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Which Martha?

There’s the victim, and the schemer, the Connecticut white lady, and the career girl. So who is she? Tell us, and you’ll tell us who you are.


It’s not in the least clear who’s going to win, or even who has the upper hand, or who holds the true moral high ground. That’s one reason (beyond the joie de vivre of a celebrity trial) why the big satellite trucks are in front of the old courthouse, and why the rows of cameramen are shivering under flimsy tents, and why the cream of the trial press corps—Dominick Dunne from Vanity Fair, Jeffrey Toobin from The New Yorker, and Henry Blodget, the former Internet-stock analyst reinvented as a Martha reporter—is lining up at 8 a.m. This isn’t just a white-collar case. It’s a blood sport.

Martha, the cool and frightening woman who has used all her wiles to take what is hers, and the government, that hot-under-the-collar prosecutor of the culture wars, are equals, powerful enemies squaring off against each other.

What precisely they’re squaring off about is unresolved. The prosecution wants the jury to believe that it merely has a single-minded devotion to truth: Martha Stewart lied, simple. And she lied arrogantly. The arrogance is in some sense the offense that justifies the cost of such a trial as well as a long incarceration for Martha and her co-defendant, Peter Bacanovic. And she conspired. The conspiracy suggests her social sins. The Martha world. Exclusive. Incestuous (Martha got to know Sam Waksal because he dated her daughter). And gay. (Bacanovic, the broker and co-defendant, was also her walker.)

The defense, in addition to insisting that no lies were ever told, wants the jury to believe that Martha, that mythic figure of female enterprise, is being ganged up on because there is just something about a successful woman that so many people still find hard to like.

The prosecution wants us to believe that Martha is Kozlowski (still being tried in a nearby courtroom) or the Enron bookkeepers—a financial schemer, an arrogant fat cat, a kind of evil incarnate for our time. Whereas for the defense, she’s Dreyfus, indicted not for what she did but for who she is. How you perceive Martha is a road map to your own cultural prejudices.

Indeed, she presents herself as a victim, albeit of a special kind. The gossip about her handbag during the jury-selection phase—when Judge Miriam Cedarbaum, a school-teacherish figure, banned the press from the courtroom, so all they had to chew over was her passing image—was, in fact, way off point. There is no sense of grandiosity or flippancy or Michael Jackson–ness about Martha; quite the opposite. It’s all reserve and poignance and gravity. And aloneness. A state—woman against the world—that is emphasized by her lack of a spouse or significant other. She has no support beyond her own self (and her own millions). It’s just Martha—and her daughter, Alexis (who got her into this mess in the first place), and her 89-year-old mother, and the lawyers she pays.

You can’t look at Martha in the dock without finding yourself trying to imagine her particular hell. It’s impossible not to keep considering (pro and con) the very idea of Martha in prison.

And yet the victimology, while almost affecting, is also, of course, disingenuous. We are not here just to see a heretofore supersuccessful woman under attack but as much to see her fight back—the victim thing, we understand, is tactical.

Her fight involves the-best-money-can-buy legal team, a superb public-relations operation, a cool Website, and appearances with Barbara Walters (who visited the trial) and Larry King (along with her mother), but, most of all, her own courtroom performance—not just on the witness stand, but sitting here every day.

Her demeanor could well be as important to her defense as the details of her stock sale. In some clear sense, what we are all here to do (jury as well as press) is to look at Martha (members of the press corps invariably deride the attention her clothes are getting even as they analyze who’s designing what outfits and what effect she’s trying to achieve with her elegant sackcloth). Surely, part of the fun, or titillation, of the trial is the glimpse of Martha in the real world. The control freak in the control of other forces.

It’s a sort of social experiment to see Martha, this doyenne of private enterprise, in this public space. It’s such an unlovely space, too. Faux grand: large, ungainly, and badly lit. How does she suffer it?

How will she react to the inelegance, the inartfulness, the banality, the boredom, the bad suits, the un-Martha-ness (a floral display would make a big difference here) of courtroom life?

Can she keep from rolling her eyes or wincing or crying out at the humdrumness of the proceedings and the bad acoustics (with steady, low-level feedback) and the repetition (one of the disadvantages of having a co-defendant is that you have to go over so much of the same territory twice) and the judge’s meandering pace. (“She lets lawyers talk a lot and agrees with the last lawyer she hears, so the lawyers try to talk a lot,” my benchmate, a veteran trial reporter, explains—the visiting press hangs on every word of the actually knowledgeable press.)

Even her own lawyer, Robert Morvillo, short, fleshy, round-faced, Rumpole-ish, with ineptly dyed hair and a cringe-deserving comb-over, is dramatically, or comically, un-Martha-like. But surely he was chosen for that reason (in addition to his evident skillfulness). He helps humanize her. (The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Patton Seymour, may in turn suffer from a surfeit of corporate-woman black-suit professionalism. She seems thin and mean, whereas Martha seems fuller and gentler.)

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