The Cap Ferrat dangles like an earring from the Riviera coastline, its shores adorned with sumptuous villas. In the early years of the 20th century many of them were owned by King Leopold II of Belgium.
In 1926 one of them, the Villa Mauresque (Moorish Villa), which had been built to house the King’s personal priest (Leopold’s nocturnal frolics required convenient access to a doctor and a confessor), was bought by the English novelist and playwright, W. Somerset Maugham.
It was to be his home and refuge for the next 40 years: when his lawyer suggested that he put the villa in his daughter’s name to avoid estate duties, he said, ‘Thank you, I’ve read King Lear.’
After the French surrender in World War II, Mussolini’s troops occupied the Riviera as a token defence against an Allied invasion. As the Italians arrived the British were evacuated, Maugham leaving on the last coal ship. There was no first class: the 500 passengers enjoyed toilet facilities for only the 38-man crew. Seven people died on the voyage.
Maugham spent the rest of the war in South Carolina. By the time he returned, his villa had been ravaged by the forces of three nations. The Italians had pillaged his wine cellar and smashed the porcelain lining of his swimming pool; the Germans had removed his art collection and mined the street; the Allied fleet, in attempting to destroy the lighthouse, had left an unexploded shell lodged in his bedroom.
Eventually restored the Villa Mauresque became renowned for its lavish hospitality: crime writer E. Phillips Oppenheim wrote, ‘Everyone on the Riviera accepts an invitation from Maugham at any time they are lucky enough to receive it’. It was a writers’ Mecca, its pampered pilgrims including T. S. Eliot, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Arnold Bennett, Ian Fleming and Harpo Marx.
Being writers, his guests recorded their impressions of the ageing Maugham – and not always favourably. Virginia Woolf found him ‘like a dead man’ and Noël Coward called him ‘the lizard of Oz’. After Evelyn Waugh dined at the Villa Mauresque in 1930 he wrote, ‘he [Maugham] asked what someone was like and I said “a pansy with a stammer.” The Picassos on the walls blanched.’
After the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, the 21-tear-old Maugham, like many middle-class homosexual men, had left the country. He used to say of his first glimpse of the Mediterranean at Capri that that was when his life began. It was at the Villa Mauresque, in the early hours of 16 December 1965, that it ended – still within sight of his beloved Mediterranean. He was 91.
Today, much rebuilt and painted the colour of overcooked scrambled eggs, the villa stands facing the avenue Somerset Maugham. Its walls carry the universal icon of American occupancy, a basketball net. But one Maugham icon has survived: the gate post bears his personal talisman, the mystical Moorish sign that appeared on all his books – the hand of Fatima warding off the evil eye.