Nigel West dons his dark glasses and fedora and heads to the Hotel d’Angleterre in Geneva, where Somerset Maugham stayed as a spy in the First World War. Has Maugham’s destroyed book been found?
THE EXPLOITS OF John Ashenden, Willie Somerset Maugham’s British agent in the First World War, were undoubtedly based on the author’s own experiences. The release of Ashenden in 1928 was a milestone, acknowledged as the very first spy novel of the modern genre. Quite simply, Maugham’s collection of short stories began a rich literary seam that would be followed by John Dickson Carr, John Bingham, Kenneth Benton, Graham Greene, John le Carré, and his old friend Ian Fleming, all of whom served as British intelligence officers and relied on their inside knowledge to lend their thrillers a certain verisimilitude.
What singles out Maugham is that his sequel to Ashenden was destroyed, on instructions from Winston Churchill who felt that his first volume has strayed perilously close to infringing the Official Secrets Act, and the second represented a potential breach of national security. It took Maugham ten years of negotiations to achieve approval for publication, but the author is said to have burned all fourteen chapters of the sequel, and for the past eighty years the loss has been a well-documented tragedy.
Now, however, rumours are circulating within the intelligence community that the Hotel d’Angleterre, the centre of the original Ashenden adventures, holds the key to one of the greatest The d’Angleterre remains the finest hotel in Geneva, a relatively small, privately-owned boutique establishment overlooking the lake, and his room on the third floor was where Maugham was based for eight months in 1915 and 1916 when he was responsible for running clandestine Secret Intelligence Service operations in Switzerland. Already a wealthy man and renowned playwright, Maugham took no salary from SIS to recruit and run agents in a network that succeeded in penetrating the Central Powers. Like Ashenden, Maugham lived in the d’Angleterre and took the nearby ferry across the lake to Thonon-les-Bains, on the French side of the frontier, to report to the local SIS headquarters.
Wartime Switzerland was a veritable vipers’ nest of espionage, a crossroads for dispossessed aristocrats, penniless refugees and intelligence professionals seeking valuable information. Ashenden’s fellow-guests at the d’Angleterre included every kind of suspicious character, from the obvious German spy to the lady of doubtful virtue who was in the market for blackmail and worse. The cast of characters included French, Greeks, Russians, Turks and even an Egyptian prince, a close relative of the khedive.
Maugham (pictured left) needed little imagination to weave a series of memorable tales of intrigue, conspiracy and treason, and who could forget The Hairless Mexican, his account of a ruthless assassin sent on a mission to murder an enemy courier, or Giulia Lazzari, the attempt to entrap a dangerous Indian fugitive? Evidently Maugham’s stories were rather too close to the truth, and Churchill intervened to ensure the other chapters would never emerge to embarrass His Majesty’s Government.
WHILE THE ORIGINAL Ashenden contains details of real cases that Maugham was involved with, the belief has been that Churchill’s suppression of the other chapters was justified because of the sensitivity of the issues he covered. Perhaps clues to individual agents working for the Crown, or nefarious dealings with neutral countries that required lasting discretion. Yet it seems that the fabulous Hotel d’Angleterre can be credited with much more than having set the scene for one of the greatest spy novels of all time, and perhaps even the repository of the literary discovery of the era.
When Maugham was in residence, the d’Angleterre’s main entrance was on the Quai de Mont-Blanc, its magnificent fin de siècle facade overlooking the shore, but now the doors are around the corner on the rue de Monthoux. As one of several long-term English guests in the hotel, Maugham adopted the cover of an author seeking solitude to complete a play, but his covert activities took him twice a week to the Place du Bourg-de-Four market to exchange messages with his courier, a French woman from Annemasse, across the frontier, who sold eggs and butter.
Her real purpose was to pass on SIS’s instructions to Maugham. This item was but one indiscreet detail to be found in Ashenden, but it may be that much more will be revealed in the manuscript of the sequel which allegedly has been uncovered in dramatic circumstances, hidden in a collection of sketches sold in Geneva’s famous Plainpalais flea market.
Is there a connection between the recent refurbishment of the d’Angleterre (pictured left) and the literary treasure trove found on the east bank, half a mile away? Very possibly, but whatever the document’s provenance, there is no denying the central role played by this remarkable hotel in this quintessentially cosmopolitan city still inhabited by international bureaucrats, bankers and spies.
Following the lead established by Maugham, luxurious hotels have been the favoured backdrop for the modern espionage genre. The first James Bond thriller, Casino Royale, which was published a quarter of a century after Ashenden, opens in the imaginary Hotel Splendide in Fleming’s invented casino resort Royale-les-Eaux, a seaside town described as “north of Dieppe,” but the combination of Le Touquet, Deauville, Trouville, Estoril and Biarritz is immediately apparent. The manuscript was sent to Maugham to read before publication, and he gave an enthusiastic endorsement to his friend, who had by then just married to his favourite woman companion Anne Rothermere.
While Ashenden had declined to complain to the police about the noisy night-time revelers leaving the casino next to the d’Angleterre (which happily departed to a new location several decades ago), Fleming adored gambling and visited gaming houses whenever the opportunity arose, including Monte Carlo, which at the time was owned by his friend Aristotle Onassis, and the less familiar one in the spa town of Pau in the Pyrenees.
ACCORDING TO FLEMING, Royale was enjoying new popularity, and to add authenticity to his fictional spa “near the mouth of the Somme” he mentioned the famous “Greek Syndicate”, headed by the Nicholas Zographos, the legendary “Nick the Greek” who in 1919 had taken over the baccarat table at Monte Carlo, having used his astonishingly prodigious memory, capable of recalling all 312 cards in a baccarat shoe, to run the card games until his death in 1953.
007, Fleming revealed, had spent two months in Monaco “just before the war”, tackling a Romanian gang using invisible ink and dark glasses to cheat at cards. Bond would visit Royale again in On her Majesty’s Secret Service and locate it within a few kilometers of Montreuil and Le Touquet. In reality, Fleming and his wife preferred the South of France and frequently were Maugham’s guests at his home, the famous Villa Mauresque at Cap Ferrat.
Ashenden not only inspired Fleming to invent James Bond, but his various missions from the Hotel d’Angleterre had an impact on John le Carré, another SIS retiree, albeit from a different era, who recalled that Ashenden “certainly was an influence in my work,” and on Graham Greene, who praised “that witty and realistic fiction.” Eric Ambler, though never an intelligence professional himself, said he had been “strongly influenced by the Ashenden ethos” while Raymond Chandler claimed “there are no other great spy series – none at all. I have been searching and I know.”
Today the third floor of the Hotel d’Angleterre enjoys a view across the lake that is remarkably unchanged. The small passenger ferries still criss-cross the water to the French side, and occasionally one can catch sight of a likely spy loitering in the lobby, perhaps waiting for a rendezvous with a source carrying secret papers from a nearby United Nations office. At any moment one expects Ashenden to slip into the dining-room and cast his perceptive eye over the unfolding drama.