One of my favourite Who Do You Think You Are? episodes is the one starring Nigella Lawson (series 3, episode 6), the TV personality and cook book writer who has lately come under huge scrutiny due to her past drug-use and the very public collapse of her marriage to Iraqi-born British businessman Charles Saatchi.
Nigella Lawson is one of the four children born to former Conservative MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson (b. 1932) and his first wife, the late Vanessa Salmon (1936-1985). Nigella’s family was a Jewish, though non-observant family linked for several generations to London’s wealthier circles as well as the catering business
In this episode, Nigella attempts to clear several myths surrounding some of her maternal ancestors, who came to prominence for having founded the famous Lyons Corner House chain. Although not much genealogical research actually takes place during this episode, Nigella attempts to uncover the personal stories behind her maternal Salmon ancestors. She goes back to her ancestor Barnett Salmon and his wife Helena Gluckstein, whose family originally came from Amsterdam. It was Helena’s grandfather, Coenraad Sammes (later Coleman Joseph), who fled to England from Amsterdam in 1830 to escape a prison sentence following a conviction for theft.
Amused rather than ashamed by her family secret, Nigella also tries to find out whether she actually has any -as she puts it “exotic”- Spanish blood, knowing that many Jews originally came from Spain (Sephardi Jews). A trip to the archives in The Netherlands confirms Nigella’s family were actually Ashkenazi Jews who probably came from Eastern Europe or Germany, which slightly lets her down.
I find Nigella Lawson’s episode light and entertaining because, in spite of the Jewish element in her family background, her story is not as tragic or gloomy as those presented by Jerry Springer or Marianne Faithfull, apart from her Jewish maternal grandfather’s experience as a British soldier in the Army Catering Corps which liberated Belsen Concentration Camp in 1945.
Her story is more about success, about money and about eluding the law in order to survive. Definitely a good mix for an hour’s entertainment!