The moment a hint of October chill lifts the Lowcountry, my mind turns another page. By that I mean I am ready to sweater up and settle in for the armchair travel of a meaty read.
This year, with fall travel a nonstarter and the stateside cacophony at a fever pitch, I was all the more eager to take off for parts unknown, if only for the length of a book.
And that was when life began to imitate art.
The art in question was “The Razor’s Edge,” W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 globe-trotting, soul-searching novel, which centers on a character named Larry Darrell. An American World War I veteran, he eschews career prospects and material gain to instead seek spiritual wisdom, traveling as far as India to do so. The title references a verse in the Katha Upanishad that likens the road to attaining salvation to passing over the sharp edge of a razor.
Bill Murray devotees may recognize it as the 1984 film adaption that Murray co-wrote and starred in, which was itself a departure from the novel's original 1946 adaptation. To secure Columbia's approval of the project, Murray was said to have agreed to also star in "Ghostbusters."
As it happens, Maugham spun most of his wanderlusty, western-ways-questioning yarn right down the road. He was tucked away with pen and ponderings in a tiny cottage in Yemassee, South Carolina.
Learning more about this famous British novelist's curious Carolina interlude — by way of the French Riviera — seemed a fitting way to duck from poll-stalking and stuck-at-home sulking. So I slipped down to Yemassee in search of anything that had seeped into the soil to buoy my writerly spirits.
Swells down South
Driving down to the ACE Basin from Charleston, the mild fallish day showed subtle shades of a Lowcountry autumn, its marshes golden and oaks mellowed. Certainly, it was just the moss-draped romance and outdoor allure that in the 1930s was known to attract New Yorkers of considerable means, who in turn bid friends take the Amtrak to Yemassee Station for plantations that had been turned into bastions for hunting and recreation.
The area is still both bucolic and posh, a patchwork of properties that shift their acreage holdings among a few owners, reconfiguring to sell off or add on as suits, resulting in a persistent pleasure zone for wildlife enthusiasts.
Behind an eye-high hedge, Bonny Hall Plantation gleams, as prosperous and smart as it was in the days when it was purchased by publishing scion Nelson Doubleday.
Down the road aways, Auldbrass, the complex designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright, is now home to Hollywood producer Joel Silver. It boasts beyond its tilted fence zebras grazing and a blue-roofed new entertainment structure.
Across the way, the site for the famous scene in "Forrest Gump" pops into view.
Then, there's Parker's Ferry. Incidentally, inserting myself into the narrative of Maugham's former foothold in South Carolina is on message. The author had, after all, cast himself in “The Razor’s Edge,” by way of a famed British novelist narrator who was privy to the thoughts and actions of the others.
The life-imitates-art plot thickens, too. In the novel, an art dealer named Elliott Templeton offers the narrator an intimate entree into his extended Chicago family. Among them is his niece's fiance, Larry Darrell, whose disavowal of his expected path drives the story.
I had similarly secured my entree to Parker’s Ferry by way of an art dealer, Rob Hicklin, who deals in paintings related to the American South. In 2009, he and his wife Jane had purchased the 195-acre property that encompasses Maugham’s bungalow and writing cottage, which decades ago was sold off from nearby Bonny Hall.
In 1941, Maugham had temporarily relocated there from Villa La Mauresque, his home in Cap-Ferrat, fleeing the war. It was at the behest of his publisher, Nelson Doubleday, and Doubleday's wife Ellen, who offered to quickly build a bungalow and writer's cottage on Bonny Hall for "Willie," as Maugham was known.
In "Remembering Mr. Maugham," playwright-director Garson Kanin (who was the husband of Ruth Gordon) compiles journal entries regarding his longtime friend, who was in his late 60s when he landed at Parker's Ferry.
A June 1941 entry shares, "WSM tells friends that the Doubledays are going to build a house on their property ... In any case, it is good to know that he is safe. There is talk that he is connected with British Intelligence and has a definite assignment in the U.S.A."
Ted Morgan's biography "Maugham" corroborates this, by way of American novelist Glenway Wescott who visited Parker's Ferry. "On several occasions Maugham had mysterious visitors ... some of them in uniform. When Wescott asked about these visits, Maugham explained that he had not been sent to America merely to make speeches but also to work for British Intelligence and report on his fellow countrymen."
Since the days when Maugham lived there, the main bungalow has been enlarged, adding a second floor and building off the first. A dike is now in the marsh, which twice a day fills with water from the creek. The Hicklins also installed windows to Maugham's writing cottage, which presently stores frames and other such dealer needs.
"He didn't want windows in this building because the view would be distracting," Hicklin said.
Kanin's book shares that Maugham was no-nonsense with his new trappings, working out the details with Ellen Doubleday. He stipulated a separate cottage for writing, noting that "a writer must escape from the sound of the vacuum cleaner he if possibly can."
The decor was somewhat spartan, according to Kanin's journal entries. "He has been going over the plans with her and says he is going to furnish it from the plans, using Macy's. He explains that he is far more concerned with speed than aesthetics; further, that he has done one perfect house and does not wish to attempt anything like it here and now. It is to be utilitarian in concept. A temporary abode where he can live and work during this awful time."
When the Hicklins arrived in 2009, a local named Frank Fields Jr. was still working on the property. Fields, who has since died, told Hicklin that he worked for Maugham and that his mother, Cassie Mae Fields, cooked for Maugham.
"Frank said to me that his mother would make Maugham breakfast," Hicklin said, while the young Fields would reconstitute the fire and take him his coffee.
The way to "The Razor's Edge'
Maugham had come to Yemasee among other stateside stops, including Chicago, which served as a setting for “The Razor’s Edge,” as well as Los Angeles, where he crossed paths with writers Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard, who were both enthralled by the Upanishad philosophy of Vedanta. This, of course, bears out in the journey of the truth-seeking Larry in "The Razor's Edge."
According to Selina Hastings' "The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham," upon arrival, he instructed a cook by the name of Nora, who was wonderfully able with fried chicken and gumbo, to master the art of French cooking. Soon she was preparing onion soup and duck a l’Orange with impressive prowess.
His days were orderly, writing every morning, followed often by entertaining a glistening A-list of 1940s figures coming and going, evidenced by inscriptions of the stacks of books they left behind as gifts.
Eleanor Roosevelt was said to have taken pictures that Maugham admired. Hastings also shares that the two swapped recipes. Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt also snapped a slew for Life magazine, including one of a poised tweed-jacketed Maugham afloat in a johnboat along the marshy waterway, another of the eminence atop the house steps with his cook and housekeeper looking up at him, another of him departing the writer’s cottage.
According to Morgan's book, Dorothy Parker of the legendary Algonquin Round Table visited Yemassee, too, though she was said to have regarded the stay as the longest three weeks of her life, none-too-charmed by the subdued habits of her esteemed host, who sought only to play bridge, ultimately pronouncing, "That old lady is a crashing bore."
Charleston novelist and historian Harlan Greene learned of Wescott's stay while researching Dorothy Heyward, a playwright and the other half of DuBose Heyward. Wescott and Maugham connected in Charleston with Josephine Pinckney and Heyward, a novice cook who pretended otherwise before the entourage made a mad dash to the Dock Street Theatre for a live broadcast.
There was also Gerald Haxton, Maugham's tempestuous, alcoholic paramour who departed Yemassee after a brief stay for D.C., before being stricken with and succumbing to tuberculosis in 1944.
Maugham's nephew Robin, himself recovered from his wartime experience, then came to look after his grieving uncle. In his book, "Somerset and all the Maughams," he writes, "He refused to leave Parker's Ferry and he refused to meet anyone — even his closest friends. It was then that Ellen and Nelson Doubleday suggested that I come out to stay with him."
He continues, "Willie seemed inconsolable. But at least my arrival forced him to make a slight effort to recover. He took me up to dine with Ellen and Nelson Doubleday and their family in what we both called 'the big house,' and their friendliness and splendid if erratic hospitality did much to restore both of us."
In the end, Maugham’s war-fueled Southern sojourn served him well with a post-war audience craving spirituality. “The Razor’s Edge” was a bona fide best-seller, quickly rounding the 3-million-copy mark and securing its place in the western canon. After the war ended, Maugham returned to Villa La Mauresque, where he lived until his death in 1965.
The sojourn did me a world of good, too. From a little spot in South Carolina, I traveled the world with an all-but-broken soul named Larry in search of a greater good. I followed his trials in love and war, roving from Chicago to Paris to India, before landing squarely once more on South Carolina's fertile, storied soil.