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Somerset Maugham sails for Pago Pago

On this day in 1916, W. Somerset Maugham departs on a voyage to Pago Pago. Characters he meets on the voyage, including a prostitute and a missionary, inspire the story “Miss Thompson,” which is published in his 1923 story collection, The Trebling of a Leaf. The story becomes the play Rain, which is filmed three times, once starring Gloria Swanson, once with Joan Crawford, and once with Rita Hayworth.

Somerset Maugham was born at the British embassy in Paris in 1874. Both his father and his grandfather were lawyers, and his brother later became Lord Chancellor of England. Maugham was unsuited to the law profession, however, due to his pronounced stammer and extreme shyness, exacerbated by the death of his parents when he was 10. Maugham chose medicine instead of law. His first novel, Liza of Lambeth, describes his experiences working in London’s slums. Maugham took up writing full time but did not turn out another successful novel for more than 10 years. He did, however, become an immensely popular playwright. By 1908, he had four successful plays running in London at once, which brought him great financial success.

During World War I, Maugham worked as a secret agent. He later wrote about his experiences in Ashendon (1928), a collection of short stories. His portrayal of a suave, sophisticated spy influenced his friend Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. In 1915, Maugham published Of Human Bondage (1915), a semi-autobiographical account of a young medical student’s artistic awakening. In 1917, he married the mother of his 18-month-old daughter, but during their 10-year marriage he carried on a long affair with an American man, with whom he later shared an elaborate villa in the south of France.

In 1919, Maugham published The Moon and Sixpence, featuring an unconventional artist based on Paul Gauguin. He denied that the writer portrayed in his 1930 novel, Cakes and Ale, was based on Thomas Hardy, but many saw striking similarities between the two. His 1944 novel, The Razor’s Edge, about an American war veteran, was also successful. Maugham also continued to write plays, short stories, and critical essays. He died at the age of 91.

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