Josephine Hart: Novelist best known for ‘Damage’ who was also a producer, presenter and a passionate advocate for poetry

"Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive." Josephine Hart is best known for her début novel Damage, which she wrote in six weeks and which was translated into 23 languages and sold one million copies around the world. It was alsomade into a successful film, directed by Louis Malle, scripted by David Hare and starring Jeremy Irons, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche and Rupert Graves.

Perhaps Josephine Hart should have been a character in one of her best-selling novels. Perhaps she was. As Lady Saatchi, wife of Maurice of the advertising dynasty that, among other things, helped Mrs Thatcher win power and keep it for so many years, she moved in influential political circles. As the best-selling author of Damage she brought a degree of literary class to the "bonkbuster" sub-genre. As a theatre producer she took risks on work by Lorca and Iris Murdoch. As a passionate advocate of poetry she called on her friends in the acting world to help bring often difficult work to a wider audience. And all this flowed from a childhood rocked by tragedy after tragedy.

Josephine Hart was born in 1942 in Mullingar, County Westmeath, daughter of a garage manager. She had six siblings. She attended convent school in Carrickmacross in neighbouring County Monaghan; the nuns encouraged her to recite verse at Irish festivals. By the age of 12 she knew by heart Shakespeare sonnets, Yeats poems, and poetry by Auden, Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

She had a desolate childhood.Her brother Charles died whenshe was six; her younger sister, Sheila, was brain-damaged and paralysed from the age of two because of meningitis and died when Hart was 16.Another brother, Owen, blew himself up experimenting with chemicalssix months later. She said later that after that she stayed at home for four years, finding consolation in literature. "I made a bargain with life," she said. "I'd behave honourably but would not make a serious contribution or do anything creative."

Many years later she indicated how important poetry had been to her at that time. She wrote: "Poetry, this trinity of sound, sense and sensibility, to me gives voice to experience like no other literary art form. It has been a source of joy, sometimes a lifeline. At various times it has given me a key to understanding, expressed what I believed inexpressible, provided me, as a girl with no sense of direction, with a route map through life."

In 1964 she moved to London to take acting classes at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She took these in the evenings while working for Thomson newspapers in sales during the day. However, she is said to have abandoned the acting classes because delving into personal emotion was too painful. In that year Michael Heseltine set up the Haymarket Press; Hart joined the company and in due course became its first female director.

Her future husband, Maurice Saatchi, joined Haymarket straight from university in 1967. For a brief period Josephine Hart was his boss. He stayed until 1970, when he left to form a new advertising agency with his brother, Charles. Hart married the Haymarket director Paul Buckley and in the mid-1970s they had a son, Adam. The marriage lasted seven years.

Hart moved into theatre production, bringing to the stage, among other things, an acclaimed, Evening Standard Award-winning production of Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, a revival of Noël Coward's The Vortex and a production of Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince.

Hart and Buckley divorced and in 1984 she married Maurice Saatchi. They had a son, Edward a year later.

In the late 1980s she applied her entrepreneurial talents to poetry performance, albeit in the rarefied atmosphere of a Cork Street art gallery. She was, she said, "tired of boring people to death at dinner parties by saying that I couldn't understand why there were no public readings of great poetry". The first reading, in 1987, had Gary Bond reading Auden. For subsequent "Gallery Poets" she persuaded many star actors – including Alan Bates, Eileen Atkins, Edward Fox and Robert Stephens – to participate.

Also in 1987 she put a two hour TS Eliot programme together for the Lyric, Hammersmith, and Let Us Go, Then, You And I went into the West End for a six-week run. In 1989 she presented the Thames TV series Books By My Bedside in which she interviewed various personalities about the books they were currently reading.

By 1990 she was feeling the urge to be more actively creative. She and her husband lived in a mock-Tudorcastle, Old Hall in Sussex, set in 60 acres of parkland. The story goes that her husband walked her into the study of that mansion and told her just to get on and write. That morning she wrote the first two chapters of her first novel, Damage. She wrote the rest in six weeks.

So-called bonkbusters were at the height of their popularity and the concept for Damage seemed to fit entirely with that kind of novel: a senior politician has an affair with his son's fiancée and wrecks his family and his career. But Damage was more than popular fiction. The writing was spare yet intense. The Washington Post thought it a masterpiece; the poet Ted Hughes described it as "really a poem". It became a sensation, selling more than a million copies worldwide in 26 languages. It spent 11 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in hardback and seven in paperback. The film was released in 1992.

Her second novel, Sin, concerning the moral consequences of a woman having an affair with her adopted sister's husband, came out in the same year. Oblivion (1995), The Stillest Day (1998) and The Reconstructionist (2001) were all ambitious and shared her trademark terse style but it was only with The Truth About Love in 2009 that she equalled the power of her début novel – and that was because she seemed finally to be able to approach those tragedies from her childhood.

The Truth... begins with the dying agonies of a boy fatally injured in an explosion caused by his home chemistry experiments. She said of the response to the novel: "It has been a balm to the soul, because it was so hard and so painful and it has taken me so long."

She had shifted her poetry performances in 2004 into the "West End Poetry Hour", then the "Josephine Hart Poetry Hour" at the British Library. (And also at the Royal Society, The New York Public Library and Harvard.) Highlights included Sir Roger Moore reciting Kipling, Ralph Fiennes reading Auden, Juliet Stevenson presenting Emily Dickinson and, perhaps most spectacularly, Harold Pinter reciting Philip Larkin.

Virago published two collections with accompanying CDs. Catching Life By The Throat: Poems from eight great poets (2008) was distributed free of charge at Hart's expense to every school in the UK for students 12-18. The British Library sent Words That Burn out to schools via its website. She explained her passion for poetry in this way: "Poetry has never let me down. Without poetry, I would have found life less comprehensible, less bearable and infinitely less enjoyable."

As part of the literary establishment she was a Booker, Whitbread, Irish Times, Forward Poetry and Costa Book Awards prize judge.

She kept her illness secret for two years; her agent, Ed Victor, said he only found out how ill she really was the day before she died. Last week her latest poetry project opened at the Donmar Warehouse, a week-long series of readings, including Jeremy Irons and Felicity Kendal performing Paradise Lost. Victor added that Josephine Hart's passion for literature and poetry "burned with the purest flame".

Josephine Hart, writer, theatricalproducer and television presenter:born Mullingar, County Westmeath,Ireland 1 March 1942; married firstly Paul Buckley (marriage dissolved; one son), 1984 Maurice Saatchi (one son); died London 2 June 2011.

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