Domestic Discord

Nigella Lawson Leaves Home as Charles Saatchi Calls Choking a ‘Playful Tiff’

Following the shocking pics showing art multimillionaire Charles Saatchi apparently choking his celebrity-chef wife, the gallerist now claims it was just a ‘playful tiff.’ Tom Sykes on the rumors that Saatchi has finally flipped.

Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

Charles Saatchi, the multimillionaire art collector who was photographed repeatedly squeezing his wife Nigella Lawson’s throat outside a London restaurant, today described the incident as “a playful tiff.”

His remarks prompted an immediate outraged reaction in a U.K. already shocked and disgusted by the images, which are plastered all over today’s newspaper front pages.

The novelist Tony Parsons tweeted, “Men who are violent towards women always have some excuse—‘playful tiff’—and there is never an excuse if you are anything resembling a man,” and the M.P. Diane Abbot commented, “Wondering what I would do if a man tried to strangle me as part of a ‘playful tiff’ #getthehellout.”

Saatchi made his comments to the Evening Standard’s crime reporter, Justin Davenport. Saatchi is a columnist for the paper.

The Standard is reporting that Saatchi said: “About a week ago, we were sitting outside a restaurant having an intense debate about the children, and I held Nigella’s neck repeatedly while attempting to emphasise my point.

“There was no grip, it was a playful tiff. The pictures are horrific but give a far more drastic and violent impression of what took place. Nigella’s tears were because we both hate arguing, not because she had been hurt.

“We had made up by the time we were home. The paparazzi were congregated outside our house after the story broke yesterday morning, so I told Nigella to take the kids off till the dust settled.”

However, friends of the couple have told The Daily Beast that Lawson has been left distraught and terrified due to Saatchi’s constant violent bullying, and that Saatchi is jealous of Nigella’s continuing success and fame—a success that has come just as as his own star has dimmed.

Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of national domestic-violence charity Refuge, told The Daily Beast: “Perpetrators of domestic violence frequently try to minimize or deny their behavior. Domestic violence is all about power and control. It is a pattern of behavior that often involves extreme jealously and possessiveness, humiliation and intimidation.”

Nigella’s spokesperson said today that there would be no comment on Saatchi’s remarks and would only say that Nigella was not at the family home, which she was pictured leaving yesterday with her son, Bruno.

The photographs have had a massive impact in the U.K., where Nigella is regarded not simply as a great writer and broadcaster but as a national treasure prized as much for her forthright common sense as her flirtatious on-screen persona. It is inconceivable to many that that Nigella could be a victim of domestic violence.

However, comments by Polly Neate, chief executive of the charity Women’s Aid, who talked to The Daily Beast today, suggest that Saatchi's comments downplaying the incident fit the classic template of domestic abuse: "Abusive men will often attempt to excuse or minimize their behaviour. Perpetrators of domestic violence can be extremely charming and persuasive," she said.

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Indeed, to the couple’s few friends and many acquaintances in the art, TV, and publishing worlds, the pictures have served only to confirm, in the most graphic way possible, what has long been whispered: that Saatchi—always a mercurial man; hot-tempered and hubristic—has finally flipped.

The interaction was captured by the paparazzi who lurk on a semi-permanent basis outsides Scott’s, the celebrated Mayfair fish restaurant that plays host to London’s rich elite and celebrity set. Saatchi always sits outside to facilitate his chain-smoking habit.

The distressing incident, which reportedly left Nigella in tears, lends credence to those who say that the increasingly reclusive Saatchi, who recently turned 70, has become violently jealous of his wife’s successful career. Having conquered the U.K. with her TV shows and cookery books, Nigella has now turned her attention to the U.S., where her appearance as a judge on ABC’s The Taste received positive reviews.

Nigella’s cautious first steps in the U.S. follow a 15-year run as one of the most successful and celebrated women in Britain. Since her debut cookbook, How to Eat, was published in 1998 and sold over 300,000 copies, Nigella has rarely been out of the bestseller lists. Literary success has led to a string of high-profile TV shows, and Nigella is a cultural phenomenon for her coyly flirtatious style of presenting.

Despite the cheery good-natured manner that has won her millions of fans, Nigella has lived through great tragedy in her own personal life. Her mother, the society beauty Vanessa Salmon, died of liver cancer at the age of 49 in 1985, after divorcing her father, one of Britain’s “big beasts” of politics, Nigel Lawson.

The two had a fraught relationship: “I’m so relieved you’re grown up,” her mother told her over lunch once, “because now if I want to commit suicide it won’t matter like it would if you were a child.”

Nigella’s sister, Thomasina, died of breast cancer in 1993 at the age of 32, and then, in 2001, her first husband, the journalist John Diamond, died of throat cancer after chronicling the disease in remorseless detail in a column in The Sunday Times.

Nigella and Diamond had two children, Cosima and Bruno, now 19 and 17, and Nigella has also been a full-time stepmother to Saatchi’s daughter, Phoebe, from a previous marriage.

A newspaper once reported that she wasn’t planning to leave her children a penny, and Nigella quickly issued a correction on her personal website: “Of course I have no intention of leaving my children destitute and starving—rather, this is a story that came from a comment I made about my belief that you have to work in order to learn the value of money.”

On Sunday morning, after the pictures were published (although they were apparently taken a week previously), it was Bruno who was by her side as Nigella was photographed leaving her London home with a suitcase in a London taxi.

The mode of transport is apposite: for several years in the 1990s, the arrival of a black cab bearing the imposing figure of Charles Saatchi was a moment every gallerist in the capital longed for.

“He would go around London in a taxi, come in, say nothing, and buy everything,” one gallery owner who was the beneficiary of Saatchi’s legendary largesse told The Daily Beast. “You would get a call ten minutes after he left saying he wanted to buy everything, and offering you half the money you were asking. It was take it or leave it—and everybody took it.”

Saatchi, using a fortune made in advertising as a founder of Saatchi and Saatchi, bought the work of the Young British Artists (the title of his seminal 1993 show)—Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, the Chapman brothers, and most famously of all, Damien Hirst—by the truckload. He made millions of pounds on his purchases and still owns the most comprehensive collection of modern British art in the world.

He was, however, a sharp operator—he reportedly once threatened to dump a large number of his Damien Hirsts on the market, including the famous shark in formaldehyde, so that Hirst and his gallery were forced to buy them back for millions of pounds more than they had sold them for. But he is credited not just with creating the market for the YBAs, but fertilizing and firing the creativity of a generation of art-school graduates to whom he became a patron.

For this reason, the art world maintains a fierce loyalty and gratitude to Saatchi, despite these new pictures, shocking as they are.

“In the ’60s the music scene had the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and in the ’90s the art world had Charles Saatchi,” said one.

However, even his most devoted fans would admit that Saatchi has experienced a prolonged period of creative decline since his heyday.

“It is really sad, because he was on the money. The Saatchi Gallery today does not mean the same thing, and Charles has understandably become very defensive about his whole program,” says an art-world insider.

Saatchi has developed a reputation for reclusiveness. He has never given a full interview and only rarely attends the private views of even his most favored artists at his gallery, now located off the King’s Road in Chelsea.

He wrote a Q&A format book in 2009, My Name Is Charles Saatchi and I Am an Artoholic, but it offered few insights into his character, although he did disclose that Nigella’s cooking was “wasted” on him, saying, “I like toast with Dairylea, followed by Weetabix for supper. It drives Nigella to distraction, frankly, particularly as she gets the blame for my new fat look.”

In contrast to her husband’s recalcitrance with the media, Nigella instinctively understands the power of social networking. Just this week, she was tweeting pictures of the scrambled eggs she had made for breakfast.

Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi were always an unlikely couple, and there will be many in London who will say her decision to leave the family home has come not a moment too soon, and urge her to stay away for good, whatever her husband might say.