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Our Martha, Ourselves

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But Martha Stewart has become an icon largely by headmistressing a vision of old-school female control at a time when much seems explosive and vulgar. That's the moral dimension of Martha: imposing domestic order against the chaos outside. "She's a Puritan," says social critic and author Benjamin DeMott. "She believes in hard work and stuff that is well made. Practically anything that human beings make is better if they work harder. . . . One of her functions in a world where less and less has given meaning is to take the pieces and make something that is not loaded with significance on the face of it, and give it value."

And while many women hate her or feel ambivalent toward her (depending on how perfectionistic their own mothers were), she is offering information that skipped at least one generation. "I was never raised to wash a floor," says Susan Wyland, the editor of Martha Stewart Living. "I did homework. My mother did the dishes. There was not a lot of training going on, because it was assumed that our lives would be different. My mother thought I'd have more important things to do." Children of the seventies—whose mothers worked and brought home Chicken Delight and were taught by a newly liberated McCall's magazine to make friends with their dust balls—are perversely drawn to Martha and what she represents. In art schools now, crafts and needlework have become subversive media. As seventies feminist artist Faith Wilding told M. G. Lord in an interview in the New York Times, "My students are begging me to teach them crocheting, embroidery, and knitting. It's a rebellion."

"She's a combination of Amazonian strength, Olympian omnipotence, and Emersonian self-reliance," says Mark Leyner. "Soon she's going to branch into nuclear weaponry, cold fusion, and voodoo."

Hers is a classic story of American transformation. She was born Martha Kostyra, the oldest daughter of six children in a Polish Catholic family. Her salesman father loved to garden; her hard-sewing, hard-cooking, hard-baking mom later returned to work as a teacher. To judge from reading her "Remembering" column in the magazine, life in the solid thirties Kostyra house in Nutley, New Jersey, was a harder-working version of Andy Hardy. In her introduction to Martha Stewart's Pies & Tarts, she writes with surprising eloquence: "I was the only one of my father's children who took naturally to the garden—I never minded the hours in the blazing sun, weeding and cultivating. My father sent for every garden catalogue available, and we pored over them together, choosing what we would like to have on an imaginary estate, as well as what we could actually afford to have and take care of."

Well, of course, Martha now has that estate. And that's probably because even while growing up in the fifties, she introduced eighties-style junior-mogul values to the neighborhood: By 10, she was running local birthday parties for pay; she started modeling at 12, continuing through her last year at Barnard. Meanwhile, student Martha cooked and cleaned for two old ladies in their twelve-room apartment on Fifth Avenue. At college, she also met Diane Love (an early home-design guru), the sister of her future husband, Yale Law School student Andy Stewart. She married Stewart in 1961, during her sophomore year. Shortly after she graduated, she had their daughter, Alexis Stewart. Martha then went to work on Wall Street as a go-go stockbroker, earning more than $100,000 a year by the early seventies. She left before the 1974 recession, and soon decamped full-time to Westport (the same place Lucy and Ricky moved), where she and Andy restored their 1805 house on the fabled Turkey Hill. By Martha's account, Andy also helped a lot with the gardening. "Andy and I have planted an orchard of 122 trees," she wrote in her book Pies & Tarts. "It's fun, and I have Andy to prune the trees." (In her introduction to Entertaining, her first landmark book, published in 1982, she thanks Andy "for his untiring help. I appreciate so much the long hours of photographing, cooking, and gardening that we did together for the book, and the planning, carpentry, painting, and homesteading that is the real basis for our lifestyle.")

The home-commando stuff grows in intensity. In a "Remembering" column about baking cakes, Martha writes, "Alexis . . . recalls the very plain Bundt cake I made at the last minute for her seventh birthday. She says I stuck a fat candle in the center and didn't make frosting because I was too busy shingling the garage roof."

The intensely confessional nature of Martha's reminiscences is at odds with her public image, which is bloodless. But while she is not exactly gushy during an interview, she takes questions seriously. "I'm less mother than teacher," she tells me. "Hardly anybody I know thinks of me as a mother. Everybody loves their mothers, but not everybody likes their teachers. Teachers can be too hard on them. The love-hate stuff comes because of the teaching."


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