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Unpainted metal mail box with red flag and the name of W, Somerset Maugham
Maugham's Bonny Hall mailbox
(Collection of the Beaufort Museum)
Photograph by Dennis Adams, November 19, 2002
W. Somerset Maugham
and
Beaufort County, SC
by
Dennis Adams
Information Services Coordinator

Maugham at Bonny Hall Plantation

For what the Savannah Morning News described as "about five years during the World War II period," English author William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) lived in Beaufort County, on Bonny Hall Plantation in Yemassee. Bonny Hall was owned by publisher Nelson Doubleday, who resided in the large plantation house. Maugham's workshop was a separate, one-room cabin facing the Combahee River, a hundred feet away from the bigger house (This area is now known as Parker’s Ferry Plantation).

According to the January 2, 1955 issue of the Savannah Morning News, "the interior of the one-room writing house (was) lined inside with book shelves" with "no distracting view which would interfere with the author's labors. A brick fireplace blocks out what otherwise would be a fine view from one end of the house."

Maugham's manuscript-size rural mailbox from Yemassee has long been on display at the Beaufort Museum, and and once could be seen in the old Township Library.

Money from a number of successful plays, like Rain (1922), afforded Maugham his leisure in the Lowcountry. He is said to have written The Razor's Edge (1944) at Bonny Hall. Based on the author's experiences in India, the modernist novel was a huge, best-selling success that gave Maugham financial independence for the rest of his life. He wrote only two more novels before his death, Then and Now (1946) and Catalina (1948).

W. Somerset Maugham returned to England after the war. Summing up his career, Maugham wrote, "I have been highly praised and highly abused. On the whole I think I can truly say that I have not been unduly elated by one or unduly depressed by the other. You see, I have always written for my own pleasure."

Nelson Doubleday,
Maugham's Host

Maugham’s Bonny Hall host, Nelson Doubleday (1889-1949), used to say, "I sell books, I don't read them." In the Dictionary of American Biography, Paul S. Boyer wrote that Doubleday sold a great many books – inexpensive editions, mass-produced for broad appeal. His father, Frank Nelson Doubleday, founded the family publishing house, and Contemporary Newsmakers 1987 listed W. Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling among authors whose works first appeared under the Doubleday imprint (Kipling wrote his "Just So" stories for young Nelson).

By 1947, Nelson had turned Doubleday and Company into the country’s largest publisher. He was selling over 30 million books each year, thanks in part to authors like Daphne du Maurier and Edna Ferber, but also through marketing of "how-to" books, inspirational titles, reference works, and "classics." Unlike other publishers, Doubleday did not shy away from aggressive advertising tactics to sell his books in department stores and other retail outlets, through direct mail book clubs, and within his own chain of 26 book clubs.

Doubleday’s son, Nelson Jr., sold the company to a German conglomerate in 1986, but kept
ownership of the New York Mets baseball team. Nelson Jr. , by the way, was the
great-great-grandnephew of Abner Doubleday (1819-1893), the man who popularized – but did not invent – "America’s Pastime."

James M. Attaway's Reminiscences
of
W. Somerset Maugham and Nelson Doubleday
(January 7, 2003)

Beaufortonian James M. Attaway worked as a salesperson at the Jasper Woods Grocery Store from the age of 15 until his voluntary enlistment in the Coast Guard in 1942. The store was located on Bay Street, to the right of the entrance of the current BB&T bank building (706 Bay Street).

Like most groceries of the time, the Woods store was not a self-service establishment but employed several clerks to retrieve the orders of customers. Store clerks kept a "customer-first attitude" and "dropped everything" whenever a customer came through the door. Over time, this "one-on-one communication" allowed sales clerks to know their regular customers on a personal basis, and customers and workers would converse casually during visits to the store.

Mr. Attaway recalled that W. Somerset Maugham, and Nelson Doubleday were part-time residents of Beaufort County: they spent the fall and winter months in the warm Lowcountry climate. Regular customers of the Jasper Woods Grocery Store, they would phone their orders in advance of their trips into town. As a convenience to customers, store clerks would gather items not sold in the grocery (liquor, for example, from one of the several stores on Bay Street) and include them with the groceries to be picked up.

Maugham and Doubleday most often came in person to the store to get their supplies (if they were especially busy, they would send hired persons on the errand).

Mr. Attaway's first impression of W. Somerset Maugham and Nelson Doubleday - on a fall afternoon in 1940 -- was a striking one: he saw the 7'-to-7' 2" Douleday walk into the Woods store with Maugham (no taller than 5' 6"). He asked his employer, "Who's that Mutt and Jeff that just walked in here?" Jasper Woods took James aside and told him who the two men were. (Mr. Attaway said that the store's doorway was about 7' 6" high, and that Doubleday always had to stoop before coming into the building; men of 6' 5" height and taller were much less common in the 1940s than in the early 2000s).

Maugham was a rapid talker and a heavy smoker, who chatted about "all kinds of stuff" on visits to the Woods store. Doubleday, on the other hand, was pleasant but quiet, and would normally look on and listen as others spoke. Though he "wouldn't instigate any conversation," he would reply in a friendly manner when spoken to.

Maugham and Doubleday usually came to town together. Mr. Attaway supposed that it was their shared literary and professional interests that bonded them. Because they lived on Bonny Hall Plantation in Yemassee during the fall and winter, the men were not widely or directly known by most of the people of Beaufort.

When the young (15 year-old) James Attaway told the men that he had read many titles from Doubleday's "Book of the Month Club" selections and had also enjoyed Maugham's Cakes and Ale and Of Human Bondage, Maugham and Doubleday were "amazed" to learn that a teenager in a remote area of the South was so well-read.

Mr. Attaway recalled that he had spoken of many things with Maugham and Doubleday as he checked grocery orders for Maugham and Doubleday, but had forgotten "the fine details" over the sixty years that had passed.

About Bonny Hall Plantation

In Prince William’s Parish and Plantations, John R. Todd and Francis M. Hutson wrote that Bonny (Bonnie or Bonney) Hall Plantation was "the center of an early grant to Joseph Blake" (June 10, 1732).

The Blakes were a prosperous Antebellum family, who "summered" in the mountains each year to escape the Lowcountry heat (Walter Blake rushed home from the mountains during a cholera epidemic to treat slaves at Bonny Hall). In Historical Atlas of the Rice Plantations of the Ace River Basin, Suzanne Cameron Linder wrote that Bonny Hall was sold at auction in 1871, two years after Walter’s death.

Congressman Robert Smalls (1839-1916) took the new owner, J. Bennett Bissell, to task in 1876. 500 of the Bissell’s rice workers went on strike to protest prices in the plantation store -- some as much as three times greater than in the town of Beaufort. Though Smalls persuaded the strikers to return to work, tensions remained high at Bonny Hall.

It was Ellen McCarter Doubleday, Nelson’s wife, who bought the property in 1934. The Doubledays made big renovations in the house and garden, which were removed after Mr. and Mrs. John Cowpwerthwaite bought Bonny Hall in 1995. The new owners wanted to restore the house to its earlier grace.

Hobonny Plantation is adjacent to Bonny Hall, but the names are unrelated. According to Claude Henry Neuffer in Names in South Carolina, "Hobonny" may be an American Indian word (possibilities: "potato" in Algonkian, "high path" in Siouan, and "heavy" in Muskogee). But "Bonny" comes from French "bonne" (feminine form of "good, fair").

Sources:

• Attaway, James M. Interview by Dennis Adams on January 7, 2003.

Contemporary Newsmakers 1987. Detroit: GaleResearch, 1987.

Dictionary of American Biography. Dictionary of American Biography. Vols. 1-8, American Council of Learned Societies, 1927-88; Vol.9, 1994 Supplement, and Vol. 10, 1995 Supplement, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

• Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 6: Modern Writers, 1914-1945. Gale Research, 1991.

Linder, Suzanne Cameron, Historical Atlas of the Rice Plantations of the Ace River Basin. South Carolina Department of Archives & History for the Archives and History Foundation, Ducks
Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy 1995.

"Maugham Lived, Wrote Near Beaufort." Savannah Morning News, January 2, 1955; p. 26.

Neuffer, Claude Henry. Names in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina, Department of English 1954- .

Todd, John R. and Francis M. Hutson. Prince William’s Parish and Plantations. Virginia : Garrett and Massie, 1935.

 
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