Friday night found me in the bowels of the Soho Hotel for the very first screening (drum roll!) of Revealing Mr Maugham, a documentary (or, as the producers would have it, an ‘artumentary’) about a writer who was astoundingly successful in his day, and is now not as well known as he should be. Strapped ‘A Million Words, One Love’, Michael House’s very personal project tells the story of W Somerset ‘Willie’ Maugham (1874-1965) and the love of his life, the rakish Gerald Haxton.
The film features interviews with many devotees, among them Armistead Maupin, Richard Davenport-Hines, Ronald Harwood and Alexander McCall-Smith, all discussing their paths to Maugham and his influence on their lives. Selina Hastings, who wrote the biography, is on hand with a crisp commentary to accompany the moving account of Maugham’s life.
His adored mother died when he was eight, his father when he was 10, and Willie was thrust into boarding school, which he hated. He must be the patron saint of wannabe-writers. He dedicated himself to his craft, turning out plays, short stories and novels with equal aplomb. Write at the same time every day; it’s your job, and the ideas will come, is one piece of advice. Liza of Lambeth (1897), his first novel, was an instant success, and Maugham is credited with creating numerous captivating female characters (although one contributor opines that they’re really men in drag).
Amazingly, Maugham made $1m from one short story alone. “Rain” was filmed three times, and Marilyn Monroe was slated to film a fourth version before she died. (There are some lovely clips of various Maugham films, featuring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and the gentle Leslie Howard.) He bombarded the West End with hit after hit; a cartoon shows a disgruntled Shakespeare in front of a wall plastered with his rival’s playbills. He was a pioneer of the spy thriller, and of course, everyone has heard of his evergreen novels Cakes and Ale, Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence. (There are many, many more.)
One of the most interesting interviewees is the travel writer Pico Ayer, whose father was a philosopher and who recommended the autobiographical The Summing Up as a concise introduction to the central philosophical conundrums of life. There’s also a charming look at the Somerset Maugham society of Japan, which demonstrates his universal appeal.
The only slight stumble is the account of his relationship with Syrie Maugham, the pioneering interior decorator (Nicky Haslam is on hand to explain how extraordinary she was). Somehow, despite being gay, Willie contrived to get young Syrie pregnant, married her, then hated her for the rest of his life. It’s not really explained how this anomaly came about. You feel a little sorry for Syrie; but at least he adored his daughter.
Those were the days when a successful novelist could buy a huge house on Cap Ferrat with his earnings, and astonishing photos show the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, H G Wells and Winston Churchill hanging out at the fabulous Villa Mauresque. The central love story is in the end a rather sad one; but the revelations keep on coming and the film has an astounding final twist. As a portrait of a secretive and driven author, it’s exemplary; and it sends you right back to the books.
Vintage Books publish over 30 of Maugham’s books and all his major works, including ‘The Summing Up’ and several volumes of short stories.