Home Alone

It's all too easy to deride Martha Stewart, but the attacks on her often point up how much there is to admire

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."

But the book just comes apart at the seams when it addresses its intended main subject—not the personality of Martha Stewart but, rather, her business acumen and success. Byron, a financial reporter, serves up plenty of blather about "a Harvard B-school concept known as 'synergy'" and the intricacies of television syndication deals and the dot-com revolution. He tells us that Stewart is "the human embodiment of an abstract marketing message," but what, exactly, that message might be is beyond him. I knew that we might be in the hands of someone distinctly unsuited to write about a woman whose financial success is based, in large part, on cooking and fine dining when he described the faces of the girls in her high school yearbook as appearing to be "frozen in aspic." But at every turn he fails to understand what, precisely, Stewart is selling, and to whom and how. For her followers he has at best a kind of pity, finding in them a group of hausfraus completely worn down by the one-two punch of women's liberation and housework, and desperate for a messiah. Stewart's fans, we learn, are women "in fly-over America," women who "toiled in Norman Rockwell's silent rituals of life and death and yearned for something more." They are women "who came home exhausted from jobs they didn't really want, to confront equally exhausted husbands and resentful latchkey children," women severely disillusioned by the fact that the women's movement has "morphed into an array of more than 500 increasingly shrill special interest groups, with a thousand different issues and arenas for action"—this disillusionment somehow causing them to run willy-nilly toward Stewart's world of gracious living and entertaining. At worst Byron has contempt for Stewart's fans, especially those who are Kmart shoppers, whom he characterizes as broke, tasteless, rural, and harried. That the chain's executives seem also to have underestimated its customers is clear, although Stewart (perpetually blasted as elitist) never has—which is perhaps why the retailer is in Chapter 11 while Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia is thriving.

Over and over, Byron presents scenes in which Stewart doesn't "get" Kmart shoppers; "She didn't really understand what was appropriate merchandise for Kmart ... and what was not," says a former Kmart consultant, to which Byron adds, "Martha had become like the single out-of-step soldier in the army—yet week after week, month after month, she kept pushing to get the whole army to shift to her cadence." He reports that what Kmart wanted from Stewart was merely a little of her allure, a few of her "daffodil daydreams." What she gave the retailer—and what any more competent outfit ought to have been able to turn into a gold mine—was a line of products called Martha Stewart Everyday, which was founded on a simple principle: not that Betty Friedan has left all of womankind hungering for pastels but, rather, that cheap things don't have to be ugly. For dime-store prices she came up with some attractive merchandise, decorated with a restraint not often seen in discount items, that women (and, in not insignificant numbers, gay men) loved buying. Shortly after Kmart announced its financial woes, the New York Observer ran a Simon Doonan column titled "Domestic Slaves of New York Confess Dependency on Kmartha," in which he reported panic buying of Martha Stewart Everyday ware and said that "these middle-class groovers are not slumming for a hit of reverse chic: They are sincerely appreciative of the amazing value and quality that Martha offers." Typical of the line is a very pretty white eyelet shower curtain with a scalloped hem, a product with which I am intimately familiar, because it is hanging in my bathroom. And typical of Byron's inability to understand these products or their appeal is his characterization of Stewart as a control freak "who turned up at every meeting, determined to elbow and nudge her way into every decision made in her name ... all the way down to demanding to know the thread-count per square inch in sheets and towels sold under her name." It's a foolish remark, because, of course, the only really important thing about sheets is their thread count. He later notes snidely that reporters at a publicity event for Stewart's linens thought the patterns were lovely but "once [they] touched the sheets they were reminded where they came from," because "they weren't as soft as [Ralph] Lauren's or Calvin Klein's." Why? Because the thread count was too low, you idiot.

Martha Inc. is so bloated, repetitive, and overwrought that the reader is much more often frustrated by Byron's meanderings and hypotheses than enlightened by his perceptions. Happily, another recent biography tackles the subject of Stewart's business success with clarity and precision: the Martha Stewart volume in the Women of Achievement series, which you can find in the young-adult section of your local public library. (Stewart is apparently someone whom educational publishers think schoolchildren ought to know about; there are also Martha Stewart volumes in the People to Know and the Library of Famous Women series.) Skip the introductory essay on women's history that is printed in each volume (written by Matina S. Horner, the president emerita of Radcliffe College, it evokes Abigail Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson, two thinkers who may be fine guardians of the volumes on Eleanor Roosevelt and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but who may strike too resounding a gong for Women of Achievement such as Cher, Gloria Estefan, and Barbara Walters).

Charles J. Shields, the author of the Stewart volume, trots us through the high points of Stewart's early life and career in short order, making astute observations as to how these various experiences may have shaped her as a businesswoman. Compared with Byron's fervid ramblings, this clear analysis is a welcome relief. In his attempt to provide a brief, vivid sketch of Stewart's domineering father, Byron puts his shoulder to the wheel: Eddie Kostyra was a Captain Queeg, a Stanley Kowalski, a "nobly born" character from an Hilaire Belloc rhyme, both faces of Janus. It's a bravura display of the Byron technique, but it can't compare with Shields's fascinating revelation that Eddie Kostyra's mother "had taught him how to cook, sew, and garden, in the hope of encouraging his creative side," and that Eddie decorated the high school gym for the prom during Martha's junior year. Of her early modeling career Byron says that Stewart lacked the "erotic and sexually charged" quality of the sixties model Veruschka and failed to capture the attention of Richard Avedon as had Twiggy. Why he sees a need to compare Stewart's modeling work (conducted part-time while she was a student in high school and college) with that of two of the most famous fashion models of the era is unclear, although he misses an obvious point that Shields does not: "Working with photographers gave her a sense of how things should look, or be presented." Byron on Stewart's work as a stockbroker: "What was Martha's job? The same job any good-looking young woman got in the 1960s in a world dominated by men: Walk into the room, sit down, and cross her legs." Shields on the same topic: "She was learning the ropes of big business and its key elements—investment, negotiation, and finance." (Whether she was also learning the rudiments of insider trading has turned out to be one of the most gleefully debated questions of the summer. To borrow a page from the Byron style book, not since Marie Antoinette got hauled off to the Conciergerie—or Leona Helmsley to federal prison—has there been the potential of such a thrilling new addition to the female prison population.) Shields gives us Stewart's own take on her Kmart experiences, which brings the conflict between her and the retailer into much sharper focus than any of Byron's hyperbole: "When I first started with Kmart, I was very enthusiastic to build a fine business with them. Little did I know that management was extremely weak and their inventory control and computer programs a complete disaster."

What no biography of Stewart has yet accomplished is an insightful analysis of the core questions that her phenomenal success prompts. Many writers—especially male writers, such as Byron and Jerry Oppenheimer, the author of Martha Stewart: Just Desserts (1997)—have been fascinated by her famously mercurial temperament and the unsavory details of her personal life. But other than indulging in juicy speculation (such as Oppenheimer's creepy fascination with Stewart's heavy menstrual periods and Byron's notion that she had a hysterectomy as a form of birth control, a notion that only a man could believe and only a jerk could promulgate), they don't know what to do with these supposed secrets except to humiliate Stewart by making them public. The notion of an attractive late-midlife woman who offers homemaking advice on television but leads an off-camera life marked by nastiness and single-girl liberty is rife with comedic possibility (it is the basis for the Sue Ann Nivens character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show), and this type draws the cruelest of the biographers. But these writers' books fail because they assume that Stewart's success is based on the stupidity of women, their inability to see through her many inconsistencies and hypocrisies. If only those dumb clucks would read the "Remembering" columns more critically! They'd cancel their subscriptions in an instant! Byron misses nothing less than the heart of Stewart's appeal to women.

In the first place there is the incontrovertible fact of her tremendous style. The photography in her various publications seems to reduce all of female longing to its essential elements. A basket of flowers, a child's lawn pinafore draped across a painted rocking chair, an exceptionally white towel folded in thirds and perched in glamorous isolation on a clean and barren shelf: most of the pictures feature a lot of sunlight, and many show rooms that are either empty of people or occupied solely by Martha, evoking the profound and enduring female desires for solitude and silence. No heterosexual man can understand this stuff, and no woman with a beating heart and an ounce of femininity can resist it. I can unpack a paragraph of Martha Stewart prose with the best of them, but I also fall mute and wondering at the pages of Martha Stewart Living.

From the archives:

"The Wedding Merchants" (February 2001)
Marriage is in Chapter Eleven, but the white wedding is in the black. By Caitlin Flanagan

Stewart's aesthetic has been steadily evolving over the past two decades, and at this point it has reached a peak of almost unbearable perfection. To compare her two wedding volumes—published in 1987 and 1999—is to see just how far things have come. The first appeared at the precise moment when Americans by the millions were returning to formal weddings; in fact, its publication was so timely and so influential that it's hard to know to what extent Stewart predicted the craze and to what extent she created it. The book has a documentary quality: it features photographs of actual weddings she catered during the summers of 1984 and 1985 and also some that she heard about and asked if she might photograph and include in the book. The pictures are full of the mess and indignity of real life. There are a few unattractive brides and a couple of chubby ones (as well as several couples of such heartrending youth and hopefulness that I banished a vague notion of doing a longitudinal study of the fate of these marriages as soon as it flitted through my head). There are wedding guests in shorts and shirtsleeves, several preparing to board a Greyhound bus, a couple of Porta Potties nestled into a leafy corner of a reception site. On one table there's a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola, on another a fifth of cheap Scotch. But to look at the more recent volume is to see all this unpleasantness burnished away. Actual brides are for the most part relegated to small black-and-white photographs; the full-color spreads feature models and careful art direction and receptions unsullied by actual guests. The venues for these stage-set weddings seem to be a collection of New England chapels of the highest caliber. Whitewashed shingles and gleaming wooden pews provide austere backdrops for garlands of flowers, wreaths of flowers, paper cones of flowers; espaliered bushes are covered in clouds of white tulle and tied with silk ribbons; walkways are blanketed in thick drifts of petals; oak trees are hung with white Japanese lanterns. Flower girls wear wreaths of roses and carry more of them; winter weddings feature severe Christmas trees and tall centerpieces of sugared fruit. My attraction to these images has nothing to do with "Norman Rockwell's silent rituals of life and death," nor is it compromised by my knowledge of Stewart's complex personal life. It is rooted in a truth far less mysterious: women like pretty things. Stewart's magazines (she has four titles: Living, Baby, Kids, and Weddings) all seem to depict some parallel universe in which loveliness and order are untrammeled by the surging chaos of life in session, particularly life as it is lived with small children. In an issue of Martha Stewart Kids, I recently saw a photograph of a pair of old-fashioned white baby shoes with their laces replaced by two lengths of grosgrain ribbon. The result was impractical in the extreme, and very, very pretty. Which is a fair summation of many Stewart projects. In one of his few apt observations, Christopher Byron calls Stewart's "the face of the age." I would also say that the look of her magazines has become the look of women's magazines of the age: the photography, art direction, and layouts in many contemporary publications—including the recent magazine Real Simple, the redesigned Child, and all the craft and decorating features in Rosie (the revamped McCall's)are clearly and deeply influenced by Stewart's.

Much of the Stewart enterprise, of course, involves a certain level of fantasy and wish fulfillment, having to do not only with the old dreams of wealth and elegance but also with the new one of time. That many of Stewart's projects are time-consuming is in fact part of their appeal. A risibly complicated recipe for sandwiches that are a "tempting snack for a 1-year-old," which ran in a recent issue of Baby (flower-shaped, their bright-yellow centers were created by mashing cooked egg yolk with butter, rolling the resulting paste into a tube, wrapping the tube in parchment paper, refrigerating it, and then slicing it into half-inch-thick rounds), is attractive not in spite of its ludicrous complexity but because of it—imagine having enough time to do something like that! The question of whether Stewart is indeed the "teacher" she has always professed to be or whether she is a kind of performance artist is an old one; I think that a significant number of women—including some of Stewart's staunchest defenders—appreciate what she does but never personally attempt it. Martha Stewart Living is filled with recipes for complicated restaurant-type food—caramelized fennel, warm goat cheese with wasabi-pea crust, and the like—but the ads are for Wendy's Mandarin Chicken Salad, and Hormel's pre-cooked roast beef, and Jell-O. One gets the sense that women enjoy reading about the best way to select a leg of lamb, but when it's dinnertime, they give an exhausted shrug and settle for the ease and convenience of Campbell's 2-Step Beefy Taco Joes, the recipe for which appears in a Campbell's ad in the magazine's recent hundredth issue.

The true engine of her success has much to do with a remark Stewart makes in Chapter One of her first book, the phenomenally successful Entertaining (1982).

Entertaining provides a good excuse to put things in order (polish silver, wash forgotten dishes, wax floors, paint a flaking windowsill) and, sometimes, to be more fanciful or dramatic with details than usual. It is the moment to indulge in a whole bank of flowering plants to line the hall, or to organize a collection of antique clothes on a conspicuous coat-rack, or to try the dining-room table at an odd angle.
From the archives:

"Leaving It to the Professionals" (March 2002)
Clearing away clutter is no substitute for keeping house. By Caitlin Flanagan

The second sentence, of course, is the stuff of a thousand jokes and parodies—not just a vase of flowers but a "bank" of them; the elaborate clothing display that no normal householder has the resources or the willingness to pull off. But the first sentence is the one to keep your eye on, with its unremarkable but attractive suggestion of a house put in order: a windowsill painted, floors gleaming under a new coat of wax. In the hundredth issue of Martha Stewart Living, Stewart says that she recently came across a memo she wrote at the magazine's inception, one that she feels expresses her vision as clearly today as it did then. "Our reader," the memo states, "still wants to iron, to polish silver, to set a sensible table, to cook good food." She's right, of course; millions of women still "want" to do these things, although an astonishing number of them (myself included) don't do much ironing or polishing anymore, and are repeatedly frustrated by the nightly return to the kitchen. Our desire to reconnect with these tasks—which we fear are crucial to a well-run home—is commensurate with our uncertainty about what, exactly, they entail. Just as Disneyland presents a vision of Main Street, USA, that is very far afield from the real thing, so Stewart presents a vision of domesticity that involves as much make-believe as practicality, that is filled with allure and prettiness rather than the drudgery and exhaustion of which we are all so wary. She lectures not on the humdrum reality of sweeping the kitchen floor every night but on the correct way to store two dozen specialty brooms. Not on washing the dishes meal after relentless meal but on the advisability of transferring dishwashing liquid from its unattractive plastic bottle to a cut-glass cruet with a silver stopper. The Stewart fantasy encompasses the feminine interest in formal weddings and gracious entertaining, but principally—and more powerfully—it turns on a wistful and almost shameful attraction to ironing boards and newly washed crockery and good meals sensibly prepared. And on this wan longing, Stewart has built an empire.

None of which is to suggest that I have any fondness for Stewart, whom I find the most unpleasant person on television. She is stern and exacting about things for which I have only the fondest and gentlest associations: flower beds and freshly laundered clothes and home-cooked food. That millions of people are happy to be lectured on "family" and "tradition" by a woman whose own marriage imploded and whose relations with her only child have been famously stormy used to drive me wild with frustration; but lately I've softened on the old girl. She is the producer of a myth about American family life that is as old as Hollywood—and if we expected the men who make our best-loved "family movies" to comport themselves honorably as husbands and fathers, we'd be sunk at matinee time. Her faltering confessions about her private domestic bewilderments (she should have "read more psychology books," she has said about her early career as a mother; it was "a big mistake" to have had an only child) provide her most humanizing moments. And I find something touching and almost elegiac in her memories of the family that raised her, for all the ridicule they receive: "We all sat down to dinner at the same time, and we all got up at the same time and we were very close-knit."

Clearly, something powerful is at work here, some weaving together of the dream of a "close knit" family with rigid adherence to complicated baking and gardening protocols. There was a time when the measure of a home was found in the woman who ran it—who was there all day long, who understood that certain aspects of "hominess" had less to do with spit and polish than with continuity and permanence. As these old standards wane, a new one has emerged, and it is Stewart's. No human effort is so fundamentally simple and pleasurable that she cannot render it difficult and off-putting (we are to be grateful that thus far she has not produced a marriage manual). But almost any project she cooks up is less daunting than the one it is meant to replace: keeping a family together, under one roof, home.