When the CNN Breaking News Wire arrived at 11:21 this morning, reporting that a federal judge had dismissed a securities fraud charge against Martha Stewart, my office of five people — none whom actively support securities fraud — cheered. There was even some scattered applause. I was so surprised by the relief that swept through me that I bought myself a celebratory third cup of coffee. By the time I returned, a friend had left a phone message that said “Yay! Martha’s free!” and I had an e-mail from someone else suggesting that we bake a poppy seed wreath cake for the occasion. That friends would kvell over Stewart’s lucky break is purely random; I have never articulated to anyone — not even myself — how badly I wanted to see her set free.
Of course it soon became clear that Stewart was not free at all. U.S. District Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum simply threw out the most serious charge against her, that she had deceived investors in her company about the improper sale of her ImClone stock. Four other charges, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice and lying to federal prosecutors, remain intact as the jury begins deliberations and Stewart remains in warm, if no longer boiling, water.
But still, facts aside: Yay! Martha’s free!
Again, as a rule, I do not support people who lie to the government or act on insider trading information about their kajillion dollar investments in companies most of us aren’t rich enough to have heard of before they become the center of a celebrity trial. I don’t have a broker, let alone the inclination to berate his assistant. And I legitimately have no idea what kind of food would arrive as part of a $1,000 “sea grill dinner” that Stewart apparently consumed on New Year’s Eve in Mexico days after her stock sale. But I can say that unless it involved Shamu himself, it was probably not worth it.
In short: Had Martha Stewart been tried and convicted of white-collar crime based on dry testimony and economic technicalities, I’m not sure I would have shed sympathetic tears.
But she hasn’t been tried on technicalities; she’s been placed in the stocks in the media’s town square, subject to one of the grimmest and most personal public pillories in memory. In addition to hearing about the actual charges against her, we have been treated to dramatic retailing of a host of Stewart’s private misdeeds. Her broker’s former assistant, Douglas Faneuil, told of how she had called him “a little shit” and been mean to him on the phone! Martha Stewart Living CFO James Follo testified that Stewart charged expenses like coffee and snacks, her weekend driver, and haircuts to her company! Her former best friend Mariana Pasternak reported that on the pair’s vacation to Mexico, Stewart bragged about how “nice it is” to have a broker who will tip you off to strategic stock dumps. By the way, it was a really expensive vacation, where the women indulged in lots of spa treatments and the aforementioned $1,000 New Year’s dinner.
Did you catch that Pasternak was Stewart’s former best girlfriend? The mother of two of her goddaughters? A woman who had previously traveled with her to the Galapagos Islands and Peru? How’s that for public shame? It’s all part of the submerged theme of the Stewart circus: that this powerful woman is still a woman, whose downfall has come rather poetically at the hands of a boy she emasculated along the way and a capricious female friend, with catfights and weeping thrown in for feminine texture. The weeping came from Stewart’s loyal assistant Ann Armstrong, who burst into tears on the stand before she was forced to give damaging testimony about the way her boss may have altered records of her phone messages.
But when Armstrong cried I understood completely. How could she not have? I found myself near tears every time I looked at a photograph of Stewart — head high, hair coiffed, a smile on her face — entering the courthouse for another day of ritualized humiliation. If that photo appeared in the New York Post, chances are that it was accompanied by a blown-up photo of whichever handbag she’d brought to court (Hermes) and a note about how much it had cost ($12,000). Because really, there is nothing Rupert Murdoch hates worse than rich people.
Yes, Martha Stewart is very, very rich. She got rich by being smart about money, and by exhibiting a keen and unladylike obsession with her company’s finances, its marketing and its stock performance. Those interests have been turned against her in court to demonstrate that a miser like Martha would never have been casual about a stock sale, and would have gone to any lengths to protect her other financial investments from legal aftershocks. It may be true. Just as it may be true that Stewart indulged in the occasional inside stock tip, the kind that power-deluded masters of the universe have been getting since bank accounts were born. Other business tycoons have been prosecuted in the past, their personal financial habits exposed (see Dennis Kozlowski’s $6,000 shower curtain and details of his extramarital affairs). But the tone of Stewart’s trial has been more personally punishing, infused with the sense that this woman who converted “women’s work” like canning vegetables and selecting bed linen into cash is getting her justified comeuppance: for her bitchiness, her business head, her balls.
Those disappointed with today’s stroke of luck for Stewart can take solace in the fact that should she squeak cleanly through the federal courts, reports now indicate that the IRS will soon be following up with her about that whole Mexican vacation as a business expense writeoff. And since we now know that every time Martha Stewart Living Omni-Media stock slips one penny, Martha loses a cool $300,000, we’ll be able to keep track of every punch to her financial gut from now on. Personally, in the event that she really does get set free, I’m entertaining myself with images of Faneuil and Pasternak skidding nervously through some South American airport in big dark glasses and floppy hats, looking to get very lost, very fast. Hasta la vista, babies!
An hour after getting the wire about the charge being dropped, I received my weekly message from the publicist for “Martha Stewart Living,” the television show. I love these e-mails, which keep me informed about what’s coming up next week on Stewart’s televised ode to domesticity. They are always filled with sublimely ridiculous but calming sentences about the art of bonsai or how to make your own Peking duck.
According to the e-mail, next week Martha will prepare “a delicious lemon risotto, flavored with the first leeks of spring”; she’ll sit down with James Prosek, author of “Trout of the World”; she’ll make a “Mushroom Martini,” and she will urge her viewers to “Celebrate bananas” with a couple of new recipes.
I don’t know about the trout and the leeks. But I’m already celebrating bananas. Congratulations, Martha.