Monday, January 25, 2016

Born Today January 25: W. Somerset Maugham


British writer William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris, France--inside the British Embassy there.  He was a writer of novels, plays and short stories--even some non-fiction.  His father was a lawyer, who handled legal affairs at the Embassy, arranged for his birth to take place inside the Embassy, therefore on British soil, because French law stated that all children born on French ground could later be conscripted into the French military.  He was born into a family of very distinguished lawyers, later in his parents life (his mother had TB when she gave birth to him); it was assumed that any boys would follow that path in life.  However, all Somerset's siblings were so much older than him (already in boarding school when he was born), he was basically an only child being raised in Paris.  He lost both of his parents at a young age:  his mother when he was 8, who succumbed to tuberculosis; his father when he was 10 to cancer.  The death of his mother traumatized him and he reportedly kept a photo of her at his bedside for the rest of his life.  After his father's death, he was sent back to the UK, to be taken in by his uncle, the Vicar of Whitstable.  This further traumatized the young man, because of his uncle's emotional neglect.  He was then sent off to boarding school, The King's School, Canterbury, were his emotional troubles deepened, as his was teased by the other boys, especially for his English pronunciation--as French had been his first language.  His sexual orientation didn't help.  This day and age, we would say that he was bisexual; but in his day, he would have been considered fully homosexual (something that he later became self loathing over).  This caused him to develop a stammer that would stay with him for life; though it would only come out in times of stress.  All this pushed him to inadvertly develop quite a talent of making clever wounding remarks to those who displeased or bothered him.  Unbeknownst to him, this was the beginning of his writing career; as many of his characters possessed this ability.  He began writing by the age 15.  At 16, he convinced his uncle to let him leave boarding school and study at Heidelberg University in Germany.  While there, he wrote his first book; a biography of Giacomo Meyerbeer, an opera composer.  When he returned to Britain, he considered a number of different career paths, none of which he or his uncle fely satisfied with.  He finally settled on studying medicine; and he did qualify as a physician; but he had been writing all during this time, and he published his first novel Liza of Lamberth in 1897 before he could go into practice.  It sold out so rapidly, that he quit medicine to devout his life to writing full time.  By the 1930's he was widely believed to be the highest paid author in the world.  His medical training did come in handy,however, in the first World War, however, where he served in the Red Cross' ambulance corps.; before actually being recruited as a war time spy.  As an ambulance physician, he was part of the "Literary Ambulance Drivers," a group of 24 well known writers that included some Americans; including the likes of E. E. Cummings and Ernest Hemingway.  As far as film is concerned, he did not actually work on screenplays in Hollywood until well after the silent era; but starting 1915, films based on his work were being produced.  The first of these was The Explorer (1915), based on one of his novels.  The first film based on his work that was a full sound early talkie came in 1929 with The Letter, starring Reginald Owen.  In all 17 films based on his work were made during the silent era, the last three of which were in mono.  He even has one acting credit in a silent short, Camille (1926), based on the Dumas play.  In the era of early television, there was even a Somerset Maugham TV Theater, of which he was the host; it ran for 3 seasons during 1950-1951.  The latest film based on his work came in 2014 in an independent short entitled W. Somerset Maugham's The Bum.  He died in Nice, France on 15 December 1965 at the age of 91 from pneumonia.  He was cremated and his ashes were scattered near the Maugham Library (obviously named for him) at The King's School, Canterbury (the school he hated so early on in life...).  One of his greatest admirers was director Alfred Hitchcock.  

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