When I tentatively cracked open Martha Stewart’s unauthorised biography, I worried that America’s lifestyle goddess might be toppled from her pedestal. Perhaps she has been already. Certainly, stories and gossip have been flying around Martha’s home suburb of Westport (the site of her famed Turkey Hill residence) for years.
Nevertheless, the release of Martha Inc -“ The Incredible Story Of Martha Stewart Omnimedia by Christopher Byron shouldn’t prevent anyone snapping up her monthly magazine Martha Stewart Living or any other of Martha’s goodies which cover everything from bedlinen and glassware to TV shows, videos and cookbooks. This astonishing biography just adds to the enjoyment.
Just over 25 years ago, Martha emerged from the obscurity of being a housewife and small-town caterer to transform herself into one of the best-known and wealthiest women in America. Born into a bluecollar Polish family, Stewart reinvented herself as a lifestyle guru through a series of well-timed moves.
She gained -“ and lost -“ a browbeaten husband and countless used and abused friends, came, saw and conquered an entire chain of stores -“ to the tune of millions of dollars -“ and was officially recognised as a billionaire when her company, Martha Stewart Omnimedia Inc., went public in 1997.
This isn’t the first Martha biography, and Byron himself claims that forerunners helped provide some of his information. He even tried to get Martha’s approval for the book, but after initial acquiescence, he was bested at every turn when he sought help with fact-checking.
Thus, if criticism of this biography is to be made, it’s due to the above factors. Byron’s tale focuses primarily on the business end of Martha’s life and it’s noticeably lacking in areas such as her very early life and family history. It also fails to address comprehensively the relationship with her only child Alexis. Where, for example, is the inside track on why Alexis refused Martha’s guidance on her recent wedding? Alexis chose instead to have a registry ceremony. That in itself got tongues wagging at the time, but Byron skates over this detail completely.
No matter. There’s enough deliciously juicy family gossip and innuendo in this tome to keep you page-turning till sunrise (unless, of course, you’re rising early anyway, ?a Martha, to prepare homemade brioche for a thousand). We’re talking money, figures, deals and swindles.
Byron, who is actually one of Martha’s Westport neighbours, gives us some delicious anecdotes. In doing so, he exposes the woman behind the myth. Byron spoke directly with Stewart’s friends -“ from the present and the past -“ and family in order to furnish the biography with the appropriate material.
He also takes delight in sharing the Westport neighbour point of view, recounting anecdotes such as the time Martha actually drove her car into a neighbour’s tree surgeon. Or the time a group of Westporters cobbled together their own version of Martha Stewart Living.
The subtext of the Martha Message has become perfect table settings equal perfect person and, since everyone knew that was nonsense, she became easy prey for parodies and jokes. A parody of her magazine entitled Is Martha Stewart Living? was published by two of her Westport neighbours. The magazine mocked the impossible lifestyle Martha claimed to be leading as the All-American-Everything Gal and contained articles with titles like, Making Water: Impress guests at your next dinner party by serving them water you’ve made yourself or better yet, by buying mine. The magazine’s calendar of Martha’s gal-on-the-go tasks included such items as, Thursday, December 1: Move outdoor garden indoors -¦; Saturday, December 3: scrub north face of house with Borax -¦
According to Byron, Martha built her empire by marketing herself to the world as, among other things, the very epitome of womanly self-expression in the home. Martha Stewart is more than just the final triumph of the American homemaker. She is the ultimate female handyman, the ultimate businesswoman, the ultimate adventurer. This has turned her into a lightning rod for every conceivable opinion about what being a woman really means. Wherever her name is mentioned, half the women within earshot pronounce her the living ratification of their worth as human beings. The other half say they want to throw up at the thought of her.
When Martha wanted to sell her stuff to America’s heartland via television, an executive who witnessed her televisual rise put it this way:
The show was sappy, tedious. It seemed to conjure a world of fantasy satisfactions that no one actually experienced -“ at least no one he knew. The worst segment of all showed Martha wandering in her gardens, advising viewers not to cut their roses at the height of the noon hour or the flowers would wilt. Instead, said Martha, as she gently snipped the stems, you should cut them in the cool of the afternoon, when the first dew glistens on the petals.
The executive, after viewing this excerpt, was paralysed with horror. The people in urban cities, he told Martha, are in urban environments. They’re working-class people. They don’t even have gardens.
Martha looked back at him. Her voice was even and cool, conveying the total confidence in her words as she said: Yes, but they want them.
When Martha rang the bell at the New York stock exchange on that fateful billionaire-making day when her IPO was launched, she was also, perhaps fatefully, due to have lunch with Talk magazine editor Tina Brown, Byron writes.
Thirty years earlier, Brown had been a talented young writer looking to make a name for herself in London magazine circles. Since then she had, like Martha, honed the blade of her sword to its sharpest edge and carved her way to the top to become the best-known magazine editor in America.
But as she [Brown] rose to answer the door, she knew that the person standing outside now wore that crown. The reigning empress of magazine publishing was no longer Tina Brown, it was Martha Kostrya Stewart, who was something else as well.
How’re you doing? asked Tina as she was greeted by her fashionably late guest, who answered with two words that summed up a lot.
She said, I’m rich, and walked in to see her friends.
Read this book. From one Martha fan to, hopefully, legions of others, this won’t cloud your picture of the goddess. It will enhance it.
Martha Inc: The Incredible Story Of Martha Stewart Ominmedia, by Christopher Byron, is published by John Wiley & Sons Inc. (RRP $49.95).