William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris on January 25, 1874, the fourth of six children. His father was a lawyer for the British Embassy. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was eight, and when his father passed away two years later, Maugham was sent to live with his uncle in England. The loss of his mother was devastating, and he remembered his uncle as a cold, cruel man. Maugham was also bullied at school due to his poor English and short stature, and developed a stammer that would recur sporadically throughout his life.
At sixteen, Maugham moved to Germany and studied at Heidelberg University. During his stay, he wrote his first book, and had an affair with an older Englishman. Upon returning to Britain, Maugham asked to be excused from following the family profession of law. For the next five years, he studied medicine at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. In 1897, he published a novel, Liza of Lambeth, inspired by his observations of life in the city slums. The book’s success allowed him to pursue writing full-time.
Over the next ten years, Maugham travelled a great deal, but failed to match his early success until his 1907 play, Lady Frederick, paved the way for a prolific career in the theatre. His 1908 novel, The Magician, was inspired by the notorious occultist, Aleister Crowley. When war broke out in 1914, Maugham was too old to serve, but joined twenty-three other writers as a ‘literary ambulance driver’ for the Red Cross in France. He also worked as an intelligence officer.
Maugham’s 1915 novel, Of Human Bondage, was hailed by Theodore Dreiser as a work of genius. During this period, Maugham met a young American, Frederick Gerald Haxton, who became his companion and lover for thirty years. Despite his homosexuality, Maugham married interior designer Syrie Wellcome in 1917.
The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham’s novel about the painter Paul Gauguin, was published in 1919. While travelling in the South Seas with Gerald Haxton, Maugham met the woman who would inspire one of his greatest short stories, ‘Miss Thompson’ or ‘Rain’. According to Samuel J. Rogal (author of A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia), “‘Miss Thompson’ evolved directly from notes that Maugham recorded while he and a number of passengers on their way from Hawaii to Tahiti lodged at a hotel in Pago Pago to await, during the hot and wet season, a quarantine inspection.”
In The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings confirms that the real Sadie Thompson, like her fictional counterpart, was a prostitute from Hawaii’s Red Light District of Ilwilei, and she was on the run from the law. Maugham had first encountered her while sailing from Honolulu. “She had a cabin two removed from mine,” he recalled, “and she kept that damnable gramophone going all day.” While Maugham led something of a double life, there was nothing furtive about Sadie’s sexual behaviour. “Holed up together in that squalid boarding-house,” Hastings writes, “Maugham and his fellow travellers continued to suffer from the brazen behaviour of Miss Thompson, or the ‘hot lollapalooza from Honolulu,’ as one of her boyfriends called her. The missionary was particularly enraged by her, by the ragtime, the drinking, the noise of the rusty bedsprings, as she entertained her numerous Samoan clientele…”
H.L. Mencken, one of two publishers of the literary magazine, Smart Set, recalled in his autobiography, My Life as Author and Editor: “’Miss Thompson’ was meat too strong for the popular magazines, which were the chief American markets, and so Maugham’s agent, the American Play Company, was unable to sell it. As a last resort, it was sent to my partner and we published it in the issue for April 1921 and it almost went unnoticed.”
While staying in the same hotel as Maugham, playwright John Colton asked if he had considered turning his story into a play. As Maugham confirmed to columnist Ward Morehouse in 1965, “I didn’t see a play in the story at all, but (John) Colton did. I told him go ahead with it if he so desired.” Colton adapted Maugham’s story for the stage with Clemence Randolph, and as biographer Selina Hastings has noted, it would prove to be one of the most lucrative deals Maugham ever made.
“I was in Bangkok in Thailand when news reached me by cable, of the great New York success of Rain, adapted from my short story ‘Miss Thompson’”, Maugham told Morehouse. “I was astounded and couldn’t believe it.” On March 23, 1923—a day after Maugham boarded the Aquitania for London—his first impressions were quoted in the press. “It was with considerable curiosity that I witnessed a performance of Jeanne Eagels in Rain,” he confessed. “I had heard a great deal of a highly laudatory nature of her performance, and I must submit that I was provided with an amusing surprise. When I first saw Miss Eagels she struck me as being an interesting little English girl, and I could not quite understand how she could possibly represent the original Sadie Thompson of the story.” The pair had met at a tea party. After sizing up Jeanne’s willowy form, golden hair, and childlike face, Maugham took Sam Harris aside. “Good gracious!” he exclaimed. “This girl is Peter Pan, not Sadie Thompson.”
“Judge of my surprise, then when she came on the stage and said ‘How’s everybody?’ with that hoarse, raucous voice,” Maugham told reporters. “I wondered where she got the idea. I had never told anybody of the peculiarities of Sadie Thompson’s diction, but here was Sadie Thompson to the life. Another curious thing was that Miss Eagels somehow hit upon the same sort of clothes that I saw the original wear; the same sort of coat, the same sort of hat, and the bangles on the wrists exactly as I saw Sadie Thompson in the flesh. Jeanne Eagels is truly an amazing young actress. Little did I ever dream that Sadie Thompson would be played so perfectly.”
Jeanne, however, was already making plans to leave the role that had made her Broadway’s most talked-about star, as Variety revealed in October 1923. Although Rain was expected to run for a full two seasons, Jeanne was considering The Moon and Sixpence as her next production, but decided against it. After reading the book, she found the male lead a more interesting character than the female, and she decided that she “doesn’t believe the importance of the two characters can be reversed.”
Although Gloria Swanson would play Sadie Thompson in the first Hollywood adaptation, the role would forever be associated with Jeanne Eagels, and in 1928, she played another of Maugham’s anti-heroines in her first talking picture. The Letter told the story of Leslie Crosbie, the adulterous wife of a Singapore rubber plantation manager. Spurned by her lover, Leslie shoots him and is put on trial for murder. As she lies under oath about why she killed him, her freedom is threatened by an incriminating letter.
“None of the cinema’s long succession of women testifying in their own defense has told as convincingly as Jeanne Eagels how she fired the shot that saved her virtue,” Time magazine declared when The Letter opened in March 1929. “Rather an effective contralto phonograph record than a moving picture, the film follows the construction of Somerset Maugham’s short story, a successful legitimate play last year.”
In 1929, Maugham divorced his wife, and that October, Jeanne Eagels died at thirty-nine. “I saw the part of Sadie Thompson played in many cities and in many languages, but no one ever touched Jeanne,” Maugham told Ward Morehouse in 1965. “Death took a great actress from us. Isn’t it strange how short are lives in the theatre? Careers, I mean. People struggle to get to the top. They stay there precariously for a while. And then they’re no longer at the top and are forgotten.”
Whereas Eagels had struggled to escape the shadow of Sadie Thompson, Maugham’s ascent continued. His novel, The Painted Veil, was published in 1925, and a year later, he moved to a villa on the French Riviera. Drawing on Maugham’s adventures in espionage, Ashenden (1928) is said to have inspired Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Maugham’s own favourite novel was Cakes and Ale (1930.) In 1934, The Painted Veil was filmed with Greta Garbo, while Bette Davis starred opposite Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage. Davis would later play Eagels’ role in a remake of The Letter.
When Germany invaded Paris in 1940, Maugham was forced to flee to England under cover of night, taking just one suitcase. That year, Bette Davis starred in a remake of The Letter. Maugham spent the remainder of World War II in America, using his experience of war as inspiration for The Razor’s Edge (1944.) After the death of Gerald Haxton in 1946, he returned to France. W. Somerset Maugham died in Nice on December 16, 1965.