Tragic Heroine

Photo: Patrick Arrasmith

Men fear her, women resent her, and no one wants to dress like her: Martha Stewart is a femme fatale with no sex appeal. But during the trial, she became a woman of intrigue—not because of any inherent erotic allure but because she was a woman we couldn’t be sure of.

She was the main player of the drama, but she also seemed almost lost in it, never occupying center stage. Stewart herself didn’t testify, and we didn’t see much of her other than brief footage of her emerging from the Old Federal Courthouse, wrapped sullenly in a good, respectable, plum-brown cloth coat, as opposed to a damsel’s fur. Of course, you can tell a lot about a woman by her handbag, and Stewart’s revolving selection of $6,000 Hermès models said plenty.

What she did want us to know she posted on, a site set up just for the trial. There, with the kind of remote cordiality you usually see only on cream-colored stationery, she’d assert how hopeful she was that her trial would end favorably. An accompanying mug shot showed her looking 40 instead of her actual 62, dangling some decidedly nonthreatening noodles from a fork. Her crisp shirt-and-apron ensemble was an artful display of white-collar décolletage—much more tasteful than the curvy, molded sweaters of a Barbara Stanwyck or a Jane Greer.

So, we had not one, easily simplified Martha Stewart but a very confusing two: The drab dragon lady with the Hermès handbags must have lied! The smiling Polish-American homebody with those innocent noodles couldn’t have!

The prosecution’s witnesses spoke of her temper tantrums, her rage over Merrill Lynch’s hold music. And yet the villainous Martha Stewart that her detractors have always loved to see never quite emerged. When we saw her at all, there was something muted and awkward about her, as if she were a tall teenager who wanted nothing more than to fold herself up and hide away.

It was an odd position to find her in, given Martha Stewart Living and her TV show, and all the other ways in which she has put herself forward as a brand. But, then again, Stewart’s self-presentation has never really been about herself—even if she’s been everywhere in it—but about the things she can do. Particularly in light of her vast riches and her cluelessness about the way most people really live, she’s rarely given the proper credit for making us think about the value of craftsmanship in everyday life.

But what if there is something else at work beneath Stewart’s desire to show us how things should be done: Is it possible that this very sharp businesswoman feels most at home among flowerpots, dogs, bottles of glue, and canisters of flour? In other words, haven’t we learned from this trial just how much of a loner she is—a misfit even in her own bubble of perceived perfection?

As image-conscious as Stewart is, her awkwardness suggests that she prefers doing to being: Under this kind of intense courtroom scrutiny, she was an auteur being forced, against her will, to be a leading lady. A femme fatale isn’t always the villain; sometimes she’s mostly just misunderstood. And the loyalty of other women is never anything she can count on.

When Stewart’s best friend, Mariana Pasternak, gave muddled testimony about Martha’s relationship with her broker, it was damning enough. But even more wrenching was her recollection that when she and Stewart took a vacation together to Mexico, the two lounged around complaining about how neither of them had boyfriends.

In the crudest and coldest scheme of romance, a man with money and power is catnip to women, but a woman with money and power is often just lonely. And now, with the jury’s guilty verdict, the Martha Stewart we’ve seen only glimpses of these past few weeks is lost to us for good, leaving just a waft of perfume in her wake. The woman who rewrote the book on female power is no longer in control. And the verdict means that Stewart may be literally sealed off from others, left even more alone in her tidily arranged closet of a persona—in a prison cell.

In the strangest of ways—a room of her own—it’s an old story.

The Loyalist
By Christopher Mason
A friend defends a friend.      

The Confidantes
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They couldn’t help but hurt her.  

Tragic Heroine