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Martha Stewart

This commentary aired on 'Marketplace', April 23, 2002.

Fabienne Marsh "Marketplace/Martha Stewart" (5.16 MB)

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Everybody’s talking about Martha. The Martha who threw candy corn at a young trick-or-treater. Who pinned a landscaper against a security box with her Suburban. The one whose former friend calls her “a sociopath.”

Christopher Byron’s new biography, Martha, Inc. adds some welcome financial details, but continues digging where Jerry Oppenheimer’s Just Desserts left off. Taken together, these biographies are compost heaps, with no shortage of dung about Martha.

This hardworking insomniac of exquisite taste is accused of lifting recipes, pocketing tips meant for her catering staff. She’s even recycled leftover wine to use as vinegar in Ralph Lauren gift baskets. Her relentless quest for control never bows to reality. When she first started working for The Market Basket in Westport, Connecticut, she told a NY Times reporter she was the store’s “proprietor”. The story ran. Stewart was fired -- but not before exhibiting her legendary pluck. Stewart returned to The Market Basket with a dictionary, defending her use of the word.

She’s brilliant at getting others to pick up the tab. In the late eighties, she invited Kmart executives over for lunch at her Turkey Hill home. She served tuna fish, iced tea, fruit, and submitted a bill for one-thousand dollars. Kmart, now bankrupt, has been bankrolling her ever since. If they stop, she’ll still have corporate suitors because there are too many Martha fans to ignore.

The most human observation about Stewart comes from Kurt Vonnegut who remembers Stewart pulling weeds and cooking meals as his houseguest in East Hampton. “I walked into my studio and she had mopped the floor for me,” Vonnegut told Jerry Oppenheimer, “and I just found that quite wonderful.”

It is wonderful. As a business practice, it’s inspired. She gives people what they want, sells them the tools to make it happen. Then shows them how — with books, magazines and TV appearances. Martha’s fans don’t give a rotten fig about the nasty Martha. They’re too busy rolling-out their Martha Stewart patio furniture, digging their first fern dell, and relaxing to her copyrighted Grapefruit in Moscato dessert. The Martha they love has put an entire world within their grasp.

So who cares about the other Martha and is Martha different from any other hard-driving, self-made billionaire?

Well, yes. Martha is different. Not just because she’s rich, gutsy, and the most successful businesswoman in American history. She’s different because you’d have to go back to television in the Fifties to find anyone selling so exquisite, idyllic and seamless an image of domestic life. No other public figure, male or female, is selling perfection as a mega-brand.

Which is why people pick on her. With each nasty revelation, the country-club image she’s selling makes us wince. The stench from the compost heap is wafting into the kitchen.

©2002 by Fabienne Marsh