This Day in Jewish History

1960: A 'Domestic Goddess' of England Who Never Claimed to Be a Chef Is Born

Whoever culture icon Nigella Lawson thought she was, the BBC set her right: She's Ashkenazi, after all.

AP

On January 6, 1960, the Domestic Goddess took up residence on earth. For more than half of the intervening period since then, the Goddess – aka Nigella Lawson -- has been generously dispensing wisdom, common kitchen sense and frequent glimpses of herRubenesque flesh to a grateful public.

Nigella Lucy Lawson, of course, is the superstar English cooking writer and TV host, daughter of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, and former wife of billionaire businessman and art collector Charles Saatchi.

Lawson’s mother was the late Vanessa Salmon Lawson, whose Jewish family owned the British food manufacturer and hospitality conglomerate J. Lyons. She and Nigel Lawson were married from 1955 until 1980, and had four children together, including Nigella. (After their divorce, Vanessa was married briefly to the Oxford philosopher A.J. “Freddie” Ayer, until her untimely death from cancer in 1985, at 49.)

Nigel Lawson was a longtime Conservative member of Parliament who for a decade served in the cabinet of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, six of those years (1983-1989) as chancellor of the exchequer.

Ancestors on the lam

When the BBC-TV program “Who Do You Think You Are” traced the genealogy of Nigella’s mother’s family, in 2006, it discovered that a branch of the family had come to England from Amsterdam. Lawson had always imagined her Amsterdam forebears as being of “exotic” Iberian-Sephardi origin. The BBC’s genealogists, however, informed her that her Dutch relations were of Ashkenazi stock, and that some of them were on the lam when they left Amsterdam after one of its members had been convicted of theft.

Nigella Lawson, "Domestic Goddess", reveals some racey culinary fantasies.

Lawson switched schools often as a child, and has admitted to having been a difficult pupil. That didn't stop herfrom attending the University of Oxford, from which she graduated in 1979 with a degree in medieval and modern languages.

After several years of working in London department stores, she began reviewing books, and then restaurants, for the weekly Spectator magazine.  That was followed by a brief stint as deputy literary editor for the London Sunday Times, after which Lawson began a career as a freelance journalist, appearing in the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and such American publications as Vogue and Gourmet. She published her first book, “How to Eat,” in 1998. It sold 300,000 copies.  Her latest title, published last year, is “Simply Nigella.”

“How to Eat” was followed by another nine books, generally successful, and most of them accompanied by TV tie-ins. They have had such names as “How to Be a Domestic Goddess” (2000), “Nigella Bites” (2001) and the Italian cookbook “Nigelissima.”

Comfort food, charisma and coke

In 1992, Lawson married John Diamond, a journalist she had met at the Sunday Times. They had two children, before his death from throat cancer – which he documented in both a book and a TV documentary, in 2001.

Lawson makes no pretense of being a professional chef, and her recipes tend more toward “comfort food” then to haut cuisine. But she is intelligent and funny, and, most would agree, voluptuously beautiful, which works well for her among both male and female TV viewers. Less fortunately for her, it also means that, especially in the UK, her every move (and every weight gain and loss) is tracked by paparazzi and gossip columnists.

In the case of her decade-long marriage to Charles Saatchi, founder with his brother of the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency, who in recent decades has spent most of his time collecting contemporary art, the obsessive scrutiny helped precipitate their divorce. That happened after a photographer captured an image – actually 1,000 images – of Saatchi grabbing Lawson’s throat, possibly choking her, while they dined together at a London restaurant in 2013.

Publication of the photos set in motion a process that ended with the couple’s divorce. The process included an ugly media battle and court case, after two former domestic assistants to the couple were tried for tax evasion, and made a number or allegations in court about Lawson’s supposed drug use. She later said that being married to Saatchi had driven her to use cocaine and other drugs, but that since her divorce, she’s been drug-free.

Charles Saatchi arriving home in London, June 18, 2013, after being cautioned by police for assaulting his wife Nigella Lawson, based on photographs of him grabbing her by the throat.
Reuters