Martha Stewart

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Oct. 22 1999 9:00 PM

Martha Stewart

She's a good thing.

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Here is a (partial) list of objects that Martha Stewart has gilded on recent TV shows: pomegranates, pumpkins, cookies, chocolate truffles, wrapping paper, oak leaves, acorns, and--no kidding--okra. The only thing Martha has not gilded is the lily. But wait till it's back in season.

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Martha has proved that alchemy is not impossible: Brush enough gold paint on enough flora, and eventually you'll make real gold. Tuesday's initial public offering for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia--Omnimedia, has there ever been a more perfect name?--killed on Wall Street, rising from $18 to $52 before settling at $36. She arrived at the stock exchange that morning toting a tray of brioches. She left that evening holding $1.2 billion (in stock, not dough). Investors bought a brilliant company: Omnimedia--a Web site, mail-order operation, two TV shows, two magazines, Kmart partnership, and 27 books--netted $24 million last year from the gospel of Martha. Kmart sold more than $750 million worth of Martha-branded products in 1998. Her 1997 decision to divorce Time Warner and go solo--a split that cost her more than $50 million--has never looked better.

What was missing from Martha's IPO was the sniping and mockery that has dogged all of her ventures. Traditionally, Martha has been battered by three criticisms. First, she is simply ludicrous. You could not imagine better comic material than her ideas of "living": the "midnight omelet dinner for 1,000"; the fruit baskets the size of a Chevy; the advice (in this month's magazine) to make your own envelopes out of wood veneer, folding them with a bone knife. Parodies barely exaggerate when they imagine Martha turning water into wine ("a lovely Merlot") or manufacturing condoms from her own lamb. A second and more thoughtful batch of critics has charged her with encouraging class division, promoting soulless domestic conformism, and undermining working women by making them feel domestically inadequate.

The final criticism has been personal. As her unauthorized biography, Just Desserts, contends, Martha is an icy, horrible person who abused her (now ex-) husband, ignores her daughter, belittles her mother, sues her gardener for pennies, plagiarizes recipes from better cooks, and humiliates her staff. Her fabled "Remembering" columns are a hash of bunkum and hyperbole. The persona she cultivates--the warm, welcoming hostess with a close-knit family--is a fraud.

These criticisms have subsided partly because of America's culture of financial idolatry. Anyone who's worth a billion on paper is worth sucking up to. Martha is benefiting from parody fatigue as well. She has been a figure of fun since Entertaining was published in 1982, so all the jokes are old. And the vitality of the economy is inoculating her. Fripperies that seemed obscene during the early '90s recession are quite modest by the standards of 1999.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

But the critical silence may also represent a long-overdue recognition that Martha is, as she would say, a Good Thing. In a Tuesday TV interview, she called herself a "teacher. ... We are offering information, high-quality, well-researched, how-to information." That is a fair description. What she does is not silly at all, or at least no more silly than most advice magazines. Her magazines and TV shows retain just enough nonsense to make them irksome ("sew your own pashmina from home-raised llamas," and the like), but she supplies valuable instruction about the mundane tasks of life. Martha Stewart Living may be the most useful magazine this side of Consumer Reports. This month's issue, for example, offers excellent advice about making spicy popcorn snacks, cleaning ovens, and storing rugs and china, among other subjects. Her weekly CBS morning segment packs more helpful cooking information into six minutes than most cooking shows do in an hour. It is not false consciousness that makes tens of millions of people follow Martha every month. It is her good advice.

But the great achievement of Martha's domestic gospel is not practical but moral. She has a puritanical sensibility. She believes in the uplifting power of work. She instructs you so that you will know how to create objects yourself, grow plants yourself, learn home repair yourself, cook food yourself. Doing something well is good and liberating and fulfilling. It strengthens friendships and families: When I saw her making waffles the other day, it made me want to make waffles this Sunday. If I make waffles on Sunday, I will invite the downstairs neighbors up to eat them, and that is undoubtedly a Good Thing.

Martha practices materialism, but not consumerism. She believes, rightly, that it makes you wiser and happier to cook your own applesauce than to buy it. Well, you may say, it's easy for her to make homemade applesauce. That's her job. But she did it when it wasn't her job, too. Even if most viewers rarely practice anything Martha preaches--she calls such slackers "Martha Dreamers" as opposed to "Martha Doers"--she is still a worthy goad.

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H er DIY credo makes Martha democratically snobbish. She hews to a country-house sensibility, but anyone can follow it. It doesn't cost much, because you do it yourself. If a middle-class Polish girl like Martha can blossom into an affected, Breck-girl faux-WASP, you can too!

The final, and most important, reason Martha is escaping criticism is that Martha Stewart the person has been separated from Martha Stewart the brand. The principal topic of discussion about the Martha Stewart Living IPO was Martha Stewart's death. Analysts speculated what would happen to Omnimedia if Martha were hit by a bus or cab (or succumbed to an accident in "the potting shed," as the New York Observer's Christopher Byron nicely put it). There were two answers: First, the company has bought a $67 million life-insurance policy on her. Second, Martha Stewart the brand can survive without Martha Stewart the person, as Ralph Lauren the brand survives without Ralph Lauren selling every shirt. (Martha does not appear at all in the current issue of Living.) The zooming stock price is evidence that Wall Street can distinguish Martha from her product.

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