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Less known than her husband, author W. Somerset Maugham, the decorator Syrie Maugham is nevertheless a legendary figure in the worlds of high style. Now, a new biography of Somerset reveals the strange ties that bound him to his wife.
06/17/2010 12:25pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Less known than her storied husband, author W. Somerset Maugham, the decorator Syrie Maugham is nevertheless a legendary figure in the worlds of high style and interior design. With her signature "white on white" palette, she single-handedly revolutionized the look and business of decorating, helping to cure high society in the 20s and 30s of its addiction to Victorian clutter and move it into a sleeker, more sophisticated, modern mode. Most people in the field, however, know little about Syrie Maugham as a person. Her life on many levels was shrouded in secrecy, as were aspects of that of her husband, who divorced her and then spent the rest of his life maligning her.

While there have been two previous biographies of Syrie Maugham that I know of, they are relatively obscure. Perhaps the best known book about Syrie is the one by her friend Beverley Nichols -- A Case of Human Bondage -- published in 1966 that purported to pull back the silk curtains on Somerset's "beastly" behavior towards her. It was a decidedly one-sided view of Syrie Maugham, painting her as a martyr and a saint. And it was dismissed by Somerset's acolytes as the work of a slightly balmy hack (even Nichols's friend Noel Coward dubbed it "ghastly.") But Nichols certainly knew where the bodies had been laid (and by whom), presenting a view of Somerset Maugham and his homosexual affairs that was well ahead of its time. But his cri de coeur in defense of Syrie Maugham lacked substance, being more an exercise in vitriol and catty gossip. We never got to truly know the real Syrie Maugham.

Now a new biography of W. Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings reveals the strange ties that bound him to his wife. Published here in the States by Random House this month, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham runs to over 600 pages and is as easy to read as one of Maugham's novels. Known for her bios of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, Selina Hastings combines an engaging prose style with ample amounts of gossip and insight. With unprecedented access to Maugham's extensive private correspondence, much of which he had hoped would never see the light of day, Hastings has blown the lid off his life story, and shown those of us more interested in his wife Syrie, a side to her that has not been unveiled before. But in doing so, she raises as many questions as she attempts to answer.

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The high-living Syrie Maugham, Hastings says, "was not quite the conventional society woman that she appeared." Born in Hackney, England in 1879, Syrie was the daughter of the renowned reformer, Thomas Barnardo, founder of the Dr. Barnardo's homes for destitute children. Born in Ireland, Bernardo and his wife, also called Syrie, but known in the family as "the Begum," were members of an obscure American religious sect, the Open Plymouth Brethren. Barnardo was devoutly evangelical, a strict taskmaster and Bible-thumper, and advocate of the temperance movement. Young Syrie, however, (she shucked her unwieldy birth names Gwendoline Maud) wanted nothing to do with this sheltered life and showed little interest in her father's charity work. While he hoped she would become a missionary and go to China, she longed to establish herself in London's lofty circles and to escape the suffocating life she had known.

She found her means of escape in Henry Wellcome, a self-made man, some 25 years her elder, whom she'd met in Khartoum on a trip with her father. Wellcome, who'd been born in a log cabin in Wisconsin, had made a fortune in pharmaceuticals with his company Burroughs Wellcome (now part of GlaxoSmithKline.) They were married in 1901. As Hastings makes clear, the marriage was a disaster from the outset. Wellcome was as cold and strict as her father and expected Syrie to be a simple, dutiful wife, traveling with him to remote sites in Europe, rather than the social hubs she craved, while he conducted business or bought arcane medical instruments for his vast collection. Two years later, they had a son, Mountenoy, who is said to have had learning disabilities. Hastings describes Wellcome, who had been strikingly handsome in his youth, as a brutal boor with a walrus mustache and a paunch who had sadistic tendencies in the bedroom. In 1909, while the two were traveling in Ecuador, Wellcome accused Syrie of adultery and they soon separated upon their return to England. It was during this period as a wealthy married woman on her own that Syrie met and fell in love with W. Somerset Maugham, who was already a successful playwright on London's West End.

Hastings is of the opinion that Syrie really did love Somerset, but that doesn't stop her from painting her as a gold digger right from the start. Here we see a new Syrie emerge, a shrewd, sometimes shrewish, schemer who uses her then trim good looks, charm and social connections to woo Maugham, then corner him into submission. As Hastings sees it, Syrie set up a snare to lure Maugham into marriage by deliberately getting pregnant (although the first time she tried, she miscarried). She gave birth to Liza (Mary Elizabeth) in Rome while still married to Wellcome. Not long after, Wellcome sued for divorce, naming Maugham as co-respondent. The parentage of the daughter was never brought up in court. Maugham, she argues, did what he felt was the honorable thing and married her in New Jersey in May, 1917 during a trip to the States. Hastings suggests he might also have been moved to pity since his own mother had died in childbirth.

Syrie's master plan seemed to unfold as she had hoped. Or so Hastings argues. The details seem to fit together, but one wonders if the biographer's image of Syrie as a cold, calculating adventuress isn't too colored by Somerset's own jaundiced spin on the issue. Maugham could easily have dropped her after the miscarriage, but he continued to see Syrie. One has to ask why? It's possible that he might have been as captivated by her as she was by him. And it's just as likely that Somerset was using Syrie as a beard to mask his homosexual nature.

Maugham, at the end of his very long life, and perhaps on the verge of dementia, later accused Syrie of merely pretending that the child she'd had with Maugham, while still married to Wellcome, was actually his. He cited numerous lovers as potential fathers. Hastings also makes the bold assertion that Syrie threatened to expose the names of Somerset's male lovers if he did not marry her, just as years later she would threaten to reveal them if he did not divorce her. Hastings also claims that Syrie staged a dramatic suicide attempt by swallowing an overdose of pills. Hastings's "Notes" cite Maugham's memoir Looking Back, which he wrote at the end of his life, and which has been universally dismissed as being unfair, if not deliberately misleading.

Around the time Maugham wrote those memoirs (which were printed in Show magazine in the States) he attempted to disown his daughter, Liza, arguing that she had no legal right to his estate since she was not actually his child. He demanded that she return some paintings he had given her. He hoped to leave everything to Alan Searle, his male companion, who may have been behind the strange turn of events. The scandal that ensued was pretty shocking stuff for the time. Somerset lost his case and the daughter retained her rights. And it is generally believed today that she was in fact Somerset's flesh and blood. Perhaps his unconscionable behavior to her had more to do with his own desire to rewrite history than his attachment to Searle.

Hastings recounts how shaky the couple's marriage was from the start. Somerset, for all his charm, was not that different from the other two men of Syrie's earlier life: her stern father and her demanding former husband. Somerset's aloofness may have been inspired by misogyny, due in no small part to his then-repressed homosexuality, which he had shared with Syrie, but also from his intense shyness. His stammer was an outward sign of his fumbling timidity and feelings of inadequacy. He turned a cold shoulder to Syrie's demands for physical attention.

Hastings takes the view that Syrie Maugham was overly needy: "the frequent scenes Syrie staged, the endless reproaches, the daily testing and questioning of Maugham's feelings for her, maddening to him, were all symptoms of her emotional insecurity, her huge desire to be loved." She was "desperate for any show of affection." Her sexual demands, he told a friend, "were insatiable, intolerable." Hastings uses Maugham's own comments as evidence. But it seems obvious that he was a prejudiced observer. He most likely loathed having sex with his wife, not because she was overly demanding, verging on hysteria, but because he was gay. Hastings seems to underplay Maugham's own assessment that he was more homosexual than heterosexual. One can not fault Syrie Maugham for wanting more than a fraction of her husband's affection, especially since he basically stopped sleeping with her after they were married.

None of this, of course, is news, but what Hastings does do well is to show us Syrie Maugham, the mercantile wizard, the innovator in interior design. Her new life as a designer began when she and Somerset moved into a Regency mansion at 2 Wyndham Place in Marylebone. She channeled her restless energy into refurbishing the spacious house. When that was completed, she approached her friend, designer Ernest Thornton-Smith at Fortnum's, asking him to take her on as an unpaid apprentice, something women of her class at that time would never dream of doing. "It quickly became apparent," Hastings writes, "that Syrie had found her vocation, not only in decor but as a businesswoman, tough, tenacious, and with a keen eye for a bargain." She'd inherited something of her father's zealotry, and her ex-husband's marketing skills, but used these to help the rich improve their lives, rather than the poor.

In 1922, Syrie Maugham opened a shop with capital she borrowed herself. Called Syrie Ltd, at 85 Baker Street, it was stocked with the contents of the Maughams's previous residence in Regent's Park. "With the strength of a typhoon," Cecil Beaton wrote, Syrie "blew all colour before her... turning the world white...White sheepskin rugs were strewn on the eggshell surface floors, huge white sofas were flanked with white crackled-paint tables, white peacock feathers were put in white vases against a white wall."

Hastings states that Syrie actually first conceived of her innovative all-white decors after visiting the house of Mrs. Ralph Philipson, one of her main investors. The white motif may have been Philipson's idea, but it was Syrie Maugham who saw its potential. Part of the legend of Syrie Maugham is that she would "pickle" and bleach rare antiques, such as black lacquer Coromandel screens, or valuable Louis Seize pieces, stripping them until they were as pale as sun-blanched bones. But Hastings reveals that this part of her legend is probably apocryphal since Syrie more often than not used period reproductions that gave the same effect, yet generated a sizable profit.

Somerset took his wife's success in stride, although he was not above teasing her about it when they had guests at their home. He warned the invited to sit down as quickly as possible before their chairs were sold out from under them. He, apparently had good cause to be nervous about such things. Hastings relates how he returned to his office one day to find that his beloved writing desk, which he had an almost supernatural attachment to, had been sold by Syrie without his permission or knowledge.

Syrie Maugham later moved her establishment to Duke Street, then opened satellite shops in New York and Chicago. Along with Elsie de Wolfe, whose style was a bit more theatrical and camp, and Sibyl Colefax, the classic English decorator, Syrie Maugham set new standards for chic. Beaton, a devoted fan, took his pal Stephen Tennant to Syrie's. The exquisite aesthete was smitten with her plaster-cast palm trees, artful rugs by Marion Dorn, and whimsical ornamentation. He hired her to redo Wilsford, his grand country house, as well as his rooms in London. "She made great use of Regency furniture, often decorated with shell motifs; and Venetian grotto furniture, with its bizarre gilded oyster and barnacle-encrusted rococo forms," according to Philip Hoare's biography of Tennant, Serious Pleasures.

It was a look that was visionary and inspiring, and soon, contagious. Everyone who was anyone wanted a Syrie Maugham room. Wallis Simpson, Marie Tempest, Mona Williams, Rebecca West, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Tallulah Bankhead all relied on her good taste. Even Belle Poitrine, the star of Little Me (a literary spoof by Patrick Dennis) brags about hiring Syrie. Evelyn Waugh immortalized her as Mrs. Beaver in his 1934 novel, A Handful of Dust. Edward Molyneux, who was the cutting edge of chic then, called her "the greatest designer of all."

Outside her work, Syrie's life was anything but simple. She and Maugham were barely speaking to each other, except when it came to the theater for which she had an uncanny appreciation. He often relied on her opinion. But at home there were endless arguments. In 1922, she hit a female cyclist while driving her car and the woman died from her injuries. Luckily she was found not to be at fault and was not charged. But the incident further alienated Somerset who feared Syrie was a liability. He, by now, was laying down his rules of engagement. They could remain married but he would lead his own life, which consisted mostly of spending all his time with Gerald Haxton, his controversial, and not very popular, lover. Beverley Nichols claimed he was a sex-crazed cad who "stank" and bragged of seducing a 12-year-old girl in Thailand. And Hastings confirms an incident in which Haxton hurled a dog out of a moving car because he found it annoying. Luckily it lived, although Liza, Maugham's daughter, who was in the car at the time, did not know this and was traumatized by what he did.

Things came to a head in August 1925 when Syrie finally met Haxton at the Villa Eliza she was renting in Le Touquet, a fashionable resort in France. Somerset brought him at her request. Among the guests were Beverley Nichols, Noel Coward and Gertie Miller, a famous musical comedy star. Syrie, understandably on edge, was perhaps too effusive in making her rival comfortable. She seemed hyper. The odd threesome, constantly on eggshells, raised eyebrows among the guests. Nichols described it as "Design For Living as written by Tennessee Williams." Soon sparks were flying, words were exchanged (mostly over Syrie's billing her husband for the laundry) and Syrie left her own party early for London, creating a mini-scandal at the time. The tense weekend became the focal point of Beverley Nichols's later screed, in which he felt Somerset had behaved like a scoundrel, flaunting his idiosyncrasies in Syrie's face. The marriage, for all intents and purposes, was over, although the final official divorce decree was not granted until 1929.

Hastings chronicles another cause for scandal: an incident in which it appeared that Syrie had pretended to lose a valuable necklace for insurance purposes when in fact she had sold it. For Somerset it was the final nail in the coffin since he felt her mercenary approach to money might undermine his reputation. Syrie had a nervous breakdown at this point, while traveling with her daughter on a business trip to the States. She told Cecil Beaton that she'd spent "three whole nights in Central Park too miserable to go home."

Somerset bought the Villa Mauresque in the south of France and began the free-wheeling, bachelor life there that has been so well-chronicled. With her daughter in hand, a Rolls Royce and a handsome alimony, Syrie stayed in London, redoing a four-storey Georgian manse on King's Road, Chelsea and became one of the preeminent hostesses of the day.

Syrie's life continued in high style until her death in 1955 at 79 years of age. She never remarried and always claimed she was still in love with Maugham. Somerset, of course, lived on until his 90s. His mean-spirited attempt to disown his daughter and to tarnish Syrie's reputation blackened his name with some. Liza luckily was raised by Syrie, not Somerset, and turned out all right in the end. And that, in my book, speaks volumes about Syrie Maugham's character.