Martha Stewart may be one of the most compelling and evocative brands of the last few decades. She created a hunger in a whole generation of women, a hunger for a pristine, well-organized, hopelessly tasteful but still down-to-earth home, a sunny, immaculate place filled with fresh tulips and big bowls of sea glass and refinished vintage furniture and bright shades of robin's egg blue splashed across spotless walls, a place where elaborate brunches are held, at which attractive professionals give eloquent toasts, and beautiful children scamper about noiselessly, dressed in shades of iris and ultra blue that match the table linens.
With a brand this perfect – a brand that, by merely existing, casts a pall over our own inferior, disheveled, dog-hair-covered lives – it's only natural that Martha Stewart (the woman) would pay dearly for the hunger that Martha Stewart (the brand) created in us.
The next part was predictable enough: Martha herself was far from perfect, the books and magazine articles breathlessly reported. She was impatient, and bossy, and exacting, and cold. She sometimes experienced – gasp – uncontrollable emotions! This made her quite different from most women (who are in total control of their emotions at all times) and different from most businessmen (who are never arrogant or demanding). Yes, Martha was a woman who planted bulbs and winterized her garden and threw gorgeous weddings and started her own business then developed it into a multimedia empire, but she yelled at people sometimes, and that wasn't a good thing.
But then Martha allegedly dumped some stock she was holding from her friend's company, because she allegedly found out that it was about to tank. The SEC, which spent an entire decade turning a blind eye to this sort of thing, decided to make a big show of prosecuting Martha Stewart and sending her to jail (at the exact point when they might've exerted a little more energy on, say, regulating credit default swaps or one of the other absurdities that led to the world economy imploding before our eyes).
So Martha did some hard time, we felt sorry for her, and then she made a comeback, which is by now a crucial part of any enduring brand's narrative arc. Sadly, though, the fortunes and reputations of a few other individuals were harmed in the storm of Martha's trial, and for mere mortals who don't happen to be internationally known branded entities, making a comeback isn't quite as easy as it is for Martha.
And so, we become witness to yet another tell-all book, this one by Martha's former best friend and confidante, Mariana Pasternak. If, at this late date, you still wonder what Martha Stewart is really like, the 395-page tome "The Best of Friends" will cure you of that affliction henceforth. In it, Pasternak paints an excruciatingly detailed portrait of the countless magical moments that she and Martha shared as close friends, moments inevitably sullied in one way or another by Martha's insensitivity or insecure maneuvering or controlling behaviors. None of this is at all surprising since Martha's alleged flaws were painstakingly detailed in Christopher Byron's unauthorized biography "Martha Inc.: The Incredible Story of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia" (and elsewhere). We know how Martha allegedly belittled her husband, or how she allegedly demanded way too much of everyone around her. Yes, writers and gossip hounds have knocked themselves out to demonstrate to us, time and again, that far from the glossy, Cheshire-cat-smiling image of domestic perfection, Martha is a domineering macho woman who tramples willy-nilly over the soft underbellies of every last colleague and friend she knows with her big old hobnailed gardening boots. Always on her way to some TV taping or big-named cocktail party, according to these accounts, Martha is preoccupied and careless and she hurts people using words.
Pasternak is made "uncomfortable" or hurt by Martha again and again over the course of their friendship, but missing from her tome are the carefully reconstructed moments where she actually confronts Martha about her insensitivity, and demands better treatment. No, instead Pasternak focuses the full force of her steel-trap mind to conjure up this or that glorious night spent wining and dining with Martha, the "antique English porcelain plates" they ate from, the "deep, linen-upholstered" chairs they sunk into, the marvelous paintings that hung on the walls, the views of the sound or the ocean they enjoyed, the wonderful petunias or the bamboo that was blossoming fragrantly that afternoon. Day after day, night after night, we're treated to the wonder of Marthaland, only to have Martha herself come in and spoil everything. Pasternak confides in Martha that her marriage is falling apart, and Martha announces it triumphantly to a whole roomful of people, saying "Brava for Mariana!" Pasternak is "flushed and flustered" and "baffled" that Martha would turn her "agony into a stage-worthy scene from the theater of the absurd." Another time, Martha makes a speech and "for the first time in our friendship, she publicly acknowledged my role in her life" by thanking Pasternak, by then a realtor, for helping her find her latest property. "Martha did not say I never took a commission, but the simple thank you, for me, was more than enough, and it brought tears to my eyes."
See how our intrepid author rises above petty grievances? A simple thank you was more than enough. But these moments of teary-eyed gratitude mixed with resentment are only the tip of the iceberg, once we come to the long list of fabulous trips that Martha and the author take together, trips with the author's two daughters whom Martha has come to refer to as her goddaughters. (They aren't her goddaughters, mind you, but Pasternak quite graciously allows Martha to bask in the illusion that they are – just one of many, many tender mercies Pasternak bestows on poor, pathetic, needy Martha out of the pureness of her heart.) Yes, Martha and the author and the girls travel to the Galapagos Islands and to Egypt and to Peru and to other places, and each trip is laid out in detail, the glamour and luxury but also the moments when Martha became overbearing or reckless, suggesting some dangerous excursion (taking a little boat down the Nile, horseback riding in Peru without helmets, arguing with a taxi driver so vehemently that he lets them off in the middle of the desert). Adding insult to injury, Martha covers all expenses and sends a bill to Pasternak after each trip (as agreed upon, but the various methods for splitting the bill and adding interest are questionable as far as the author is concerned). Couldn’t she simply tell Martha she'd like to split the bill differently – or better yet, couldn't she simply say no to the next lavish trip? No, because Pasternak would never, ever deny her two daughters such a wonderful opportunity to see Egypt or the Galapagos. So "I paid Martha the amount I was told, grateful for the opportunity to have given my family such an unforgettable voyage." Here we are once again: Angry, but immensely grateful. Who is the mixed-up woman in this picture?
Even in the wake of Martha's unexpectedly getting left by her husband, Andy, for a younger woman, Pasternak is less than forgiving. In tears, Martha confides that Andy once had an affair with Erica Jong, a confession that makes Pasternak "profoundly uncomfortable": "I had the queasy feeling that Martha was telling me this to manipulate my feelings for a man she knew I had loved." Indeed, how insensitive of Martha, not to respect Pasternak's feelings for Martha's ex-husband! Yes, it seems that Martha's most vulnerable admonition yet "had a sort of surgical precision to it" and was less a reflection of Martha's considerable grief than a method of manipulating Pasternak.
As if that weren't enough, Martha ruins Pasternak's hopes for true love with a suitor, who wants to sleep with Pasternak under Martha's roof, but Pasternak says no, reasoning that it would be a rude way for Martha to find out about their interest in each other, considering that Martha used to be interested in the man herself. Even though Martha never knows about it or says a word to Pasternak, Pasternak's choice not to go for it is all Martha's fault. "By the time I realized I was permitting her to bully me yet again into surrendering my chance at personal happiness, the man I wished to be with was on his way out of my life."
Not surprisingly, Martha also had a major hand in unraveling the author's marriage. "Sometimes I wondered if, had he been less critical of Martha, I would have felt better about our marriage. At first I thought yes, but then, as time wore on, the answer came: No, I would not. By belittling Martha, my husband had unwrapped a new part of himself, and I didn't like what I saw."
We don't like what we're seeing either. By belittling Martha, Pasternak unwraps a new part of herself on every few pages. While Martha herself comes across as the same sharp-minded, ambitious, self-serving woman with a good sense of humor and a very bad sense of other people's emotional experiences, Pasternak, on the other hand, is the ultimate Nightmare Lady Friend: She passively plays along with anything Martha wants, admitting that she's flattered that Martha Stewart, "one of the Western world's biggest stars," is "crying on my shoulder." She accepts invitations to fabulous parties and goes on more great trips and sips champagne and savors big bowls of Ossetra caviar and then, when Martha is brought to trial and Pasternak is investigated and asked to testify, she distances herself from Martha but her life still crumbles around her. Most of Pasternak's real estate clients abandon her, people whisper about her on the street, and she forecloses on her house.
Unfortunately, by the time we get to the big trial, Martha isn't exactly smelling like a climbing tea rose, but Pasternak has proven herself so exasperatingly passive and so disloyal to her old friend by laying out the humiliating details of Martha's impulsive flings and "stalker" behavior, using each incidence to paint Martha as weak, weak, weak – you know, in the ways that pretty much every single, slightly neurotic, emotional woman on the entire planet is weak at one point or another – that we're ready for Martha to not just betray Pasternak, but leave her in the dust, taking all of those powerful friends and big names and luxury trips and roasted quail that Pasternak loves so dearly along with her.
Ultimately, it's the chaos surrounding Martha's trial and the damage it does to Pasternak's reputation that brings Pasternak down, not Martha herself, and Pasternak is the one who stops returning calls before the trial even begins, thereby finally signaling all of the anger and resentment that was welling up over the years, but that was so terribly inconvenient to confront or address as long as the big names were mingling and the Cristal was flowing.
One can imagine that it was Martha's comeback and return to glory as a more humble, more self-deprecating version of her old brand that finally sent Pasternak over the edge and into the arms of a drooling book publisher. Sadly for Pasternak, her tales of Martha's cheapness, manipulations and naive mooning over men are liable to flesh out a character study of a woman whom the public long ago judged as lovable in spite of great flaws. Her brand revived, her Cheshire smile employed while joking about baking "green" brownies with Snoop Dogg, Martha Stewart the woman and Martha Stewart the brand may just be unsinkable.
In the end, then, it's Pasternak who elicits our sympathy the most. If she'd never befriended Martha and been drawn into a world that ultimately revealed itself to be Martha's world, not hers, she might never have stooped to this, writing a book filled with arrows that bounce off Martha's steely branded exterior and careen back toward the author, who is, after all, not a brand, just a vulnerable (and apparently very angry) human being.