap St Hospice. In a letter to Noel Coward, Maugham wrote sadly, ‘The Italians occupied the villa and took my cars, the Germans occupied it next, took the yacht, emptied the wine cellar and mined the property, and then the British fleet shelled the house.’ It was now that he recruited the architect Henri Delmotte to tackle the damage, replacing the shattered windows, mending holes and the roof and restoring the interior to its original charm. While this was being done, Maugham stayed at the small Voile d’Or hotel on the Cap, owned by Captain Powell, whose son was the British film director Michael Powell.

Life settled down to the disciplined and elegant rhythm of La Mauresque. Annette, Maugham’s treasured cook, had not left the house during the war, in spite of its unwelcome guests. Now, using what supplies could be found in the markets, she produced meals to the best of her renowned ability. Alan Searle did his job well, running Maugham’s life with considerably less style than Haxton but more capably and, above all, more soberly. Maugham began to travel once more, including regular trips to a Swiss clinic for rejuvenating injections of sheeps’ cells and, when in residence at Cap Ferrat, guests came and went as before.

In April 1949 the designer and photographer Cecil Beaton wrote to his hopeless love Greta Garbo that he was: ‘Writing this propped up in bed with the three pairs of tall windows open onto a brilliant garden where the gardeners are clipping the grass, raking the gravel path, bees are buzzing at the blossom and two black poodles are rushing about causing consternation’. He feels the garden is looking ‘quite unreal’ and describes the rows of cinerarias, the masses of magenta and mauve stocks, roses, tree peonies and wisteria covered walls. ‘Guests sit on the blue terrace where all the flowers are blue’. In spite the fact they ‘do nothing all day and go to bed very early’ he is feeling quite exhausted. He has gone to La Mauresque to write his play but ‘can hardly get out of bed’. He feels the climate makes him dream vividly – Garbo appears in these dreams and he wakes up in the morning ‘absolutely worn out’. However, Marc Chagall is expected for lunch and the orange blossom is out. In the midst of this beauty and comfort he also feels there is a sad nostalgic atmosphere. The former prosperity of Cap Ferrat has given way to ‘poverty and decay’. The village is very ‘communistic’, most of the big houses have been sold and the few lovely gardens that remain look dormant. This was post-war France.

In the same year Graham Sutherland, who would later buy the architect Eileen Gray’s modernist house Tempe à Pailla in the hills above Menton, painted a portrait of Maugham at La Mauresque. This was Sutherland’s first portrait and for it Maugham endured ten sittings of one hour each day. The general feeling was that it made him look like an elderly mandarin. Maugham pronounced it ‘magnificent’.In 1954 Maugham was made a Companion of Honour, but sadly, the last years were hard. He deteriorated mentally and Searle, in a state of terror that he would be left with nothing when his master died, endeavoured to manipulate Maugham’s relationship with his daughter Liza, resulting in a partial estrangement. He persuaded a willing Maugham  to adopt him legally, a move challenged by Liza and thrown out by the court at Nice. Through all this Searle continued to care devotedly for an increasingly senile and difficult master. In these declining years Maugham undertook an autobiography, never published in book form, called Looking Back. In this he attacked his now dead wife Syrie with such venom, that friends and critics turned against him and he was received so coldly on a trip to London that he would never return there.

The end came in 1965. Twice he had been nursed back to health from pneumonia at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Nice. The matron Elsie Gladman, who had stayed on to support the small Anglo-American Hospital in Cannes throughout the war, remembered Maugham in her book Uncertain Tomorrows. It seems he was a good, co-operative patient but ‘rather stubborn’. This worthy lady described in her autobiography that, on her days off, she was often summoned to elegant house parties along the coast to apply enemas to relieve discomfort suffered by certain guests.

Maugham had always made it known to Miss Gladman that he did not wish to die in the hospital but at La Mauresque. During his last stay an ambulance was kept in readiness so his wish could be honoured. The building was besieged by journalists and it was ‘a round the clock job to keep them from entering the hospital’. Every morning at 10 a.m. Dr Michel Rosanoff (Maugham’s personal doctor and a Resistant during the war) accompanied by Maugham’s specialists, would stand on the steps of the hospital and make an announcement on their patient’s state of health. At 2 a.m. on the morning of 16 December the waiting ambulance, followed by a pack of journalists, took him back to La Mauresque where he died of congestion of the lungs. This is the version given by Miss Gladman which is in contradiction to other accounts, particularly that of Searle’s, that Maugham had actually died at the hospital and, to avoid tiresome involvement with the relevant  authorities – mandatory with hospital deaths – was whisked away in the small hours. But it seems unlikely that Miss Gladman would  have risked her position by allowing a dead patient to be removed and breaking French law in this respect.

After cremation in Marseilles as he had requested, Maugham’s ashes were taken to England and interred in the grounds of the King’s School, Canterbury, where he had been far from happy but where he could now return complete with honours. Perhaps in a spirit of ‘So there!’

In spite of their difficult relationship, in his will Maugham left Liza, as well as various financial settlements, the shares in the company which owned La Mauresque. Alan Searle need not have been concerned for, apart from various bequests to staff he was left, among other assets, the contents of the villa, Maugham’s fortune and the royalties from his work. Those objects not kept by him were auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1967. In the same year Liza sold La Mauresque to an American socialite from Houston. The new owner engaged a Nice architect, Marcel Guilgot, to make changes and La Mauresque entered another era. A rich but lonely Searle moved to an apartment in Monaco. Suffering from increasing ill health he died in 1985. Some of his beautifully made evening clothes went to a fair in aid of the Sunny Bank Anglo-American Hospital of Cannes, where they were quickly snapped up. Sunny Bank had played an important part, both medically and socially, in the English-speaking expatriate community.

In countless articles, biographies and autobiographies the fascination with the Maugham years and La Mauresque lingers on in the accounts of that enchanting house and garden presided over by its renowned and enigmatic story teller.

Copyright © Maureen Emerson February 2023

In this 10 mins video interview with Somerset Maugham,
some of the buildings and gardens of Villa La Mauresque can be seen.
Video by ‘MyMaughamCollection’


  • Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale (William Heinemann, 1930)
  • Bryan Connon, Somerset Maugham and the Maugham Dynasty
  • Video by ‘MyMaughamCollection’