Willie Maugham was one of the most successful of writers in the 20thcentury. He wrote one short story, “Rain,” that made him over one million dollars in the 1920s. You could say he was the rich man’s Truman Capote.
A short documentary gathers together some rare photos and film clips of his high-living. It’s called Revealing Mr. Maugham. But it is mostly apologetic for his transgressions and motive to write for money.
Maugham suffered from a stammer that made him less media attractive—but like Capote, he wrote about the gossip he heard, transforming the mud in novels. He was no great writer, like many contemporaries (James Joyce, Virginia Woolf or even Noel Coward) but he made big bucks and commanded movie versions (The Razor’s Edge).
Being secretly gay, he never played out or up his personality like Capote. Yet, he was notorious in his world travels to seek gay pleasure spots around the world. His “secretary” was actually his lover and procurer.
Maugham learned about human nature at medical school where he studied with Dr. Bell, the model for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. And, his understanding of sexuality was scientific and ahead of its time.
He was scarred by his brother Harry’s suicide over a homosexual scandal—and it may have sent Maugham into the closet for the rest of his life.
His companion Gerald Haxton helped him create Cap Ferrat, the idyllic “Fairyland,” that Edna St. Vincent Millay declared one visit. Her insight is not in the film. Nor does the film tell us of the monkey gland injections to maintain his masculine vigor in old age to host boys, boys, boys.
The documentary tries hard to give Maugham literary chops, but he was interested only in fame and money, whether as a playwright or as a story writer. Yes, he wrote spy stories before LeCarre and Greene, and he was an actual spy for the British government.
Yet, he became in senility a rather unpleasant, vindictive and manipulated old fool of his new “secretary,” who managed to steal everything through poisoning Maugham’s old mind.
The documentary shows how one can outlive his own standards.