The Sunday before last began as a regular morning for Nigella Lawson. So regular, in fact, she tweeted a cheerful photo of her breakfast to her nearly 400,000 followers: smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. By evening, however, an image had been captured that would be beamed around the world, and this one looked more like a waking nightmare than a snapshot of domestic bliss. Photos of the celebrity cook being attacked by her husband, the advertising magnate and art collector Charles Saatchi, set fire to the Twittersphere and beyond, provoking outrage and disbelief. At Sunday lunches across the U.K. people said roughly the same thing, though the Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore put it best: “If he does that in public, what’s going on behind closed doors?”
Saatchi and Lawson were snapped over lunch the previous week by paparazzi on the patio of one of their favourite restaurants, Scott’s, in Mayfair, a high-end seafood restaurant that caters to aristocrats and celebrities. The couple took their regular table on the patio, tucked in behind some potted olive trees, where Saatchi likes to smoke. It was then that their discussion, which Saatchi has since described as “a playful tiff,” took a violent turn. Saatchi was photographed grabbing his wife’s throat, first with one hand, then two, tweaking her nose and pushing her face. She was seen placating him, placing her hands on his hand, fighting back tears and even offering a kiss to his cheek. After the assault she fled the restaurant in tears, the fear and upset clearly visible on her face. The alarming dark side of an enviable marriage had just been made public for all the world to see. But what did it all mean?
At first the couple remained silent. There were rumours (since confirmed) that Lawson and her children had left the marital home. Lawson did not make a police complaint, but the story wouldn’t die. Nigella Lawson is a global brand and by Monday the photos were making headlines in celebrity gossip outlets around the world. On Tuesday, Saatchi offered an explanation to the London Evening Standard, the paper for which he writes a column. He minimized the encounter, saying that although an argument occurred, it wasn’t a serious one but an “intense discussion” about the couple’s children (they have three who live with them, all from previous marriages) and that they made up soon after. Of the throttling, Saatchi explained, “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.”
The explanation went down, as the British say, like a cup of cold sick. Saatchi was pilloried from the tabloids to the broadsheets. Scotland Yard issued a press statement saying they were “studying” the photographs.
But the condemnation was not unanimous. Roy Greenslade, the Guardian’s media blogger, made headlines of his own for daring to question whether an assault had actually taken place. “Do pictures, even a series of pictures, tell the full story, or even part of the story?” he wrote. After receiving an onslaught of anger, Greenslade recanted the next day, with the excuse that he was “overcompensating” for the fact that he and Lawson have been friends since they worked together at the Sunday Times more than 20 years ago.
Even more confusing, just 24 hours after Saatchi’s blasé dismissal of the incident, he turned himself in to his local police station and received a caution for assault. A caution, under British law, is not a criminal conviction, but it can be used as a character indictment in court. It is, in effect, an admittance of guilt. Saatchi’s explanation, given to reporters later in the day, was that he sought out police on the advice of his lawyer as “it was better than the alternative of this hanging over all of us for months.”
He confirmed that Lawson and her children had left the family home, but maintained it was not marital acrimony. “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,” he said.
According to friends, the couple co-hosted two dinner parties in the week after the lunch and before the story broke, and Lawson’s Twitter feed continued with its usual fare of recipes and restaurant visits—adding credence to Saatchi’s insistence on their reconciliation. But did the attack occur in the first place? Looking at the pictures, it’s hard to imagine otherwise.