Is Martha Stewart Living?


“I first started with books, and if you can sell 500,000 copies, you’re doing really well. A magazine has four or five times that number of readers. The television did the rest.” That’s Martha Stewart speaking to me about the growth of her eponymous empire way back in 1995, the halcyon days for publishing.

I was interviewing her for what would become a cover story that year in New York magazine titled, “I’m Martha and You’re Not.”’ It was one of the first to deconstruct Stewart, less as an obsessively perfectionist chef and home maker, and more as a living brand.

This was before anyone spoke about people as brands.

These artifacts resurfaced last night because of a new CNN four-part documentary series, “The Many Lives of Martha Stewart” which debuted on Jan. 28, and whose finale runs Feb. 4.



I appeared in it here and there as a talking head. It was great, nostalgic fun to wax on about Martha. The doc included a chorus of voices, but neither Martha nor her ex, Andy Stewart, agreed to be interviewed.

Even when I wrote the 1995 story, it was evident she was an extremely contradictory figure, both revered and reviled, a powerhouse workaholic insomniac divorcée getting a message out about the need for balance, the sacredness of family rituals and holidays.

This was the nub of dissonance beneath her cool façade. So it was especially bittersweet that while she was traveling the country promoting her very successful coffee table book, “Weddings,” she was going through an acrimonious divorce.

It was so bad that her ex, Andy, eventually got a restraining order against her. Then he married her young floral assistant.

Professional women at the time, when “having-it-all” was proving tough (it still is) could relate.

Everyone interviewed on camera pretty much agreed that with her good looks, unique talents, and most importantly, nonstop superhuman energy, drive and work ethic, Martha would have been a success at anything she did.

Despite her not facing the cameras this time, CNN had a ton of footage in the bank of her talking about herself and her business regularly on “Larry King Live,” where  Larry loved to flirt with her. 

By the early 1990s in episode 2 of  the doc , she’s shown earnestly telling Larry “Little did I know, I was making a brand.” Dubious.

Still, as is documented, she was disbelieved by the male powers at every step along the way of bringing Martha Stewart Living, her magazine, to life, until Time-Warner took a bet on her. Then she shocked the world by accepting a deal with the then downscale K-Mart. But her armies of sheet-buying, glue-gun-wielding groupies were happy to move with Martha in whatever she did, and eventually MSL had a readership of 12 million.

It also proved her prescience. She was way ahead on raising backyard chickens, though she of course built a “Palais de Poulet” and kept more than 122 birds. And she was out there re-electrifying chandeliers and re-shingling her own roof at least a decade and a half before the wave of home building and improvement shows took over on HGTV.

Still, the doc proves itself as a good thing by showing more sides than the merely reverential.

Martha could be imperious, difficult and quite a taskmaster, holding others to the impossible standards that she demanded of herself.

She was also cheap, according to the women who worked with her in her earliest days in the 1970s as a Connecticut caterer. One, Sarah Gross, spoke on-camera about being paid minimum wage, and said that Martha also took custody (aka “stole”) her recipe for her Cranberry Nut Tart, a real crowd pleaser. Later, when Gross had become the manager of what was becoming a $1 million business, with the massive work inherent in that, and while she was still making $8-$9 an hour, she worked up the nerve to ask Martha and Andy for a title.

She said Andy responded, "Martha is going to be as big as McDonald's, and we're not giving that away." So Gross quit.

Funny that Andy mentioned McDonald’s; part of Martha’s success came from the long and noble American tradition of  selling the masses on a tasteful way to exhibit class and wealth.

Parts 3 and 4 of the documentary, starting next Sunday, cover the mega-successful years of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (a name that set new heights of monomania) and her sudden downfall, when she was accused of insider trading.

Like other media-savvy white-collar criminals (and the jury is still out about whether she committed any crime), she could have worked within the justice system to avoid jail time.

But her stubbornness didn’t allow for it, and she went to prison. People wrote her off after that, but she excelled there.  She’s had at least three lives since, including her weed-laced TV show with Snoop Dogg and being a cover model for the Sports Illustrated bathing suit issue at 81. She is indomitable.

Clearly, she is living, prospering, and not afraid to make fun of her taskmaster self.  In the Sketchers Slip-Ins commercial that ran three times during the broadcast, she’s shown in her Sketchers competing as a gymnast at the Olympics.

Naturally, her flips are furious and defy gravity. And with the help of some comical CGI , she scores a perfect 10.

1 comment about "Is Martha Stewart Living?".
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  1. George Parker from Parker Consultants, January 30, 2024 at 10:08 a.m.

    When we lived in Westport Connerticut, Martha was a neighbour. She was a giant pain in the arse.

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