SOMERSET MAUGHAM’S LESSON ON SEXUAL NAIVETY, FRANCE, 1936
In the summer of 1936 Robert “Robin” Cecil Romer Maugham, later to be an author and the 2nd Viscount Maugham, but then a youth of twenty, went to stay with his uncle “Willie” Somerset Maugham, already famous as an author, at his home, the Villa Mauresque on the French Côte d'Azur. The following account of what happened is taken from his memoir, Escape From the Shadows, earlier episodes from which are Taming Mr. Rudge and Robin Maugham at Eton.
Somerset Maugham was living with an American companion called Gerald Haxton whom, the younger Maugham was soon to discover, served amongst other things as his uncle’s “pander […] to produce young boys who could creep into the Mauresque by the back door and sleep with him.” When he told his uncle and Haxton that he was in love with a girl in England, they derided his feelings as mere lust and arranged forthwith for him to visit a brothel (of women) in Nice, where he ended up sleeping happily with a prostitute his age, thus convincing himself that he was “perfectly normal” despite his earlier sexual experiences with boys.
Escape From the Shadows
The following day, when Willie had finished his morning’s work in his writing-room, perched high on the roof of the Villa Mauresque, with its large window blocked up so that he should not be distracted by the beautiful views of the sea, we drove down to Villefranche to lunch on the yacht which Willie had given Gerald. I was still pleased with myself because I had so thoroughly enjoyed making love to the girl in Nice the previous night.
That afternoon the weather was perfect. The sun shone down on us from a cloudless sky, and there was a light breeze. While the cabin boy was preparing the lunch, the three of us sat on the deck of the forty-ton sailing yacht drinking dry white wine. Gerald was in high spirits, for he adored the yacht. Willie was obviously delighted to see him so tranquil and content. Meanwhile, as the two of them gossiped about guests who had been to the Mauresque and others who were arriving, I found myself watching the sixteen-year-old cabin boy who was naked except for a bathing-slip. He was slender; his body had been turned to a golden-brown by the sun. His skin was very smooth. Suddenly - to my dismay - I realised that I was attracted to him. I wanted to take him forward. I wanted to unfasten the string that held his faded bathing-slip in position. I wanted to slide my hands along the length of his body. I wanted to make love to him.
I turned round on deck and lay on my stomach so that I could conceal the signs of my excitement. At that age I didn’t know that many people are ambisexual in this way.
* * *
The following evening, after dinner, Gerald took me to the casino in Nice. He’d spilt red wine down the front of his evening dress shirt earlier at dinner. He was already drunk when we arrived. He sat down at the chemin de fer table. The fact that he played wildly did not worry the management – they knew that, as always, Willie would pay his debts; however, the fact that he insulted almost everyone round the table did disturb them. A French player he would address as ‘frog-face’; any lady he would address, with a grin, as ‘you silly old bitch’. Presently the casino manager came up to me and told me that unless I removed Gerald he would have to call the police. To my surprise, when I told Gerald that I was tired and begged him to drive me back to the Mauresque in the Voisin Coupé we had taken out, he staggered to his feet without any argument. I took him by the arm and helped him to walk out of the casino and along the Promenade des Anglais to the car.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” Gerald kept saying. “I’ve got a wonderful surprise.”
I tried to make him let me drive, but he was too drunk to listen to reason. We swerved along the coast road until we reached Villefranche where Gerald turned right and drove down towards the harbour.
“Just wait till you see what’s waiting for you on the yacht,” he kept saying.
I followed Gerald as he staggered over the gangplank. The aft saloon was in darkness. Gerald switched on the lights. Lying on the double bunk, naked except for a pair of shorts, was a blond boy of about seventeen. As he lay there, his hair tousled, his limbs sprawled out in sleep, his lips slightly parted, his skin glowing like bronze in the dim lights of the saloon, he looked so innocent and beautiful that I felt the same keen stab of pain in my heart that I had felt a dozen years before when I had seen the farmer’s boy riding back from the hayfields.
As we came in, the boy awoke and stared at us drowsily. Then he sprang to his feet. He smiled as he greeted Gerald in French. As soon as he smiled, the look of innocence left him. His face was now transformed by a strange look of yearning - as if Gerald were the only person in the world who could grant the fulfilment of all his wishes. Gerald kissed him on the mouth, then glanced towards me.
“Laurent,” he said, “je veux t’introduire mon ami—Robin.”
Then Gerald turned back to me. “Robin.” he said, “this is my little friend Laurent. Have a good time with him. He’s a very sweet boy. You’ve nothing to fear.”
Gerald poured himself a glass of brandy from a bottle on the bar. Then he opened the door which led forward.
“Goodnight, ducks,” he said. “See you both in the morning.”
He lurched out of the door and closed it behind him. I was left alone with Laurent.
For a moment there was silence. Laurent was staring at me solemnly. I could feel my heart thudding. I believed that both of us had been put into an awkward predicament for, though I was only twenty, the boy might not want to share the bunk with me for the night.
“Puis-je t’offrir quelque chose à boire?” the boy asked.
“Please,” I answered. “I’d love a glass of wine.”
“Red or white?”
“Whichever you prefer.”
“It’s very sweet of you to say that,” the boy said. “But then I can see right off that you’re a very sweet person.”
Quickly he moved to the bar and poured out two glasses of red wine.
Then he crossed the little saloon and handed me my glass, and raised his own.
“Santé,” he said. He took a gulp of wine from his glass and put it down on the bar. Then he turned round and faced me. He smiled, and once again the strange look of yearning transformed his face. He stretched out his arms and put them round my neck. Suddenly he leaned forward and kissed my lips.
“N’aie pas peur,” he whispered. “Don’t be afraid.”
* * *
At dawn, he was still lying in my arms. His face was unlined, once again his lips were faintly parted. His teeth were small and very white. He looked like a child. Presently he awoke and stared up at me for a moment without recognition. Then he smiled.
“You’re very sweet. Do you know that?” he said. “But I must go. I must go to work. I work in a carpenter’s shop.”
“When can we meet again?” I asked.
“When you like,” he answered. “Any evening, or any time Sunday.”
I was so attracted to him that I could hardly bear to think of being parted from him for a whole day.
“What about tonight?” I asked.
“That’s all right,” he replied. “I’ll meet you here at ten o’clock.”
* * *
“How did you like little Laurent?” Gerald asked when we met by the swimming-pool at the Mauresque later that morning.
“I think he’s wonderful,” I answered. “I think he’s very sweet. If you’ve no objections we’re meeting on your yacht this evening at ten.”
Gerald laughed. “Well, you are a one,” he said. “And what about your beautiful girl-friend in England? What about your noble resolutions to be a fine, normal lad?”
“I know,” I said. “But I can’t help it. I’ve quite fallen for Laurent.”
Gerald put a hand on my shoulder and laughed again. “Well, for heaven’s sake, don’t feel guilty about it, ducky,” he said. “Enjoy yourself while you can. You’ve still got plenty of time to become a respectable Lord of Appeal like your father.”
* * *
That night there were guests for dinner. I had secretly arranged with Jean, the chauffeur, that he should drive me into Villefranche. At a quarter to ten I looked nervously at my watch. Willie noticed my glance.
“You must excuse my nephew Robin,” he announced to his guests. “I must tell you that he has to leave us all now. He has got a der-date with a girlfriend in Villefranche.”
I stared at Willie in surprise. His face was expressionless, but he gave me a slight wink.
* * *
Laurent was in the saloon drinking red wine when I arrived. He greeted me enthusiastically. The cabin boy was asleep forward, he told me. We had got the saloon to ourselves.
“Prends-tu un verre?” he asked me.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I’ve drunk enough already.”
Laurent smiled and begin to stroke my cheek.
“I don’t need another drink either,” he said. “So we can start making love right away.”
That night Laurent seemed to reach an ecstasy of passion. “Je t’ame,” he kept saying. “I love you.”
As I held him in my arms I stroked his wonderfully blond hair. I knew then that I was madly in love with this soft and slender creature whose lips and tongue were gently exploring my face. At dawn we were both still awake. Suddenly I realised that it must be Sunday. I kissed the boy’s forehead. “It’s Sunday,” I told him. “So you don’t have to leave.”
But Laurent shook his head. “I must go back home,” he said, “or my parents will be worried.”
“Can we meet somewhere this afternoon?” I asked him. “Would you like to go to a cinema with me?”
Laurent began to kiss my shoulder. “I can’t,” he murmured. “I’ve promised my parents I’d go out with them. I’ll meet you here tonight at ten o’clock as usual.”
* * *
After lunch that day at the Mauresque I went up to my bedroom for a siesta. I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about Laurent. I was appalled to realise that I really was in love with him. I felt that I was being horribly unfaithful to Gillian. It was less than six months ago that I had gone to Berlin with Gillian and her brother and mother for a holiday. One night, alone with Gillian at a café in the Unter den Linden, I had told her I was in love with her. I had even bought her a ring which I had given her as a token of my love and which she had accepted. I was indeed in love with Gillian. I was still in love with Gillian - I was sure of it. Yet here I was, sweating on my bed in the Mauresque, longing for the evening to come, so I could hold little Laurent in my arms and make love to him again. My room seemed to have become unbearably hot. I decided to go for a dip in the pool. I opened the door of my bedroom and stepped out on to the gallery which ran round the central patio of the house. At that moment I saw the door of Willie’s bedroom opposite open softly. And I saw Laurent come out of the room. I took a step back into my own room so that the boy should not see me. I watched him look around to make sure there was no one about. Then he closed the door carefully behind him and moved round the gallery towards the back stairs.
* * *
I found Gerald lying naked by the pool. He looked up at me. I tried to smile but I felt sick. Gerald was watching my face.
“So you’ve just seen dear little Laurent?” he said.
I couldn’t speak. I nodded my head.
“Well, ducky,” Gerald said, “you must remember you’re not the only queer around the place.”
Again I nodded my head.
“Then why so miserable?” Gerald asked - and for once his voice was very gentle.
“Because I’m in love with Laurent,” I answered. “I suppose you think I’m a complete fool?”
“Yes, ducky, I do.”
Gerald collected his bathrobe and walked down the garden steps towards the house.
* * *
That evening before dinner, when I walked into the long drawing-room the walls of which, in those days, were hung with paintings by Zoffany, Willie was sitting alone playing patience at the card-table at the far end of the room. When he saw me come in, he swept up the cards and stacked them together.
“Help yourself to a drink,” he said. “I want to talk to you.”
He moved across to the sofa.
“Sit down beside me,” he said. He watched me with his brown eyes, and waited for me to settle down before he spoke again.
“Gerald tells me that you’ve got a lech on Laurent,” he said. “Is that true?”
I took a long breath. “I’m in love with him,” I said.
“Balls!” Willie said. “You’ve just got a simple lech on him, that’s all. You want his body and you enjoy having him. Be honest with yourself. Rid yourself of cant. What do you know of that boy’s mind? What’s attracted you to him - apart from the fact that he’s a good performer in bed? Do you think for one single instant that he’s in love with you?”
I looked down at my glass. “Last night Laurent told me that he loved me,” I said.
“And you believed him?” Willie asked scornfully. “You per-poor idiot! Don’t you realise that he says that to every one of his clients? The boy may well be attracted to you, but that’s because you’re ler-lucky enough to have an extremely well-formed body. However, that’s not the reason he lets you fer-fuck him all night. He lets you have him because each time he goes with you, I pay him his standard tariff - which, in fact, is almost the equivalent of three pounds.”
Willie put down his glass and clasped and unclasped his hands. “The boy’s nothing more than an accomplished little prostitute,” he said. “The fact that he has persuaded you to believe that he’s in love with you has annoyed me quite considerably. I refuse to allow you to make a complete fool of yourself while you’re staying under my roof.”
I looked at Willie. He was shaking with anger. I turned away from him.
“I’ve sent Gerald down to the yacht to pay Laurent for tonight,” he continued. “Gerald will make sure that you never see the boy again.”
Willie was silent. He picked up his glass and began to drink. I glanced at him once more. To my amazement, he was smiling to himself as if he had just finished telling an amusing story. The change in his expression was extraordinary. Even in my dismay, I could not understand the reason for it.
Still smiling, Willie rose from the sofa, went back to the card-table and spread out seven cards face downwards, to begin a new game of patience.
 Published by Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1972.
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