Rights row puts life of Maugham on razor's edge

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The dying wish of W Somerset Maugham was that no account of his life should ever be written. Now, however, a transatlantic dispute has broken out between two rival biographers who are squabbling over access to the writer's private papers.

The dispute has reached such a level that the Charity Commission is now investigating claims that the Royal Literary Fund (RLF), which holds the rights to Maugham's work, is guilty of contravening its charitable deeds.

Professor Jeffrey Meyers, an American author who has already published more than 20 biographies including works on DH Lawrence, Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell, has been denied access to Maugham's papers, while his rival biographer, Selina Hastings, has been granted unlimited licence to use them.

Maugham had a long and unusual life. In the 1930s, after leaving his wife and moving to France with an American man, he became the highest-paid author in the world. When he died in 1965, aged 91, he left strict instructions that "my executors should give no assistance to any person who undertakes to write a biography, or allow letters of mine to be published".

He left all of his documents and literary royalties to his last companion, Alan Searle, and after Searle's death in 1985, to the RLF. But the fund is asking Lady Hastings to produce a life – in order to stimulate sales of Maugham's books and increase revenue, claims Professor Meyers.

"I have witnessed all kinds of dirty dealings in the literary world over 30 years, but this is one of the most disgusting things I have ever seen," he said.