Last month, on the clean, white ninth floor of Chelsea’s Starrett-Lehigh Building, a small stage and podium were set up to launch Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia’s new PBS television show, Everyday Food, in precisely the same place where Martha Stewart announced to the world that she would serve her jail term before an appeal. Even the backdrop was the same—a rainbow of colorful paint samples from Stewart’s Sherwin-Williams collection, featuring paints inspired by the shades of eggs laid by Araucana hens in her “Palais de Poulet.” There was a large poster of Martha, too, pouring batter into a bowl as she hovered above, her expression much like the one on the cover of Entertaining, a coffee-table cookbook first released over a quarter-century ago: folding a napkin at an elaborately set dinner table, her lips pursed in a benign, energetic Fairfield County homemaker’s smile.
The person who wasn’t here was Stewart herself, obviously, but there was someone else almost as good. After three quick blurts of an errant fire alarm—one speaker joked, “It’s never dull here at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia”—Susan Lyne, the company’s CEO since mid-November, strutted to the microphone. Lyne doesn’t wear skirts or dresses, and today she was outfitted in Capri-length pants. Tall, blonde, and elegant, she was prettier than Martha and younger by a decade, but they looked uncannily similar. In fact, in the early nineties, when Lyne was editor of Premiere and Martha had begun to crest as a household name, Lyne walked the red carpet at a movie premiere to paparazzi calls of “Martha! Martha! Over here!”
Lyne brushed a lock of hair off her face and spoke into the microphone in a measured, soothing manner. “I’m still new enough at this company that I actually discovered Everyday Food when I picked it up at a checkout counter,” she said. (Everyday Food magazine, a pocket-size monthly, celebrated its first anniversary in September.) “I took it home with me, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. I’ve raved about it to all my friends, I’ve given subscriptions to my sisters, and even my 19-year-old daughter is now a convert.”
Food processors and blenders buzzed as chefs made olive dip, tofu-raspberry smoothies, and green-apple slices with peanut butter and crunchy granola. These didn’t seem like dishes Martha would approve. In fact, Martha had explained the creation of Everyday Food this way, saying of her potential readers: “They have been neglected by society.”
Lyne put a warmer, fuzzier human face on this arid formulation. “No one loves entertaining and cooking big, special meals more than Martha Stewart,” she said. “But she also recognized the need for everyday cooks to have simple recipes, things that were easy to make and that were balanced.”
Martha Stewart is, patently, a kind of genius. But talent often comes in inconvenient, unbalanced packages. The damage to her image by her obstruction-of-justice trial last year wasn’t only that she was convicted. She was revealed as an ego monster, a martinet—someone who might run into anger-management difficulties running a deli, let alone a billion-dollar public company. The question has been how to manage her deeply conflicted image—the perfectionist home commando with the out-of-control emotional life, the saccharine “homekeeping” authority and the greedy social climber. How do you create a happy ending for the Martha Stewart story—and, not incidentally, for the company she built?
Susan Lyne is part of the answer. She’s Stewart’s blonde doppelgänger, a front woman for a front woman, Martha’s stunt double. Lyne, the president of ABC Entertainment until April 2004, joined the board of MSLO in June, recruited by a headhunter a day after she was fired from ABC. (Lyne, too, is a martyr—she green-lit Desperate Housewives and Lost, thus saving the network in the rating wars posthumously.) She’s the Good Martha—calm, focused, grounded. Her nickname at Premiere was “The Goddess,” because she was motherly but also sexy. She is also the anti-Martha—empathetic. Whereas Martha is the image of a nurturer, Lyne, by all accounts, is an actual nurturer. Interestingly enough, though, she was the primary advocate for making MSLO’s new message all about Martha.
At the Everyday Food TV launch, one speaker said, “Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia means we have all been to the same finishing school, we all have that discipline.” Lyne didn’t need to go to finishing school. Martha may be a sui generis Manhattan outsider, but Lyne is a member of Manhattan’s media tribe—a close friend of literary power couple Amanda “Binky” Urban and Ken Auletta. “Susan is a rarity among high-powered women because she doesn’t need to switch gears between office and home,” says Urban. “She treats business associates with the same generosity of spirit as she does her family, and is as respectful of her family as she is of her associates. She has good manners and probably good penmanship, too—both antiquated and underrated characteristics.”
The pulpit belongs to Lyne until Martha’s release on March 6, after which Martha will spend five months under house arrest at her 153-acre Bedford estate. (Peter Baconovic, who is serving the same sentence, left in January for jail in Nevada.) She will wear a monitoring anklet, but she can work 48 hours a week off the compound, and plans are already being hatched to film gardening segments for her new weekday morning show on the property—planting season takes place in the spring, after all. Then there’s her appeal—Martha isn’t fully convinced that she can’t win that, and certainly if she did it would help with the possible Securities and Exchange Commission civil suit that seeks to bar her from taking a director’s or officer’s position in her own company.
Then there’ll be two blondes sharing the spotlight, each with her role to play. So the narrative of Martha Stewart moves forward. One thing that makes Lyne perfect for her job is that she knows a good story when she sees one. And whether it has been about the origins of alpaca, the quotidian life of a midwestern beekeeper, or a $60 stop-loss order, Martha Stewart’s company has always been about storytelling.
Martha has had ﬁve months to mull over what she’s done and how to make it better,” says Lyne. “One of the things when you go visit her now is to see how comfortable she is, in an odd way.”
In the three years since Stewart’s ImClone sale was first questioned, the story has been bleak. Martha Stewart Living magazine, the company’s core business, is down 70 percent of its advertising revenue and 500,000 of its 2.3 million rate base as of 2004. Martha is still majority shareholder at the company, currently holding 59 percent of all shares, but until recently she had seen her holdings dwindle to under $250 million from a high of $1.2 billion on the day of the IPO. Kmart, with whom she has a $49 million annual licensing deal, emerged from bankruptcy and then merged with Sears in a deal that sounded like good news but analysts say has little chance of increasing Martha’s take. Meanwhile, while Stewart was occupied with the details of her trial, the bourgeois-paradise category that she pioneered has burgeoned, with do-it-yourself or just-think-about-it titles like Real Simple emerging as real competition, and more (Veranda, a home-design magazine from Hearst, Condé Nast’s upcoming Domino) on the way.
As the stock price plummeted and Stewart lost focus, the responsibility for moving the company forward fell on Sharon Patrick, president and COO. Patrick is another blonde who might also be mistaken for Stewart from across the room. A look-alike bosom buddy may somehow appeal to a deep streak of narcissism. (Oddly, there is also a distinct resemblance between Martha and Susan Magrino, Stewart’s upbeat longtime publicist. Magrino was married in the Bahamas the weekend before Stewart left for jail; Stewart was photographed walking sullenly on the beach in a black one-piece, alone.)
Patrick is the daughter of a United Airlines sales manager, raised in Southern California and once a Sea Maid at San Diego’s Sea World. Nevertheless, she’s not a mellow presence—brash, argumentative, tenser than Martha at times. She liked the stuff that Martha liked—her pets, home decorating, and got so excited about the Queen Mary 2’s coming to town that she had a welcome sign hung up outside the Starrett-Lehigh building. But there was no good cop and bad cop with Sharon and Martha—they could both be equally interested in informing others about the fly in the ointment. Patrick’s voice was louder—Martha, despite Cybill Shepherd’s characterization, gets quieter as she gets angrier.
Producer Mark Burnett introduces the new Martha Stewart TV show as Susan Lyne looks on. (Photo credit: AP)
Patrick and Martha built the company together—the two of them in Martha’s kitchen in Turkey Hill, and later in the same office at the Omnimedia empire. The division of labor was Patrick as the businesswoman, Martha the creative force and front woman. It was Patrick who told Stewart, on a hike with Sandy Pittman to Mount Kilimanjaro, that she should buy the magazine from Time Warner and build her own empire. They IPO’d in October 1999. “Standing on the stock-exchange podium together was standing on our dreams,” says Patrick. “It was the rarest of moments—pure validation. We were told that it was the first time in NYSE history that the women who started the company actually were the ones to bring the company forward. We elevated domestic arts to a well-deserved seat at the table. To celebrate, Martha served brioche to the entire exchange.”
But as the company drifted, Patrick was forced to preside over a debate about whether to take Martha away from the product. The operating principle was that Martha’s image as Mother of those domestic arts might be too intertwined with the company for it to survive with her. “People just think it’s Martha doing all this stuff,” says an editor. “We would get letters saying ‘Thank you so much for your towels and I love how you wrapped them.’ ” Martha did approve almost everything that had her name on it—all products, the magazines. She’d put her own special stamp. “One buyer presented her with a straw decorative deer, to sell as a decoration for the holidays,” says a former catalogue manager. “She looked at the deer and said, ‘Who the hell would want deer? They’re eating all my vegetables in the Hamptons! Everybody hates deer now!’ So the deer became polar bears.”
The vision of Martha’s role after her indictment was akin to that of Ralph Lauren to Polo—not absent, exactly, but not fully present, either. She’d no longer be the matriarch; more like the godmother.
Patrick was the driving force behind Everyday Food, which she took pride in launching in this difficult media environment; the purchase of Body & Soul, a magazine about yoga and herbs; and the shift in titles of Martha’s two weekly newspaper columns, distributed by the New York Times Syndicate—“Ask Martha” became “Living,” and “AskMartha Weddings” is now “Weddings.” Martha’s monthly calendar at the magazine and her “Remembering” column were excised—no longer were we regaled with memories like “Before and after lunch … we children, and there were lots of us, rocked in two canvas hammocks hung in the shade, and quietly talked about school and dreams and the future.” The words MARTHA STEWART were shrunk on the magazine, and a new ad campaign was launched: “Take a New Look at Living.”
It was Patrick’s shrewdest maneuver that was possibly the last straw. She argued forcefully for Stewart’s serving her term early, and as Stewart’s longest-running confidante, she was the one Stewart ultimately trusted. The comparison was DeDe Brooks, the Sotheby’s price-fixer who avoided jail and for that remained disgraced. But telling someone to go to jail is kind of like telling a friend you think she shouldn’t marry the guy she wants to marry. Martha was already in jail on the day in mid-November when it took hours for Patrick to negotiate her exit from the company, but in the end, Lyne was anointed.
The tulips in front of Susan Lyne are so fresh you can smell them across the room. Last Thursday morning, on the 24th floor of MSLO’s offices across from the New York Public Library, she wore an outfit that was perfectly matched—the gold in her hoop earrings picks up the buckle in her belt, the glasses perched atop her head the same black as her slim slacks. Lyne is comfortable in her skin, long legs crossed carelessly under a table, unmanicured hands gesturing here and there, but she talks with a highfalutin accent and at a snail’s pace as she considers Martha’s for-toon.
“Martha wants absolutely nothing more than to get back to work,” says Lyne. “Coming home is a huge release, and I think she will come out with a thousand ideas, more than she will be able to accomplish immediately. She has had five months to mull over what she’s done and how to make it better and where there are opportunities.” Earlier she said, “One of the things to go visit her now is to see how comfortable she is, in an odd way.”
It’s a roots thing, after all, a perfect Act Three, where the poor girl from Nutley, the one who ate mustard sandwiches for lunch and washed her hair in the kitchen sink, triumphs once again over adversity. Martha is back in touch with who she once was, with new insight into her shortcomings. She’s no longer so afraid of intimacy that her closest relations are with greasy social climbers or her stockbroker, her chickens, her chows. She loves people again—convicts. “She’s got a lot of friends, such a wide range of women, some of whom are not unlike women that she grew up next to,” says Lyne.
Lyne would not be one of these women. She grew up in the Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill as the oldest of four sisters and a brother, with what she’s called “the only Irish-Catholic Republican parents in Boston.” They were like the Minots; people called them the “Fabulous Lyne Sisters.” She went on to drop out of UC Berkeley and became a sixties hipster. “I dropped out many times,” she says. “I wanted to be in the world.” She became an assistant at Francis Ford Coppola’s City magazine, before landing a job at New Times on the strength of a jailhouse interview with the Symbionese Liberation Army’s Bill and Emily Harris.
In New York she became managing editor of the Village Voice from 1978 to 1982, when Rupert Murdoch owned it, and he made her editor when he founded Premiere in the U.S. Like other editors-in-chief, Lyne spent a lot of time making sure that they could do stories they wanted to do without being shut down by publicity firms like PMK, and became a masterful politician. She liked being around power people—and gossip. “We would have story meetings with the reporters in L.A. on the speakerphone, and when they were over she’d say, ‘Okay! Now let’s dish!’ ” says a former employee.
Burnett persuaded Stewart to do the reality show by sending her a tape of outtakes from her show and appearances on late-night shows. She was great when she was loose and spontaneous, he argued.
There’s something about Lyne that has always made her a good manager. “There are a lot of things I wouldn’t do for myself,” says a former staffer. “Susan was better to me than I was to myself.”
It’s this quality that the MSLO board picked up on when she began to serve in June. The board had been reconstructed after the departure of chair Jeffrey Ubben, the director of Value Act Capital and the second-largest shareholder after Stewart, and an effort had been made to diversify with people from all sorts of businesses. The former North American chief of EMI, Charles Koppelman, now a kind of freelance business mercenary with a taste for troubled entities—he’s spent the past few years as chairman of the board of Steve Madden, and has been representing Michael Jackson as he sells his share of the Beatles catalogue to Sony—emerged as the most active member. He’s now Lyne’s right-hand man.
Those close to the company say the board was taken with the notion of Lyne as CEO, believing that she “got” Martha. Martha, in fact, was the blueprint for the most delicious character on Desperate Housewives—the recently separated, emotionally disengaged Bree Van De Kamp, who makes basil purée and insists on fixing a dangling button on her therapist’s coat. In an early episode, she brings baskets of muffins baked from scratch to a grieving family. “It was no trouble at all,” Bree tells a son. “Now, the basket with the red ribbon is filled with desserts for your guests. But the one with the blue ribbon is just for you and Zachary … Of course, I will need the baskets back once you’re done.”
Lyne’s optimism was also a welcome tonic—she had faith in Martha. “My feeling from the time I walked onto the board was that the company would live or die by virtue of its key brand,” she says.
The story of Martha in jail is the kind of nineteenth-century fall-and-redemption tale that might fit well on one of the shelves at Turkey Hill. Everyone—Lyne, Magrino—has worked hard on it, and they’ve gotten it right. Not that they’ve made it up necessarily, but they’ve known how to put together the hagiography, what to disseminate and when to keep mum. At first it seemed that Martha was not getting along well in the Big House—she had a roommate, Peanut, who didn’t care for her, but Peanut was swapped with drug-dealing 50-monther Kimberly Renee Bennett, and Martha finally relaxed in her narrow bottom bunk. She spent her time before the holidays in denial of her surroundings, writing out her usual Christmas cards to networking acquaintances. And she got into a spat with another prisoner who had bought her some sugar and butter from the commissary—when presented with a bill, Martha refused to pay for all of it, arguing that the other girl was trying to make her pay for things she had taken from the cafeteria for free.
Through the painstaking observational skills used to wrap a perfect present, though, Martha learned the rules of her new environment, and it was then that her lemons-into-lemonade instincts came out. She gathers stray dandelions and wild onions from the concrete cracks of the prison grounds, like a witch. She hides condiments in her brassiere, to be used later in her microwaved concoctions, a Vietnamese vegetable dish, or a flan. She learned to crochet and is making a scarf. She cleans the prison administrator’s office, and showed the other girls how to do it right—the best way to clean a floor waxer is with turpentine, she explained. She once saw a new girl crying and invited her along to yoga class. She sorts Scrabble pieces to make sure each set has the right number of letters, and has made a prison cat her little pet. She could be less than perfect: She lost a holiday decorating contest, her paper cranes deemed inferior to a Nativity scene. She’s even put aside that pesky insomnia that made her sleep four hours a night and prune trees for the rest.
It was all so sincere, everyone started to believe it. She even wrote this epistle to a reporter days before the Supreme Court overturned mandatory minimum guidelines: “It is astonishing how high hopes are in West Virginia, and I fear that a negative result will cause a severe depression… . As you can imagine, when one gets to talk to these women, most first offenders, and many perfectly nice ‘neighbors next door,’ it is mind boggling to understand that they have four, six and fifteen years to serve away from family, friends, jobs and home. It is indeed pitiable.”
There is pity and goodwill, too, out there for Martha, chef’s-hat-wearing fans and all that. She was screwed by the system, a woman made to take the fall for the Kozlowskis and Ken Lays. There’s optimism among her employees, former and current, who talk about a Martha who, while somewhat penurious, empowered them to live the craftsman’s life they loved. She fostered a lab environment at the company, where disciples were encouraged to bring out the essential beauty of a napkin ring, no matter the time and cost. She had her peccadilloes—no fruit with chocolate, for instance. She didn’t like things to go to waste. “If there were peaches left over after a TV show, she’d tell us to make jam and put it in the commissary,” says a former food editor. “We were foodies—we liked doing it. It was nice for us.”
“I got a letter from Martha on Tuesday,” says Margaret Roach, editor-in-chief of Martha Stewart’s publications. “I had been writing to her about how I was going through an ‘iPod thing’ this winter, and she relayed how she had just read the Bob Dylan autobiography and was craving an iPod and Dylan music. So as soon as she gets out, I’m going to pack up all our favorite groceries in a big shopping bag and take it over to her house, to cook her dinner and ingest all the Dylan songs onto her iPod.” (Memo to Martha: This is illegal.)
Even Doug Faneuil doesn’t think Martha should have gone to jail, that she was a casualty of a careerist U.S. attorney. The “Baby” was supported through the trial by a group of good friends, like Jeff Klein, owner of midtown’s City Club Hotel, who provided him with a room to escape the cameras posted at his Sunset Park apartment—the day that Faneuil appeared on the cover of the New York Post flexing a bicep, the papers in his hallway were turned facedown. These days, say friends, he’s managing a private art collection and trying to raise money for a nonprofit movie about suicide prevention and mental illness, a kind of testament to his sister. He’s also still paying off his $2,000 fine.
After her indictment, Martha’s story didn’t belong only to Martha. One person who was playing close attention was reality-show producer Mark Burnett. He first approached her, back in the spring of last year. But then he sent her a package: a tape of outtakes from her TV show and appearances on late-night shows like David Letterman. She was great when she was loose and spontaneous, he argued. She was funny on her April Fool’s Day shows, like when she crouched under the kitchen counter, poured fake blood on herself, and pretended that there had been an accident (imagine Al Gore doing the same thing, and you’ll have an idea of how funny it is). But it is true that Martha is a prankster, and takes great glee in practical jokes—Gael Towey, her creative director, told me a hysterical (really!) story about how Martha once bought a jadeite chandelier from under Gael’s husband’s nose at a West Village shop, then later sent it to Gael as a housewarming gift. Burnett and Stewart had the contracts drawn up.
The Mark Burnett reality show is liable to make Martha an even bigger cultural persona—and, more interestingly, to force her to be a real person for the first time, not a Wasp cartoon. Martha’s role will be to judge—this is how she’s most comfortable, after all. She’s going to proselytize above the fray, pronouncing upon ill-made leaf-print tablecloths and tasteless raspberry angel-food cakes, showing them all at the end how it’s done Martha’s Way. This story is not ready to be served: A source close to the company says that further information will be disseminated in a few weeks.
Martha’s editor’s letter will also be reinstated, not the unctuous “Remembering” column, but one advising readers on various arts-and-crafts projects, perhaps like how to make those paper cranes she made in Alderson. As far as Patrick goes, “apologies are not in order,” says Patrick. “We have been in touch. We have visited in Alderson. We are both immensely proud of what we did.”
Meanwhile, the stock price has tripled since Martha went to jail. It’s now higher than before she was indicted. Most of the analysts watching the stock have had a sell on it for months, arguing that it’s inflated on expectations alone.
The old guard has done just that. At the end of last year, Ubben sold 70 percent of his holdings, for $58 million. Patrick sold $25.5 million. Martha sold $8 million, too—perhaps implying that even Martha isn’t sure Martha can pull this off.
Martha has managed to fold even prison into her American tale. It’s made the story (and Martha herself) richer. A couple of weeks ago, on a frigid Friday morning, Lyne took some time on the company’s private-plane lease to see Martha at Camp Cupcake. Sometimes as she’s waiting to be admitted, someone will ask her, “Is Martha your sister?”
The holidays were over, so the visiting room was fairly empty and quiet. Martha and Susan played Scrabble. “You’re going to hate me,” teased Martha. “I have a seven-letter word.”
“Show me, show me,” said Lyne.
“It’s actually quite apropos,” said Martha, laying out her letters. The word was longing.
WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KATE PICKERT