March 2024

Back to Issue 15

W. Somerset Maugham

By E.P. Lande

We were enjoying tea with Vava and Irmgard in “Les Collines”, the Chagalls’ comfortable farmhouse on the outskirts of Vence, while Alfred was with Marc in his atelier. Vava told us of a curious phone call she had received earlier that day.

     “It was from someone on behalf of Somerset Maugham,” she said. “It seems Maugham would like Marc to paint his portrait ….”

     “Outrageous,” Irmgard said contemptuously. “I hope you told him in no uncertain terms that Marc wouldn’t contemplate such audacity.” As a close friend of the Chagalls, Irmgard often gave her unasked-for opinion when it involved what she perceived to concern Marc’s reputation.

     “You must be aware that he sold his collection of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists at auction recently; I believe it was in April of last year — or perhaps it was the year before, in 1962,” Vava explained.

     “Vavachin, I understand he’s a most disagreeable person,” Irmgard added.

     “Marc agreed to meet with him — probably in a few months’ time — but gave no assurances that he would do what the writer asked.”                                                                                    

      “Well, you know my opinion,” Irmgard reminded her friend. “Others have painted the man, and I won’t remind you who they were.”

     “I don’t think Marc will do it, but he agreed to discuss the matter with Maugham, so we will meet.” Vava then turned to Jane and me.

     “Perhaps it would interest you to meet Mr. Maugham? I understand he’s written some interesting books, though I haven’t read any.”

     “Children, go if you want, but Alfred and I prefer to stay home.”

     After we left the Chagalls’ — Alfred having joined us in the living room leaving Marc in his atelier — nothing more was said about the proposed meeting with Somerset Maugham.

     “What delighted me was the possibility that you and I will meet Maugham,” I said to Jane as soon as we closed the door to our room at La Résidence in Saint Paul de Vence.

     “I knew it would, despite Irmgard’s disdain for him,” Jane said.

     “Jane, I’ve read just about everything Maugham has written, at least once and his short stories multiple times. To me, he’s perhaps the best storyteller living or dead.”

     “Not the best writer?” Jane asked.

     “I’m not qualified to make a judgement there. His stories transport me to a time and place that I never tire of revisiting. And many of his characters are so memorable that they stay with me long after I’ve finished reading Maugham’s story.”

     As I was then taking night courses at McGill University to qualify as a Chartered Accountant and working for an auditing firm during the day, the only times we had to visit our friends — Irmgard and Alfred and the Chagalls — in the south of France was during the summer and Christmas breaks, —and then, for only as many days as my work commitment allowed.

     It was soon after we left France, to return to Montreal and my studies at McGill, that Vava wrote us that she had arranged for the anticipated meeting between Marc and Somerset Maugham to coincide with our visit to the south of France in May.

      “Are you excited to meet Somerset Maugham tomorrow?” Jane asked. We were in our room at La Résidence, having returned from enjoying a light supper with Irmgard and Alfred in their villa in Vence. When we were at Les Collines earlier in the day, Vava told us that the meeting with Somerset Maugham had been arranged for the following afternoon.

     “Bonjour, mes enfants,” Vava greeted us when we arrived at 2:00. “Marc and Mr. Maugham are just now finishing. Entrez,” and she led us into the living room.

     “Ah, les enfants; comment allez-vous?” Chagall embraced — first Jane and then me — on entering their living room, accompanied by Somerset Maugham.

     “Mr. Maugham, I’d like you to meet our young Canadian friends,” Vava said, introducing us to the writer. “Why don’t you talk while I take my husband back to his atelier.”

     “Maître, c’était un grand honeur pour moi ….”

     “De rien, M. Maugham. À la prochaine,” and Chagall, led by his wife, left the room.

     “Mme Chagall informed me that you enjoy reading my books,” Maugham said when he was left alone with us.

     “Mr. Maugham, I have read all your novels, all your short stories, and most of your plays — many of them, several times,” I told the writer.

     “You flatter me, young man. Does your wife have the same opinion of my writing?”

     “I am not as constant a reader as Eric, but I have read those of your works that he particularly liked,” Jane told him.

     “I’m curious, young man, to know which of my writing you fancied the most?” As he said this, Somerset Maugham leaned into the cushions in back of him and crossed his legs. 

     “I’ve enjoyed all your novels, but the one that left a deep impression on me was Theatre.             

      “That, my young man, is a very unusual choice. May I ask your reason?” A smile broke out on his rather dour, expressive face.

     “I liked Julia very much, and the manner in which you portrayed her affaire, well, it resonated with me.” I took a moment, then asked, “Mr. Maugham, we recently met with Edward Gordon Craig, at the home of friends.”

     “Ah, yes, I believe he lives somewhere in these parts.”

     “In your novel, Julia becomes the most famous actress in England.”

     “Yes, that is how I portrayed her.”

     “And, with her husband Michael, they own and operate a theatre.”

     “Young man, your memory is better than mine,” smiled the author.

     “While her husband doesn’t believe he’s a very good actor.”

     “Actually, I recollect that he considered himself a rather mediocre one,” Maugham’s eyes now twinkling a remembrance of satisfaction.

     “When we were with Gordon Craig, I asked him about his mother, the actress Ellen Terry.”

     “A marvelous actress, and a beauty too,” Somerset Maugham added.

     “Ellen Terry was, I believe, the most famous actress on the English stage.”

     “I don’t believe she ever acted in one of my plays. Probably too flighty for her. Shakespeare was her medium.” As Maugham said this, he folded his arms.

     “Could it be that you fashioned your novel after Ellen Terry and her business partner and lover, Henry Irving?” When I asked this, Somerset Maugham sat up and looked intently at me. He then began to chuckle.                                                                                                                              

     “I don’t mean that you created Julia to resemble Ellen Terry, for I know that there were several famous actresses acting on various stages during the same period.”

     “I think you’re referring to Mrs. Siddons, Sarah Bernhardt, and Elenora Duse. I took elements of each when I created Julia Lambert.” On saying this, Maugham once more leaned back against the cushions.

     “I wasn’t touching upon your characterization of Julia Lambert, but of the setting for your novel. While the theatre that Julia and Michael created was very successful, and the one formed by Ellen Terry and Henry Irving was a failure — according to Ellen Terry’s son, Gordon Craig, who designed sets for some of his mother’s productions — I wondered if the similarity between the two wasn’t coincidental?” When I said this, I noticed that Maugham looked at me in a quizzical manner, as though I had touched a spot deep within him that he hadn’t visited in quite some time … and then he let out a subtle guffaw that caused both Jane and I to join him.

     “Young man, you are quite perceptive. I would like very much if you and your charming wife would look in on me one of these days, to chat some more. Now I must be off,” and he rose just as Vava reentered.

     “I’m terribly sorry, Mme Chagall, but I must leave. I’m sure to have overstayed my welcome. Eric, Jane — I look forward to your visit.”


     “Well, I suppose your meeting with Somerset Maugham was as you expected?” Irmgard said when we were sitting that evening in their home, having a meal.

     “Yes, I found it very interesting,” I told her.  

     “As I said before, an unpleasant person, and I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed any of his writing.” Irmgard removed her glasses, looked through them, and began to wipe them with her handkerchief.

     “I think there’s more to the man than his public persona,” I told her.

     “Boy, you are then in a very small group. I don’t believe there are too many who feel as you do.” She finished polishing her glasses.

     “I wonder what occurred during Maugham’s meeting with Marc?” Jane asked me later, when we were back at La Résidence. “Marc did not look happy when he and Vava left to go back to his atelier.”

     “My feeling is that Marc agreed with Irmgard.”                                                                            

     “What was that?”

     “Marc doesn’t paint portraits.”

     “He has — of himself and of Vava,” Jane told me.

     “Yes, and of his first wife, Bella, and their child, Ida, but not of others. I think both he and Vava probably agreed with Irmgard, that it was nerve for Maugham to have suggested that Marc paint his portrait.”

     “I can’t say that Maugham looked a cheerful person,” Jane remarked. “But he came suitably dressed.”

     “I liked his tweed jacket,” I said

      “And his tie? I’m sure you’ll want to know where he found it,” Jane chided. “He looked exactly like an older version of the Sutherland portrait — unpleasant. I’m glad you didn’t pursue the discussion with Irmgard.”

     “Jane, you know my thoughts on artists and their work. When I know something about an artist — whether from personal acquaintance, from reading, or from the news outlets — I make every attempt to forget it and concentrate on the work itself.”

     “But don’t you think that whatever you know about the artist somehow influences your thoughts about the work?”

     “I’m sure it must, but I try not to allow it to. An artist’s personal life ….”

     “Or his or her opinions?”

     “No matter what. To me, they are not relevant to the artist’s creation — unless the artist was under the influence of something like drugs or alcohol that distorted the artist’s mind during the creation. Irmgard is quite fixed in her opinions, usually unrelenting once she has formed them. She and Alfred live on the Côte d’Azur, as has Maugham for many years. He is known for having given lavish parties at his villa on Cap Ferrat. For some people — possibly guests of Maugham’s or those who weren’t invited — have feelings of jealousy or envy, and these feelings could easily morph into gossip and rumors about the man and his lifestyle. I don’t know why she feels that Somerset Maugham is an unpleasant person, perhaps from his photographs.”

     “And the portrait by Graham Sutherland?”

     “Well, he didn’t depict Maugham as a particularly kindly person. But that doesn’t mean Maugham isn’t. Sutherland painted a number of controversial portraits, including one of Winston Churchill which, by the way, Churchill’s wife destroyed. I don’t care whether Maugham is a pleasant person or not. I look forward with great anticipation to our visiting with him at Cap Ferrat.”

     “Did you know that some people believe him to be senile?”

     “Just because Maugham hasn’t written much since the last war, doesn’t make the man senile. The Maugham we met today certainly was anything but.”

     When we returned to Montreal, I decided to enter McGill’s doctoral program in economics and would be starting my first semester in September. During the Christmas break, Jane and I would return to the south of France — as had become our custom — to be with our friends.

‘W. Somerset Maugham Dead at 91’

     “I’m truly saddened,” I said to Jane when I read the headline in the Herald Tribune several days before our departure for France. “His writings will be a constant reminder of the man we met at Marc and Vava’s.”                                                                                                                   

     “Hadn’t you made arrangements for us to meet with him at his villa?” Jane asked, holding my hand.

     “I wrote to Maugham that we would be in the south over the Christmas holidays, and, if possible, we’d very much like to take him up on his offer that we visit with him.” I looked out the window of our apartment. “In his writing, Maugham embodied the three elements that, for me, set him apart from most other writers, as well as being the reasons for my rereading almost everything he wrote. His stories are interesting, entertaining, and many are memorable. Through his writing, Maugham has given me hours of pleasure, and for that, I will always be grateful to him.”

     “I know how much you admire his writing,” Jane said, “and not having had the opportunity to visit him in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is disappointing, but Eric, we did meet.”

     “Yes, you’re right about that, Jane. We had a glimpse of what might have been.”