The Villa Mauresque and Somerset Maugham, Somerset Maugham and the Villa Mauresque: for nearly forty years the two were inextricably linked. —Selina hastings
William Somerset Maugham—his friends called him “Willie”—was for much of the first half of the 20th century one of the best-known writers in the world. Over the course of his 65-year career, Maugham turned out some 30 plays, 21 novels, and well over 100 short stories, earning the kind of money from his writing that most authors only dream of. And he lived like a literary Kublai Khan, building his Xanadu perched on a rugged peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean Sea.
Though he once quipped that the South of France was “a sunny place for shady people,” the English novelist would make Cap Ferrat and Villa Mauresque his home for much of his life. Here, in its luscious gardens and Moorish courtyards, Maugham entertained some of the most elite members of the one-name club: Chaplin, Picasso, Churchill, Kipling, Cocteau, and Eliot, as well as the Windsors, various Rothchilds, and Virginia Woolf.
He could be the most welcoming and charming of hosts, but would often gruesomely caricature many of his friends in his books, leading Noël Coward, another frequent houseguest, to christen Maugham “the Lizard of Oz.”
Born in 1874 in France but raised, from age 10 on, in England, Maugham first qualified and practiced as a physician before becoming a writer. As a cover for his homosexuality, he had married Syrie Barnardo, an interior decorator known for her all-white rooms, but by many accounts a harsh, grasping woman. Maugham dutifully tried out heterosexual marriage, even fatherhood, when Barnardo became pregnant with their only child, Liza.
The marriage was loveless but, to his mind, necessary. After all, Maugham was just 21 years old when Oscar Wilde stood in the dock of the Old Bailey, was accused of “gross indecency,” and was sent to prison for two years. It was hardly lost on the gay men of Maugham’s generation that England was simply not a safe place to be themselves.
During the Victorian era, the French Riviera was considered a place to escape England’s cruel winter months, but by the 20s and 30s it had become a popular year-round watering hole for writers, bohemians, artists, and gay men. Americans such as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Linda and Cole Porter set the example, as an international smart set including Coward and Ian Fleming began to populate the Côte d’Azur.
Grand hotels in Nice and Cannes stayed open all year to accommodate this jubilant colonization, and a new train service was introduced, the Calais-Mediterranée Express, known as “Le Train Bleu” because of its blue coaches. You could take the Blue Train, first-class only, from Calais, stop in Paris, travel all night, then arrive the next morning in the sun-drenched Riviera. Maugham was no stranger to the Blue Train.
To understand how he came to live at Villa Mauresque, one must begin with an American named Gerald Haxton. Haxton, born in San Francisco in 1892 but raised in England, was rough, outgoing, and full of vitality, which is what attracted the reticent Maugham to the young American. Haxton was just 22 when he met 42-year-old Maugham in Flanders, where both men were part of an ambulance unit in the First World War. Maugham’s attraction to Haxton put an end to his marriage of convenience.
“I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me,” Maugham once wrote. “I’ve never been good looking and I know that no one could fall in love with me.” Maugham was also hobbled by a relentless stammer, which added to his being ill at ease in most company. (He gave Philip, his alter-ego protagonist in Of Human Bondage, a clubfoot.) Haxton brought Maugham the lively social life that he would not have mustered on his own. For Haxton, Maugham was both meal ticket and sanctuary, but he was also a gifted and cultured figure who brought out Haxton’s own writerly aspirations.
He could be the most welcoming and charming of hosts, but would often gruesomely caricature many of his friends in his books, leading Noël Coward to christen Maugham “the Lizard of Oz.”
Though the two were a seemingly odd couple—the outgoing, hail-fellow-well-met Haxton and the introverted, misanthropic novelist—Maugham enjoyed Haxton’s bonhomie and even “the frisson of danger” provided by his often reckless companion, who cruised London’s gay-friendly bars even if it meant risking arrest. Haxton, who was at home with barkeeps, sailors, and tradesmen, also provided Maugham with raw material for his stories, some of which Haxton translated into impeccable French that was admired by André Gide, no less.
When Haxton was discovered in bed with another man in a Charing Cross hotel during a police raid (they were searching for an army deserter), he was arrested. Though he was acquitted, he was nonetheless deported as an “undesirable alien.” Since Maugham had been born in France, Cap Ferrat was the perfect solution: he was suddenly out of the reach of the British taxman. Maugham could shield his fortune while protecting his private life.
“Half Way Between Nice and Monte Carlo”
Scouring the Riviera for a suitable villa, Maugham and Haxton finally settled on a run-down property near the top of Cap Ferrat that would require a fortune to restore. Villa Mauresque was originally built in 1906 by Leopold II, the odious Belgian king, and it included a retreat for the monarch’s priest, who had wanted a house in the Moorish style—thus the villa’s name and, atop its iron gates, the Hand of Fatima, which was thought to ward off evil spirits. Maugham was so delighted by the villa—and by the fact that he got it for only $8,700—that he later imprinted the Hand of Fatima on the cover of his books.
“I am now the possessor of nine acres of land and a villa half way between Nice and Monte Carlo,” Maugham wrote. And with his tremendous wealth, Maugham was able to transform the dilapidated villa into a magnificent white mansion, replete with lush gardens, tiled courtyards, and an azure swimming pool, where (usually male) guests could be found sunbathing (usually nude).
The English writer and frequent Villa Mauresque houseguest Daniel Farson recalled his first visit in his 1988 collection of character studies, Sacred Monsters. “That first evening in the dining-room,” Farson wrote, “surrounded by the unexpected sweetness of paintings by Marie Laurencin, Maugham was positively jolly as he outlined the plans for the next few days. Had I been to the South of France before? Never! Capital. They would show me Nice, introduce me to so and so, and further along the coast, there was this nightclub in Cannes which I would enjoy, and of course the Casino at Monte Carlo.”
Farson waxed poetic about the villa’s food, prepared by Maugham’s cook, Anette, featuring her specialty: mashed avocado with fried bacon. Maugham had in fact introduced avocados to the Riviera, smuggling the stones from California before the Second World War. By the time of Farson’s visit, avocado trees populated the villa’s grounds, along with orange trees. He found the garden enchanting, with “steps and urns and statuary, pines and cypress lining the pool … with water gushing from the mouth of … a faun by Bernini.”
Farson was also impressed by the stunning, glass-paned door upon which Paul Gauguin had painted a Polynesian girl holding a breadfruit. Maugham had found it in a small house in Tahiti and had paid $40.02 for it, at a time when Gauguin was not considered collectible.
Maugham was a stickler for dinner at eight, usually in black-tie. “Willie liked his young friends to be smartly dressed,” Farson wrote, and when one of his guests arrived in gray flannel, Maugham scolded him. “This is the South of France in August, not Finals Day at Wimbledon!” His embarrassed guest was ordered to refit himself with borrowed linen slacks and espadrilles. In the mornings, guests helped themselves from a breakfast tray until Maugham emerged from his study for a dry martini before lunch with his guests on the villa’s roof.
The villa, snuggled among trees at the top of Cap Ferrat, overlooked the Mediterranean, where on a clear day you could glimpse Corsica on the horizon. “Here was the south, here were warmth, light, vibrant color, white houses with terra-cotta roofs and a luxuriant vegetation reminiscent of the tropics, mimosa and oleander, yucca and bougainvillea, olive and palm trees,” wrote Selina Hastings, in her indispensable The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham.
With his tremendous wealth, Maugham was able to transform the dilapidated villa into a magnificent white mansion, replete with lush gardens, tiled courtyards, and an azure swimming pool, where (usually male) guests could be found sunbathing (usually nude).
Maugam and Haxton lived in high style in their sumptuously transformed villa, hosting everybody from H. G. Wells to George Cukor. There were defrocked royals, such as Queen Ena of Spain, and various Jurassic aristocrats, such as Lady Marion Bateman, “who had her maid brush her white hair with cornstarch every night to make it shine,” notes Hastings.
Later on, one of Maugham’s most favored houseguests was Ann Fleming, the former Viscountess Rothermere, who had married the writer Ian Fleming, in 1952, the year before Fleming published Casino Royale, the first of many James Bond novels. (More than a quarter-century earlier, Maugham had produced a series of stories about a martini-drinking British-intelligence agent named Ashenden.)
The Flemings even spent part of their honeymoon at Villa Mauresque. Maugham enjoyed their company, especially Ann’s, with her unstressed elegance and scalding wit. She was, unlike her husband, not intimidated by Maugham’s mean-spirited sense of humor. The only thing that seemed to unnerve their host was how many towels they used (“upward of nine a day”) leaving them in a monstrous heap on the bathroom floor. (The Flemings were fond of spanking each other with a wet towel, then lovingly wrapping up in a dry one.)
The Second World War put an end to Maugham’s and Haxton’s adventure. “The Italians occupied the villa and took my cars,” Maugham wrote to Coward, “the Germans occupied it next, took the yacht, emptied the wine cellar and mined the property; and then the British fleet shelled the house!” He even suspected that German occupiers had killed and eaten his two dachshunds.
Maugham fled on a cargo boat, but while driving toward Paris, his car plowed into a tree. Though badly shaken, Maugham suffered only a broken rib. He recovered in a posh Paris hotel—no hospital food for the author of Cakes and Ale.
Haxton had stayed behind in Cap Ferrat for as long as he could, packing and hiding their collected treasures. But he died of tuberculosis in 1944, leaving Maugham inconsolable and wracked with guilt.
Maugham returned to his beloved Villa Mauresque in 1947, accompanied by a new young man, a secretary-companion named Alan Searle. “If Gerald Haxton was the accident, Searle became the nurse,” recalled Farson. But the glory days were clearly over, and Maugham did not do old age very well. Courtesy of a Swiss surgeon named Dr. Paul Niehans, he was subjected to fresh-cell therapy, the injection of sheep-embryo cells used at the time to treat many eminences, from Charlie Chaplin to Pope Pius XII to King Ibn Saud. It helped, but sadly for Maugham, at 91, his body had lasted longer than his mind.
One day, Searle heard a thud and hurried up the stairs to the top of the villa, rushing through the glorious Gauguin door into the bedroom, where he found Maugham on the floor, having hit his head on the fireplace. “Is that you, Alan?,” Maugham managed to say. “I wondered where you’ve been. I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for me.” Maugham was rushed to the hospital, where he died, in the early hours of December 16, 1965.
Under cover of darkness, his body was driven back to the villa, where the following morning it was announced to the world that Somerset Maugham had died in his bed at home. That ruse allowed him to escape the indignity of an autopsy, which was required by French law. Instead, Searle was able to lay out the body in Maugham’s beloved villa, where for several days, neighbors came by to pay their respects while the world press circled restlessly nearby.
Upon Maugham’s death, Alan Searle became a very rich man. He inherited the contents of Villa Mauresque as well as all the royalties from Maugham’s vast body of work. Searle moved to Monte Carlo where he planned to live luxuriously, but by then, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he was little able to enjoy his good fortune.
The villa itself went to Liza, Maugham’s only child, although Searle had tried to poison Maugham’s mind against her, obsessed with the idea that she and her husband were scheming to cheat him of his rightful inheritance. Maugham’s nephew, Robin, inherited a trust fund. A gay man himself, he quickly outed his uncle as a homosexual in a mass-circulation Sunday newspaper, and in a series of memoirs he wrote, in order to supplement the income from the trust. So much for blood relations.
The sumptuous grounds of Villa Mauresque were sold for apartment blocks, but the villa is still there, at 52 Boulevard du Général-de-Gaulle, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. You can visit, but all you’ll really see are its locked iron gates, imprinted with the Hand of Fatima, which managed to ward off evil spirits, at least for a time.
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL.Previously a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Sinatraland: A Novel, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends