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I Love Martha

If Martha Stewart gets sent away, I'll miss not only her but her genius business model: a media empire built around the idea that Martha could be paid to be Martha.


Martha Stewart the person cannot be saved, but can Martha Stewart the idea?

I'll miss the person. She was nasty and brutish to many people, but never to me. I only ever got the sudden look, the laugh, the glow, the tough-tender aside. She really was quite a dame.

But I'll really miss the business concept -- if it gets sent away, too.

I can't begin to count how many times I've heard somebody say "Think of this as the Martha Stewart of . . . " or "The idea is to create the Martha Stewart for . . . " or that he or she could be "the next Martha Stewart." (Or even the sub-variation -- I once knew an investment banker who was always touting his wife as a Jewish Martha.) Countless people have undoubtedly thought to themselves, I could be the Martha Stewart of . . . (I could be the Martha Stewart of media criticism.)

This came to be called, in a catchphrase of the boom (and then in a derogatory sense after the boom), being your own brand. But the Martha concept went well beyond that. The idea was embodiment. Representation. Mimesis. Perfection. I am my own worth. I am my own value. I am my own definition. I am the perfect articulation. I have become who I am.

It was about the narrative as business. Martha was marketing the back story. If you were a non-businessperson, a non-counter-of-beans, then Martha represented true commercial hope: You could start a business, a fabulously successful business, that was not about business. Your interior life could become a commercial life. It was the dream of authors everywhere. Except you could be a writer without having to write. You could be your own fiction.

Martha really is an entrepreneur -- unlike those business-school wannabes. She is an independent. No organization, except her own, would have tolerated her.

She was tougher than anybody else. Going back twenty years, she started to do little deals, then put bigger deals on top of the little deals -- deals everywhere (it was life as a licensing scheme). As a rule, somebody like Martha almost always gets screwed in these sorts of deals -- the kid with heart and imagination gets squeezed by deal-makers and lawyers. But Martha paid attention.

She out-detailed everybody in a detail game. She never let go (you know when she got the call that Sam Waksal was selling, she just wasn't going to let herself be screwed like that -- her crime, if any, was a fuck-him reflex). She gave everybody the shiv before they gave it to her. She did a deal with Time Inc. to start up Martha Stewart Living, then got her magazine back from Time because she was too tough, too hard-nosed, too tactical, for even the tough guys at Time (Rosie was tough, too -- but tough like a suicide bomber).

In negotiations and in carriage, we are talking about a most remarkable control. Absolute discipline. On message. Within theme. Never missing a beat.

And then there's the business itself. It's the first postmodern media empire. The Martha business is the ultimate guerrilla-marketing strategy: using the media to promote your media. It was the mirror trick, the infinite-reflection principle. Everything you did promoted everything else you did. In an age in which media could no longer stand on its own, you had to come up with an approach that allowed you to get paid for promoting yourself (the dot-commers were always trying to be Martha, but they didn't understand that Martha always got paid to be Martha). This endless advertisement loop is the Martha monument.

And now it is being brought down.

For the prosecutors, she is a special kind of trophy. The Feds are piggybacking on her brand. Martha's sin (she did, after all, grab the money) is not their foremost preoccupation -- rather the publicity for prosecuting Martha's sin is what they go to bed at night and wake up in the morning thinking about. Who doubts this?

And then there's the Establishment's disdain. Entrepreneurs, while paid great lip service and occasionally mythologized, are seldom anybody's favorite people. They're always in the process of sucking up to somebody while alienating somebody else (sucking up while alienating down). What's more, they're taking power from somebody else. It's a zero-sum media world: If you're the flavor of the month, somebody else isn't. And so, after twenty years of Martha's striving, you had a very large group of people in the media business who hated Martha's guts (talk to the people at Time Inc.).

As for the rest of America, we enjoy a ritual burning.

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