“I Just Want to Focus on My Salad”

Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP


Before Imclone, everything was just perfect for Martha Stewart. Her story had been one of ever-increasing power, from the admittance to Barnard in the fifties from Nutley, New Jersey, where she grew up as the eldest daughter in a Polish family of eight, to almost single-handedly building the ­domestic-bliss industry in the eighties, harnessing the rise in disposable income and backlash against the arid feminism of the previous decade; to say nothing of her role atop Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, a publicly traded company encompassing all things Martha, from tart-making, to tips on pruning trees, which she liked to do in the middle of the night.

Then the American icon of flawlessness made a mistake. On December 27, 2001, when the young assistant to her debonair Merrill Lynch broker told her on his orders that she should sell all her 3,928 shares in ImClone Systems, a biotech company run by Sam Waksal, because the company was about to implode, she jumped at the opportunity. She would never have felt the loss—she was coming up on a billion dollars, and by selling those shares she avoided a loss of $45,673—but she couldn’t resist the chance to daub at the blot on her investment record. “Isn’t it nice to have brokers who tell you these things?” she reportedly said. It was a good thing—and then it became a very bad thing.

Her arrest and conviction made inadvertent parody of her perfectionism. “I just want to focus on my salad,” she said when asked questions about the trade on The Early Show. She was sentenced to prison for five months, and no one was surprised that, like so many other things in life, she excelled at being incarcerated—she showed all the other ladies the best way to wax a floor, boiled up the dandelions that poked through the concrete slabs of the jail, and was a good sport when she lost a decorating contest—but her image never recovered, and her ­company struggles today.

Looking back, it doesn’t seem fair that with one piddling trade she became the very emblem of corporate greed. But what she really may have been paying for was all those years of lording her own country-cute, glue-gun perfection over the womanly masses.

From the Archives: ‘The Comeback That Wasn’t,’ (August 8, 2011)

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“I Just Want to Focus on My Salad”