It was impossible, in 1979, to be up at Oxford and not know of Nigella Lawson. She and a group of undergraduate friends had been splashed on the cover of a magazine: the ''Bright Young Things'', as it dubbed them, led a charmed existence of champagne breakfasts and fast cars. The golden youths included gorgeous nobodies such as Hugh Grant, but most, like Lawson (whose father, Nigel, was then energy secretary under Margaret Thatcher), were the scion of important dynasties - titled, landed, or just high-profile.
Even among these stunners, Nigella stood out. Her luscious looks turned heads, but she was a scholar, too, a bluestocking who could recite cantos from Dante's Inferno. I was a year below her and never in her set, but, like everyone else there, I felt I knew her.
I'm not sure anyone really did: Nigella was wary, even back then, of revealing too much of herself. Suffering - she went on to lose first her mother and then her sister to cancer - insulated her. Later, when her husband John Diamond also died from the disease, I remember being struck by how similar Nigella was to Jackie Onassis: a glamorous but tragic young widow with two small children who must forge a path amid public scrutiny.
Like Jackie O, Nigella soon found someone to lean on: Charles Saatchi did not quite match Ari Onassis's outrageous wealth, but he had made a fortune with his PR company. Like the Greek shipping tycoon, Saatchi was immensely controlling: a perfect Svengali for a beautiful and vulnerable trophy wife. He could launch her; she would tame him.
It turned out to be a Faustian pact. The man who once manipulated the media to create Nigella the domestic goddess has used it now to humiliate her. Last Sunday, Charles Saatchi told a newspaper he was filing for divorce. Nigella learnt that her 10-year marriage was over from the pages of a tabloid.
''I am sorry to announce that Nigella Lawson and I are getting divorced,'' he said, characteristically trying to regain control of the situation. Expressing his disappointment that his wife had failed publicly to exonerate his behaviour when he appeared to grab her by the throat while dining at London's Scott's restaurant, Saatchi finished his statement on a distinctly sour note: ''I wish Nigella the best for the future and for her continuing global success''. Svengali finally got his revenge on the woman who had outgrown him.
When Saatchi met Nigella, she had just come out with a best-selling cookery book, How to Eat. Like the cook herself, the recipes were fresh and delicious, but also a bit quirky. ''Not to everyone's taste,'' as one foodie sniffed at the time. Nor was Nigella herself, truth be told. When Michael Jackson, then head of Channel 4, decided to give Nigella a cooking show, he was warned that she was too posh, too bluestocking, too distant.
The sceptics had not noticed that Charles Saatchi, who had transformed a grocer's daughter into a Prime Minister, lurked behind the scenes. Saatchi instinctively knew that to draw television viewers, Nigella had to play down the wordy intellectual and ramp up the sex appeal. Women chefs on TV had hitherto been pleasant, chatty types, like Delia Smith and Julia Child. They diced, chopped and fried food as if it were a means to an end. Saatchi's genius lay in persuading Nigella to caress, squeeze, lick the food as if it were an object of lust. Its preparation should become a proxy for sex.
The formula worked. Viewers were seduced. Nigella, the temptress at the Aga, disproved the old Jerry Hall adage that ''men want a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom''. In the world according to Saatchi, the kitchen was not only the hearth but the backdrop to lusty appetites and titillating innuendo. Men who couldn't boil an egg tuned in to savour Nigella in her tight-fitting outfits and scarlet lipstick. Women who'd dismissed cooking as a housewifely chore now recognised its powerful sensuality.
Nigella married her Svengali. He revelled in her - nay, their - success. His status and millions ensured that no matter how popular his wife became, he was still the greater of the two. He plotted her career minutely, from the cheeky subversive title of her next book, How to be a Domestic Goddess, to the outfits she should wear on TV.
He took care of her media profile, too: which parties she should attend and which restaurants they should frequent. She should come across as clever but kind, sexy but nurturing; not too ambitious, not too assertive. His uncanny sense of PR polished Nigella's image to golden perfection.
The problem was, it was just an image. The PR genius mistook illusion for reality. Nigella was not the pliable model of Saatchi's apparent romantic fantasy. She was opinionated, clever and spirited. When he met her, tragedy had pummelled her into compliance. But time restored Nigella's sense of self - and success was giving her a new confidence. She was no longer a British celeb, she was a global star: Americans loved her, Swedes were calling their daughters Nigella and even the snooty French were endorsing the British recipes ''de Nigella''.
Charles Saatchi woke up to find he was the lesser of the two. Like so many men married to women who are more high-profile, or bigger earners, Saatchi grew resentful. In his anger, he made some bad miscalculations - the kind even a PR novice would have avoided. For having dismissed the throttling incident as no more than a tiff, Saatchi then accepted a police caution and allowed Nigella to be photographed taking her belongings from their marital home.
His latest act, however, in announcing via a newspaper that he intends to divorce her, is one calculated to heap maximum humiliation on his wife. He had used the media to create Nigella, now he would use it to destroy her.
Except Nigella Lawson won't be destroyed. Her resilience will see her through this crisis as it has seen her through all the previous ones. She will bide her time, make a new home, maybe move with her children to the US, where she may well find herself a new man - a sunny, supportive figure whose star burns so much brighter than Saatchi's.
After all, this chef knows that revenge is a dish best served cold.
The Daily Telegraph, London