An Intriguing "Rosebud"-like Mystery Surrounding a Personal Item Containing the Last Words Somerset Maugham Ever Wrote[W. Somerset Maugham]. Maugham's Spectacle Case On Which Are Written "The Last Words He Ever Wrote" - With Signed Letter of Provenance From Alan Searle - From the Estate of George Cukor.
Somerset Maugham's spectacle case, measuring approximately 2.5 X 6.5 inches, made of red silk with blue, green, purple, white and gold Asian-inspired floral decorations. Fraying at open end. Words written in Maugham's hand on an inside cream silk flap. Inside flaps lightly soiled. In very good condition. [with:] A holograph note written by Alan Searle on the back of a card with George Cukor's name on the front. The note reads: "This spectacle case was used constantly by Somerset Maugham for the last seven years of his life, and the last words he ever wrote are on the inside flap. Alan Searle. 2nd Oct: 1966." Spectacle case and Searle's note are in an envelope with George Cukor's printed address.
A mystery surrounds this spectacle case. What exactly are those very last words that Maugham ever wrote? Why did he write them there, on the inside flap of a spectacle case? What did they mean? And for whom were they intended?
Maugham died in December of 1965 - six weeks shy of his 92nd birthday - and one may presume he wrote the words in that year. As Maugham had been ill and in frail health for some time, surely thoughts of his own mortality were much on his mind. Might he not have written these words intending them for someone special? The first person who comes to mind is Alan Searle, his devoted companion, with whom he had lived for over twenty years and who acted as his secretary and, in his later years, his caregiver. He might also have begun to set aside personal items for close friends.
One such close friend was the Hollywood director George Cukor, whom Maugham had known for over forty years and with whom he had taken many a boisterous vacation. One of Cukor's favorite stories was about the many times he and Maugham cruised sailor boys in Nice. The two were close friends for decades, and Maugham had an open invitation to stay at Cukor's home whenever he was in California.
When Maugham died, Searle was distraught, and Cukor kindly "insisted that Searle come to Hollywood and recuperate at his house. His kindness and generosity seemed to rekindle Searle's desire to live. Soon, like Maugham before him. Searle became an accepted adjunct to the Cukor household, arriving, usually in low spirits, for extended periods of rest and recreation at Cukor's home" (McGilligan).
It was, presumably, at this time that Searle presented the spectacle case to Cukor. Whether the case was intended for Cukor by Maugham, or whether the case had been left for Searle who later gave the case to Cukor in appreciation for his kindness is not known.
The words written by Maugham on the inside flap of the case are also a mystery. Maugham's penmanship was generally a bit difficult to decipher, but several people familiar with his handwriting have been unable to definitively decode them. Is the first word "Frere" as in "brother"? Or might it be "Fere," an archaic word for "companion" or "spouse/wife," or a Latin word meaning "nearly"? The second word looks like "Mumck" or "Munick," or perhaps even "Mumæ" employing the Latin ligature and resulting in a nonsense word that, when pronounced, sounds a bit like "Maugham." "Fere Mumæ"?
The only clue to this mystery is found in Patrick McGilligan's biography of Cukor. A story is recounted by Cukor's nurse of an occurrence that happened in the director's home two weeks before his death. Cukor handed the nurse "a worn Chinese pattern silk eyeglass case" as well as the note written by Searle on the back of Cukor's card.
"'George handed me the case,' wrote [the nurse].'On the inside flap was written a scrawl quite indecipherable to me - "Frere Mumck." I asked George what it meant, but he merely smiled a Mona Lisa smile. Was the inscription French? Frere - brother someone? Or a Latin motto? George seems to have given me my own "rosebud" to ponder.'"
Maugham was once asked what he would inscribe on his friend Cukor's tombstone. He is said to have thought a moment, then said, "He had a sense of humor."
Whatever the story behind this spectacle case might be, it apparently greatly amused Cukor. It seems that this must have been a private joke - or it at least held a personal meaning - between Maugham and whomever he intended these last written words of his. We'll probably never know. It does seem to be a sort of Citizen Kane-like "Rosebud" mystery. The specifics may never be fully known, but this spectacle case containing these two words - the last words that W. Somerset Maugham ever wrote - is an intriguing relic, left behind by one of the most successful and prolific writers of the twentieth century. From the Collection of Norman F. Moore.
Reference: Patrick McGilligan. George Cukor, A Double Life.
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