Our Martha, Ourselves

From the May 15, 1995 issue of New York Magazine.

If you’ve noticed lately that the radiant presence of Martha Stewart seems to be infinite, like that of the Almighty, or of Starbucks, you’re right. Martha has advanced way beyond the Kmart deals and coffee-table books to achieve the highest state of marketing grace there is. More than a franchise, more than a “lifestyle,” more than an attitude, she’s a living trademark. That means that the sun never sets on brand Martha. Every appearance or publication or bit of publicity works to sell the ever-growing—yet controlled and coherent—brand identity. For example, if she’s seen at the bottom of an empty pool on an American Express commercial, cutting up charge cards to form another goddess, Venus, or even if she’s being dissed on Letterman, the shock of watching her late at night, making fun of her poignant taskmaster self, reinforces the rest of the empire. And it is building: She just renegotiated her unique deal as chairman of Martha Stewart Living Enterprises, the only Time Warner venture based on a living personality.

Martha the living brand has conquered books, magazines, television, and is now into new media. Within Time Warner, this gives her the real clout that even sister Time Warnerite Madonna cannot have. (The otherwise submerged Time Inc. culture lives on in Martha—the blonde salesperson from Fairfield County with the supernormal range of energy.)

Martha Stewart Living magazine, which last month won a National Magazine Award for design, is up to ten issues a year and a circulation of 1.2 million; the half-hour syndicated TV show now reaches 5.3 million viewers. Starting next month, repeats will run on Lifetime as often as three times a day, followed by Martha infomercials for her new line of products. There’s even talk of Barbara Walters-like network specials or perhaps a 24-hour cable station. All Martha, all the time.

As Martha herself tells it, on her car phone, heading down from her Edenic home base in Westport, the growth has “really been strong in the last two years. I first started with books, and if you can sell 500,000 copies, you’re doing really well. A magazine has four or five times that number of readers. The television did the rest.”

Martha and her teaching disciples at Enterprises maintain that what she relays is “hands-on information and inspiration.” “Our belief [is] that America is a nation of doers interested in how to,” Martha says in a recent press release. Indeed, when it comes to goers, doers, or how-toers, no one comes close to the domestic goddess herself. But her persona is more complex than that. Tall, blonde, and handsome, she is at an age, 53, when her male counterparts become chief executive officer or president. Five years or so ago, she shed the Breck-girl hair and fussy country-caterer wardrobe. And now that chairman Martha is seen in either Eddie Bauer or Armani, she’s a contradictory figure, a walking Rorschach test of dissonance for contemporary women: a powerhouse workaholic insomniac divorcée (and mother of a grown daughter) getting a message out about the need for balance, the sacredness of family rituals and holidays, and the importance of “homekeeping” and “garden keeping.”

Those delicate, rosebud-y words are uniquely Martha: They hint at her particular genius for taking quotidian activities that have been tedious for centuries and transforming them into opportunities for excellence. That’s the Martha Stewart golden spin. Only she could name one of her books Martha Stewart’s New Old House. It was only 32 years ago that Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, the book that investigated “the problem that had no name”: the unhappy lives of educated, middle-class, suburban housewives who devoted themselves solely to Kinder and Küche. Two decades of social change later, Friedan endorsed what she called the Second Stage, a broader model of values that took into account the compromises of working and family life. But even this more family-friendly vision was still an entire pendulum swing away from the Martha people of the nineties: armies of glue-gun-wielding groupies ecstatic about the transformative power of a lamp shade.

No wonder Martha touches cultural hot buttons. Nothing if not an extreme figure—equally revered and reviled—she embodies a direct threat to three decades of received ideas about motherhood, wifehood, home, career, comfort, nature itself. And this time of backlash is the perfect moment for her contradictory brand of cold nurture.

There are any number of explanations for the cult of Stewart: the democratizing effect of television (people who would otherwise avoid her, can’t); the long and noble American tradition of embracing any smart entrepreneur who sells the masses a tasteful way to exhibit class and wealth; and the fact that her standards are so exacting that almost anything she says is hilarious.

But Martha Stewart has become an icon largely by headmistressing a vision of old-school female control at a time when much seems explosive and vulgar. That’s the moral dimension of Martha: imposing domestic order against the chaos outside. “She’s a Puritan,” says social critic and author Benjamin DeMott. “She believes in hard work and stuff that is well made. Practically anything that human beings make is better if they work harder… . One of her functions in a world where less and less has given meaning is to take the pieces and make something that is not loaded with significance on the face of it, and give it value.”

And while many women hate her or feel ambivalent toward her (depending on how perfectionistic their own mothers were), she is offering information that skipped at least one generation. “I was never raised to wash a floor,” says Susan Wyland, the editor of Martha Stewart Living. “I did homework. My mother did the dishes. There was not a lot of training going on, because it was assumed that our lives would be different. My mother thought I’d have more important things to do.” Children of the seventies—whose mothers worked and brought home Chicken Delight and were taught by a newly liberated McCall’s magazine to make friends with their dust balls—are perversely drawn to Martha and what she represents. In art schools now, crafts and needlework have become subversive media. As seventies feminist artist Faith Wilding told M. G. Lord in an interview in the New York Times, “My students are begging me to teach them crocheting, embroidery, and knitting. It’s a rebellion.”

“She’s a combination of Amazonian strength, Olympian omnipotence, and Emersonian self-reliance,” says Mark Leyner. “Soon she’s going to branch into nuclear weaponry, cold fusion, and voodoo.”

Hers is a classic story of American transformation. She was born Martha Kostyra, the oldest daughter of six children in a Polish Catholic family. Her salesman father loved to garden; her hard-sewing, hard-cooking, hard-baking mom later returned to work as a teacher. To judge from reading her “Remembering” column in the magazine, life in the solid thirties Kostyra house in Nutley, New Jersey, was a harder-working version of Andy Hardy. In her introduction to Martha Stewart’s Pies & Tarts, she writes with surprising eloquence: “I was the only one of my father’s children who took naturally to the garden—I never minded the hours in the blazing sun, weeding and cultivating. My father sent for every garden catalogue available, and we pored over them together, choosing what we would like to have on an imaginary estate, as well as what we could actually afford to have and take care of.”

Well, of course, Martha now has that estate. And that’s probably because even while growing up in the fifties, she introduced eighties-style junior-mogul values to the neighborhood: By 10, she was running local birthday parties for pay; she started modeling at 12, continuing through her last year at Barnard. Meanwhile, student Martha cooked and cleaned for two old ladies in their twelve-room apartment on Fifth Avenue. At college, she also met Diane Love (an early home-design guru), the sister of her future husband, Yale Law School student Andy Stewart. She married Stewart in 1961, during her sophomore year. Shortly after she graduated, she had their daughter, Alexis Stewart. Martha then went to work on Wall Street as a go-go stockbroker, earning more than $100,000 a year by the early seventies. She left before the 1974 recession, and soon decamped full-time to Westport (the same place Lucy and Ricky moved), where she and Andy restored their 1805 house on the fabled Turkey Hill. By Martha’s account, Andy also helped a lot with the gardening. “Andy and I have planted an orchard of 122 trees,” she wrote in her book Pies & Tarts. “It’s fun, and I have Andy to prune the trees.” (In her introduction to Entertaining, her first landmark book, published in 1982, she thanks Andy “for his untiring help. I appreciate so much the long hours of photographing, cooking, and gardening that we did together for the book, and the planning, carpentry, painting, and homesteading that is the real basis for our lifestyle.”)

The home-commando stuff grows in intensity. In a “Remembering” column about baking cakes, Martha writes, “Alexis … recalls the very plain Bundt cake I made at the last minute for her seventh birthday. She says I stuck a fat candle in the center and didn’t make frosting because I was too busy shingling the garage roof.”

The intensely confessional nature of Martha’s reminiscences is at odds with her public image, which is bloodless. But while she is not exactly gushy during an interview, she takes questions seriously. “I’m less mother than teacher,” she tells me. “Hardly anybody I know thinks of me as a mother. Everybody loves their mothers, but not everybody likes their teachers. Teachers can be too hard on them. The love-hate stuff comes because of the teaching.”

This teacher’s sense of control makes her Sunday-morning TV show strangely transporting—it’s a sort of alternative church service for those seeking aesthetic self-help. The brilliance of the show is not in how-to; it’s actually in how well it crosses over to the exhausted non-do market. This audience is composed of busy working women (and some men) who previously bristled or laughed at what they saw as Stewart’s relentlessly perfectionist class- and status-ridden standards, her assumption that everyone has the leisure and acreage and desire to do what she does. These are tasks that appear unthinkable to your basic Door Store couch potato. But there’s something about watching her tireless quest that gives the show a narcotic buzzing this perfect visual aesthetic existence.”

Says Steven Overman, an assistant at Wired magazine in San Francisco, “The first time I looked at [Martha Stewart Living], I knew I was in love. It portrayed a whole world that I wanted to live in. It was the apotheosis of what my whole design education and life was about.”

But Overman does find God, and Martha, in the details: “See, I’m a total Christmas-tree queen. My dream is to run a Christmas-tree farm. When I was a child, I used to drag Christmas trees home off the street. So when I saw a picture of three Christmas trees in her living room, that spoke to me. I thought, It’s okay to be obsessed. Martha is.”

Overman adds, “There’s a camp element to what she’d doing. It’s like dressing up household objects in drag. Instead of buying the really expensive thing, you dress it up with little bits of pearls and silver and gold ribbon and glue, and masquerade it as something else.”

That sensibility extends to nature as well, where Martha shows a penchant for fetishizing vegetables. There is something genuinely campy about, say, placing a giant flowering kale, or a huge Bermuda onion, on the table as a centerpiece. One of Martha’s visual trademarks, which has become standard caterer style, is the almost steroidal bounty of her offerings—as if the entire produce section of Balducci’s were plopped table-top. And even though Martha’s magazine mostly shows hetero-looking white people sitting down at dinner, her tableaux all seem to be exercises in dress-up. “As a gay person, you are re-creating and reinventing institutions like marriage and family holidays,” Overman says admiringly. “You see through institutions, and tweak them, and co-opt them and use them for what you want. That’s what Martha Stewart Living does.”

The magazine is indeed lush and gorgeous, with fine-art-quality photography, sophisticated typography, and Shaker-clean graphics. The creative director, Gael Towey, comes from an illustrated-books background (and worked on Martha’s food and gardening books). Many of the stylists come from the world of catalogues or design. The magazine’s penchant for spending eight elegantly photographed pages on, say, rice has been widely copied; instead of the canned, loud look of women’s service magazines, the grace and sensuality of the photography sometimes recalls Edward Weston in the way it uses nature’s imperfection as an object of reverential focus.

This reverence serves as a visual analog to one of Martha’s recurring themes: respect. She doesn’t reserve that respect only for institutions and people; she is willing to extend it to the homeliest of God’s comestibles. Like pickles. “When I was growing up, there was always an informal pickle competition in our house,” she wrote in her “Remembering” column in the October 1994 issue, which has since become a classic for other reasons we’ll get to shortly. The “competition” between Grandma Ruszkowski’s bread and butters, and Babcia Helen’s dills “made family life more interesting and kept alive the art of pickling… . I still love pickles and try them whenever I see them—in the bazaars of Morocco … Japan … or in the warmth of friends’ kitchens … where pickles garner the respect I was taught as a child.”

As a hazy window into Martha’s soul, the magazine makes for weirdly fascinating reading. Martha’s monthly calendar, listing her regular Today-show appearances and such chores as “clean the canoe,” “plant nasturtiums,” and “begin excavation for new road,” is probably the most-read page in it, but it is also found comedy, Martha at her most self-parodic.

Then there’s the chicken issue. Most people find Martha’s Perdue-like absorption in chickens eccentric, to say the least. The legendary October 1994 issue of the magazine pictured Martha on the cover, standing outside her Westport henhouse (she calls it the “Palais du poulet”) in jeans, her socks falling into her shoes, holding one of her prized birds. “It occurred to us at Martha Stewart Living that we had never really focused on the pleasures of raising backyard livestock,” she writes in an opening letter that may set the standard for homekeeping monomania. “I developed my penchant for animal husbandry,” she continues, “after I married and had a home of my own.” That must be meant without irony, since she married at 19 and discovered a great many things after that.

Martha’s followers know that she collects fresh eggs from the Palais every morning, and viewers of the morning show also know that she pastes eggshells in her Filofax so that she can match the 22 colors—ranging from yellow to blue to alabaster to ecru—with furniture and fabric that she comes upon when she travels. (One recent product line designed by Martha is a group of exquisite paints in an array of colors based on her eggshells that sell for upwards of $110 a gallon.) Martha describes herself as “openly enthusiastic about her chickens.” She keeps more than 100 birds—every variety from the Bearded Golden Polish Bantam to the Silver Sebright—and a “smattering of roosters.” Victor Schrager photographs of these chickens that ran in the October issue—taken in the traditional stance of old poultry books (against a slitted backdrop that allows only the bird and the human hands holding it to show)—were recently exhibited at the Pace/MacGill Gallery.

Martha is naturally defensive about a tale that Spy magazine floated years ago. (As with many people who seem too relentless in their pursuit of power, Stewart is the focus of scores of jealous stories, many of them no doubt apocryphal.) Like the hell-hath-no-fury tale of Hillary Clinton supposedly throwing a lamp at Bill in the back rooms of the White House, the Spy item gave us the enduring exurban legend—and image—of Stewart running over a bag of baby chicks in her driveway with her Mercedes. “That’s ridiculous and totally untrue,” Martha tells me. “Most people would love to come back as my chicken.”

“It occurred to us at ‘Martha Stewart Living’ that we had never really focused on the pleasures of raising backyard livestock,” Stewart wrote in a recent letter to her readers.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable talk-show host:

DAVE [standing before two hot plates, waving a ladle around like a golf club]: Our next guest is the hardest—yeow! [burns himself on the bottom of the ladle] Ow, man is that hot… . Yikes, she had it here on this little burner unbeknownst to me. That’s like a third-degree burn. That’s going to blister up like hell in a matter of minutes, folks. Our next guest is the hardest-working woman in the world. She has magazines, TV shows, videos, and her own Kmart deal. This is her new book, it’s called Menus for Entertaining. Please welcome back the James Brown of home entertaining [band plays James Brown tune], Martha Stewart. [Applause] How’ve you been? Happy New Year. Tell us about the pig; you have a cute little pig there.

MARTHA [indicating piglet in cage]: Well, it’s the year of the pig, Dave.

DAVE: Yes, it is.

DAVE: Making your own dumplings, huh?

MARTHA: In Chinese lore, the new year, you want to eat as many different dishes as possible, everything means something—

DAVE: How’s that Kmart deal going?

MARTHA: Fabulous. It’s fabulous.

DAVE: Have you ever actually been in a Kmart?

MARTHA: I go to Kmart all the time… .

DAVE: What the hell? It smells like hair is burning. What is that?

MARTHA: No, you’re burning eggs.

DAVE: Somebody was telling me earlier today, and I find this hard to believe, that you’ve been alive and enjoying and experiencing American culture all your life and you’ve never eaten anything from McDonald’s… . Why is that?

MARTHA: I don’t know why. It just doesn’t interest me.

DAVE [looking at yellow gunk in a ladle]: And this does?

MARTHA: These are symbols of wealth, Dave. That’s what going on here.

DAVE: Martha, let’s finish this up. Some people have to park their cars by the hour, and it’s very expensive, and they need to get home. Are we ready to go?

MARTHA [keeps reaching for, but gives up on, recalcitrant pig]: You can do whatever you want, Dave.

DAVE: Oh, I guess I’m . . .

MARTHA [cryptically]: Press that, press that.

DAVE [pushes a button and a small display of white fireworks sputters upward to huge applause]: Wow. Martha Stewart. Wow. Martha Stewart. Thank you, Martha, excellent job.

Like Letterman, Stewart can be quite competitive with guests on her own show. She kept upping the ante while making “mahogany” chicken with her friend Salli LaGrone, and there was a tense moment at the end when both pullets were subjected to a taste test. She had a rugelach bake-off with the show’s writer. Hers predictably left his in the dust. He looked at her glowing results and capitulated to his boss: “Yours look … more like gifts. Mine look … like you’d have to have a family to forgive them.”

Seeing the headmistress in action with her own mom is also quite instructive. Perhaps one of her most enjoyable shows ever was when she brought on Big Martha. Big Martha, as she is known in the family, is at least half a foot shorter than her five-foot-nine daughter. (Mom, apparently a hyperpatriot of sorts, named Martha’s brother George.) Martha credits her mom, and the bakers next door to her childhood house in Nutley (who were named Maus, but not in the Spiegelman sense), with teaching her how to bake. And when Big Martha (who’s now 80) started pounding and rolling the stollen on TV, it was heart-stopping. Truly, despite her tiny size and advanced age, Big Martha has the power of ten men. Smiling over at the sumo goings-on, Little Martha said, “You see where I get my strength from.” Later, when the baking was done, Martha turned to her mom and said, “I’ll give you a big, fat slice of your own stollen.”

Martha talks a lot about her own daughter, Alexis, who has a Gen-X version of her looks and sensibility, owns a modish motel in Bridgehampton, and also does some interior design. She’s tall, gorgeous, and hell-on-clogs. (As a little kid, she apparently asked her parents, “Who decided that polyester was ugly?”) The work she did in the apartment of Susan Magrino (Martha’s longtime publicist), featuring machine-made blond forties furniture, spurred a boom for Heywood-Wakefield dealers after it was featured in the magazine. “Our differences make life interesting,” the publicity-squeamish daughter, who was once stalked, told the New York Observer. “It sounds like she’s my husband.”

The attempts to explain Martha proliferate, but one thing is clear: She taps into a very obvious longing for lost ritual and tradition in this country. One can make fun of the increasingly competitive mood at flea markets, Williams-Sonoma outlets, and Smith & Hawken garden-accessories stores. But the people who have turned these pursuits into contact sports are seeking to replace a sense of lost familial order. Martha is the ritual healer. Her poultices are crisp linens, delicious tarts, and a beautiful mosaic of turkey and infused oils. She seems to be saying, Forget the wretched refuse of your screwed-up or nonexistent families (and never mind about the world’s problems); concentrate instead on your own higher aesthetic, your own commodified style. Why let old Aunt Gladys bother you. She doesn’t even know what a Roman shade is. Just as Calvin Klein revolutionized images of sex in America in the eighties by introducing the newly buffed homoerotic object of beauty, the male nude, Martha has blown the nuclear family off its old, poky moorings and replaced it with a hyper-idealized version of itself, a chilly but impeccable autocracy of style.

Meanwhile, Martha keeps hinting that she’s moving on. She’s now into minimalism, having bought a modernist gem of a house in East Hampton designed by the architect Gordon Bunshaft. For the Martha people, such strict Miesian spareness would seem to be antithetical to everything she’s taught. “My daughter, Alexis, is very different [from me],” she wrote by way of indirect explanation in the current issue of Living. “She loves the art of the deal. She can collect, but she can also sell. She doesn’t get attached to things, as I do. That is probably why I have too many houses and too much stuff… .”

Maybe the Bunshaft travertine-and-glass box is the most poignant gesture a mother could make—a $3 million way of bonding with her daughter. It will no doubt set Martha apart from her followers. But in the end, as any Martha person knows, an empty house is just another stage set for improvement, another machine for Martha Stewart living.

Our Martha, Ourselves