The Friends of Martha Stewart

Photo: Patrick Arrasmith

One has the friends one has. And I wonder, as I write, if you happen to be one of mine? And if I consider you my friend, do you consider me a friend of yours? Or are we more … friendly acquaintances? Or associates? Or professional peers? Or someone with whom I once worked, or met at a cocktail party? When one has lived in the same city for most of one’s life, as I have in New York, one acquires hundreds of acquaintances and colleagues and buddies. Indeed, the fact that this metropolis contains the majority of one’s closest friends, a train or taxi ride away, is what keeps us from moving to the Hudson Valley or Umbria or Hanoi.

One has the friends one has, and one doesn’t tend to choose them carefully. I wouldn’t call myself a friend of Martha Stewart’s, but I know her. A few years ago, during a coffee break at a technology conference, we had a pleasant conversation about public radio and—this was the best—the excellence of the steamed-milk froth on our free Starbucks lattes. A few years before that, she had invited me to a large dinner party at Nobu where Sam Waksal was present. (At that dinner, I happened to exchange a friendly glance with Calvin Klein, whom I had met exactly once before, but who nevertheless acted in that moment as if we were good friends, mouthing the words “Are you okay?” from across the room, since a few weeks earlier I had been fired as the editor of this magazine.) One of my real friends is the creative director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, another is editor of the Martha Stewart magazines, and my niece works in their public-relations department. I know one of her original criminal lawyers slightly, and I’m friendly with the host of the party in Panama to which she was flying when she unwisely sold 3,928 shares of ImClone stock.

One has the friends one has—and generally that is, as they say, a good thing. A hard city made tolerable by the presence of so many pals is the sentimental New York of Sex and the City, the sweet, simple, amusing good cheer that infuses Friends. The United States v. Martha Stewart and Peter Bacanovic succeeded in proving that Martha and her broker conspired to lie to Federal investigators. But for us spectators the court case was only a device, a prism, a means to watch an unfolding story about New York friendships more complicated and uneasy than Carrie’s with Samantha or Joey’s with Chandler. The Martha story is all about the gradations and perquisites and obligations of friendship. It’s about the more or less symmetrical friendships between rich, successful people; the asymmetrical friendships between celebrities and the ordinary people they invite to enter the magic bubble; and the blurry alliances that exist along the spectrum between affection and professional need. It’s a story of what happens between boon companions when the good times end and the scrutiny of prosecution and bad publicity begin.

The Martha Stewart story, in other words, has the narrative arc, characters, color, and moral stakes of a novel. Wouldn’t a novelist choose to set the action in New York after 9/11, but before the end of that awful year, when everyone felt perpetually anxious and confused? Doesn’t ImClone sound like a high-tech company invented by a writer of fiction? And why do so many of the people in this story have names like those of make-believe characters? Sam Waksal’s surname seems pointedly reminiscent of Elmer Fudd’s epithet for Bugs Bunny—wascal. “Martha Stewart” could be a Jane Austen heroine, an alternate version of “Elizabeth Bennet” or “Catherine Morland.” And for all I know, “Mariana Pasternak” actually was the name of some dark, troubled snitch in a Fay Weldon novel.

In fact, the Martha story is like a particular kind of novel—an old-fashioned social satire packed with entertaining implausibilities, complicated romantic entanglements, inevitable comeuppances, and ironic twists, all shot through with tragic striations. It’s School of Disraeli or Dickens or—especially—Trollope, a nineteenth-century English novel in turn-of-the-21st-century American drag: Martha’s devoted assistant sobbed in the witness box at the memory of her boss sending her a nice plum pudding one Christmas, but a key moment in the tale consists of a cell-phone conversation Martha had near her private jet as it was being refueled en route to a party at the Third World vacation home of an Italian auto heir and his consort, a Greek princess. We have even consumed this Martha Stewart story the way readers in the nineteenth century consumed Dickens and Trollope, rationed out to us in periodical installments over the course of two years.

It is, to put too fine a point on it, Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, from 1875. Both plots turn on speculative stock-market frenzies that stoke greed and dissembling among well-to-do people who want to get a little richer, and who forge convenient relationships with useful people they don’t necessarily like. “I was instigated,” Trollope said of this novel, “by what I conceived to be the commercial profligacy of the age.” Augustus Melmotte (the rich, cynical, striving scoundrel with a fashionable city home where he entertains lavishly) is the analog to Sam Waksal. Instead of a biotechnology company seeking a cure for cancer, the go-go high-tech enterprise in the novel is a scheme to build a railroad through the deserts of the American West. In the novel, Lady Carbury, a well-known authoress, is a domineering mother to her feckless son Felix, whom she persuades to marry Melmotte’s daughter. In our 21st-century version, of course, Lady Carbury is not only an authoress strenuously concerned with appearances and money but also a brilliant, self-made tycoon. And in real life, the romantic plot complications are even more … novelistic. Martha’s daughter, Alexis, once dated Waksal, eighteen years her senior, but then married an attorney who is now (entertaining implausibility!) one of her mother’s criminal lawyers.

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But we mustn’t jump too far ahead. Back in the nineties, Waksal, her daughter’s former lover, became Martha’s close friend and frequent escort (escort: so nineteenth century). If not for that friendship, she never would have owned shares in Waksal’s company. And if not for the allegation that she was told, at the behest of her broker (and quasi-friend) Peter Bacanovic, that her friend Waksal had dumped some of his holdings in ImClone, she would not now be a convicted criminal. Her friendships got her in trouble.

And another friendship made the trouble worse. It is her former sidekick Mariana Pasternak who is the great betrayer in this tale. Pasternak testified in court that Martha said to her after the cell-phone call about Waksal’s hasty selling, “Isn’t it nice to have brokers who tell you those things?” Just as Pasternak’s name is like the droll fabrication of a novelist, so was the text and subtext of her testimony. She was weirdly, hilariously addled, Megan Mullally as Miss Havisham, Gracie Allen as Judas. On cross-examination she admitted that the damning isn’t-it-nice quote was actually just “a string of words that I recall.” “I do not know if Martha said that, or [if] it’s me who thought those words … I do not know whether that statement was made by Martha or was a thought in my mind.” The third time she was asked about the memory she flip-flopped back again, deciding she did recall that Martha had indeed uttered that particular string of words. Perhaps she was a person so desperate and bedazzled to have been in the presence of her famous friend that she lost track of the boundaries between her own teetering Fairfield County life and that of Martha, between the real and the imaginary. Pasternak’s inconsistency on the stand could also be construed as her kooky, farcical version of nervous, fussy, Martha-esque perfectionism—as when the CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia altered a telltale phone record on her assistant’s computer, then had the assistant change it back again.

But the profound moment in Pasternak’s testimony was when she recalled under oath that Martha had seemed rueful about selling her ImClone shares—not because the sale may have been unwise or illegal but because she worried that it was an abandonment of beleaguered Sam Waksal. “It was a question,” Pasternak said in the course of her disloyal testimony, “of loyalty to her friend.” Pasternak was a friend of Waksal’s as well.

“The Martha story is like an old-fashioned social satire. it’s school of Disraeli or Dickens or—especially—Trollope.”

Douglas Faneuil, Peter Bacanovic’s assistant at Merrill Lynch, is a familiar character in the nineteenth-century novel: young, conceited, spineless, resentful of his masters. When he was asked on the witness stand if he had considered Bacanovic a friend, Faneuil said no, not really, but “we did things socially.” Bona fide friends of Faneuil’s were brought on to testify he had told them that he felt obliged to lie about his call to Martha Stewart. And that pressure made Faneuil, one of the friends said, “very stressed out.”

In The Way We Live Now terms, Bacanovic is Hamilton Fisker, the slippery American stock promoter and partner of Melmotte’s who connives to befriend the rich and well-born of London. Was Bacanovic a real friend of Martha’s before their indictment as co-conspirators? It seems unlikely she thought so. Their relationship is a rather standard one, however, in fiction and on the Upper East Side—the unctuous, well-groomed, socially ambitious young courtier attending carefully to the needs of an important lady of a certain age. And since the jury has found that relationship criminal, what will become of their friendship (or “friendship”) now?

Appropriately for a trial concerning the vicissitudes of friendship, displays of affection for Martha were conspicuous in the courtroom—especially conspicuous because several of her intimates who came to give moral support (Bill Cosby, Rosie O’Donnell, Brian Dennehy) were fellow members of the fraternity of the famous. And here’s another irony: If Martha were not so well known, she almost certainly would have escaped prosecution.

More than almost any celebrity, Martha Stewart has always been notable for her legion of enemies, people who despise her meticulous rich-Yankee aesthetic and people apt to call almost any successful female executive a bitch. (The caricature of Martha is that very modern and paradoxical hybrid, the Stepford dominatrix.) But it turns out she also had friends. Not just the decorative swarms of friends we saw in photographs in her magazine—friends in a garden at sunset holding cocktails, friends around an antique table laughing over saffron salmon—but friends who took advantage and bragged and pushed and panicked and tattled, the way friends unfortunately sometimes do in real life. One wonders which of her friends will stand by her now.

The Friends of Martha Stewart