Sunday Times, 04 November 2012
Every morning at his country house, Lord (Maurice) Saatchi has breakfast with his wife, Josephine Hart, who died of ovarian cancer, aged 69, in June 2011. He drives from the house to her tomb at the end of the lake to eat his grapefruit cocktail. The tomb is marked ‘J & M’ and, one day, he will lie there, but, for the moment, there is just J. At other meals, he still lays out a place for her as well as the morning papers in the order in which she liked to read them.
Warily, he looks at me, checking my reaction to these confessions.
“I have thought,” he says, “as you are thinking at this minute, that this is close to madness. Then I discovered that Queen Victoria kept Albert’s utensils set out for forty-two years!”
“You do know, don’t you” I reply, “that any therapist would tell you it is time to move on?”
“I completely disagree with that. Of course, the standard advice given to somebody in my situation would be to move on, that’s the phrase. Or ‘to come to terms with’, Isn’t that right? I don’t agree with that at all. In my view to to move is is a monstrous act of betrayal and to come to terms with – I think I’d call that an act of selfishness.”
“I have thought as you are thinking at this minute, that this is close to madness”
Sitting in his glass box of an office at the top of the Soho HQ of M & C Saatchi, the second successful advertising agency he has built with his art collecting brother Charles, wearing his familiar clown-sized tortoiseshell glasses and carrying, beneath a capacious white shirt, a comfortable, affluent paunch, Saatchi at 66 is the image of worldly success. And yet here is, a man consumed with, utterly devoted to, grief.
Do you, I ask, think about suicide?
“I think about it continuously….I’ve never experienced grief before, this is an incomparable nightmare.”
Josephine Hart was a globally respected novelist – Damage, her most famous work, was filmed by Louis Malle and described by Ted Hughes as not prose but poetry and a masterpiece. She was a lover and promoter of poetry. Over 28 years, she enlisted the best actors in the business to read her favourites at a series of Poetry Hours, latterly at the British Library. She was also a publisher and theatre producer.
Saatchi is talking to me on the occasion of the publication of Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry, a collection of her critical introductions to her favoured nineteen poets and a few of their poems. The author is, officially, Hart, but the idea for the book came after her death. Saatchi should probably be the credited author, but it doesn’t matter because, in love and beyond death, he insists they have been and walways will be one person.
“The reality of it is that she is me, I am her, we are one…. A friend of mine said I was Heathcliff and Cathy did say, ‘I am Heathcliff’. I am Josephine Hart, I can put it no stronger than that. It is no different now from what it has always been, we have always been one person.”
Hart was Saatchi’s second wife. He divorced his first and married Josephine in 1984, when he was 37. It was – is – he says, a “particulary intense love”. He says everything he has achieved has been due to her. But, most importantly, all that he has learned – except, perhaps, the advertising business – he owes to her. Poetry is the key – “It saves your life,” he says, quoting Josephine, “it saved hers.” This is not a paradox as a life, by definition, ends in death and is, in the brief interim, available for salvation.
”It is no different now from what it has always been, we have always been one person.”
Poetry is doing valuable work for him now. Since her death he says he has read a hundred books on the subject of grief. Only two spoke to him. One essay by Freud was about the two forces that drove the bereaved – craving for reunification with the lover which may lead to suicide and narcissism which may persuade the survivor that his life alone is worth living. The other was The Truth About Grief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg which outlined the science of grief, such as it is.
Nothing in that reading list, however, can compete with a single line by the American poet Robert Frost – ‘I have been one acquainted with the night.’
“I’ve read every book every written on grief, I’ve read them all, I found them very unhelpful. But Robert Frost can capture in a few words what my sentiment is a lot better than thousands of pages of all these books which are all written by the bereaved. But that line, in the terms of somebody who now has experience of bereavement, is perfect.”
Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H.Auden, meanwhile, captures for him the awful loneliness of grief – the fact that you alone seem to be suffering while the rest of the world gets on with its business. Auden describes how, in Brueghel’s painting The Fall of Icarus, only the legs of the falling boy are seen as he plunges into the sea, but a passing ship “Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
“Had somewhere to get to…” murmurs Saatchi. The sailors get on with their business even though ‘they must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky..’ He points to a similar effect in Frost’s Out, Out in which a boy dies horribly but at the end, the men “since they/Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”
“Josephine said that was the most brutal line in all of English literature.”
There was also the consolation provided by one word of Seamus Heaney’s.
“I met him at a party at the Irish Embassy and he asked me how I was. I said not at all well and then he described my feelings in one word – ‘bewilderment’. I said it was no wonder he won the Nobel Prize for Literature because that one word says it all.”
Grief is lonely, not just because of loss, but because of the bizarre, unreal feeling that, suddenly, you are alone in a different world to all the people “with somewhere to get to”. Poetry, more than any other art, eases loneliness by showing that geniuses at other places, other times, have felt just this and, somehow, managed to distil it in words.
“Exactly as you say, how comforting it is to find someone who understands that feeling so well.”
Of one soul they may be, but the careers of J & M could not have been more different. In 1970 he co-founded Saatchi & Saatchi with Charles. It became the most famous ad agency in the world. But it ran into trouble with shareholders and the brothers left to form M & C Saatchi in 1995 which, inevitably, went on to be far better than the company they had left behind.
Josephine was born in Ireland, one of seven children, three of whom she saw die.
Poetry, more than any other art, eases loneliness by showing that geniuses at other places, other times, have felt just this and, somehow, managed to distil it in words.
“It was an extraordinary thing,” she once said, “to know that such things can be survived. What happened, to be very cold about it, in our family, was strange, but looking back on the history of mankind and going back to all the great literature and the Greeks, grief and loss is part of the human condition.”
At her convent school she was taught “a literary hierarchical system of Orwellian precision – novels good, plays better, poetry best.” She would get in trouble for reading poetry by torchlight under her bedclothes.
She moved to London when she was 22 and, starting in publishing, she rose up the ranks of literary and artistic society. She was, smart, sophisticated, passionate and, everybody says, a great friend. But, as the terse prose and harrowing content of her novels betrays, she never lost that raw and very Irish – think Samuel Beckett – of life’s harshest realities.
“There was,” said Lennie Goodings, publisher of Life Saving, “something elemental about her.”
Did such different antecendents and interests create any difficulties in the marriage? Saatchi looks incredulous.
“Nothing about my life with Josephine has been difficult at all.”
In truth, their differences seems to have been their greatest strength. Her knowledge of things of which Saatchi, at 37, knew nothing made him what he could never have been in business – a grateful and wonder-struck student.
“I learned everything there is to know about poetry and literature from her. I didn’t read poetry before. She gave me everything to read and I read what she said and followed her advice in literature and in life….
Her knowledge of things of which Saatchi, at 37, knew nothing made him what he could never have been in business – a grateful and wonder-struck student
“Josephine said without reading life would have been less bearable and infinitely less enjoyable. It’s a very striking phrase ‘less bearable’. Of course, her childhood was so damaged by the deaths of her siblings and all that happened in her life in terms of her novels and the poetry stems really from those childhood catastrophes and also she would know very well hoiw poetry could help you were finding life hard – as one does.”
That said, her taste was narrowly defined. She was a great rereader rather than an explorer of new territories. Her favourite poet was T.S.Eliot – his Collected Poems was the one thing Saatchi put in her coffin - and there were, basically, fifteen others. They tend towards the bleak and, even when they don’t, she gravitated towards their bleakest poems. There is no sign of high, philosophical serenity as in Wallace Stevens, no celebration of the stuff and flow of life as in Frank O’Hara, no suave engagement with society as in Dryden, none of Wordsworth’s mighty spirituality and so on. She wanted the hard, emotional facts as delivered by Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath and the like.
She also had strong views about how poetry should be understood.
“She thought there were three parts to understanding. First, she agreed with Eliot that to know something of the life of the poet mean you could understand the poet better. She also believe that poetry should be read out loud. Auden said no poetry that is better read than heard is good poetry. And, finally, the poems should be read aloud by great actors. That’s how the Poetry Hours evolved.”
The Poetry Hours will continue because Saatchi is Hart and that is what she would have done. Their momentum is, in any case, almost unstoppable. Hart’s charm and social skills meant she was able to assemble a cast your average West End impressario could only dream of. The Josephine Hart Poetry Week put together by the Michael Grandage Company at The Art Theatre starred, among many other, Dominic West, Tom Hollander, Derek Jacobi, Edward Fox, Samuel West, Harriest Wallter, with, as if that weren’t enough, Tom Stoppard and David Hare. The Hours have now inspired The Poetry App by the Josephine Hart Poetry Foundation
“Audiences continually say thay they learn much more by hearing poems read by an actor than by reading on a page…. Josephine started work on a poetry app because she was sure this technology was the way you could bring all these events to thousands of people instead of the 250 people who could be seated in the British Library. It gives people the option of reading the text if that’s what you want to do or reading a text and hearing it spoken or reading it and seeing it spoken. It’s had over 60,000 downloads, mostly from America.”
The poetry work will continue because Saatchi is not kidding when he says he is Josephine and, as her, he must do her work.
“It’s true, I am leading Josephine’s life literally and very contentedly. I am having this conversation with you. I am trying to do what she would be doing. The very nice poetry reading of Eliot which was her memorial in Westminster Abbey – that would have happened anyway. The Arts Theatre week would have happened, she would have been doing it. Since all this castrophe happened, the narrators who have played Josephine Hart – Alan Yentob, Tom Stoppard, Melvyn Bragg – that would all have happened, she would have done them herself. So, in my capacity as Josephine Hart, I am just doing what she would have done anyway… I am just taking her part, I am her understudy.”
“I am uncertain about saying this in public. Maybe there is something wrong with saying this in public. I don’t know.”
The castrophe began on 17th December 2009, a Thursday. They were planning to go down to the country for Christmas. Josephine had a stomach ache which has lasted a few days and Maurice made her go to the doctor. He suggested a consultant and she said she would go after Christmas. “No, now,” said the doctor. The consultant ordered a scan. “After Christmas,” she said. “No, now.” Saatchi pauses at this point, tears in his eyes.
“I am uncertain about saying this in public. Maybe there is something wrong with saying this in public. I don’t know.”
At 5.30 that evening, Josephine rang him and uttered the three words – “Malignant, advanced, inoperable.”
“I pray you never hear those words, Bryan.”
The ensuing 18 months were unspeakable.
“She said to me ‘your life is ruined’ and she was always right. We were in and out of hospital. This disease is monstrous, remorseless, relentless, merciless and the treatment of it is medieval, degrading and ineffective.”
He looks empty and broken. This was/is love all right, what Hart called “the incandescent experience”. I notice it in little things – notably the number of times he says her full name, Josephine Hart, as some kind of charm, a way of summoning her up. Saatchi is an emotional man and cannot always conceal i.
“I was a rollercoaster in business and in politics, what I gave to her was a rollercoaster, I very much regret that obviously. But she would tell me that the world is a wordly place and when you find yourself in a situation when the world is not falling at your feet and wicked men are trying to do you down, that was so helpful.
“My life would have been completely different without her. About ten years ago I wrote her a note which said, ‘I wrote, produced and directed this man. My name is Josephine Hart.’”
He will probably survive. As Freud promised, narcissism will deter him from suicide and, anyway, as Woody Allen said, that’s not a Jewish alternative. He was brought up in the Jewish faith, but he is not religious. Well, not quite.
I ask him if he expects to be, one day, reunited with Josephine. There is a long pause. “No.”
“You were slow to answer because you were wishing so hard.”
“Yes, that’s exactly right.”
*Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry by Josephine Hart is published by Virago at £18.99