It’s a complicated mother-daughter relationship, says a person who has spent time with the pair. “Martha adores her, and Alexis has an enormous amount of love for her mother, but at the same time they push each other’s buttons. When they spend time together, it’s rarely good. Still, if anyone says a bad word about Martha, even if she’s in a period of not loving her, Alexis is like a mama cat with her baby. She’s deeply protective of her mother’s legacy.”
Fair or not, the armchair psychiatrist’s take on Alexis is that she grew up starved for attention. “Martha was completely immersed in other things, as everybody knows,” says Andy Stewart, Alexis’s father, who hasn’t spoken to his daughter in over twenty years. “That stuff took up much more time and energy than most people have. There was not that much time left to devote to a child. I was occupied, too, commuting to work in New York, restoring the house, helping Martha with her books. We just didn’t spend the kind of time we should have, or normal people do, with their children.”
There’s documentary evidence that Martha did devote time to her daughter; Alexis, on her blog, posted letters she’d received while at camp in New Hampshire when she was 6 years old. “I do wish that you children in your bunk would be good girls,” Martha wrote in block letters. “Please be nice until the end of camp. Daddy and mommy love you very much!” Underneath is written SPELLING LESSON and a list of sixteen words—“animal,” “banquet,” “shoes”—whose spelling had been mauled in one of Alexis’s previous letters.
“I think not,” Alexis says, when asked if she was touched much as a kid. Does her mother try to hug her now? “Yes, she does,” Alexis says. “But I can’t deal with it.” She laughs. “I was about to say ‘I don’t like strangers hugging me.’ Strangers! No, that was not Freudian. Hugging is not my shtick.” Alexis says she was a well-behaved child. “Martha’s scary,” she says. “You just don’t want to fuck with her … I did almost nothing wrong. The fear of getting yelled at was enough for me. And I still hate getting yelled at by anybody.”
Her parents sent her to a shrink in her adolescence who told her she was chronically depressed, and she still takes antidepressants. “That’s not public information! Where did you get that?” she demands, after I’ve asked if she’s still on 25 milligrams of Zoloft twice a day. When I produce the page from the Frequently Asked Questions page of whateverradio.com (the specific question being, “What medications is Alexis currently taking?”), she calms down. “Now it’s one [50 milligram] pill once a day,” she says for the record. “And that’s almost nothing.” She says she used to take a much higher dose of Effexor, a regimen that made her feel increasingly complacent and numb. “I kept trying to suggest to my doctor I get off of it and then something horrible would happen, like my mother would go to prison, and it would be like, ‘Not now.’ ”
“Guess who’s never been to a therapist, or only been maybe twice,” says Martha. “I’ve never been to a therapist. Alexis likes talking about her innermost feelings. I don’t.”
Considering that Martha Stewart has built a business on the idea of a woman’s unapologetic quest for domestic excellence with little acknowledgment of effort—let alone mental illness—I wondered if Martha was at all concerned about Whatever, Martha! ’s potential effect on the brand. “Well, Alexis is striving for perfection,” she says, before falling into a weirdly telling verbal vortex. “If you have a therapist, you’re striving for perfection. Why would you go to a therapist if you weren’t striving for perfection? Guess who’s never been to a therapist, or only been maybe twice? Just guess. I’ve never been to a therapist. I think I’ve had about four visits to a therapist, but that was with a marriage counselor. I don’t have time! I’m busy.” So these problems of Alexis’s weren’t genetic? “I don’t think there’s a history of depression,” Martha says. “Not on my side of the family. You’d have to talk to her ex-father for that side of the family. No, it’s not about that. She likes talking about her innermost feelings. I don’t.” Indeed, on her show, Alexis has been candid about a lifelong history of crippling depressions and anxiety that for periods made it difficult for her to leave the house. She’s also said on-air that her mother disapproves of her going to therapy. “My parents sent me but didn’t go themselves,” she said, “which is the exact opposite of what they should have done.”
In 1987, her father left her mother and six years later married Martha’s onetime assistant. Alexis, a full-grown 22 when her dad left, is open about despising him. “He was a dick in many ways,” she says. “Monetarily. Emotionally. And he was creepy to me. He’s just creepy.” Andy Stewart now lives in a restored farmhouse on 100 acres in Vermont and owns a small publishing house that produces nature guides. He still wonders why his oldest daughter hates him so. “I’ve tried to figure it out,” he says, voice quavering. “I left her mother. It was very hard. It took many months to finally succeed in leaving. We’d been married a long time. I guess Lexi felt I left her. I certainly didn’t feel that way. I love her a lot. I don’t have any trouble getting along with my kids except for her. I know her mother was hurt when I left her. I was hurt too. I think she was sympathetic toward her mother, which I can understand.” He has long since stopped sending cards and gifts—they used to come back to him unopened. He has never listened to her radio show and thinks he’ll probably avoid trying to see Whatever, Martha! “I’m hesitant to watch,” he says. “In the very few things I have seen, I’ve seen that anger in Lexi that I remember also seeing in Martha. It’s upsetting to me. I guess I avoid it.”