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William Somerset Maugham
  Intro | Maugham | Hari | Smedley | Berg | Hiss | Bentley | Fleming | Philby | Ames | Pollard

Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular British writers of his time. He was born in the British Embassy in Paris in 1874 and grew up bilingual in English and French. He also spoke German. His father and grandfather had been prominent litigators in England and France, and though Maugham seemed destined to follow in their footsteps, he had a severe stutter and would never have been able to argue in a courtroom.

Maugham pursued a career in medicine and wrote fiction in his spare time. During World War I he worked for the Red Cross in France as an interpreter and medical assistant. In 1915, Maugham met an intelligence official, who recruited him to join the SIS, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. His first novel, Of Human Bondage, had just been published. The official suggested to Maugham that his language skills would benefit the intelligence service and that he could use his writing as a cover for his spying activities.

As an agent in the SIS, Maugham's first assignment was in Geneva, where he installed himself as a French playwright and succeeded in acting as an intermediary between other agents in the field and top intelligence authorities in Britain. Maugham sent coded messages, often embedded in a manuscript, which passed out of the country and back in without drawing the attention of the Swiss police. He worked for the SIS without pay as a patriotic gesture.

In 1917 Maugham thought his duties with the SIS were over, but when the Russian revolution broke out, Sir William Weisman, chief of British intelligence in the U.S., convinced him to go to St. Petersburg on another mission. Maugham was asked to gather intelligence on the German spy network developing in the Russian capital and to support the Mensheviks by countering Bolshevik plans to pull Russia out of the war. Posing as a writer for U.S. publications, Maugham met with Alexandr Kerenski, the socialist leader. Kerenski sent Maugham to London with a desperate request to the Allies to raise an anti-Bolshevik army. Maugham sent back significant information to London and developed a plan for the SIS to maintain a group of agents in Russia to combat German influence on the Provisional Government through propaganda and spying.

Maugham wrote a number of stories about his experiences in espionage. Warned prior to publication that some of the stories violated Britain's Official Secrets Act, he burned most of them. The surviving stories, including an account of his mission to Russia, were published in his 1928 book Ashenden. He gave a character in the book the name Somerville, the cover name he used during his real-life espionage activities in St. Petersburg.

Somerset Maugham is believed to be the first author of spy books who actually was a spy. Though his spy life provided ample fodder for his writing, he never had much enthusiasm for the work. In his foreword to Ashenden he wrote, "The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless."

Intro | Maugham | Hari | Smedley | Berg | Hiss | Bentley | Fleming | Philby | Ames | Pollard

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