Fate takes a new bite at Nigella
Images of Nigella Lawson apparently being throttled by her multi-millionaire husband Charles Saatchi last week transformed the domestic goddess into a victim of domestic abuse in one fell swoop.
Published 24/06/2013 | 05:00
Despite her fame, wealth and beauty, the celebrated cookery writer has already known her share of violence and tragedy.
She'd shout at all of us and say, "I'm going to hit you till you cry", and so I never would cry. I still don't." 'She' was Nigella Lawson's mother, Vanessa Salmon. Nigella was her second child, the eldest daughter, and for many years, that refusal to cry has been one of the hallmarks of a life that has seen tragedy and elation in more than usual measures. Through the shocking early deaths of her mother, sister and first husband, Nigella didn't cry, or at least not in public. She soldiered on, dispensing comfort and sympathy through her humour, her wisdom and her cooking, but never asking for it. "Even if I'm exhausted to the point of weeping, I wouldn't. I'm proud and I never cry," she said last year.
So it was all the more distressing to see her face knotted with misery and streaked with tears in the street outside Scott's restaurant in Mayfair last week, after a deeply unpleasant incident with husband Charles Saatchi. She is 53, he is 70 and they have been married nearly 10 years. The couple were sitting on the terrace, having lunch, when a row seemed to break out between them. Saatchi seized Nigella by the throat, forcing her head back, then seemed to draw her closer to him, his fingers around her windpipe, before roughly grabbing her nose. It was the expression on Nigella's face that said everything; there was so little outrage. Supplication, yes, it is a face full of silent entreaty. There is pain, too, but also a heart-breaking lack of response, of resignation almost.
He has since admitted assault and been cautioned by the police, but insisted the incident was really nothing but a "playful tiff". She has left the couple's home, a £12m converted brewery in Chelsea, along with her children, but, true to her character, has said nothing. Three years ago, in an interview for this paper, at a time when her life appeared to be in a golden phase, she said to me "When your life is difficult, to acknowledge it sounds like moaning, and when your life isn't difficult, to acknowledge it sounds smug. If you have to choose between moaning or smugness, I think silence is the way to go."
But an awful lot is being said for her. From those who demand that she speak out, acknowledging the abuse, make moves to leave her husband, take up the mantle of other women who suffer domestic abuse, to the many more who sympathise with the inevitable loss of dignity and privacy of a woman who so clearly values both, Nigella Lawson is suddenly no long simply a domestic goddess. As a victim of domestic abuse, she is now a public sacrifice.
Nigella has never hidden the fact that her relationship with her mother was difficult. Vanessa was a vivacious, beautiful heiress, with a witty, subtle mind and desire to be a ballet dancer, who found life married to an ambitious, preoccupied man and with four children to be frustrating and dreary. She flirted wildly and had many affairs during her marriage to Nigel Lawson, needling him for the lack of attention and excitement.
"My mother was captivating, charming, but with unpredictable mood swings," Nigella said a long time ago, adding in a later interview "It was always a difficult relationship. I was very shy as a child and I remember her saying, rather cruelly, 'why are you so shy? Who do you think is interested in you anyway?'" In fact, one of Vanessa's gripes was that people began to pay rather too much attention to her stunning daughter as she grew up.
"She would never say exactly why she was angry," Nigella once said, painting a picture of a mother who was distant, unpredictable, competitive and alarming, and a sombre, nervy childhood. Other people also remember a tension between Vanessa and her children, and a kind of 'silent beam' around Vanessa that made many people uncomfortable.
Recently, Nigella went much further in admitting the difficulties of her childhood. "She just didn't like me," she admitted sadly of her mother, before Christmas. "I never thought I could please her." The mood swings at which she has previously hinted were now acknowledged to be violent; "It wasn't a calculated thing; it was hot-blooded hitting, a thrashing out of things. Once she had to stop hitting Dominic (Nigella's brother) as she hurt her hand."
Even at the end, Vanessa was withholding and cold, telling Nigella that she was relieved that cancer and the certainty of death provided her finally with some peace. "I was so hurt by her not minding dying and leaving us," was Nigella's response. "I found that difficult." By her own account, Nigella, who was 25 when her mother died, had only just begun to establish a decent relationship with her. Because Nigella is highly intelligent as well as highly educated, she has always been perfectly apt at analysing her own motives, cheerfully admitting that she is a 'people pleaser', because of her complicated childhood.
However, that is only half the story, as I have no doubt she knows – she has also confessed "I am a secret, or not so secret, Freudian". Where children have been abused by those who are supposed to love and protect them, there is always a strong measure of anger that goes with the desire to please, even if this is sublimated and pushed nearly out of sight. I think Nigella has a very good understanding of this; "Cooking is actually quite aggressive and controlling," she once admitted, "and sometimes, yes, there is an element of force-feeding going on."
There is an unavoidable poignancy in the fact that Nigella, whose identity is bound up in food to quite an extraordinary degree, both privately and professionally, is the daughter of a woman who cooked but didn't eat, and was certainly borderline anorexic or bulimic. Who made her children sit at the table until they had eaten everything on their plates – Nigella recalls once sitting there for four hours – or their food would be served up, cold and congealed, at the next meal, until it was finally eaten.
She was married to a man who developed throat cancer and couldn't eat a single bite, and is now married to Charles Saatchi who, as she said to me, "doesn't eat normal food, he likes things out of packets". If cooking is the best of Nigella, and she has long behaved as if it is, then there is a rather grotesque irony in there.
By her own admission, Nigella was insecure, overweight and shy as a teenager, and having such a dazzling, social and slightly cruel mother can't have helped. "I was so introverted that my mother thought I was autistic," Nigella once said. It's a comment that says far more about her mother, and their relationship, than it does about the teenage Nigella. The primary relationship of her childhood was with her father, whom she adored. She admitted to "worshipping him in the way little girls do" even when quite a grown-up teenager. Given that she was unable to make a strong, loving impression on her mother, it is entirely natural that Nigella would have learned to have more faith in men, but hers was badly shattered when Nigel left the marriage and married his former secretary. With her elder brother, Dominic, too, she had a very affectionate relationship; "if he's having a serious conversation ... I can arrive and he'll ... start talking to me in a babyish pigeon-like coo. He calls me LaLa and playfully starts plaiting my hair."
For many years, Nigella clearly didn't have the confidence to enjoy her own extraordinary beauty. Friends describe her as awkward at Oxford, playing the bluestocking. Her intellectualism was very real – but she also hid behind it. With boyfriends – generally rich, highly intelligent, but inept – she tended to adopt a slightly maternal, background role, looking after them. Except for John Diamond, whose success was earned, not inherited, and who had all the confidence in himself and his brilliance that Nigella still lacked.
Certainly at first, this was a Svengali-type relationship, in which she blossomed, finally, into the woman she was meant to be. John teased her out of the oddly frumpy clothes she had worn since Oxford – kaftans, 1950s dresses from Oxfam, even her father's pinstripe suits – and into more sophisticated attire. He also told her she should wear more make-up and encouraged her to act out her flirtier, more camp, side. It was John who pushed her towards a career in TV, and was minutely involved in the first series. Producer Janice Gabriel recalls that the pilot for Nigella Bites was "driven by John. I think she was his brand". Nigella herself has said that he helped her to move from being shy and introverted to becoming more talkative and playful.
But whatever she got from the relationship, she gave back in at least equal measure. Jonathan Philbin Bowman did a remarkable interview with Nigella for this paper in 1999, a time just before her natural spontaneity and exuberance were replaced with something more studied and watchful – a result of her fast-growing fame as much as her spectacular second marriage: "Oh John," she says, holding up a bag, "would this be enough mangetout for 17?" John gurgles something guttural. "Sixteen," she says, "of course," putting her hand to her forehead in a 'silly me' gesture ... she had forgotten that her husband would be present, but not eating." John, by then, had lost his tongue to the cancer that later killed him. After Jonathan's interview was published, John Diamond wrote a gracious letter to the paper, describing it as "a longer love letter than any I ever managed to write".
John Diamond died, by inches, mostly at home, with the couple's two young children as hapless participants in his final months. Bruno was just four, Cosima seven. Through all of that, Nigella maintained the love and warmth of the house in the teeth of death's dreary pall. She continued to fill the house with friends and laughter, battling for as much normality as possible, and maintaining the Nigella code of cheerful hard work through adversity.
There were always stories of loud arguments between Nigella and John – "he's very good at getting cross," she once said. "He's not a sulker. You don't have to spend all your time thinking, 'what's the matter'." Instead, John would show his anger by shouting, and later by breaking doors when he could no longer shout. He became angrier as death drew closer, furious at the interruption of his "perfect" life, and the way in which his relationships with his children would be cut short. Nigella was profoundly tolerant and understanding of his rage, accepting both his right to it, and its inevitability.
Nine months after John Diamond died, Nigella and her children moved in with Charles Saatchi, a long-time friend and Scrabble buddy of Diamond's. Nigella simply said, "if you've been that near to someone dying for so long, the giddymaking appeal of someone who's incredibly alive, and who makes you feel alive, is extraordinary. You can't say, 'It's really exciting meeting you, could you come back in 18 months' time?'"
Saatchi, who is nearly as reclusive as he is successful – he was known to hide even from clients when they visited his agency – is something of an enigma. He and his brother Maurice arrived in London from Baghdad when they were pre-school age, fleeing, with their family, a wave of anti-Semitic violence. Charles started as a copywriter, then set up his own phenomenally successful advertising agency with Maurice, producing some of the most iconic campaigns ever, including the famous Conservative election poster 'Labour Isn't Working', before leaving and recreating himself as an incredibly influential art collector.
He was famously hot-headed in business, known for shouting and throwing things around the office. His first wife divorced him citing 'unreasonable behaviour' after 17 years, and both his ex-wives have described him as volatile and capricious. Nigella herself called him "an exploder" in an interview, describing herself at the same time as a "festerer". When things don't go his way, he is said to withdraw and sulk, is known to have obsessions that, though short-lived, are intense. His brother, Maurice, is also highly emotional and cannot hide it. He is currently living out an extraordinary story of grief over the death of his second wife, the Irish writer Josephine Hart. Every day, Maurice takes his half-grapefruit for breakfast, and eats it sitting on her tomb, beside the lake at his house. She is dead two years this month.
Charles is also known to be magnetic and irresistible to those on whom the sun of his attention shines. His second wife, at the time of their divorce, which was bitter and costly, said, "I didn't marry Charles because he was mean and cruel. When the light shines on you, he is charming and amazing and special. I know, because he shone it on me. Then the light fades and there is darkness."
In the early days, when the light so clearly shone on Nigella, it looked as if she had somehow reached a safe haven after years buffeted about the high seas of life. He married her, was good to her children, used his huge wealth (around £100m) to protect her, and he so clearly admired and loved her. She has often spoken about how his unabashed masculinity has given her confidence in her own sex appeal, while he has said, "She's too good for me, I know, but she knows it too and reminds me every day."
Nigella's career – begun with John Diamond – has reached a pinnacle with Saatchi, and she is now worth around £20m herself. Through her 40s, she simply looked more beautiful than ever, and it seemed as if her story had reached its own happy-ever-after. That impression began to dissipate about three years ago. Criticism that her TV performances had become grotesque parodies of themselves started up, and that she herself was increasingly filmed as a kind of Cubist painting – a quarter-profile, behind a curtain of hair, beside a sleek kitchen unit, against a backdrop of utensils. Rumours of loud, volatile rows between her and Charles began to circulate. On her last visit to Dublin, she appeared on the Late Late Show, looking stunning but uncomfortable in a beautifully cut black dress into which she seemed to be tightly corseted, and a pair of ludicrously vertical heels. She perched on the edge of her chair, unable to sit back, indulging Ryan's questions about crisp sandwiches with far more flirtatious acquiescence than seemed necessary. She looked awkward and skittish, the spontaneity of her early years entirely disappeared, and a far cry from the amusing, confident woman she had, at her best, been. The secrets she seemed then to be keeping had her locked in a mental vice as tight as the corset she was wearing.
Last week's disturbing incident was not the first such between Nigella and Saatchi. Less than a year ago, in the same restaurant, he was seen to put his hand over her mouth during another discussion that had become heated. Like the nose-tweaking, this could almost be dismissed as playful. But only 'almost.' In fact, it is dismissive, domineering and aggressive. Nigella has survived tragedy, more tragedy than many of us experience. To lose mother, sister, husband, by the age of 41, is very harsh. She emerged not unscathed but intact from that, still herself, still strong despite the heartbreak. This latest incident isn't tragedy, it is less noble, more subdued and depressing than that. It may yet be more difficult to emerge from.
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