Martha Stewart has always been able to convince us of unlikely things. She told us that “good things” were to be found in places like the pantry and the mud room, at the conjunction of materialism, perfectionism, and housework … and we believed her. She told us that the proper (British) way to pronounce the word herb was with an articulated h—as if it were a shortened version of Herbert instead of something you find on your spice rack—and we thought, If you say so. But this year was Stewart’s ultimate test, as a marketer as much as a defendant. She excelled at the former even if she failed at the latter, and in the end, it’s the former that will prove much more important.
In United States of America v. Martha Stewart and Peter Bacanovic, we were shown a version of Martha Stewart that we always knew existed but that she had helped us to ignore. Gone was the virtuous toiler we love so well—up at 5 A.M. to walk her treadmill in a Sisyphean, two-hour loop before shooting a segment for the Today show, writing the “Letter From Martha” for the magazine, preparing a salad of yellow tomatoes, taking a meeting with the CFO of OmniMedia, and then feeding her beloved chow chows and chickens. Instead, we were confronted with a conniving, insatiable Martha, the kind of woman who blithely selects a different $6,000 handbag to carry depending on the day of the week, who engages in prolonged and pointless psychological warfare against her staff and skips off to P. Diddy’s birthday party at Cipriani. The kind of woman who lies back on the veranda of her $1,500-a-night suite by the sea and cackles into the night about cheating the system that has rendered her rich and famous and worshipped. Suddenly, she wasn’t about fixing a quick, toothsome pasta; she was about conducting financial malfeasance via cell phone from the jetway while her private plane refueled to whisk her to the vacation home of a Greek princess. Suddenly, she was a gorgon.
By agreeing to jail time—while maintaining her innocence—Martha cut off her own head. Gone is the evil schemer … she is once again the no-nonsense Yankee who will prune an aging spruce with a hacksaw or sit behind bars for five months if that is the most efficient way to be done with this “ridiculousness.” She has convinced us that she is righteous and good, guilty only of being a powerful woman—Martha the Martyr. The Associated Press reports that she lunches in prison with a nun. On her personal Website, marthatalks.com, she recently posted, “As you would expect, the loss of freedom and the lack of privacy are extremely difficult … Visits from my friends, family and colleagues—together with your goodwill and best wishes—will get me through this chapter in my life.” She is redeemed, and we have back our saint. Whether or not it’s a good thing, it’s one we seem to want.