I Love Martha

Photo: AP/Wide World Photo

Martha Stewart the person cannot be saved, but can Martha Stewart the idea?

I’ll miss the person. She was nasty and brutish to many people, but never to me. I only ever got the sudden look, the laugh, the glow, the tough-tender aside. She really was quite a dame.

But I’ll really miss the business concept – if it gets sent away, too.

I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard somebody say “Think of this as the Martha Stewart of … ” or “The idea is to create the Martha Stewart for … ” or that he or she could be “the next Martha Stewart.” (Or even the sub-variation – I once knew an investment banker who was always touting his wife as a Jewish Martha.) Countless people have undoubtedly thought to themselves, I could be the Martha Stewart of … (I could be the Martha Stewart of media criticism.)

This came to be called, in a catchphrase of the boom (and then in a derogatory sense after the boom), being your own brand. But the Martha concept went well beyond that. The idea was embodiment. Representation. Mimesis. Perfection. I am my own worth. I am my own value. I am my own definition. I am the perfect articulation. I have become who I am.

It was about the narrative as business. Martha was marketing the back story. If you were a non-businessperson, a non-counter-of-beans, then Martha represented true commercial hope: You could start a business, a fabulously successful business, that was not about business. Your interior life could become a commercial life. It was the dream of authors everywhere. Except you could be a writer without having to write. You could be your own fiction.

Martha really is an entrepreneur – unlike those business-school wannabes. She is an independent. No organization, except her own, would have tolerated her.

She was tougher than anybody else. Going back twenty years, she started to do little deals, then put bigger deals on top of the little deals – deals everywhere (it was life as a licensing scheme). As a rule, somebody like Martha almost always gets screwed in these sorts of deals – the kid with heart and imagination gets squeezed by deal-makers and lawyers. But Martha paid attention.

She out-detailed everybody in a detail game. She never let go (you know when she got the call that Sam Waksal was selling, she just wasn’t going to let herself be screwed like that – her crime, if any, was a fuck-him reflex). She gave everybody the shiv before they gave it to her. She did a deal with Time Inc. to start up Martha Stewart Living, then got her magazine back from Time because she was too tough, too hard-nosed, too tactical, for even the tough guys at Time (Rosie was tough, too – but tough like a suicide bomber).

In negotiations and in carriage, we are talking about a most remarkable control. Absolute discipline. On message. Within theme. Never missing a beat.

And then there’s the business itself. It’s the first postmodern media empire. The Martha business is the ultimate guerrilla-marketing strategy: using the media to promote your media. It was the mirror trick, the infinite-reflection principle. Everything you did promoted everything else you did. In an age in which media could no longer stand on its own, you had to come up with an approach that allowed you to get paid for promoting yourself (the dot-commers were always trying to be Martha, but they didn’t understand that Martha always got paid to be Martha). This endless advertisement loop is the Martha monument.

And now it is being brought down.

For the prosecutors, she is a special kind of trophy. The Feds are piggybacking on her brand. Martha’s sin (she did, after all, grab the money) is not their foremost preoccupation – rather the publicity for prosecuting Martha’s sin is what they go to bed at night and wake up in the morning thinking about. Who doubts this?

And then there’s the Establishment’s disdain. Entrepreneurs, while paid great lip service and occasionally mythologized, are seldom anybody’s favorite people. They’re always in the process of sucking up to somebody while alienating somebody else (sucking up while alienating down). What’s more, they’re taking power from somebody else. It’s a zero-sum media world: If you’re the flavor of the month, somebody else isn’t. And so, after twenty years of Martha’s striving, you had a very large group of people in the media business who hated Martha’s guts (talk to the people at Time Inc.).

As for the rest of America, we enjoy a ritual burning.

But let’s look at this through Martha’s eyes. She sees this not, I suspect, as a horrifying, Joseph K.–type reversal of fortune but as part and parcel of the never-ending effort of the bastards to get an advantage over you. This is, of course, denial, a refusal to accept your own innate crookedness, and it’s no doubt what the Dennis Kozlowskis of this world think, too. But let’s also give truth its due – it’s business; people are out to get you.

So what do you do to stay in business?

If the overwhelming amount of your equity is built into the goodwill that attaches to the name Martha Stewart, then, by definition, by the time your trials (pre- and post-indictment or –plea bargain) are finished, the idea of Martha Stewart, exquisitely besmirched, will be valueless.

Prosecutors – and other media – are taking Martha’s equity in the form of anti-Martha equity. It’s black-hole stuff.

Martha in prison: That’s the picture – not just a stark one but a broadly comic one (the laughing-at-you-not-with-you thing is very bad in the image business).

This isn’t like, say, Steve Madden, the shoe guy, whose name is on the door and the insoles, who has recently gone off to jail for various financial shenanigans. We don’t know Steve. He’s a pure brand – he’s only incidentally a person. (Many designers, after all, continue to design clothes long after they’re dead – so why not from a jail cell?)

Martha is more in a Pete Rose bind – she’s dirtied something pure. Of course, there’s a lot of willing suspension of disbelief here – we don’t really believe that Martha or Pete or baseball is pure.

She may be more George Steinbrenner–like. In Steinbrenner, who pleaded to a felony charge in the seventies, you already had a quintessentially moneygrubbing, I-take-what-I-want sumbitch. Steinbrenner the felon is not that different from Steinbrenner the nonfelon. He could, therefore, after an appropriate time out, recommence his management of the Yankees.

Martha is, we know, also a moneygrubbing, I-take-what-I-want sumbitch. Susan Magrino, Martha’s longtime PR consigliere, should get her head around this. A strategy here might be to jettison the old Martha image and suggest that a felony charge and conviction are a natural part of the Martha story. That being your own brand requires a nastiness and greediness and megalomania that make prosecution always a possible outcome.

The theme is – or should be – My Way. Sinatra is of no small relevance here.

Most of the Sinatra career was under a cloud. At several points, it seemed sure he was headed for indictment. If Johnny Roselli hadn’t ended up stuffed in an oil can, who knows what would have happened to Frank.

In part, Frank was tougher than the prosecutors (Martha’s tough, but not in a let’s-step-outside sort of way). But nobody can really be tougher than the Feds.

You can be more talented, though. Frank sang his way out of trouble.

Can Martha pot or darn or sauté – I’m not sure I can quite get the parallel here – her troubles away?

The point is about talent. The Feds are trying to make Martha out to be Kozlowski – just your average business crook, ever fungible. Who will miss Kozlowski? Will the world be lesser without him? But Martha is, I believe, unique. She has vast, if eccentric, talent. For presentation, for look and feel, for brandedness, for media itself (I’d argue that it is so hard to make a successful magazine of any sort that if you do, you deserve a type of immunity). What we lose, if we lose Martha, is an extraordinary example of how to profitably express yourself. Martha is, I have to say, inspirational.

Hef could be instructive here.

Hef got into trouble in the eighties. It was gaming-commission stuff. His empire teetered. He lost the Playboy Clubs – the empire’s jewel.

Hef was as identified with Playboy as Martha is with Martha.

In many ways, Hef and the Playboy concept are the real precursors to Martha – not only live the lifestyle, but Omnimedia-ize the lifestyle. Playboy, too, like Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, in a moment of hubris, became a public company. This was an error – the greed factor, which is why, of course, Martha is in her present mess. Having a public company means that the world is going to be judging the monetary value of your identity instead of the quality of your talent.

What was necessary for Hef and Playboy – and what may now be necessary for Martha and her enterprises – is a period of debranding. (This may be a larger trend in an overbranded world – AOL Time Warner is considering getting rid of the AOL.)

Playboy became a kind of generic concept of airbrushed girls rather than a heroic concept of a new lifestyle. Likewise, Martha will have to turn into a well-executed upper-middle-class design-accessory company rather than the incredible story of Martha herself.

Come to think of it, Martha, like Hef, should probably put her daughter in charge of the company. If she’s going to be indicted, the deal she should really try for while she still has bargaining room is house arrest (not unlike Hef in the Los Angeles mansion) – she could make a deal for six months and then go into a well-decorated, albeit lonely, exile.

But she’ll still be Martha – who paid the price for iconhood.

It won’t turn out the way she’d hoped it would (although, in her wildest dreams, could she have imagined she’d ever come this far with the whole Martha deal?), but in a down market, the job is just to come out ahead – even by a little.

I Love Martha