Was Nigella's mother really so monstrous Last week, the Domestic Goddess said her mother was a jealous depressive who beat her in 'deranged' rages. But what do family friends have to say…
08:22 GMT, 12 November 2012
A busy hair and make-up team applied foundation to Nigella Lawson's near-flawless skin and black liner to her dark eyes, then placed a lustrous wig of thick, straight hair on her head in preparation for a glossy magazine photoshoot. The result was dazzling, the voluptuous TV cook looking very like Cleopatra.
But when Nigella saw the photographs taken of her that day, the resemblance she saw was to someone else entirely.
'It's just so spooky,' she said. 'I look so much like my mother, and I'd never thought of myself looking like her. I'm like my father.'
A young Nigella Lawson, left, says she never
felt like she could please her mother Vanessa, pictured on the phone.
Her father, former Chancellor Nigel Lawson and sister Thomasina complete
the 1965 family photo
There's no disputing that Nigella, 52, does look very much like her father, former Chancellor Nigel Lawson. But pictures of her late mother Vanessa Salmon, the heiress and society hostess, reveal an equally remarkable likeness.
Vanessa died of liver cancer at the age of 48 in 1985, just a few years after she finally became close to her eldest daughter. Previously, theirs had been a strained and complicated relationship, as Nigella revealed in a heartfelt interview last week.
'I never thought I could please her,' she said. 'She was funny, but depressed and so sensitive to noise.
'The sound of a plastic bag being crinkled would send her deranged. 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.
'It wasn't a calculated thing; it was a hot-blooded hitting, a thrashing out of things. Once she had to stop hitting (my brother) Dominic as she hurt her hand.
'She just didn't like me; maybe because I came after Dominic the princeling, and I was my father's girl, she was jealous.'
It's a remarkable confession from a woman who professes herself 'very family minded'. So what is the full story of Nigella, her mother and a clearly troubled childhood
Pictures of Nigella Lawson's late mother Vanessa Salmon reveal a remarkable likeness between the pair
To many, Vanessa was the dazzling beauty who captivated male admirers with her charm. 'Most men I knew fell madly in love with her,' the late columnist, Alan Watkins, once said.
She was born in 1936, the daughter of Felix Addison Salmon and Rosemary Estelle Lever. Felix's grand-father, Bennett, was one of four entrepreneurs who founded Joe Lyons & Co, the chain of tea shops.
Vanessa, one of three sisters, was just 19 when she gave up her ballet dancing ambitions and married Nigel Lawson, an ambitious young journalist. They had four children — Dominic, Nigella, Thomasina and Horatia.
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Vanessa died of liver cancer at the age of 48 in 1985, just a few years after she finally became close to her eldest daughter
Nigella has variously described it as anorexia or bulimia. As Vanessa neared the end of her painful fight with cancer, she apparently told her daughter it was the first time in her life she wasn't depressed and the only time she didn't have to worry about food.
'I'm so relieved you're grown up because now, if I want to commit suicide, it won't matter like it would if you were a child,' she told Nigella.
Nigella admits her own relationship with food is far from uncomplicated. She has said her reaction to her mother's insistence on dishing out huge meals to her children was to refuse to eat at all. As an adult, she admits to over-eating at times of anxiety: 'I'm always so envious of those people who don't eat when they're anxious,' she once said. 'I only have to be a little anxious and I overeat. When my mother died, everyone said “You look very well.” I felt terrible, but I looked, um, round-faced.'
That Nigella was an unhappy child is shown by the fact she went to five schools, and became so withdrawn her mother thought she was autistic.
'My parents were very young and more interested in each other than in us,' she once admitted.
'At least there were four of us. Large families are good; you can talk about how much you hate your parents instead of bottling it up.'
Her mother did, apparently, eventually emerge from the depression that clouded Nigella's childhood.
Sir Peregrine recalls that she was blissfully happy with the suave, chain-smoking Freddie Ayer, who was married to socialite and writer Dee Wells when they met.
Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, a one-time colleague
of Nigel's and friend to Vanessa, is in no doubt that Vanessa loved her
Freddie and Vanessa were married for two years before she died. Last year, Gully Wells, Dee's daughter and Freddie's step-daughter, revealed in her memoir, The House In France, how Vanessa would travel to Oxford, where Ayer — a notorious lothario — was Wykeham Professor of Logic, to enjoy liaisons in his rooms.
She wrote of going to her step-father's rooms in New College, where she was a student, and him telling her it was 'not an ideal moment'.
'A little perplexed, I backed away and went down the staircase again, crossed the quad and . . . bumped into a reincarnation of Queen Nefertiti,' she said. 'Tiny, with inky-black hair, flawless cappuccino skin and bitter-chocolate sloe eyes, this exotic vision was dressed, somewhat incongruously, in a childlike, flower-sprigged cotton dress with a high waist and little puff sleeves.
'Since I spent so much time at grown-up parties with my parents, I knew exactly who she was. Her name was Vanessa and she was married to Nigel Lawson . . .
'I suggested that, as she happened to have wandered into New College, she should really call on my step-father, and spent some time explaining to her where his rooms were. She listened patiently, smiled sweetly — God, she was beautiful — and did just that.'
Only later did she realise Vanessa knew very well where Ayer's rooms were — and that her imminent arrival was the reason he had warned Gully away.
Today Gully, who lives in New York and works in publishing, thinks kindly of Vanessa, despite her part in the breakdown of her parents' marriage.
'She was brought up to look after a man,' she says. 'The opposite of my mother, who was very independent, though now it appears they both had tempers.'
She has read Nigella's latest remarks about her mother and confesses to being a little puzzled.
'I had no notion of that side of Vanessa. I think that must have been something she kept pretty quiet. I never heard Freddie mention anything about a temper.
'Whenever I saw her, she was playing the doting mother. My mother called her “the Golders Green Cleopatra”. It was my mother being bitchy, putting Vanessa down.'
Despite this, Gully remembers Vanessa with affection. 'I was fond of her — she made my stepfather very happy. It was the last great love affair of her life and his life, and they were very settled.'
It is, perhaps, no surprise that it was during these last years of her life that Vanessa and her daughter became close. Indeed Nigella, who faced more personal tragedy when her first husband, journalist John Diamond, died of throat cancer in 2001 at the age of 41, helped care for her terminally ill mother.
Earlier this year, Nigella, who has two children from her first marriage, Cosima, 18, and 16-year-old Bruno, has spoken of her anxieties about raising a family.
'People who don't have children imagine their whole lives would be all right if they did, but they don't realise that having children gives you lots of problems,' she said.
'I think it's impossible to be a mother without a huge sense of failure. Not that I think of my children as failures, I think they're wonderful, but one is always aware of what one isn't doing right.'
Given what we know about the beautiful, troubled Vanessa, one can only wonder whether she was the influence behind her daughter's words.