W. Somerset Maugham - 48th Anniversary of Death (16 December 1965)

a photo of W. Somerset Maugham
W. Somerset Maugham

When my obituary notice at last appears in The Times, and they say: "What, I thought he died years ago," my ghost will gently chuckle. (A Writer's Notebook xvi)

W. Somerset Maugham: "Teller of Tales," "Famed Writer," "The Last of the Giants of English Literature"

"In the end a writer is not judged by popular attention but by the worth of what he wrote, and how well it may endure the test of the years," wrote an anonymous contributor in the Montreal Gazette on 17 December 1965.

For those who have read this blog before, I have to apologize for what is going to be an excessively long post with long quotes, which is not usually how I write. I think the occasion warrants the deviation. Forty-eight years ago, W. Somerset Maugham died on this day, early morning. What I propose to do is to put side by side passages from different biographers about these last moments and put the links I have found to obituaries in newspapers. A virtual shrine, if you like, without candles and teddies and flowers and hearts, but something else. I know not what. Remembrance? Gratitude? A sense of humour? Head nodding? A shrug of the shoulders? A chill down the spine? Images of places one has never been to branded into one's mind? A shifting feeling that has come and gone but somehow captured on the page? An infinite compassion from the lack of blame? Simply acceptance, of flaws, of frustrated wishes, lives? To be reminded that we are all humans?

What Maugham's Biographers say

From Wilmon Menard's The Two Worlds of Somerset Maugham (1965)

When Menard saw Maugham the last time in January 1964, Maugham said to him:
"But I don't have the slightest fear of death when it does strike. All of my affairs are in order, and I am resigned. And, as I totter on the brink of the grave, I am of no special anxiety. I agree with La Rochefoucauld that, when you are young, neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye. But when you are old, you become conditioned to not averting your gaze so readily from the awesome and obvious factors in life. I know that my beliefs in rejecting God and immortality are sound and logical. No great messages from wise men of the world have been forthcoming with proof, to establish the existence of God. Bacon said that men fear death as children fear to go into the dark, and as the natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.
"The only trepidation I've ever had about death is dying aboard a ship and being dumped over the side into the ocean. I could never stomach that terrible prospect. That is why I have remained in my villa these past years, rather than indulging my love of travel and being between ports at sea when death snatches at me. I subscribe to Shakespeare's 'I would fain die a dry death.'
"The day will come," He predicted, in a voice barely above a whisper, "when Christianity will be as archaic as Mayan sun-worship. And I don't think that there are any existing religions to provide a foundation for a new faith for mankind. If the exigencies, the horrors, the worries, the disappointments of life are so unbearable to man that he must have a mollifying belief in a Supreme Being, then a totally new religion must be invented. Clearly, man must have his refuge from despair. Science and philosophy, because they are too specialised branches of knowledge for the masses, would be of little benefit to him. As man must have an opiate to ease himself through life, the prospect of spiritual salvation in the future is not too reassuring.
"Well, anyway, as for myself, I look forward to death as one might contemplate falling off to sleep at night, comfortably and without any anxieties. Lately, every night when I have gone to bed, I have remained awake a short time thinking how nice it would be now if I just couldn't be aroused in the morning.
"When Alan says goodnight to me, I always tell him: 'Just hold the good thought for me, dear loyal friend, that I won't wake up in the morning.' I know it disturbs him a bit my saying that, but that is my wish. 'For there is no God found stronger than death; and death is a sleep.'"

From Robin Maugham's Somerset and All the Maughams (1966):

After his ninetieth birthday Willie's moods grew more violent, and he seemed more tormented. He would sit muttering angrily to himself in a corner of the drawing room, and he was apt to fly into a sudden rage with anyone of the few guests who were invited to the house. Sometimes his face was contorted with malevolence and his small eyes glittered with hatred, and he would jabber obscenities. Then the fit would leave him, and he would bury his face in his hands, moaning that he was a horribly evil man. On such frightening occasions I would find an odd thought entering my head. I would wonder if in some way Willie's remorse sprang from a feeling that he had at some stage made a pact with the powers of evil. Perhaps he believed that the Devil had come to him in his youth and said, "I will make you the most famous writer alive if you will give me your soul," and Willie had answered, "Done!" And now the Devil was coming to claim what belonged to him.
But I must try to forget Willie in his nineties. I must remember him as he was when I first got to know him well, during the years before the war. I must think of excursions with him and Gerald Haxton on their yacht. I will remember long happy days with the deck gleaming in the sunshine of Villefranche Bay, and I will recall Willie's kindness to me then, and I will recall his wit. His wit never altogether left him to the end. "Dying," he said to me, "is a very dull, dreary affair." Suddenly he smiled. "And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it," he added.
Willie died on December 16, 1965. Looking back, I realize that though I sometimes feared him, I was fond of him; but I am afraid I never understood him. Very few of his friends ever pierced the layers of morbid shyness caused by the misery of his youth; few ever caught a glimpse of his real character.

From Garson Kanin's Remembering Mr. Maugham (1966)

15 December 1965. Beverly Hills.
Somerset Maugham is dead. A few minutes ago, at the beginning of the eleven-o'clock news on CBS, the announcer speaks "the teaser":
"Life in the sky and death on earth," he says. "These stories and others, after this message."
A commercial, during which I say to Ruth [my wife, Ruth Gordon], "I'm afraid he's gone. It has that sound."
"Yes," she says.
The announcer returns with the news we have been half expecting, half dreading for the past five days.
It is over, then. Our good friend is no more.
An era ends. A most civilized and articulate link with a gentler time is broken.
As with the death of all great men, his is only partial. His ravaged body will soon be ash; his brain is blacked out; his spirit, extinguished—but the best of him, his work, remains. In addition, those of us who were fortunate enough to know him have a legacy of rich remembrance.
He lived for ninety-one years, ten months and fifteen days.
11 December 1965. Beverly Hills.
There is one word in the news dispatches from St. Jean-Cap Ferrat which has been gnawing at me all day—the word "fall." It is reported that Maugham had a bad fall on December 10. We wonder how such a thing could have happened. He has been ill and under care and supervision. Was he allowed to walk about? Did he fall out of bed? What sort of fall? What broke it? His elbow, his knee, his head? Was the fall caused by the stroke or was it the other way about?
12 December 1965. Beverly Hills.
We kept buying all the newspapers. There are AP dispatches, Reuter's, UPI, and others. It seems strange that no further mention of the fall is made in any of the medical bulletins. Am I making too much of this? He is a very old man rally and his time appears to have run out. Accept the fact.
14 December 1965. Beverly Hills.
The New York Times carries a short item today. WSM is recovering. Can it be? After a stroke at ninety-one? Has he sufficient power to come out of the coma and back into life? It is hard to believe, yet his physician is directly quoted as saying, "He is responding to our treatment."
"We are creatures of habit," WSM often said.
His body, after ninety-one years, is finding it difficult to break its habit of living.
Across the six thousand miles and more—we cheer him on.
It strikes me today that WSM pursued his profession for sixty-nine years. Is this not the longest writing career ever?

From Richard Cordell's Somerset Maugham. A Writer For All Seasons. A Biographical and Critical Study (1969):

At the end of one particularly ghastly day he fell and cut his head badly. The next day he fell again, and when Alan picked him up, he said, "Why, Alan. I want to say thank you and goodbye." These were his last words. He suffered a stroke immediately afterward on December 11, 1965, and never regained consciousness and died on December 16. He had asked that his ashes be buried in England.

Frederic Raphael's Somerset Maugham and His World (1976):

At last, in the winter of 1965 he was taken gravely ill at the Villa Mauresque and transported to the British-American Hospital in Nice. He had always wanted to die at the Villa. He was almost ninety-two years old when Alan Searle, knowing that there was nothing further to be done, had him moved once more to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat where, on 16 December 1965, he died.

From Anthony Curtis's Somerset Maugham (1977):

In December 1965, a few weeks short of his ninety-second birthday, he was taken, seriously ill, to the British American Hospital in Nice. When it became clear that nothing could be done to save him he was taken back to the Mauresque where he died in his own room, his mother's photograph by his bed, on 15 December. At prayers in The King's School on the following morning they stood in silence remembering in gratitude his life and work.

From Ted Morgan's Somerset Maugham (1980):

In December, two months short of his ninety-second birthday, the end came. On December 8 he fell in the garden and gashed a shinbone. On December 12 he tripped over a carpet before lunch and fell in front of the fireplace, cutting his head. He went to bed, awoke during the night, got out of bed, and fell again. Alan found him unconscious on the floor of his bedroom. When he picked him up, Maugham said: "Why, Alan, where have you been, I've been looking for you for months. I want to shake your hand and thank you for all that you've done for me." Those were his last words. Alan took him to the Anglo-American Hospital in Nice, which had been found in 1906 as a memorial to Queen Victoria. On December 13 he slipped into a coma. His lungs were congested, he was feverish, and his blood was not reaching his brain. On December 14 he lost his leg reflexes and was given oxygen. On December 15 he died in the hospital, but because of a French law that required autopsies for hospital deaths, he was taken back to the Mauresque in an ambulance, and Alan announced on the sixteenth that he had died at home. On the 11 o'clock C.B.S. news that night in New York the announcer said, "Life in the sky and death on earth, these stories and others, after this message." Life in the sky was about Mars, and death on earth was about Maugham.

From Robert Calder's Willie. The Life of W. Somerset Maugham (1989):

By late November Maugham's condition had deteriorated to the point that power of attorney was given to Searle. Then, on 10 December, Maugham tripped on a carpet and fell, cutting the side of his face on the corner of a table. Dr Rosanoff was summoned to apply a bandage, but when he left Maugham childishly tore it off and made the injury worse. In the middle of the night, he got up, tripped again and hit his head on the corner of a mantelpiece. This second blow seemed to snap him back to a sense of reality, and, as if returning from some long, dark, and confused journey, he exclaimed to Searle: "I've been looking for you two years and we have much to talk about. I want to thank you and say goodbye."
Shortly after uttering these words Maugham lapsed into a coma, and he was rushed to the Anglo-American Hospital, where it was determined that he had suffered a stroke. Dr Rosanoff called in a heart specialist and a neurologist, who concluded that the arteries in his brain had weakened so much the circulation was blocked in many places. He was put in an oxygen tent, and Dr Rosanoff reported that his strength "is slowly failing him, but his body is fighting back with energy."
On 14 December Maugham's condition improved, with his temperature returning to normal and the congestion in his lungs clearing up. Nevertheless, Rosanoff, now besieged almost hourly by reporters, observed that only a miracle could save him. Faced with this inevitability, Searle told the press that he wished to take his friend back to the Villa Mauresque because he had always wanted to die in his own house. Rosanoff, however, was adamant that his patient should remain in hospital until his condition was absolutely desperate.
By the next day, the coma had deepened, his temperature had begun to rise markedly, and it was clear that death was imminent. In the early hours of 16 December Rosanoff and Searle summoned an ambulance, and for the last time Maugham made the winding journey along Cap Ferrat to the villa. Though he could not have been aware of it, he was home among the possessions collected in a lifetime, in sight of the sea that had called him from his boyhood in Whitstable. At 3.30 a.m., an hour after he arrived, he died in his room, surrounded by three pictures of his mother and by Alan Searle. The pattern, with all its imperfections, was complete.

From Selina Hastings' The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (2009):

At the beginning of December Maugham tripped on a corner of carpet, fell and cut his head, and shortly afterwards he developed pneumonia. An ambulance was called and he was taken to the Anglo-American Hospital in Nice, where he could be looked after by his personal physician, Dr Rosanoff. Here Maugham remained for over a week, lying semi-comatose in a ground-floor room whose French windows looked out on to a garden and a distant view of the Mediterranean. Camped outside the main entrance of the hospital was a growing crowd of reporters, photographers and cameramen, to whom a daily briefing was delivered with considerable élan by the flamboyant Dr Rosanoff, proud of his sudden celebrity status and enjoying every moment of his performance. Meanwhile in his hospital room Maugham grew restless, disturbed by the strong mistral blowing outside which rattled the windows. A young English nurse who came in to sit with him found her patient anxious and confused, desperately in need of comfort. When she tucked in his blankets, he asked her to get into bed with him. "It wasn't sexual," she said, "he wanted comfort"; he wanted to be held as his mother had held him when he was a small child, and she fetched a soft bolster and laid it up against his back which seemed to soothe him. During the early hours of 16 December Maugham died, barely a month short of his ninety-second birthday. The doctor on duty was summoned. "Il est mort," he confirmed. Alan was telephoned and within the hour arrived from the Mauresque. Quickly and under cover of darkness Maugham's body was carried into the car and driven back to the villa, from where during the course of the morning it was announced to the world that Somerset Maugham had died in his bed at home, thus avoiding the autopsy that would otherwise have been required.

Comments on the Biographies

These are the biographies that I have at hand. It is certainly amusing to observe the differences among them, even the factual details; the morbid pleasure that some take in describing the degrading behaviour of the last years of the raging Old Party almost jumps out of the page. Readers will have to judge which version suits their taste. Likely Maugham will gently chuckle to notice that they don't even agree on the date of his death. Naturally it depends on where the authors stand (physically and geographically), and that, in itself, tells quite a bit how they treat their subject.

Obituaries Available Online

I have found links to some newspaper archives which registered Maugham's death. There are more (of course Cyril Connolly's, published on 19 December 1965, included in Cordell and White's The Critical Heritage), I am sure, but these are what I have found so far.

The Lewiston Daily Sun - 16 December 1965
The Milwaukee Journal - 16 December 1965
The Milwaukee Sentinel - 16 December 1965
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - 16 December 1965
The Pittsburgh Press - 16 December 1965
Toledo Blade - 16 December 1965
The Age - 17 December 1965
The Montreal Gazette - 17 December 1965
The Tuscaloosa News - 26 December 1965 For those who like Maugham, don't miss this one!
La Nación - 7 July 1966

This is my tribute to W. Somerset Maugham.

The Two Worlds of Somerset Maugham at AbeBooks
The Two Worlds of Somerset Maugham at Amazon.com
Two Worlds of Somerset Maughamat AmazonUK

Somerset and All the Maughams at AbeBooks
Somerset and All the Maughams at Amazon.com
Somerset and All the Maughams at AmazonUK
It can also be borrowed from the Open Library, please visit Criticism of W. Somerset Maugham

Remembering Mr. Maugham at AbeBooks
Remembering Mr Maugham at Amazon.com
Remembering Mr. Maugham at AmazonUK

Somerset Maugham. A Writer For All Seasons at AbeBooks
Somerset Maugham, a writer for all seasons at Amazon.com
Somerset Maugham: a Writer for All Seasons at AmazonUK

Somerset Maugham and His World at AbeBooks
W. Somerset Maugham and His World at Amazon.com
Somerset Maugham and His World at AmazonUK
It can also be borrowed from the Open Library, please visit Criticism of W. Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham by Curtis at AbeBooks
Somerset Maugham by Curtis at Amazon.com
Somerset Maugham by Curtis at AmazonUK

Somerset Maugham by Morgan at AbeBooks
Somerset Maugham by Morgan at Amazon.com
Somerset Maugham by Morgan at AmazonUK

Willie at AbeBooks
Willie at Amazon.com
Willie at AmazonUK
It can also be borrowed from the Open Library, please visit Criticism of W. Somerset Maugham

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham at AbeBooks
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham at Amazon.com
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham at AmazonUK


  1. Rather chilling post. Though not exactly to my taste, I appreciate your taking the trouble to extract all those accounts. They make a fascinating read in parallel. The obituaries, even more so. The factual inaccuracy in the latter is staggering. "...Maugham turned out 25 plays, 30 novels and 120 short stories." Really!

    But I must say that one of the few things I disagree with Willie about is that the subject is important, indeed as important as the life. I don't think it is. The final of one movie - I'm not quite sure which one, but I think it was "The Last Samurai" with Tom Cruise - put it very well:

    "Tell me how he died."
    "I'll tell you how he lived."


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