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The Friends of Martha Stewart

The Martha Stewart trial was all about the gradations and perquisites and obligations of New York friendship—and what happens when those bonds are tested. The diva’s downfall as nineteenth-century novel.


One has the friends one has. And I wonder, as I write, if you happen to be one of mine? And if I consider you my friend, do you consider me a friend of yours? Or are we more . . . friendly acquaintances? Or associates? Or professional peers? Or someone with whom I once worked, or met at a cocktail party? When one has lived in the same city for most of one’s life, as I have in New York, one acquires hundreds of acquaintances and colleagues and buddies. Indeed, the fact that this metropolis contains the majority of one’s closest friends, a train or taxi ride away, is what keeps us from moving to the Hudson Valley or Umbria or Hanoi.

One has the friends one has, and one doesn’t tend to choose them carefully. I wouldn’t call myself a friend of Martha Stewart’s, but I know her. A few years ago, during a coffee break at a technology conference, we had a pleasant conversation about public radio and—this was the best—the excellence of the steamed-milk froth on our free Starbucks lattes. A few years before that, she had invited me to a large dinner party at Nobu where Sam Waksal was present. (At that dinner, I happened to exchange a friendly glance with Calvin Klein, whom I had met exactly once before, but who nevertheless acted in that moment as if we were good friends, mouthing the words “Are you okay?” from across the room, since a few weeks earlier I had been fired as the editor of this magazine.) One of my real friends is the creative director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, another is editor of the Martha Stewart magazines, and my niece works in their public-relations department. I know one of her original criminal lawyers slightly, and I’m friendly with the host of the party in Panama to which she was flying when she unwisely sold 3,928 shares of ImClone stock.

One has the friends one has—and generally that is, as they say, a good thing. A hard city made tolerable by the presence of so many pals is the sentimental New York of Sex and the City, the sweet, simple, amusing good cheer that infuses Friends. The United States v. Martha Stewart and Peter Bacanovic succeeded in proving that Martha and her broker conspired to lie to Federal investigators. But for us spectators the court case was only a device, a prism, a means to watch an unfolding story about New York friendships more complicated and uneasy than Carrie’s with Samantha or Joey’s with Chandler. The Martha story is all about the gradations and perquisites and obligations of friendship. It’s about the more or less symmetrical friendships between rich, successful people; the asymmetrical friendships between celebrities and the ordinary people they invite to enter the magic bubble; and the blurry alliances that exist along the spectrum between affection and professional need. It’s a story of what happens between boon companions when the good times end and the scrutiny of prosecution and bad publicity begin.

The Martha Stewart story, in other words, has the narrative arc, characters, color, and moral stakes of a novel. Wouldn’t a novelist choose to set the action in New York after 9/11, but before the end of that awful year, when everyone felt perpetually anxious and confused? Doesn’t ImClone sound like a high-tech company invented by a writer of fiction? And why do so many of the people in this story have names like those of make-believe characters? Sam Waksal’s surname seems pointedly reminiscent of Elmer Fudd’s epithet for Bugs Bunny—wascal. “Martha Stewart” could be a Jane Austen heroine, an alternate version of “Elizabeth Bennet” or “Catherine Morland.” And for all I know, “Mariana Pasternak” actually was the name of some dark, troubled snitch in a Fay Weldon novel.

In fact, the Martha story is like a particular kind of novel—an old-fashioned social satire packed with entertaining implausibilities, complicated romantic entanglements, inevitable comeuppances, and ironic twists, all shot through with tragic striations. It’s School of Disraeli or Dickens or—especially—Trollope, a nineteenth-century English novel in turn-of-the-21st-century American drag: Martha’s devoted assistant sobbed in the witness box at the memory of her boss sending her a nice plum pudding one Christmas, but a key moment in the tale consists of a cell-phone conversation Martha had near her private jet as it was being refueled en route to a party at the Third World vacation home of an Italian auto heir and his consort, a Greek princess. We have even consumed this Martha Stewart story the way readers in the nineteenth century consumed Dickens and Trollope, rationed out to us in periodical installments over the course of two years.

It is, to put too fine a point on it, Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, from 1875. Both plots turn on speculative stock-market frenzies that stoke greed and dissembling among well-to-do people who want to get a little richer, and who forge convenient relationships with useful people they don’t necessarily like. “I was instigated,” Trollope said of this novel, “by what I conceived to be the commercial profligacy of the age.” Augustus Melmotte (the rich, cynical, striving scoundrel with a fashionable city home where he entertains lavishly) is the analog to Sam Waksal. Instead of a biotechnology company seeking a cure for cancer, the go-go high-tech enterprise in the novel is a scheme to build a railroad through the deserts of the American West. In the novel, Lady Carbury, a well-known authoress, is a domineering mother to her feckless son Felix, whom she persuades to marry Melmotte’s daughter. In our 21st-century version, of course, Lady Carbury is not only an authoress strenuously concerned with appearances and money but also a brilliant, self-made tycoon. And in real life, the romantic plot complications are even more . . . novelistic. Martha’s daughter, Alexis, once dated Waksal, eighteen years her senior, but then married an attorney who is now (entertaining implausibility!) one of her mother’s criminal lawyers.

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