Pauline C. Metcalf, historian and author of a recently published book on Syrie Maugham (Syrie Maugham, Acanthus Press 2010) lives in a Carnegie Hill building where she has an office just a few flights down from her apartment. We got into a back-and-forth about her subject, the renowned interior designer and wife of novelist Somerset Maugham. Famous for her all-white room and a pared down style that is often associated with the Hollywood glamour of the time, Syrie Maugham came from humble beginnings in London where her family was most likely of Jewish origin. She came to America in the late1930s and made it her business to immerse herself in the world of fashion and high society where she developed a rarified group of wealthy international clients.
After reading the book, one can’t help but wonder if the aura she created around herself, which was helped along by wealthy backers and a support system of fabulously talented people like Jean Michel Frank and set designer, Oliver Messel, played a larger part in her success than the expression of her own actual design talent but her myth endures because she makes for such a good story.
The way in which Syrie Maugham comes off in your book is very complicated. Part of her comes off as being manipulative, vain, superficial, and yet, [Somerset] Maugham is the first to say that she can be charming and compassionate.
That’s why I quoted him. I felt very strongly that I should not take any sides when writing about Syrie Maugham, that people can judge for themselves … she was mischievous, yes … and, yes, maybe she was socially ambitious but you know, in a funny way the fact that she wasn’t of the aristocracy was similar to Somerset Maugham—in how they could look at society.
But she knew how to work it, how to work what she was personally after. In fact, after I read this book I was wondering if she ever really loved Somerset Maugham, that she knew what she could get out of him.
No, I think she genuinely loved him. He was fascinating.
There was something for him in it as well. They probably were in love in with each other and then he fell for Gerald Haxton but he needed her because back then you couldn’t openly be gay otherwise you’d probably be arrested.
And the other nasty thing was that the lawyer was very much trying to paint Syrie as grasping. I don’t think she was that much of a gold digger.
Where did all his money come from?
He had several plays concurrently going on in London and America.
The other thing I thought was interesting about that period was that at that time there was no place to be educated to become an interior decorator.
She was obviously smart and observant and where she gets her education from is from the decorating firm Thornton-Smith, who had been the decorators for her house in Regent’s Park. I believe Gordon Selfridge (founder of Selfridge department store) must have given her some assistance for buying that house… when people say she was his mistress, I’ve wondered about the extent of that. She could have been another filly on his arm, considering he already had two mistresses and a wife.
Although Selfridge did, apparently, teach her how to be a merchant.
Yes! I think she must have worked in the showroom of Thorton- Smith and she was also able to go backstage, as it were, and meet the various trades people he was using to gild furniture or to do upholstery.
Her upholstery was absolutely stunning.
I love her quote to one of her clients: “You must not have it done so tightly because it looks like the skin of a banana.”
What made you want to write about her? Why is she so renowned?
I think it’s very interesting to compare her to Elsie de Wolfe. Syrie Maugham was more feminine, she was charming and much prettier than Elsie. Elsie cribbed everything quite frankly from Ogden Codman. Syrie was just sort of … more fun.
But they became friends, didn’t they?
Yes they did. They were working the same crowd. We don’t have to contend in this country with this whole bit of aristocracy and Syrie was lucky that that she wasn’t an aristocrat because she could invite all kinds of people to her parties. I think that scene in London in the 1920s after the First World War must have been amazing. The loss that people had gone through and another thing that she was very clever about was that she had a ‘picker’ and a lot of houses were being torn down or people selling after the war and that’s where she found all these interesting antiques.
But a lot of them weren’t really antiques.
Well, she could be a bit naughty about that.
But she cared about the style more than some sort of history or provenance. What would you say is her particular contribution to design?
I think her way of mixing traditional and modern. She was lucky in surrounding herself by people like Jean Michel Frank, Oliver Messel and textile designer Marion Dorn. It was that mixture that gave her a look. I was looking at one room and I thought, how many different kinds of animal feet can you find in this room? And it’s sort of what makes the room fun!
I don’t think it was always fun. Some of the rooms in the book look stodgy to me.
Like any decorator she was limited by her clients.
Her background is a little bizarre. She had this father who was very intense. He was ambitious with the poor and she was ambitious with the rich.
Yes. Her mother must have been very domineering because her nickname was “The Begum”.
What does that mean?
I believe it’s a Muslim term for a woman [of rank]. I also believe that the family was of Jewish origin.
She started out with not so much money and she died with not so much but there were these ten years or so when she was at her height.
She gave a lot of her money to [financier] Harrison Williams to invest and he lost it … but there was this moment where, she realizes that with a British accent and having the name Maugham, she was outré. It gave her great social cachet. I think Americans had an inferiority complex, particularly a lot of the nouveaux riches.
They still do, with the British. Even with a fake history, you can impress people here.
Yes, I guess you can.
So what you do think is her legacy to design?
I think that’s a very difficult question because I think decorators want to link themselves to somebody else to enhance their reputation.
Give me an example.
That’s cutting too close.