The days may be long gone when a husband would pretend to commit adultery in a Brighton hotel so as to clear his wife, whatever her faults, of any blame for a divorce. But might it not still be customary for him at least to present their separation as mutually and amicably agreed? Not so, apparently. For such gallantry has been strikingly absent from the three most publicised divorce suits of the summer, in which rich and powerful men have each acted unilaterally and without much regard to their spouses’ dignity.
A month ago, Vladimir Putin appeared on Russian television with his wife, Lyudmila, to announce that their 30-year marriage was over. And while she said that their divorce was ‘civilised’ and had been ‘our common decision’, Lyudmila appeared to be the victim of a painfully staged event, probably intended to limit the damage to Putin’s popular image as a defender of Orthodox family values. And his other equally powerful image as a vigorous man of action who put presidential duty above family life meant that he could only be seen, as he clearly wanted to be seen, as the sole initiator of their formal split. Lyudmila in the circumstances looked humiliated.
Then soon afterwards came Rupert Murdoch’s decision to end his 14-year marriage to Wendi Deng, who, at 44, is 38 years his junior. He filed for divorce in New York on the grounds that their marriage had ‘irretrievably broken down’, but without any effort to save her face. On the contrary, Wendi’s ‘friends’ were letting it be known that she had been ‘totally blindsided’ by his decision to divorce her, a move that he had planned stealthily and suddenly sprung upon her. It seemed like just another ruthless sacking in Murdoch’s long record of such things.
And now we have Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson. Saatchi didn’t even tell his wife of his plan to divorce her, deciding instead to give the news exclusively to the Mail on Sunday. This was a very strange decision, but then everything about their marriage since the famous throat-clutching episode outside Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair has been very strange: the contrast between the photographs of the event and Saatchi’s description of it as a ‘playful tiff’, his acceptance nevertheless of a police ‘caution’ for assault, Nigella’s moving out and discarding her wedding ring while at the same time (so ‘friends’ told the Mail) still hoping to save her marriage until being, like Wendi, ‘blindsided’ by her husband’s action. And what kind of weird marriage is it in which both husband and wife (if Saatchi is to be believed) spend time clutching each other’s throats when having arguments about the children? It is also not very becoming for a husband in public to pick snot out of his wife’s nose (as Saatchi claimed to have been doing at Scott’s).
Murdoch and Saatchi have generally been portrayed in these events as ruthless and totally self-centred. And Saatchi in particular has been given a fierce going-over by the Daily Mail’s Alison Boshoff, who on Monday portrayed him as a thoroughly nasty piece of work whose behaviour had left Nigella’s friends ‘shocked and aghast’. ‘The cruelty of it takes your breath away,’ one was quoted as saying. Well, maybe. But it’s hard to know where the truth lies when the two sides in a marital dispute are spinning away against each other. I like to imagine another scenario in which even the richest and most powerful of men could be weaker and more vulnerable than their wives.
It might seem odd to say this about Murdoch, but if you are 82 and your young wife is not only eager for power in the business you have spent your life building up but also socially pushy and eager to mingle with Hollywood celebrities and people like Tony and Cherie Blair, you might begin to feel rather old and pathetic. You might dream of a more docile wife to take care of you in your old age. And Nigella isn’t exactly docile either. She is a famous television chef in both Britain and the United States, which will doubtless have made the 70-year-old Saatchi proud but may also perhaps have left him feeling a bit inadequate. When, in his explanation of his decision to divorce her, he said that he felt he had ‘clearly been a disappointment to Nigella during the last year or so’, this was attacked by Alison Boshoff as simply a way of placing the blame for their marital breakdown on her. But might it not have been simply what he felt? Hell hath no fury like an old man scorned.
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