Martha talks a lot about her own daughter, Alexis, who has a Gen-X version of her looks and sensibility, owns a modish motel in Bridgehampton, and also does some interior design. She's tall, gorgeous, and hell-on-clogs. (As a little kid, she apparently asked her parents, "Who decided that polyester was ugly?") The work she did in the apartment of Susan Magrino (Martha's longtime publicist), featuring machine-made blond forties furniture, spurred a boom for Heywood-Wakefield dealers after it was featured in the magazine. "Our differences make life interesting," the publicity-squeamish daughter, who was once stalked, told the New York Observer. "It sounds like she's my husband."
The attempts to explain Martha proliferate, but one thing is clear: She taps into a very obvious longing for lost ritual and tradition in this country. One can make fun of the increasingly competitive mood at flea markets, Williams-Sonoma outlets, and Smith & Hawken garden-accessories stores. But the people who have turned these pursuits into contact sports are seeking to replace a sense of lost familial order. Martha is the ritual healer. Her poultices are crisp linens, delicious tarts, and a beautiful mosaic of turkey and infused oils. She seems to be saying, Forget the wretched refuse of your screwed-up or nonexistent families (and never mind about the world's problems); concentrate instead on your own higher aesthetic, your own commodified style. Why let old Aunt Gladys bother you. She doesn't even know what a Roman shade is. Just as Calvin Klein revolutionized images of sex in America in the eighties by introducing the newly buffed homoerotic object of beauty, the male nude, Martha has blown the nuclear family off its old, poky moorings and replaced it with a hyper-idealized version of itself, a chilly but impeccable autocracy of style.
Meanwhile, Martha keeps hinting that she's moving on. She's now into minimalism, having bought a modernist gem of a house in East Hampton designed by the architect Gordon Bunshaft. For the Martha people, such strict Miesian spareness would seem to be antithetical to everything she's taught. "My daughter, Alexis, is very different [from me]," she wrote by way of indirect explanation in the current issue of Living. "She loves the art of the deal. She can collect, but she can also sell. She doesn't get attached to things, as I do. That is probably why I have too many houses and too much stuff. . . ."
Maybe the Bunshaft travertine-and-glass box is the most poignant gesture a mother could make—a $3 million way of bonding with her daughter. It will no doubt set Martha apart from her followers. But in the end, as any Martha person knows, an empty house is just another stage set for improvement, another machine for Martha Stewart living.