From her turbulent marriage to her US debut and enthralling legal battles, Nigella Lawson has dominated column inches and discussion for the past six months. However before Nigella, there was her mother, Vanessa Salmon. A notorious society beauty, Salmon was heiress to the J. Lyons & Co catering dynasty and wife of Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1983 to 1989.
Salmon trained as a ballet dancer before quitting to marry Lawson aged nineteen, with whom she had four children. She later married philosopher Sir Freddie Aher after divorcing from Lawson in 1980. Salmon had a childlike quality: she was petite with a thick black bob and dressed in doll-like clothing, including baby-doll dresses, puff-sleeves and floral prints. She was often unpredictable, swinging from rage to joviality, and even as her family business hit crisis point in the 1960s, totally oblivious to the financial realities of the world around her. Friends recall that Salmon had a wonderful sense of humour, with an air of debutant charm instilled by her affluent childhood. Sir Peregrine Worsthorne swapped shirts with Salmon in the middle of a crowded restaurant in Brighton during a Conservative Party conference, and the columnist Alan Watkins commented: “Most men I know fell madly in love with her”.
“Sir Peregrine Worsthorne swapped shirts with Salmon in the middle of a crowded restaurant in Brighton during a Conservative Party conference”
However, like so many affluent society woman of her time, Salmon was beautiful but troubled, bored by the confinements of being a housewife. Indeed, her tempestuous relationship with her daughter has been widely documented by the press. Salmon was prone to a variety of eating disorders, something Nigella was aware of while growing up, and she was also known to be depressive and temperamental. As she lay in hospital with cancer, aged 47, she told her daughter that she had found solace in dying, as it was the only time in her life that she need not worry about food. She also told her, “Darling, whatever you do in life, nothing will ever match the achievement of being tall.”
Text by Mhairi Graham