Any woman who lives in the shadow of a powerful man and chafes at the fact that her own accomplishments, as impressive as they may be, will never measure up to his will relish the story of Syrie Maugham. How could her decorating business, so ephemeral and trivial by nature, possibly be equated with her husband’s career? Somerset Maugham, was after all, one of the 20th century’s most successful writers. Well, wouldn’t Syrie be pleased to know that as her husband fades into the deadly obscurity of writers nobody reads anymore, she seems to be everywhere, the latest thing.
Syrie was one of the pioneers of the world of decorating/design/style/entertaining/makeover/Martha Stewart that has become so important to so many of us today. And although she did not invent the profession of interior decorator (that honor goes to Elsie de Wolfe; before Elsie you went to a big furniture store and told them to outfit your house), she was the first to turn it into an art form. Elsie was formal and correct and respectful. Syrie grabbed ideas from many sources, like Picasso. She pickled and crackled surfaces. She used strange colors. She added whimsy. She did the first all-white room.
To show you what I’m talking about, artist Don Brandes and I have invented this imaginary Syrie Maugham room, complete with many of her signature elements. The antique Chinese wallpaper, for instance. The mirrors, particularly the mirrored screen blocking an awkward window. The shallow niches. The Regency chairs. The colors: corals and salmons and golds and light blues. The modern rug. The plaster palm tree torcheres. The sideboard supported by giant fish. It’s certainly a lot more contemporary than Of Human Bondage, you have to admit.
Syrie’s life was a great deal messier than her rooms. As I mentioned, she was the first decorator to do an all-white room, and perhaps only someone as imperfect as she would need the perfection of such a space. She was the daughter of a famous Victorian social reformer, Dr. Barnardo, who founded a chain of orphanages (“No Child Turned Away” was the motto), and she grew up as part of an extended family of orphans and rich do-gooders, something that seems to have influenced her later life in no way whatsoever.
Her first marriage was to an American, George Wellcome, the founder of Bouroughs Wellcome pharmacuticals. Syrie and George had a mentally retarded son who was sent to live with a farm family, as was the custom in those days. Syrie left Wellcome for a liaison with another American, Gordon Selfridge, the owner of the famous London department store. By the time she married Maugham in 1919, she was 37 and had been around the block.
The thought that she might become Mrs. Somerset Maugham obsessed her. Though an unusually independent woman for her time, the right marriage was everything. It wasn’t the love and companionship, it was the prestige. She chased Maugham around two continents until they were finally married—in Jersey City, of all places.
I was about to write that at this period Maugham was at the height of his fame, but he was at the height of his fame during most of the 20th century. His first success was Liza of Lambeth in 1897, and from then on he was rarely off the best-seller lists. His specialty was the depiction of British colonial life in the Far East, and he traveled incessantly. Today he is remembered mostly as the guy who gave Bette Davis some of her best roles—Mildred in Of Human Bondage, and a jilted adulterous murderess in The Letter, which is the most sublime mixture of Maugham and Davis. (Of course, he also gave us Joan Crawford in Rain, so I guess it works both ways.)
The big problem with the marriage was that “Willie” (as he was known) did all that incessant traveling with a male secretary. He seems to have been truly bisexual, having had affairs with various actresses and society women over the years. But Syrie, for all her taste and good manners, proved to be more daunting. All through his life Willie would complain about Syrie’s “insatiable sexual demands.”
But the worst part was when she sold his desk. He came home from lunch one day to discover that his treasured desk—something very important to a writer—had been sold to the Duchess of Portarlington. From then on it was war.
Back in those days, women from the upper classes certainly did not work, the one exception being that certain “artistic” types were allowed to open boutique-like shops as an outlet for their creative energies. This is the path Syrie took to success, and when the Depression happened, her shop took on a financial importance. Unfortunately, this seemed to bring out her ruthless streak. She was always in trouble with the tax man, she smuggled things to avoid paying duty, her bills were outrageous, and she acquired the reputation of selling phony antiques.
The Maughams had a daughter, although after reading three different books about them I’m still uncertain as to whether Willie is the real father. Syrie doted on Liza; Willie would later disinherit her and legally adopt a male secretary, a sensation that much delighted the media. And when Syrie died in 1950, 10 years before her divorced husband, his reaction on hearing the news was to break into a little song, “Tra la la la la, no more alimony.”
For all his success, Maugham has never entered the pantheon of great writers. True, his books are still in print, and eminently readable, but they are not in the canon of great English literature. Even Maugham knew this. He summed himself up as “at the top of the B list.”
Not so Syrie. Her clients in London were as A list as you can get, including the Prince of Wales and the notorious Mrs. Simpson. She was even more popular in the United States and is largely responsible for much of the terrific visual style that still lingers in the more old-fashioned corners of Palm Beach. Her specialty was glamorous rooms for people of privilege. Everyday life did not intrude. Beauty, a certain kind of romantic, voluptuous beauty, was everything. After all, who can actually live in an all-white room? It is a fantasy by definition.
New books are coming out about Syrie—including one by yours truly. And the furniture and accessories that she designed are hunted down and paid small fortunes for. Could it be that she’ll be remembered as the genius, not her husband? It’s an outcome that no one would ever have predicted—not even Syrie.