French Sketches: Cap Ferrat and Somerset Maugham
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In 1928, world famous British author W. Somerset Maugham moved into a sumptuous villa on twelve gardened acres on Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera. Maugham’s marriage to his wife Syrie was behind him; his secretary and companion Gregory Haxton was with him. Syrie, disappointed at coming in number two, had threatened to name Gregory in the divorce action. All was settled peaceably by the solicitors in London. Maugham lived at his beloved Villa Mauresque until his death in 1965 except for the war years. This long essay highlights a fascinating life lived on the Riviera.
During his years on the Riviera, Maugham was famous for hosting glittering dinner parties of the rich and famous at his luxurious villa. Originally, Maugham rose to fame as a playwright in London’s Westend theater district in the years before World War I. During the First World War he served in the British Secret Service, experience which led to write a famous set of spy stories in the 1920s. Also during the war he met Haxton while serving with an ambulance unit in France in 1914 while in 1916 he married Syria Wellcome, the divorced wife of an American pharmaceutical magnate. He tried to juggle the two romances for ten years! During this time Maugham turned out novels and short stories in prodigious numbers, the basis of both his fame and wealth.
Early on, Maugham saw the war clouds gather over Europe in the 1930s. He wrote a play criticizing the stupidity of the world’s failure to turn back what he foresaw as a dreadful war that would take the lives of tens of millions of people. He went to London and spoke with his older brother, a leading member of the Neville Chamberlain’s British cabinet. Britain was caught in the grip of the illusion of appeasement; his brother was stonily cold to Maugham’s appeal.
The war came, France collapsed, and Maugham escaped to England in a harrowing journey on an old collier with five hundred other British expatriates living on the Riviera.
- Paul A. Myers, August 2011
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