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Charles Saatchi, a textbook case of ego strangling a man's sense

The art collector's jaw-dropping denials of assaulting his now-estranged wife, Nigella Lawson, have ranged from bizarre to creepy.

July 10, 2013|By Robin Abcarian

Last month, as they ate lunch outside a fancy London restaurant, world famous art collector Charles Saatchi physically roughed up his wife, the TV chef Nigella Lawson. Unaware that a paparazzo was snapping away, Saatchi squeezed Lawson's windpipe four times and shoved his finger up her nostril. Lawson, teary and fearful, dabbed at her eyes. Saatchi stalked out and got in their car, as she followed, sobbing.

Tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic went crazy. "Arti Choke," blared the inimitable New York Post.

In Britain, even a deputy prime minister got into the act, first declaring the assault a "fleeting moment," then backtracking after domestic abuse groups called him out.

I'd love to report this has been a teachable moment on how to recognize domestic violence, atone for it and prevent it. Instead, it's a textbook case of denial, and what happens when a man's ego strangles his common sense.

Lawson, 53, known to American audiences as cookbook author ("How to Be a Domestic Goddess") and judge on ABC's competitive cooking show "The Taste," has a warm and casual approach to entertaining, at odds with her upbringing as the daughter of Margaret Thatcher's chancellor of the exchequer.

She is curvy and gorgeous and fun to watch, and while she may not be a celebrity invader on the level of, say, a Victoria Beckham, she is coming to Los Angeles for Season 2 of "The Taste," which begins taping in September.

Saatchi, 70, is cofounder of the 1980s powerhouse ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi and an influential art collector. He created the famous "Labour Isn't Working" campaign that helped put Thatcher in office, and was an early champion of young British artists like Damien Hirst, who put a shark in formaldehyde, and Tracey Emin, whose "My Bed," consisted of an unmade bed with personal detritus strewn beside it.

Despite his high public profile, Saatchi is an admittedly reclusive control freak. In 2009, he charmed two Times of London reporters in person for more than two hours, then insisted they conduct the actual interview by email.

So given his extraordinary powers of manipulation, you'd think he'd handle the fallout from his bad behavior with something approaching finesse.

At nearly every turn, however, his spin, ranging from bizarre to creepy, has backfired.

He told the London Evening Standard, where he is a columnist, that what the world perceived as a husband attacking a wife was merely "a playful tiff."

"Nigella's tears," he added helpfully, "were because we both hate arguing, not because she had been hurt."

As for touching her nose, he told the Standard, he was simply helping her out. "Even domestic goddesses sometimes have a bit of snot in their nose. I was trying to fish it out." (You can Google the photos for yourself. They are disturbing.)

And yet, according to news reports, Saatchi visited the local police station after the photographs were published, spent some hours in conversation with investigators and accepted a "police caution for assault," given for minor offenses but which can be used against a defendant in future investigations.

In the ensuing weeks, it's been all Nigella, all the time: Her wedding ring was off, she was looking at a new apartment, the movers had been spotted at her home. In photos, she appeared distraught, disheveled. Anonymous friends spoke of her distress, and his anger. Her public relations man was said to be insisting that Saatchi apologize, which sparked a great fight between the pair. Lawson issued no statements in her husband's defense.

That, apparently, was the final straw for the thrice-married Saatchi.

On Sunday, he announced — not to his wife, but to the Daily Mail — that he would seek a divorce.

"I feel 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. 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…. I must stress my actions were not violent. We are instinctively tactile people."

I was interested in how a domestic violence expert might react to this one-man pity party, so I called San Diego clinical psychologist David B. Wexler, author of "When Good Men Behave Badly."

"Jaw-dropping," said Wexler. "I hate to minimize the actual violence, but the response in some ways is worse."

"Many people who cross a line in a moment of anger or distress are horrified, and apologize and ask themselves, 'What's wrong with me?' " Wexler said. "But he's not even calling this an act of domestic violence. He is just gently applying his hands around her neck to emphasize his point, which, according to him, they do with some frequency? It's absurd."

I wish any married couple well, and if Saatchi and Lawson get back together, more power to them. I hope he gets some help for that temper, but first he has to get some help for that world-class denial.

The Telegraph reported Wednesday that Lawson has sought the services of Fiona Shackleton, the high-powered divorce attorney whose clients have included Paul McCartney, Madonna and Prince Charles.

There are also reports that she may arrive in California ahead of schedule to get some distance on her disintegrating private life.

So welcome to Los Angeles, Nigella. We've got paparazzi, and plenty of obnoxious, entitled men.

Except for the weather, you'll probably feel right at home.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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