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W Somerset Maugham

Born: 25 January 1874

Died: 16 December 1965

Intelligence involvement: Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) during World War One.

Culture involvement: Author of popular plays, novels and short stories. Reputedly the best paid author of the 1930s.

Bio: William Somerset Maugham was born into a diplomatically connected family, indeed he was born in the British Embassy in Paris. Both parents died by the time he was 10 years old and he was raised, in effect an only child despite having several siblings, by one of his uncles. Despite the family background mostly being made up of lawyers, Maugham trained as a doctor before the instant success of his second book convinced him to become a writer.

He then gave up medicine and took to travelling and writing full time, and in 1908 wrote a book called The Magician, in part inspired by Aleister Crowley.  In 1915 he was recruited into SIS/MI6 by John Wallinger.  After a period in Switzerland he was then asked by William Wiseman to go to Russia as part of an attempt to help the Russian Provisional Government fend off the threat from the Bolsheviks.

Maugham and the other MI6 agents failed in this effort, but Maugham used these experiences as the basis for his popular and very influential short story series published as Ashenden: Or the British Agent in 1928.  Two of these stories were adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1936 for his film Secret Agent, and several others were adapted by the BBC for television in 1991 (at the end of the Cold War).  The Ashenden stories are widely considered to have influenced later spy authors such as Ian Fleming, John Le Carre and Graham Greene.


Somerset Maugham’s usefulness to the establishment did not end after WW1. During the second World War he was one of a number of writers approached by the government to write stories or articles ‘on the results of careless talk’. At the time the government was trying to enforce the strictest secrecy about what it was doing, and there were huge propaganda campaigns to persuade the public not to talk about what they knew. In March 1940 the Committee on Issue of Warnings Against Discussion of Confidential Matters in Public circulated a report on their activity, which you can download here (PDF 400KB). In the same month one of Maugham’s Ashenden spy stories was used as a propaganda broadcast by the government, as detailed in the 8th Report by the Minister of Information to the War Cabinet, which you can download here (PDF, 2.73MB).