Death defined Irish novelist Josephine Hart’s life and how she chose to live
Three of her siblings died during her years in Mullingar and she lived with cancer in secret right up until the very end this month. Ciara Dwyer discovers that the poetry-lover’s death was as dramatic and shocking as her books
When Mullingar-born novelist Josephine Hart died on Thursday, June 2, the news of her death came as a shock to most of her close friends. Her illness, a form of ovarian cancer called primary peritoneal cancer, was diagnosed in December 2009. Josephine chose to keep it a secret right up until the end.
Three days before her death, on the Monday afternoon, she arrived at the Donmar Warehouse for rehearsals for the week-long Josephine Hart Poetry Hour, which was to be staged there. On Tuesday night, Ed Victor, Josephine's close friend and long-time agent, was told that she wouldn't be present that evening. That was odd, as she was a core part of the poetry hour.
She was evangelical about poetry and had been organising these readings since 1987. Be it in the British Library, where the readings were regularly held, or the National Theatre, or even the New York Public Library, the rhythm of the evening was always the same. Josephine would march on to the stage very briskly with the actors. She would read from a black ring-folder about the life and work of the poet and then the actors would read.
They did it for free and any profits were donated to The Actors Centre. Ralph Fiennes, Jeremy Irons, the late Harold Pinter, Bob Geldof, Sinead Cusack and Juliet Stevenson all happily obliged. Afterwards, she always had people to drinks and some to dinner in a private room in the British Library. Her generosity was legendary.
“When I got my ticket from Monique, who was giving out the tickets for Josephine's friends, I said, what is wrong with her? You have to tell me,” says Ed. “She said, ‘I can't. I'm not allowed to tell you.' I said fine, and you must respect that, but please tell Maurice [Saatchi, Josephine's husband] that I want to know tomorrow. Monique called me the next day and she told me ... Primary peritoneal cancer is very rare and you don't want to get it. It was a bitch.”
Josephine died the following day, aged 69. Ed had not noticed her decline.
“Josephine was always a pale creature and an intense creature,” says Ed, adding: “She just looked the same Josephine, black, white [she never varied from that colour scheme] and what I call red-red lips. It was a trademark look, a very special, recognisable look and as she said, the black and white was her uniform.”
After her death, Ed started to piece together clues of his friend's failing health. Gail Roebuck, the head of Random House, saw Josephine at the London Book Fair, where her publisher Sonny Mehta was being honoured for a life-time achievement award.
“Gail said that Josephine's eyes looked tired and that she was a bit worried about her,” says Ed. “Another friend gave her a hug and felt that she was very thin, but I didn't notice anything.
“Her end was like a Josephine Hart novel. It was very dramatic and very shocking. It was the dark secret she carried with her. And yet she lived her life from that point on. We were so close and I spent so many hours in her company. We spoke on the phone, we had dinner, we did poetry readings and we laughed. And all the while she was a doomed woman. And so to me, that is like a Josephine Hart novel and the ending was her death, and all of her friends surprised.
“But, by the way, there is not a scintilla of criticism in this. I have leukaemia. I've lived with it for 11 years. I've had chemo three times and I've been through the mill. For the first three years, I never told anyone. I did not want anyone pitying me. Only my wife knew and that was it. I didn't even tell my children.
“Then one day, I ended up in The Royal Marsden hospital, where you don't go for a stomach ache, you only go for cancer, and the cat was out of the bag. Now I will happily tell the Fed-Ex man that I have leukaemia. I don't care. So, Josephine's choice was entirely valid and dramatic, and I'm sure she did not want pity. What she missed was an outpouring of love and care and concern from her friends, but she couldn't have it both ways. So that's how she had it and I utterly respect it.”
Did the secrecy surprise him? “Absolutely. Didn't it you? Well, she was very preoccupied with death. Death was a constant theme in her books; sex and death, and she knew a lot about both.”
Josephine often spoke of how she was always astounded when she heard of writers who hit 40 and were suddenly struck with thoughts of their mortality. What took them so long? Death defined her life and how she chose to live it.
Considering the great tragedies that had befallen her family, it could not have been any other way. At the age of six, she lost her brother Charles. He was 18 months old. Her mother said that giving up the body was the most appalling thing and it was an image which stayed in her mind always.
“Nothing worse can happen to me,” she told Josephine. Alas it did. When Josephine was 17, her younger sister Sheila died. (She had been brain damaged as a result of meningitis and paralysed from the age of two.)
Six months after that, her brother Owen was killed in an explosion while he was experimenting with chemicals. All that remained of the Hart children was Josephine and her brother Diarmuid.
Josephine explained what her life was like afterwards: “It sounds a very strange thing to say but when I was really young, when I was 17, I had to look at life really hard and say, ok, I will continue to live.”
After Owen's death, Josephine stayed at home in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, with her family for four years. With dreams of going to university now dashed, she immersed herself in reading. She read obsessively.
Many years later, Maurice bought her a Matisse drawing of a girl reading. It may as well have been his beloved wife. They bonded over books and often, heading off on holidays, they would buy two copies of the same book and discuss it as they read it. Maurice was the instigator for Hart's creative career. Listening to her moan about there not being any poetry readings in Lon
don, he suggested that she start them. And so she did.
The world of words provided her with much-needed consolation. And her choice of literature was telling of her character. She once talked of becoming an actress and confessed that her favourite roles were Hedda Gabler, Medea and Lady Macbeth. Strong, formidable women are often drawn to versions of themselves in fiction.
When Josephine went to London in 1964, she worked in telesales and studied drama at night. Eventually, she moved to Haymarket Press and became the firm's only woman director. She worked alongside the publisher and fellow Haymarket director Paul Buckley. They married and had a son, Adam. That marriage lasted seven years. Maurice Saatchi came to work in the firm, they had an affair and they married in 1984. They have a son, Edward.
“I have never seen a couple more intertwined than Maurice and Josephine,” Ed tells me. “I just can't imagine how he's going to live without her. It's too terrible to contemplate. Josephine was very honest and forthright, but you felt that she and Maurice had a deeply private relationship; they had their own world.
“They were always invited to parties and they would always go. They were very social, but then every weekend they'd go to this beautiful home in Sussex, called Old Hall, and they'd shack up for the weekend watching films. But she worked, too. Josephine wrote all the time. Right up until the end. I was told that she was working in her office from nine in the morning until seven.”
Josephine and Maurice's — she often referred to Maurice as M — relationship seemed to be a meeting of minds as well as passions.
“Maurice is an intellectual,” she said, “and I think a very interesting intellectual. We have marvellous conversations. We still love having dinner and lunch together. Marriage is a long conversation and our conversation ranges over everything — my shoes, my hair, the children, Ireland, how Maurice can't stand Connemara and, yes, work and politics.
“You can give your opinion but whether your advice is followed is another matter. We both come from tribal backgrounds. I come from a tribal Irish Catholic background and he comes from a tribal Jewish background, but we've never taken that on.”
Although Josephine was full of praise for her nuns in school, who instilled her love of poetry, she drifted from her Catholic background and didn't show any sign of returning to it.
“My mother used to infuriate me by giving me this sweet little smile and saying, ‘You'll come back.'.”
Ed says: “She wasn't religious, but I think she felt that there was fate and goodness. But I think she also believed in the randomness of fate, because look at the way her brother died.”
Josephine said: “I have never written about [the family tragedy] in all these years, except elliptically in this book [her last novel] The Truth about Love. The lessons that I learnt are really in all the books. It was an extraordinary thing to know that such things can be survived. What happened mathematically, to be very cold about it, in the family was very strange, but look 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.”
Josephine's first novel Damage, a short, spare novel about a middle-aged government minister who becomes erotically obsessed by his son's girlfriend, sold more than a million copies and was translated into almost 30 languages. But nobody was more surprised by its success than Josephine.
Ed, who was a friend long before he was her literary agent, remembers how it all began. “I set eyes on Josephine for the first time at a dinner for Iris Murdoch. I represented Iris for many years. Josephine turned up with this long, grey hair, prematurely grey, and she was very striking. Then she later dyed her hair to this stunning look. She was terrific. I knew Maurice quite separately. The Saatchi brothers were around London and we were all making it in London.
“Maurice and Josephine, and my wife Carol and I began to see each other. One night at dinner, after we'd seen The Vortex, which Josephine had produced, we were in Scott's restaurant and Maurice said that Josephine was writing a novel. She told Maurice to hush, but I said let me see it. I read the first 60 pages and the rest is history. I just thought they were fantastic.”
Ed was friends with Candice Bergen, who was then married to the French film director Louis Malle. He never had the temerity to give Louis a book, but this time it was different. He gave him a proof of Damage.
“The next morning, he rang me and said, ‘You bastard. I was up all night reading. This is my next film.’.”
Ed believes that her second novel Sin was under-published and then after that, he said that some of her books “were not particularly bestsellers and nor did she care”.
“She wrote what she wanted and what she wanted was purity and integrity, and she wanted sincerity, and she was passionate about what she did,” he adds.
“I loved her very much and I shall miss her. Josephine was really a formidable woman, formidably herself. There was no one ever like her before, since and there never will be again. She was a one off.
“She was a woman in the prime of her life, everything going for her, wonderful family, wonderful sons, wonderful husband, wealth beyond belief, success, fame and then she gets this hideous disease.”
But the most mesmerising thing about this girl from Mullingar is that she loved and laughed and lived her passion for poetry until her very last breath.