The bull in Martha Stewart's china shop

Christopher Byron explains why his unauthorized biography has ruffled the "queen of whitebread living."

Published April 19, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

Christopher Byron's got a thing for Martha Stewart.

The financial journalist is best known for his scorching critiques of shoddy IPOs during the giddy dot-com years. But in a 1999 column he wrote for the New York Observer about the stock market debut of Martha Stewart Omnimedia (which made her a billionaire), he found a lot to praise in the prospectus, and a lot to admire about her ass.

"Right now, Ms. Stewart is a pretty good-looking woman, if you want my frank opinion -- and I've studied her close up from behind on a Stairmaster (she works out at my gym)," wrote Byron.

In his new book, "Martha Inc.: The Incredible Story of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia," Byron recounts Stewart's flirtatious response. She called Byron up, thanked him for the column and asked: "What do you mean pretty good-looking?"

But, alas, the publication of Byron's unauthorized biography has meant an end to the eyelash-batting.

"Martha Inc." depicts Stewart as a tireless businesswoman whose own life has little in common with the one she portrays in her magazine or on her TV show, outside of the accumulation of ultradesirable trowels and other luxury items. According to Byron, Stewart made her money selling a soft-lens vision of a domestic fantasyland that she's been able to acquire, but not enjoy.

Part financial analysis, part celebrity bio dish-and-tell, "Martha Inc." lauds Stewart as a mogul even as it shreds her personal life. Among the many unflattering charges: She chilled her husband right out of their marriage, she treats friends and family as hired hands and she terrorizes her employees.

Much of this will sound familiar to any Martha-watcher who reads the gossips. But Byron's extensive portrait so annoyed Stewart that Kmart pulled from stores a recent issue of the tabloid the Globe that featured a story on Byron's book headlined "Mean Martha Stewart Exposed," lest Kmart shoppers be discouraged from buying all those inexpensive Martha-branded housewares. The New York Post has also reported that the radio station WNYC, an NPR affiliate in New York, rejected underwriting dollars from Byron's book, for fear of offending Stewart, a supporter of the station.

From his home in Westport, Conn., where he and Stewart are no longer genial neighbors, Byron shared with Salon why he thinks Stewart makes so many people so mad, and why she's mad at him.

Why is Martha Stewart so polarizing? Why do people either love her or hate her?

She's sort of ground zero of an unsettled debate.

Women have been at the receiving end of economic abuse in this country for at least 100 years. Every time the country has its back to the wall they whistle up the women and make them go to work for slave wages, and then the country comes out OK. I mean that's what happened in World War II, wasn't it? That's what happened in the '70s, wasn't it?

When it comes time for all these women to get back in the shallow water, and the men want to come back in and take over all the important work, Martha Stewart becomes the message that says: "You can find empowerment back in the shallow water. You can find as much soul satisfaction setting a kitchen table perfectly as you can in the workplace."

All those messages somehow revolve around Martha Stewart, and they're unresolved messages, because at least half the women in the country don't buy any part of it, and the other half think it ratifies their life and worth as human beings.

There have been all these revelations in the press and in your book about the split between the image that Martha Stewart has created of herself and the "real" Martha, who uses obscenities and screams at employees and runs over her neighbor's gardener and so on. Why doesn't the discrepancy affect people's willingness to consume the image of Martha Stewart?

I think that is pretty easily answered: They like the Martha Stewart message. The Martha Stewart message appeals to millions of women, and they're not likely to be dissuaded from it when they find that it bears no relationship to the real Martha Stewart.

How did Martha Stewart get to where she is? What did she do to become a billionaire businesswoman? What's the story of her life? She sure didn't become a billionaire businesswoman by setting a perfect table and clipping deadheads off the begonias. That doesn't get you to the corner office and a seat on the Board of Governors of the New York Stock Exchange.

Martha got there by steamrolling everybody who got in her way, just like everybody else on the Board of Governors did, just like Jack Welch, who's a neighbor of mine, too, out here. His nickname is Neutron Jack; his nickname isn't Warm-and-Fuzzy Jack.

So she just takes more heat about it because she's a woman?

Oh, sure. Sure.

But you know what's happening. Anybody who wants to defend her uses that argument -- that anybody who writes about her is taking cheap shots, because they wouldn't write about a man in the same way.

I just got off an interview earlier today where I heard exactly that from some radio-talk person somewhere in this country: "Well, nobody ever points this out about Donald Trump. You don't hear people saying that!" I've got right in front of me here a book by Harry Hurt called "Lost Tycoon," and it's full of what an odious, disgusting human being Trump is.

Martha Stewart's an extraordinary businesswoman, she has no private life and her husband ran out on her. And those are the facts, ma'am, case closed.

You write that her whole media empire is an elaborate infomercial for her Kmart products, where she makes most of her real revenue. Her deal with Kmart has been better for her than it has been for Kmart. Do you think that she's contributed to Kmart's recent financial collapse?

No. Not at all. I think she's the single most important asset they have right now. But that doesn't tell you very much, because her relationship with them over the last 10 years hasn't built the Kmart franchise at all.

The numbers are very clear on this. There's no ambiguity in them. Kmart's revenues have basically been flat for a decade. They haven't grown at all. What's grown is Martha's share of those revenues. And what that means is that she's just sort of moved into that business like a kind of virus that's spread from Aisle 6 all the way to Aisle 1.

A lot of the merchandise in those stores now carries the Martha Stewart brand name. And it didn't begin that way. They're not selling more. She's just cannibalizing shelf-space and everything else.

She got much more out of this deal than they got. She got into the Kmart deal for a song. They weren't paying her much money. All they expected her to do was to just show up and cut a ribbon at store openings. She was going to be another Jaclyn Smith: just sort of window dressing at store openings and she would have a few things in the kitchen corner with her name on it, and that would be it.

But that isn't what she had in mind. Within less than a month she had manipulated them into promoting and financing her ability to buy a house she wanted in her neighborhood.

But she actually owned that house before she went to Kmart and asked them to buy it. She had bought it with Andy [Stewart, her then-husband]. Within a month she had these people falling all over themselves to promote a renovation of a home that they thought they were buying for her, when she already owned it.

And then they turned this into a $15 million national ad campaign that made her the most famous lifestyle personality in America.

She was really pretty close to the edge there. Personally, I'm uncomfortable with saying: Would you buy a house for me that I already own? I'm not sure that I could pull that off, or that I'd want to. She's willing to do that. And I think that in the world of entrepreneurial business drive, we kind of celebrate that stuff, don't we?

The most successful women in American business -- the three, self-made billionaires Oprah, Meg Whitman of eBay and Martha Stewart -- have made it as entrepreneurs, rather than rising in big companies. Could a Martha Stewart have risen in the executive ranks at a big company?

Well, she couldn't have succeeded at Time Warner. That was impossible. And she recognized that pretty early on. And that's why she got out of there. I worked there for 13 years, and I can tell you from firsthand experience: That's not a place where the gals get ahead. There's a glass ceiling starting at the lobby. It's not an easy place to advance your career if you're a woman. There's not anything representing gender balance in the executive ranks of that company. She said: "Enough of this," and left.

What makes Martha Stewart so good at catching the cultural moment? And why now that's she so ubiquitous, does she still not seem dated?

She's like a Tennessee water dowser. She just has this capacity to wander around with a forked stick and find water. How does she do it? I don't know.

In the 1960s, [when women went into the workplace] nobody had a gun in their right ear saying: "You've got to go to work." It was like a fun thing to do, and she kind of epitomized that. She was running all over Wall Street in hot pants. It's fun to work! Let's go play at being grown-ups!

In the 1970s, it was different. William Safire wrote a column about the misery index, which is the sum total of unemployment and inflation, and the misery index went off the charts and unemployment was high. Nobody had a job, inflation was out of sight and women had to go back to work or the homes of the American middle-class would have been foreclosed upon.

Then, it's less fun, especially if you're working for 60 percent of the wages of the men in the office, and when you come home, you have to cook dinner too.

Martha offered a kind of dream escape out of that. Her 1982 book "Entertaining" has this fantasy escapism on every page. The book wasn't about the recipes at all. The book was about walking into this "Alice in Wonderland" place where you have a world of proper little porcelain figurine children who don't talk and don't smell and sit still. And men who all look like George Peppard. The whole fantasy world of life the way it should be if I didn't have to go to work, and I was rich, too.

So, you just sort of expand that as the '80s go along, and the next thing you know she's an entrepreneur. That's where Reagan wanted the whole country to go, and suddenly she's right there. That's the story of her life.

And then in 1999 she's doing an IPO!

What are the lyrics from that song "You're So Vain:": "You're where you should be all the time, and if you're not you're with some underworld spy." Isn't that her?

Have you had any reaction from her about the book since it's been published. I know she was trying to get people not to talk to you for it beforehand.

That was stupid of her. Anybody who knows her is eventually going to talk. It's just an expression of her need for control. She went on the Larry King show back in February and King asked about the book. She said, "I'm not interested in reading that book."

Not long after that she sent me an e-mail that said, "I finally got ahold of the second half of your book, and I want you to know that it's terrible." She was desperate to find out what was in it.

"The book is lousy." That's her best comment. "You could have tried harder!" It has the exact same scolding comment we've been able to unearth from her father to her. The guy was always putting everybody in the house down. She's just so embedded in that script. She just continues to read from it now.

Martha Stewart is now 61. When she retires or dies -- whichever happens first -- what happens to her company?

She's got this whole act going now where she gives interviews and says that her role model is Walt Disney. She's Walt Disney. But Disney is selling a cartoon mouse. Her company is selling a living, breathing message of Martha Stewart, and that's completely different.

When I first met her, she told me they were going to begin transferring the Martha brand, diffusing the spotlight. And that was years ago, and the spotlight looks as white-hot as ever. The brand name is the person, and it's inseparable from the person.

The day you take that image out of the person -- what do you have? You have a magazine that might survive. Kmart is an unstable situation. Retail chains that go bankrupt don't come back. Eventually Kmart is going to go the route of Montgomery Ward.

If you take merchandising out of the picture for her, when you're analyzing the stock, what you are left with is a magazine, a TV show, some books, some radio spots and newspaper columns.

Every one of those things with the exception of the magazine represents the advertising and promotional cost of supporting the magazine. None of them make any money. Now, how are you going to have a promotional vehicle called the TV show when you can't put the star in there? Who's going to play Martha Stewart?

The magazine is a viable entity and it's the only stand-alone thing that she's got right now. Look at George. You took JFK Jr. out of the picture and the magazine goes.

So, do you think her company has peaked?

I do. But she's tenacious, and she's got very good P.R. on Wall Street. This is a debt-free company. She has not even begun to go down the debt road. So, in no sense would I argue that she's got her back to the wall. It's a healthy company, but it's not going to get healthier.

You write in an admiring way about Martha Stewart as a woman succeeding in a male-dominated field. But then you quote your own column where you say that she has a nice ass.

One of the things I try to do in these columns that I write -- I consider this as kind of a personal mission -- is to try to purge our language of political correctness. It just stultifies. Isn't that what provocative, memorable language does? It forces back the frontiers of expression.

If you would say it to a friend, and you would use it in the American language, then you ought to be able to put it in print.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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