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Close To Madness: The Grief Of Maurice Saatchi

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This article comes to us from Jan C, who wishes to share it with everyone here:

Close to Madness: The Grief of Maurice Saatchi

by Bryan Appleyard


Every morning at his country house, Lord (Maurice)Saatchi has breakfast with his wife, Josephine Hart, who died of ovariancancer, aged 69, in June 2011. He drives from the house to her tomb at the endof 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 othermeals, he still lays out a place for her as well as the morning papers in the orderin which she liked to read them.

Warily, he looks at me, checking my reaction tothese confessions.

"I have thought," he says, "as you are thinking atthis minute, that this is close to madness. Then I discovered that QueenVictoria kept Albert's utensils set out for forty-two years!"

"You do know, don't you," I reply, "that anytherapist would tell you it is time to move on?"

"I completely disagree with that. Of course, thestandard advice given to somebody in my situation would be to move on, that'sthe phrase. Or 'to come to terms with', isn't that right? I don't agree withthat at all. In my view to move on is a monstrous act of betrayal and to cometo terms with – I think I'd call that an act of selfishness."

Sitting in his glass box of an office at the top ofthe Soho HQ of M & C Saatchi, thesecond successful advertising agency he has built with his art collectingbrother Charles, wearing his familiar clown-sized tortoiseshell glasses andcarrying, beneath a capacious white shirt, a comfortable, affluent paunch,Saatchi at 66 is the image of worldly success. And yet here is a man consumedwith, utterly devoted to, grief.

"Do you," I ask, "think about suicide?"

"I think about it continuously….I've neverexperienced 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 TedHughes as not prose but poetry and a masterpiece. She was a lover and promoterof poetry. Over 28 years, she enlisted the best actors in the business to readher 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 thepublication of Life Saving: Why We NeedPoetry, a collection of her critical introductions to her favoured nineteenpoets and a few of their poems. The author is, officially, Hart, but the ideafor the book came after her death. Saatchi should probably be the creditedauthor, but it doesn't matter because, in love and beyond death, he insiststhey have been and always will be one person.

"The reality of it is that she is me, I am her, weare one…. A friend of mine said I was Heathcliff and Cathy did say, 'I amHeathcliff'. I am Josephine Hart, I can put it no stronger than that. It is nodifferent now from what it has always been, we have always been one person."

Hart was Saatchi's second wife. He divorced hisfirst and married Josephine in 1984, when he was 37. It was – is – he says, a "particularlyintense 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, quotingJosephine. "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 alwaysbeen, we have always been one person."

Poetry is doing valuable work for him now. Sinceher death he says he has read a hundred books on the subject of grief. Only twospoke to him. One essay by Freud was about the two forces that drove thebereaved – craving for reunification with the lover which may lead to suicideand narcissism which may persuade the survivor that his life alone is worthliving. The other was The Truth AboutGrief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg which outlined the science of grief, such asit is.

Nothing in that reading list, however, can competewith a single line by the American poet Robert Frost – 'I have been oneacquainted with the night.'

"I've read every book ever written on grief, I'veread them all, I found them very unhelpful. But Robert Frost can capture in afew words what my sentiment is a lot better than thousands of pages of allthese books which are all written by the bereaved. But that line, in the termsof 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 seemto be suffering while the rest of the world gets on with its business. Audendescribes how, in Brueghel's painting The Fall of Icarus, only the legs of thefalling boy are seen as he plunges into the sea, but a passing ship "Hadsomewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

"Had somewhere to get to…" murmurs Saatchi. Thesailors get on with their business even though 'they must have seen/ Somethingamazing, a boy falling out of the sky..' He points to a similar effect inFrost's Out, Out in which a boy dies horribly but at the end, the men "sincethey/Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs."

"Josephine said that was the most brutal line inall of English literature."

There was also the consolation provided by one wordof Seamus Heaney's.

"I met him at a party at the Irish Embassy and heasked me how I was. I said not at all well and then he described my feelings inone word – 'bewilderment'. I said it was no wonder he won the Nobel Prize forLiterature because that one word says it all."

Grief is lonely, not just because of loss, butbecause of the bizarre, unreal feeling that, suddenly, you are alone in adifferent world to all the people "with somewhere to get to." Poetry, more thanany other art, eases loneliness by showing that geniuses at other places, othertimes, have felt just this and, somehow, managed to distil it in words.

"Exactly as you say, how comforting it is to findsomeone 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 itran into trouble with shareholders and the brothers left to form M & CSaatchi in 1995 which, inevitably, went on to be far better than the companythey had left behind.

Josephine was born in Ireland, one of sevenchildren, three of whom she saw die.

"It was anextraordinary 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, butlooking back on the history of mankind and going back to all the greatliterature and the Greeks, grief and loss is part of the human condition."

At her convent school she was taught "a literaryhierarchical system of Orwellian precision – novels good, plays better, poetrybest." She would get in trouble for reading poetry by torchlight under herbedclothes.

She moved to London when she was 22 and, startingin publishing, she rose up the ranks of literary and artistic society. She wassmart, sophisticated, passionate and, everybody says, a great friend. But, asthe terse prose and harrowing content of her novels betrays, she never lostthat raw and very Irish – think Samuel Beckett – of life's harshest realities.

"There was," said Lennie Goodings, publisher ofLife Saving, "something elemental about her."

Did such different antecendents and interestscreate any difficulties in the marriage? Saatchi looks incredulous.

"Nothing about my life with Josephine has beendifficult at all."

In truth, their differences seem to have been theirgreatest strength. Her knowledge of things of which Saatchi, at 37, knewnothing made him what he could never have been in business – a grateful andwonder-struck student.

"I learned everything there is to know about poetryand literature from her. I didn't read poetry before. She gave me everything toread and I read what she said and followed her advice in literature and inlife….

Her knowledge of things of which Saatchi, at 37,knew nothing made him what he could never have been in business – a gratefuland wonder-struck student.

"Josephine said without reading life would havebeen 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 hersiblings and all that happened in her life in terms of her novels and thepoetry stems really from those childhood catastrophes and also she would knowvery well how poetry could help you when finding life hard – as one does."

That said, her taste was narrowly defined. She wasa great rereader rather than an explorer of new territories. Her favourite poetwas 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 nosign of high, philosophical serenity as in Wallace Stevens, no celebration ofthe stuff and flow of life as in Frank O'Hara, no suave engagement with societyas in Dryden, none of Wordsworth's mighty spirituality and so on. She wantedthe hard, emotional facts as delivered by Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin,Sylvia Plath and the like.

She also had strong views about how poetry shouldbe understood.

"She thought there were three parts tounderstanding. First, she agreed with Eliot that to know something of the lifeof the poet meant you could understand the poet better. She also believed thatpoetry should be read out loud. Auden said no poetry that is better read thanheard is good poetry. And, finally, the poems should be read aloud by greatactors. That's how the Poetry Hours evolved."

The Poetry Hours will continue because Saatchi isHart 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 toassemble a cast your average West End impressario could only dream of. TheJosephine Hart Poetry Week put together by the Michael Grandage Company at TheArt Theatre starred, among many others, Dominic West, Tom Hollander, DerekJacobi, Edward Fox, Samuel West, Harriest Wallter, with, as if that weren'tenough, Tom Stoppard and David Hare. The Hours have now inspired The Poetry Appby the Josephine Hart Poetry Foundation

"Audiences continually say that they learn muchmore by hearing poems read by an actor than by reading on a page…. Josephinestarted work on a poetry app because she was sure this technology was the wayyou could bring all these events to thousands of people instead of the 250people who could be seated in the British Library. It gives people the optionof reading the text if that's what you want to do or reading a text and hearingit 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 isnot kidding when he says he is Josephine and, as her, he must do her work.

"It's true, I am leading Josephine's life literallyand 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 WestminsterAbbey – that would have happened anyway. The Arts Theatre week would havehappened, she would have been doing it. Since all this catastrophe 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 doneanyway… I am just taking her part, I am her understudy."

The castrophe began on 17th December 2009, aThursday. They were planning to go down to the country for Christmas. Josephinehad a stomach ache which has lasted a few days and Maurice made her go to thedoctor. 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. Maybethere is something wrong with saying this in public. I don't know."

At 5.30 that evening, Josephine rang him anduttered 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 wasalways 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 allright, what Hart called "the incandescent experience." I notice it in littlethings – notably the number of times he says her full name, Josephine Hart, assome kind of charm, a way of summoning her up. Saatchi is an emotional man andcannot always conceal it.

"I was a rollercoaster in business and in politics,what I gave to her was a rollercoaster, I very much regret that obviously. Butshe would tell me that the world is a wordly place and when you find yourselfin a situation when the world is not falling at your feet and wicked men aretrying to do you down, that was so helpful.

"My life would have been completely differentwithout 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'snot a Jewish alternative. He was brought up in the Jewish faith, but he is notreligious. Well, not quite.

I ask him if he expects to be, one day, reunitedwith Josephine. There is a long pause. "No."

"You were slow to answer because you were wishingso hard."

"Yes, that's exactly right."

*Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry by Josephine Hartis published by Virago at £18.99

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Jan sent this to me a few days ago. It does a good job of describing that sense of oneness we all have experienced with our spouses/partners..the "where does one end and the other begin" feeling along with the agony. Like the author, I have devoured books and articles on grief. None capture my grief perfectly, of course, and nothing ever will but certainly certain certain books and poems (those of others and even my own) speak to my soul and help me feel less alone and even less crazy. I appreciate this article. Thank you, again, Jan.

I downloaded the app he refers to. It was just released and is kind of neat as it gives one a place to store favorite poems, and features certain poets and more.

I put it on my iPad but one can put it in iTunes. Poets read their poetry also. It is here: http://www.pocket-lint.com/news/47503/poetry-app-ipad-the



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Thank you for this article. I have not read, or wrote, any poetry since my high school literature classes. I wish to begin writing a some poetry for Celene in my journal I keep for her. I am not sure how to begin. Perhaps reading some of the poetry noted would be a good start; to get the poetic juices flowing. I will check out the app as a start too.


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I would have to say that my relationship with George was poetry. We understood each other "got each other" beyond what anyone else could have. George was gifted with writing and very articulate at putting his thoughts and feelings into words, so it's no wonder our communication was so good...that coupled with our passion, we had an intensity unparallelled.

Interesting thought, that one could be thought of as Narcissistic because one is grieving and longing after the one they lost. I suppose that aptly describes any of us in recent loss...for a while it has to be about us, anything else pales in comparison. Eventually we make it out of ourselves to spend time and attention on our jobs, our families, life's activities. But none of them come so deep as to make it inside that inner spot held for our loved one...for they exist there, always there.

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