She's Martha, and you're not

Martha Stewart made home cooking and flea market scavenging chic. Then she took it to the extreme.


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Mary Elizabeth Williams
February 17, 1999 12:39AM (UTC)

We might as well face it now -- we will never be as good as Martha. Martha. Her plain, two-syllable first name alone inspires hushed awe and profound feelings of inadequacy. But if it's any consolation, we'll never be as bad as Martha either. That same simple name is also shorthand for an unflattering excessive fussiness, a devotion to the trivial and the twee. For Martha Stewart is nothing if not contradictory -- a role model and a cautionary tale, a business titan and the embodiment of retro, back-to-the-kitchen femininity. She's the apotheosis of easy, tasteful living who's also a pitchwoman for Kmart, the smiling hostess and the tyrannical taskmaster. And while the multiple parts she plays and the emotions she elicits may at first seem as confusing as a recipe for roasted venison with pomegranate sauce, they also, in typical Martha fashion, make perfect sense. Because Martha Stewart, you should know by now, is legion.

She is the girl next door. The blond, WASPy Connecticut lady who lunches occupies the same body as Polish-Catholic Martha Kostyra of Nutley, N.J. She was born in 1941, when the Depression was still a fresh memory, the second of six in a family unencumbered by an abundance of either affection or wealth. Her parents were by all accounts strict and disciplined -- personality traits that may not have allowed their progeny to develop much warmth or free-spiritedness, but did give Martha her iron backbone and a superhuman work ethic.

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The talents she honed under their tutelage -- gardening, sewing, cooking -- were not idle weekend diversions but practical necessities for making ends meet. That may be why Martha's particular brand of domestic enthusiasm is so compelling: It seems so deeply felt. A woman who made her own dresses throughout high school understands not just the pride of craftsmanship but the importance of doing the job right the first time. What fuels both the devotion of her acolytes and the derision of her critics is the earnest respect she gives to the home arts. To anyone who's ever felt dissed for toiling in the domestic sphere, Martha is the Ginsu-wielding action hero who tells the world to stuff it with bread crumbs and stick it in the southern exposure.

Her bootstrap success is the great American dream come true. As she grew up and outgrew Nutley, she shed her Jersey accent, studied art history at Barnard College and traded her ethnic name for her blander married one. But she also cleverly wove her modest origins and her family ties into her public persona, recruiting Mom to concoct Polish delicacies for her TV show or reminiscing about the little house on Elm Place in her magazine. All those years of decorating have served her well -- she's an expert on what to keep and what to pitch. She knows how to walk with kings but never lose her common touch.

She's a cover girl. While still a teenager, Martha embarked on her first career, as a New York fashion model. Tall, angular and pleasingly all-American, she wasn't supermodel material, but she was stylish and looked good in front of a camera. Years later, when her beauty had settled into a comfortable suburban chic, she made the natural transition to television personality and the face of her own magazine. In photos or in person, she is poised and graceful, unflustered by whatever task is in front of her. For all her recipes, tips and advice, the main thing that Martha offers to her public is herself, her cool, well-assembled exterior. Could a woman who was herself not so attractive be so convincing as the spokesperson of beautiful living? Maybe. But as likely as a box of Tuna Helper in a nigoise salad.

She's a shark. While in her late 20s, after she'd spent a few years as a housewife and mother, Martha eagerly set out on the next phase of her work life and became a Wall Street stockbroker. It was yet another gear in the machine that would become Martha Inc., and a chance for her to temper her homey skills and pretty-face image with some serious business savvy. On Wall Street, Martha cultivated her competitive, aggressive salesmanship and got her first real taste of power. They were talents she would parlay into big bucks someday -- first as a professional caterer, then through a series of hugely successful food and entertaining books, through videos and a television show, through merchandising deals and, eventually, through the gutsy split from monolithic Time Warner to form her own corporation -- one with the grandiose name of Martha Stewart Omnimedia.

Aside from learning how to keep herself in Wedgwood and Egyptian cotton well up until the time that the sun is a cold dark lump of celestial matter, Martha's shrewd business dealings have also given her something else, something she likes quite a lot -- control. The same hunger that powered her as a broker is evident in her current trademark chutzpah. However much she's got, Martha wants more. And she wants it her way and in her world, not in the balls-out boy's club realms of real estate or technology, but in the delicate land of doily hearts and wedding cakes.

By her success, she's given value -- not simply cultural but nitty-gritty financial -- to the domestic. She has a magazine, a television series, a newspaper column, a Martha by Mail catalog, a Web site, a line of paints and housewares and a radio show, and she's a contributor to "CBS This Morning." She has turned home life into big business. No wonder she claims to get by on a Spartan four hours of sleep a night; she's got a whitewashed and lavender-scented world to run. When Time magazine declared her one of their 25 most influential people two years ago, she declared unapologetically, "It is our intention to own areas in communication. I don't mean to sound egomaniacal, but Perry Como used to own Christmas on TV. By 'own' I mean monopolize and influence." But the small-town Catholic girl won't stop at Christmas. Just to make sure she's got everybody covered under her big damask tent, the December issue of Martha Stewart Living obligingly offered tips on how to have a very Martha Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa.

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She's MacGyver. Martha makes you believe that she could decorate her way out of a meat locker, armed only with a hot glue gun and some mosquito netting. She has spent her lifetime fulfilling the declaration she left in her high school yearbook, "I do what I please and I do it with ease." Because all of her enterprises are so individual-identified, she willingly promotes the image of one woman serenely alone in her kitchen, whipping up curried seafood tomato bouillabaisse for 250, with time left over to refinish the dining room chairs and turn the mattresses. She makes it look simple, a crime for which most of us dearly hope that she will be at least a little punished in the next world.

Several years ago, she did a Christmas special with Julia Child. Julia, bless her slobby heart, was not five minutes in before she had stains on her apron and buttery smears everywhere. Martha, poster girl for anal retentiveness that she is, never broke a sweat. They labored side by side on twin versions of the same ceiling-scraping dessert, and in the end, Julia's was a tipsy mess of dough and Martha's was an impeccable tower of holiday fun. Bitch.

But she's not without a sense of humor about her pathologically detail-oriented nature. She's appeared in American Express commercials lovingly tiling her swimming pool with discarded credit cards. She cheerfully does "Letterman." And when she appeared at the MTV Music Awards with Busta Rhymes, she smiled primly at the crowd while the colossal, tattooed rapper who sang "Dangerous" looked distinctly unnerved.

She's the messiah. For mere mortals who do not employ a staff of cooks, cleaners, pet experts, fashion coordinators, gift wrappers and chicken-coop cleaners, true Marthahood is impossible to maintain. While there's no doubt that even with one hand tied behind her back in a neat grosgrain ribbon, Martha could still bake, clean and throw together a hibiscus garland before breakfast, it doesn't change the daunting nature of the lifestyle she encourages. Her most frequently used word is "perfect" -- as in perfect pie, perfect antique, perfect little party. It's a word few people have much real life experience of. Other words she chooses, the phrases that pepper her quaint reminiscences, suggest a scarily militaristic attitude, a "living" that doesn't leave much room for breathing. Fruits are "englighted" with crhme franche, spring blossoms are "forced." And when she writes of a redecoration project that "My house will once again be the home I believe it should be," one can't help hearing an ominous "or else" at the end of it.

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Her ordinary, mostly female fans can't possibly hope to achieve the pristine order of her Connecticut homestead, Turkey Hill -- the Graceland of good taste. And because we fall short whenever we try, Martha somehow manages to make us feel guilty. She's the flawless, accomplished older sister who makes us want to paraphrase Jan Brady and cry, "MarthaMarthaMartha! Why is it always about Martha?"

She's all too human. The public gloating over her every misstep may have been overzealous, but it was understandable too. Who wouldn't be intrigued by the lady of the manor being sued by ex-employees and contractors she apparently never compensated? Who wouldn't rubberneck when the woman who dedicated "Weddings" to husband Andy wound up in the midst of one of the nastiest public divorces of the '80s, a meltdown that culminated with the estranged spouses agreeing not to "harass or abuse the other party"? A 1997 unauthorized biography painted Martha as a screaming diva, given to frantic bouts of compulsive behavior and public fits of tantrum throwing. Neighbors who knew her in her early married days recalled Martha the dervish, frantically tidying and refurbishing her home in a kind of faster pussycat! clean! clean! mania. Former staffers have railed over her controlling behavior, and spurned friends cast her as an opportunist and a liar. Her Nutley upbringing, they suggest, was perhaps not as rosy as she has painted it in her writings (watch her barking orders at her mother on her show sometime and draw your own conclusions), her relationship with her daughter Lexi has been at times famously rocky. What a relief.

While a huge part of her appeal is in her seeming invincibility, surely another is in her apparent dark side. If half the pleasure of watching her and reading her comes from the way she instills in us a luxuriant fervor to say, "Hey! I want to do that!" the other comes from the lazy satisfaction of sitting back, cracking open a beer and thinking, "That woman must be out of her mind."

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As maddening and unrealistic to duplicate as the world she creates is, it's still an awfully comfortable place to visit. We may never keep our own beehives or knit our own mittens, we may be forever baffled as to where to find sliced kombu or a 3/32-inch piece of basswood, but it's OK. Martha offers at least the fantasy of both an elegance to aspire to and a sentimental comfort to remember. And when we scatter rose petals over the dessert or artfully arrange a few milk bottles on the windowsill, we are, for a few brief moments of our otherwise slovenly and harried lives, Martha. And it feels perfect.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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