It was the letters that finally did him in -- they began surfacing all over the world a few years after his death in 1965: in library collections, in estate auctions, in people's wills.

At 83, William Somerset Maugham wrote all his friends, begging them to destroy the long, open, chatty letters he had sent them over the years. Correspondence with an old pal might cover half a century. After all, Maugham wrote for most of his 91 years. His first novel came out in 1897 -- the word "bloody" was censored from it -- and his last in 1962.

Furthermore, he instructed his literary executor, Spencer Curtis Brown, not to authorize any biography or "to assist any person who wishes or attempts any such publication."

During the famous author's lifetime there had been several attempts at biography, ranging from furious to factitious, the latter by an American English professor who never suspected the man was a homosexual. Maugham, traumatized by Oscar Wilde's fate, tried all his life to conceal his homosexuality. He also may have foreseen something like the squalid events of his senile last years, his disownment of his daughter and his attempt to adopt his companion, Alan Searle; his irrational outburst and general petulance.

He wanted, in a word, to control the published story of his own life just as he had controlled the lives of his characters.

But it was not to be. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ted Morgan, had been assigned by Simon & Schuster to write the big book on Maugham, and though he still was denied access to some major figures in the witer's life, there were those letters.

"Bert Alanson, a San Francisco stockholder who had made Maugham a millionare, gave his letters to Stanford on his death. They went all the way from 1920 to 1958, and they were a tremendous find," said Morgan on a visit here.

"But the collection had red dots on its card. No one could see it, not even the curator. Everyone assumed there was a lot of scandalous material. Well, it took us a year, but the curator finally got the prohibition lifted. It was the most wonderful moment for me. They were all filed in boxes, arranged by year."

By the time he was done, Morgan had gone through 5,000 letters, some of them scattered, as in the case of the correspondence with Maugham's first agent, among five libraries from New Haven to Texas.

There were three years of interviews and letter-reading, during which Morgan "developed an unnatural passion for postmarks and spent hours correlating dates and tracking down bits of minute information," he writes in his compulsively readable 711-page book, "Maugham."

At last he put together a first draft that was promptly forwarded to Maugham's daughter, Lady Glendevon. She decided -- and the executor agreed -- that the full story should be told, including the petty legal squabbles of Maugham's last years.

The executor insisted on prefacing the book with his explanation of why he disobeyed the explicit instructins Maugham left him.

"Many people may think that I have acted wrongly," he wrote. "Only one man could have given me a clear decision, and he was the man who had sufficient confidence in me to place his reputation in my hands."

Surely the resulting book justifies everyone's hopes. Dispassionate, nonjudgmental and tenacious as only a choice few journalists are, Morgan brings into full view a complicated man who went out of his way to distort, conceal and deliberately lie about the facts of his life.

Basically, what had been changed between the first draft and the final version, it appears, was the impression that the reader gets of various people in the writer's late life, mainly his daughter, who did not come off too well in the letters alone.

In fact Spencer Brown's wxplanation speculated that "the truth may help to provide some justice for Mr. Maugham's daughter, who with her husband, has suffered much but said nothing."

It was through interviews with the daughter, for instance, that Morgan learned the real story of Maugham's auctioning off $1.4 million worth of paintings, nearly half of which he had -- in writing -- given to her earlier. Her side of the legal tiff wasn't contained in the letters, nor was Maugham's mean behavior toward her.

Maugham's sumptuous Riviera Villa Mauresque is described, down to the fact that there was no doorbell "for the crunch of tires over gravel was sufficient to alert the servants." It is a masterful job of reportage, as Morgan never saw the place and worked strictly from letters, interviews, pictures and a Sotheby's catalogue.

Ted Morgan is not your everyday newspaperman. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1932, he changed his name from Sanche de Gramont half-way through his career. He took a summa cum laude at Yale in 1954, did graduate work at Columbia, and launched himself with Associated Press in New York, moving quickly to the Herald-Tribune, later turning free-lance.

During his Herald-Tribune days, Morgan covered the death onstage of Metropolitan opera singer Leonard Warren, a feat of accuracy and grace at top speed that won him the 1961 Pulitzer for deadline reporting.

Before changing his citizenship, he served in the French army in '56-57.

His previous books include a translation of the memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon; a social history, "The French," and "On Becoming American." No, he wasn't particularly wild about Maugham before getting the assignment, though he had read him years ago, like most of us. It must have been the excitement of the hunt that hooked him.

Now he is writing a memoir, but he still can't stop talking about Somerset Maugham.

"The Crocker bank in San Francisco once put an ad in the paper, looking for Maugham heirs," he remarked. "The guy had left $35,000 in an account there. He squirreled money away all over the place. They've found over 50 accounts so far, but there are probably still some left in Switzerland."

On a trip to Europe, Maugham and his companion went about with a suitcase filled with $100,000 cash. He had been caught without money before, and it was never to happen again.

Maugham, said Morgan, was one of those English writers who brought the novel outdoors just as the Impressionists took painting outdoors. He was of a grand tradition of traveling writers, from Stevenson and Pierre Loti to Paul Theroux and, perhaps Peter Mathiesson.

"He was terribly shy, of course, with the famous stammer, but also from a natural reserve. He wasn't the sort of person who could go into a bar and talk to people. That was where Gerald helped."

Gerald Haston, an American adventurer, as Morgan calls him, was the love of Maugham's life -- or 30 years of it anyway.

"Gerald could talk to anybody. By the third day out on a cruise, he'd know everyone on board. He was the retriever. He'd get the stories. Maugham did nearly all his best work in the years with Gerald. And gives him credit."

The celebrated, somewaht sly modesty by which Maugham loved to call himself a mere storyteller was defense, Morgan said, a way of deflecting criticism -- as was the stammer, perhaps. He used to say of his stories that they were taken straight from life, word for word, and that all he had to do was take it down.

One glance at the sleek sentences, the subtle foreshadowing, the concise, perfect description, reveals the charming fraudulence of that claim.

And Morgan, confronting his years in research, his successive drafts of the massive, well notated, elegantly written book, waves a hand and mutters, "Well, it was just extended reportage, really."

Maybe modesty is catching.