William Somerset Maugham was an English playwright, novelist and short story writer. He was among the most popular writers of his era, and reputedly, the highest paid author during the 1930s.
Maugham’s mother died when he was eight years old, and his father died two years later. William was sent back to England to be cared for by his uncle. At 16, Maugham went to Germany to study literatrue, philosophy and German at Heidelberg University. He later attended medical school at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London.
Maugham’s first work, Liza of Lambeth, was inspired by his experience as a medical student. Liza of Lambeth proved popular with both reviewers and the public, and the first print run sold out in a matter of weeks. This was enough to convince Maugham, who had qualified as a doctor, to drop medicine and make writing his career.
By 1914 Maugham had had 10 plays produced and 10 novels published. During World War I, he served as a member of the British Red Cross's so-called "Literary Ambulance Drivers", a group of some 23 well-known writers including John Dos Passos and E. E. Cummings.
In June, 1917 he was asked to undertake a special mission in Russia to keep the Provisional Government in power and Russia in the war by countering German pacifist propaganda. Quiet and observant, Maugham had a good temperament for intelligence work; he believed he had inherited from his lawyer father a gift for cool judgment and the ability to be undeceived by facile appearances. Never losing the chance to turn real life into a story, Maugham made his spying experiences into a collection of short stories about a gentlemanly, sophisticated, aloof spy, Ashenden, a volume that influenced the Ian Fleming James Bond series.
Maugham spent most of World War II in the United States, first in Hollywood (he worked on many scripts, and was one of the first authors to make significant money from film adaptations) and later in the South. After the war, Maugham moved back to England, then in 1946 to his villa in France, where he lived, interrupted by frequent and long travels, until his death.
Maugham's masterpiece is generally agreed to be Of Human Bondage, a semi-autobiographical novel that deals with the life of the main character Philip Carey, who like Maugham, was orphaned, and brought up by his pious uncle. Later successful novels were also based on real-life characters: The Moon and Sixpence fictionalizes the life of Paul Gauguin; and Cakes and Ale contains thinly veiled characterizations of authors Thomas Hardy and Hugh Walpole. Maugham's last major novel was The Razor's Edge, published in 1944.