By Charles J. ShieldsChelsea House, 112 pages, $21.95
By Christopher ByronJohn Wiley and Sons, 406 pages, $27.95
Christopher Byron has had the misfortune of writing a lengthy book on Martha Stewart's business dealings that went to press before news broke of what would surely have been its centerpiece—the Imclone scandal. Nor have the fates been kind to him in the matters of prose style or basic storytelling ability. Martha Inc. is a book with rather high literary aspirations, but they go bust from the get-go: in the opening sentences of Chapter One, Stewart's father, Eddie Kostyra, is described as a "self-absorbed narcissist." One of Christopher Byron's desires—and not a bad one—is to give readers a sense of Martha Stewart's true nature. Regrettably, his means for achieving this goal border on the comical, as he marshals all of Western art and culture (and, one senses, the entirety of his Yale undergraduate education) to his aid. In the course of the book Stewart is compared to the Romanovs, Richard Nixon, "the ghostly wife of King Popiel the Heartless," elevator music, the Jim Carrey character in The Truman Show, the Karl Malden character in One-Eyed Jacks, the Jeff Daniels character in The Purple Rose of Cairo, a "demonically possessed character out of a horror movie," an unspecified character "out of a Bo Widerberg movie," a central character in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the Cheshire Cat, Dorothy Gale, Jay Gatsby, Marie Antoinette, Macbeth, Evita Peron, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., Walt Disney, a witch, a saint, a participant in Torquemada's Theater of Tortures, the Ohio State football team, the Chicago Bulls, Chairman Mao, and (perhaps most unlikely of all, and for an entire chapter) Nancy Drew. That this curious assemblage is incapable of suggesting any one human being—and least of all Martha Stewart—eludes Byron, although midway through the book we find a defeated little remark that amounts to an authorial waving of the white flag: Stewart, he decides, is really just "like everyone." She has "good qualities and bad qualities, and still other qualities that seemed to occupy a kind of 'work in progress' niche in between." Well, then maybe we ought to let poor old Richard Nixon rest in peace.
Byron makes Stewart appear distasteful, but no one could be more distasteful than Byron himself, as he dredges up news about Stewart's hysterectomy, does his level best to glean facts from her sealed divorce file, and reports on the intimate sleeping arrangements of her teenage daughter. In Byron's hands Stewart can't catch a break. When she and her husband relocated their young family from Manhattan to Turkey Hill Farm, in Westport, Connecticut, "scarcely had the couple moved to the country than they found enough money to dump the child in a fancy country day school a mile from Turkey Hill and left her to fend for herself." It's a remark that prompts the reader to wonder what the preferable alternative was—enrolling the little girl in a public school farther from home and attending classes with her? (He seems also to have forgotten that in the book's preface he explained proudly that he and his glamorous subject "had actually been leading parallel lives"; in fact, Byron and his wife "had sent [their] daughter to the same country day school where the Stewarts had sent theirs.") We get the by now familiar litany of offenses (hopped up with a few spicy new additions) that prove conclusively that Martha Stewart is the rottenest, nastiest person ever to draw breath: she was mean to a trick-or-treater, frightened a Boy Scout, jumped to the head of a line at a tag sale, ran over a kitten, and irritated an employee at a Chinese restaurant so badly that he blurted out, "I don't give a fuck." She honked at slowpokes in a bank drive-through. She unplugged a guest-room mini-fridge in which a visitor had been storing yummy "coffee, juice, leftovers and snacks." She once borrowed a large pot and never returned it. A guest at one of her breakfast meetings was made "instantly nauseous" by the fare. Even Stewart's breathtaking triumphs (such as seizing and maintaining control of a Charlie Rose interview) are portrayed in the same grim light as are her disastrous lapses of judgment (such as actually dating Charlie Rose). Sometimes Byron's tone is that of a censorious eighth-grade girl, as when he reports that "Martha is not a good mixer at parties." Much has been made in the press of the fact that contrary to expectation, Martha Inc. is not the nastiest biography of Stewart yet published. But not for lack of trying. Byron wants us to understand that Stewart is an egomaniac (perhaps even a self-absorbed narcissist), and this should not require much heavy lifting on his part. But oftentimes his evidence lacks punch. When a Cuban tour guide tells her that he learned English by tuning in Tom Brokaw's news broadcasts using a homemade antenna, we get this bit of silliness:
Whether Martha was genuinely interested or irritated that her "guide" was talking about a rival celebrity isn't known. But whatever her feelings at the new direction in the conversation, she nonetheless quickly managed to steer things back toward something that made her the center of events once again. She said, "I can buy you a satellite dish and send it to you."
Stop this monster before she maims and kills!
Byron performs arabesques of conclusion upon the weakest scaffolding of facts. We learn, for example, that the Kostyra family home "had a single full bath, and two washrooms—one in the basement and the other off the kitchen, where Eddie would shave and relieve himself during mealtimes, whether the family liked it or not." The source for this unlovely revelation seems to be one of Stewart's "Remembering" columns (a regular feature of her Martha Stewart Living magazine), in which she remarks of the household facilities, "One of the half-bathrooms was a toilet and a sink off the kitchen—that was really Dad's private domain." How we get from this unremarkable statement to Dad's "reliev[ing] himself during mealtimes" is, I think, what makes so much of this book "The Incredible Story" that it is. Byron is quite rabid on the subject of the "Remembering" columns. In the kind of footnote that makes one think it was really a pity he gave up the law in favor of writing, he tells us, "At the time of this book's writing, ninety-five such columns had been published. Copies of all were obtained and digested for this book." A lesser student of human evil might assume that in ninety-five columns about her childhood, a person might commit a few inconsistencies and repetitions; but Byron is a stickler for absolute accuracy in such matters. Stewart wrote in 1982 that she first visited Europe with her husband, but then wrote in a "Remembering" column that she first went to the Continent with her mother—and Byron cries foul. He is certainly not the first to sense that collectively these columns leave a telling record of their author's interests and intentions, but surely it is the biographer's job—if his method is to involve a careful examination of these things—to make something more of their various obfuscations and revisions than the observation that they all appear to have been "dashed off on the way to the airport."