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Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi’s marriage never followed a simple narrative

Nigella Lawson poses for a photo during an interview with The Canadian Press in Toronto on Monday February 18, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn


Almost three weeks after disturbing pictures were published of Charles Saatchi with his hands around the neck of his wife Nigella Lawson during an argument over lunch, the end of their marriage came as the trouble had begun – in the pages of a newspaper.

The 70-year-old art dealer's decision to announce his "heartbreaking decision" to divorce the celebrity chef in a letter to a British newspaper this weekend is a sad and unsettling reminder of what public scrutiny of the private complexities of a relationship can do. Interestingly – and ironically – the public exposure of their marriage is what both detested. In an interview earlier this year in Toronto, Lawson described her discomfort with the media attention she gets and offered tidbits into the dynamic of her 10-year marriage. That the break-up has been widely reported as a simplistic narrative of bad guy versus saintly goddess would not please Lawson who complained to me that "People project so much, especially with TV, and I'm not this glorious, perfect person."

And yet the media narrative that was created, in part by their own actions, gave them little wiggle room to save their marriage, which, like all unions, is complex, mysterious and always opaque to those looking at it from the outside.

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"I feel that I have clearly been a disappointment to Nigella during the last year or so, and I am disappointed that she was advised to make no public comment to explain that I abhor violence of any kind against women, and have never abused her physically in any way," Saatchi wrote in his letter.

In many ways, the break-up of their marriage is over their public reputations and that most potent of factors in intimate relationships – pride.

Saatchi is a former adman, and the public comment could be seen as an attempt to resurrect his own image and gain some control over the narrative. A private (and even reclusive) man, he has been widely seen as an abusive husband, a characterization that hasn't been helped by a book he recently wrote, titled Be The Worst You Can Be: Life's Too Long for Patience and Virtue. His off-hand comments didn't help, of course – characterizing the throttling as a "playful tiff" and explaining that he tweaked her nose and put a finger up one of her nostrils because "even domestic goddesses sometimes have a bit of snot in their nose. I was trying to fish it out."

He had voluntarily taken a caution at the police station for assault to avoid having the incident "hanging over all of us for months." They were arguing over issues to do with their blended family, he noted. And they were known for an often volatile relationship. In the week following the incident – and before the photographs were published – the couple entertained friends and even returned to the same restaurant. All seemed well.

But by not publicly apologizing and saying he was ashamed when the pictures were published, which Lawson's publicity team reportedly asked that he do, he made the matter worse. If he had, she could have come back with a statement supporting him in much the same way his former wife, Kay Saatchi, did when she explained that "While Charles has always had his faults, I never experienced him to be physically abusive. He may be hard work, but I feel he is being treated unfairly [in the press]."

As it was, he came off as not recognizing the gravity of his actions, leaving her to look like a victim, something that's not just bad for her brand, but also adds to an insecurity which she readily admitted to me during an interview earlier this year to promote her latest cookbook, Nigellissima. Lawson, 53, discussed her relationship and the pressure her public "Domestic Goddess" persona puts on her sense of confidence and security.

"I try to ignore it," she said when asked about the scrutiny she endures at the hands of the British press. "You can tell I do because I still go to the supermarket with no makeup on like a bag lady.

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"I get really embarrassed when people treat me in a different way either for the negative or the positive," said the daughter of Nigel Lawson, a chancellor of the Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher. "I hate it when I'm sucked up to, and I hate it when people talk about me as if I'm not a real person."

Lawson exuded a vulnerability despite her stunning beauty and global success. Her life has had its share of tragedies – the loss of her mother, sister and first husband, John Diamond, to cancer – and it's clear that she depended on Saatchi to give her stability. I asked her if her experience with adversity has helped her become stronger. "In a way, but I am also a bit of a catastrophizer. That is a difficulty," she said. "What I found out about myself is that I'm someone who needs a tight circle...I need a work family, a friend family and my own family. That makes me feel secure."

Arguably, someone who is insecure is often prey to a controlling, difficult personality. And while Lawson joked at the time that Saatchi "would kill me if he knew I was talking about him," it was also clear that they had a relationship that gave her pleasure and a crucial sense of grounding. "Charles likes me best without make-up on and my hair a frizzy mess," she told me. When asked about their differences in age and interests (he is not a foodie and she knows little about art), she offered that "the reality of what makes a couple connect is not really about what you do for a living or what you love. It's about what you bring out in each other. It's something undefinable."

He helped her with her anxiety. "I'm a royal nightmare before I write a book. ... So every time, Charles has to say, 'Calm down, you always say this.' I use him as a sounding board." He allayed her fears about growing old in front of the TV cameras. "Charles says, 'Who says you can't be an old bag on TV? You'll just be who you are. You cannot help but be that person.'"

And she found amusement in the fact that he often hated her cooking. "Charles is quite a fussy eater. One day I was making prawn dhansak, and I said, 'It doesn't matter what I'm eating because you'll hate it.' And he said, 'No, I'd like it.' And I said, 'Look, you hate that kind of food. I know you do.' So he ate it all. And at the end he said that it was the most disgusting thing he had ever eaten. And I said, 'Then what did you eat it for?' And he said, 'I didn't want you to go to the trouble of making something else and then I panicked and I thought you might make it for me again so I have to tell you I hated it.' And that made me laugh such a lot."

All marriages are opaque. No one can clearly see or understand what makes them work. The tragedy is that the public commentary about theirs – including discussions in the House of Lords and even an intervention from deputy prime minister Nick Clegg – has made it impossible for them to reconcile.

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"This is heartbreaking for both of us," Saatchi wrote in his letter to the paper. "Our love was very deep, but in the last year we have become estranged and drifted apart. ... The row photographed at Scott's restaurant could equally have been Nigella grasping my neck to hold my attention – as indeed she has done in the past."

One could see that last comment as Saatchi taking one last public swipe at her or as a statement pointing out that few are perfect. After all, it's only the media that likes to assign strict roles to the characters of the people they choose to play with.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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