JOSEPHINE HART / NOVELIST, POETRY EVANGELIST & THEATRE PRODUCER

JOSEPHINE HART

Novelist, poetry evangelist & theatre producer

1942 - 2011

Mullingar / London

“Poetry, this trinity of sound, sense and sensibility gives voice to experience in the way that no other form can.” Josephine Hart, born and raised in Mullingar, Ireland was an extraordinary and gifted woman; poetry aficionado, captivating wordsmith and artistic Director– and that’s just grazing the surface of her remarkable life.  

Born 1 March 1942, Josephine spent her early years attending a convent school at Carrickmacross, County Monagahan, where she was encouraged by the nuns to recite verse at Irish Festivals. It is here, that she admitted to discovering a great love of poetry: “I was a word child. Poets were not only my heroes, they were indeed the gods of language.” 

Josephine had a particularly tragic childhood that gave her an overt and unpleasant familiarity with death. At the age of 6, she lost her 18 month old brother, Charles. Then, when Hart was 17, her younger sister Sheila, who had been brain damaged as a result of meningitis and paralysed from the age of 2, passed away. Six months after Sheila’s death, her brother Owen was killed whilst experimenting with chemicals – leaving Josephine and her brother Diarmuid as the only remaining siblings of the Hart clan. Leading Josephine to remark, “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.” Josephine then stayed at the family home in Mullingar for four years, immersing herself in reading as a replacement for University, which was her original dream.

Josephine moved to London in 1964, working in telesales and studying drama at evening classes. Fantastically, much to Josephine’s delight, just like her favourite poet, T.S. Eliot, she worked in a bank for a short while. Josephine eventually moved to Haymarket Press and became the firm’s only woman director. She married her colleague Paul Buckley, and had a son, Adam. The marriage lasted 7 years, however when Maurice Saatchi came to work in the firm, he romanced Josephine. The pair had an affair and married in 1984. Maurice and Josephine had a son, Edward. 

Josephine, who became Baroness Saatchi when her husband’s Baron status was initiated in 1996, was madly in love with Maurice, and he, her. They had a private relationship that was a meeting of minds as well as passions. Ed Victor (Josephine’s literary agent and friend) commented on their relationship, “I have never seen a couple more intertwined than Maurice and Josephine.”

It was Maurice who encouraged Josephine’s creative career. Having listened to his wife complaining of the lack of poetry events in London, he suggested she started one herself – and thus, the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour was born! From 1987 onwards, Josephine organized incredible poetry readings at the British Library, occasionally visiting the National Theatre or the New York Public Library. Josephine would read about the life and work of the poet, with high-profile actors reading the verse. These actors provided their time for free, which they still do today. The Josephine Hart Poetry Hour library now celebrates 16 great poets, with actors ranging from Ralph Fiennes, to Charles Dance, to Bob Geldof to Juliet Stevenson – and beyond. Most recently, her Poetry Hour took to the Abbey Theatre in Ireland with Bob Geldof, Lisa Dwan, Sinead Cusack and Peter Campion reading W.B. Yeats to a standing ovation. All of the readings from the incredible Josephine Hart Poetry Hours can be found at thepoetryhour.com.

Josephine’s poetry collections, Catching Life By the Throat (2006) and Words That Burn (2009) were sent free of charge to all secondary schools in England. Her first two novels, Damage and Sin, were re-published as Virago Modern Classics in 2011, with Damage being adapted for film by Louis Malle, and Sin adapted by Theatre Blu.  Her other novels include, Oblivion, The Stillest Day and The Reconstructionist, which was later filmed by Roberto Ando. Her last publication was The Truth about Love, which was published in 2009. 

The award-winning The House of Bernarda Alba by Lorca saw Josephine’s West End theatre production debut. She also directed, Noel Coward’s The Vortex, Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince and Let Us Go Then You and I at the Lyric Theatre. Josephine staged the first ever West End production of T.S. Eliot poetry. 

In 2011, Josephine was to put on a weeklong poetry event at the Donmar theatre. Without her friends having known her fight against illness, to everyone’s shock, she was absent at the opening night. She passed away on 2 June from primary peritoneal cancer, two days into the Donmar run. She died in her prime from a horrific and rare disease, all whilst remaining secretly strong – she was truly, truly remarkable and the Donmar performances will be remembered forever. Her death was a blow to literature, to her friends, but chiefly of course to her family. Her husband, Maurice Saatchi does not bother to hide or deny his grief. Five years on, he still sets a place at the table for Josephine every day ("Queen Victoria did it for Prince Albert for 42 years" he points out)

Her legacy lives through her husband’s devotion. The Josephine Hart Poetry Foundation is having great success amongst education and with their website, whilst Maurice’s Medical Innovation Bill has just been passed through government. Josephine will be remembered eternally, as will her passion, flare for life and gratification of verse. “Poetry, this trinity of sound, sense and sensibility, gives voice to experience in the way that no other art form can”.

A special thanks to Eleanor Carter, Director of the Josephine Hart Poetry Foundation, for this wonderful biography.