Through her new circles, Lee got involved with big-ticket charity work and gained a reputation for thinking fast. At a celebrity-clogged, 900-guest UNICEF gala she helped organize at the Beverly Hilton in December 2003, Mattel CEO Robert Eckert was presenting a big check for which Lee had made the ask. Whoopi Goldberg, the event’s host, jested that Mattel would never make a Barbie that looked like her. Awkwardness loomed. With Eckert about to ascend to the podium, Lee remembered that earlier in the evening, she’d noticed a Whoopi Goldberg Barbie in a display case in the hotel lobby. She rushed outside, persuaded two security guards to open the case, and passed the Barbie to Eckert, who, when he got onstage, was able to show it to Goldberg and say, “Well, actually, WhoopiÂ …” “She’s unbelievably resourceful and quick on her feet,” says Caryl Stern, the head of UNICEF. “She connects the dots.”
Most of Lee’s early thirties, however, were focused on building her own TV show, and she launched Semi-Homemade from the garage of the house she shared with Karatz. Lee had been thinking about a concept that would help unskilled homemakers put food on the table using the kind of pantry staples she had depended on as a child: items like Bisquick and Cool Whip and condensed soup. The name was born from a supermarket-aisle epiphany, when Lee was looking at a bag of semisweet chocolate chips. She hadn’t invented a new approach—but she named it, formulated it, and glamorized it.
Before she even secured a publisher, Lee had completed two books. “Some people have blind ambition that comes first, and then they try to figure out something to do,” Guggenheim says. “She has a belief that there’s a right way to approach cooking and life, and she’s like a missionary in her zeal. It’s not ambition for ambition’s sake, it’s truly wanting to spread the word.”
The evangelist’s fervor was just as apparent to those who worked with Lee. One points out that considering the sheer volume of her output—sometimes three books a year, plus her two shows and magazine—“she’s pretty easy to work with.” Others have darker memories. “She was the most ambitious person I’d ever met,” says a female television producer who has worked with many successful small-screen personalities. “The thing that bothered me was the way she treated the people who worked for her. She was very high-strung, and she leaves people in her wake.” According to Denise Vivaldo, a veteran food stylist who developed more than 150 recipes for Lee, when Vivaldo hinted that she hoped her recipes would lead to styling work, Lee told her, “Honey, I want to fuck you; I don’t know if I want to put a ring on your finger.” (Lee dismisses Vivaldo as a disgruntled former employee and claims never to use such vulgarities.) “I’ve worked in Hollywood for 25 years, and I’ve never had anyone say anything like that to me,” Vivaldo says, adding that she turned down Lee’s repeated requests to continue to work with her because of “her lack of appropriate boundaries and her control issues.” (The boundary issues are difficult to evaluate; the control issues few would argue with.)
In 2001, Guggenheim’s husband, Bert Fields, a powerful L.A. lawyer, introduced Lee to his client Tina Brown, who connected her with Harvey Weinstein, who pushed back a flight time in order to have lunch with her at the Regency Hotel. “When a person like Sandra comes along with an idea that’s poised to catch the Zeitgeist, it’s a good idea to meet with them, so I was happy to delay leaving for the Hamptons for a few hours,” he recalls. Weinstein and Brown proved critical for Lee’s career. She formed a publishing partnership with Miramax Books, and Weinstein promoted her aggressively, landing her four appearances on Today, a segment on The View, a column in Parade, and a one-shot magazine published by Hachette Filipacchi. Her first book, Semi-Homemade, hit the New York Times’ best-seller list.
Like many of today’s familiar lifestyle personalities, Lee came on the scene when Martha Stewart was distracted by her stock-trading scandal and there was a domestic-diva power vacuum. “Sandra always said she was going to be the next Martha Stewart,” says a colleague from the time, and Lee reportedly kept back issues of Martha Stewart Living in binders next to her office. But Lee also believed that while people want “the beautiful outcome,” they don’t have the time or energy for it. “I think that some people wish they could,” she says now, “and feel a little defeated that they can’t.” Lee was offering a more realistic approach.