The phenomenal businesswoman
There’s light and shade in the life of Martha Stewart. She’s the doyenne of baking, table decoration, and perfect pastel paint shades with memorable names. She’s done a prison term, endured several court cases and put her profile on Match.com too. Now, though, she’s accomplished something no one could have ever expected. Martha is the new queen of the Etsy generation. These entrepreneurial young craftsters met her on the information superhighway, and they’re slowing down to take homemaking in their casual hipster stride.
But it’s not all Martha 2.0. Her new book imparts advice to the over-40s. “People need guidance,” she says, categorically. Especially from this exceptional 72-year-old.
Martha Stewart smoothes her short denim dress over her knees and, mindful she’s on a stage in front of over a thousand advertising executives, demurely crosses her (rather shapely) legs. Together with former Spice Girl Melanie B and US TV presenter Nick Cannon, she’s on a panel at the Cannes Lions festival, the advertising industry’s annual get-together on the Cote d’Azur, which serves as part creative symposium, part alcohol-fuelled networking frenzy. Given the audience, and that this is 2013, the conversation inevitably focuses on how to manage social media, and more specifically Twitter, through which Martha has nearly 3 million regular followers. While her fellow panellists regale the audience with anecdotes of how tweeting your own baby pictures can help you claw back your freedom from the paparazzi, Martha’s focus is rather different: she points out how one inappropriate comment could mean her core American customers (a possible 66 million every month via TV or Internet) might think twice about buying any one of the 8,500 different products currently bearing her name, from homewares to weddings and self-build houses. “I’m very careful what and when I tweet,” she says. “Even spelling mistakes have been misinterpreted as me being drunk.”
Mel B might enjoy mooning her LA neighbours from a glass-fronted balcony and spreading the news on Twitter, but Martha’s more likely to tell fans to tune into a radio show she’s appearing on and ask them to phone in, or to watch her on an upcoming Late Show with David Letterman. For her, social media is business, not pleasure. Recently the business at hand has been the promotion of her new book Living the Good Long Life: A Practical Guide to Caring for Yourself and Others. It’s a celebration of ageing that lacks any hint of sentimentality and among the obvious tips (eat well, do yoga) throws up a few hard-headed surprises. Post-menopausal women might not need to worry about getting pregnant, but, she points out briskly, they should still be on guard against STDs.
Straight after Martha’s morning panel, we head for lunch at one of those flimsily elegant beachfront restaurants on the Riviera where a salad costs the equivalent of a week’s wages. It’s very noisy, with children careering through crowded tables and superannuated beauty queens in minuscule bikinis shaking the sand out of their hair. Martha looks chicer than ever, minimally dressed and wearing one of those Hermès double-tour watches that seem to be the unofficial timepiece of tasteful creatives with money in the bank. Despite her attempts to set me at ease, enquiring about my flight and whether it’s too hot where we’re sitting, I’m nervous. A friend who met her last year admitted she had palpitations all through dinner, not because Martha was unfriendly but because she has such presence. In a bid to ingratiate myself, I proffer a gift. It’s Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England, the seminal 1954 book that documents British culinary history, describing everything from Elizabethan banquets to how to gut a fish. Martha seems delighted. “I don’t have this in my collection,” she says, and spends the next five minutes reading out recipe names such as “raised mutton pie” in her deep contralto voice, barely audible amongst the clatter of cutlery and glassware. We order efficiently, rejecting the buffet for salade niçoise and a side order of fries. She’s not quite an egg-white-omelette type of girl, though she doesn’t entirely finish her salad.
Martha famously thrives on multitasking, and over lunch she and her longstanding publicist Susan Magrino (in navy Lanvin) enthusiastically document everything for online use later on. They photograph the shade of orange on a bottle of rosé wine – “Now that colour sells magazine covers,” says Martha – and film a local woman on the seafront who’s artfully modelling chiffon beach cover-ups, whipping each design on and off with the efficiency of a waiter changing a tablecloth. “Mmm, that one’s quite Cavalli, do you think we should get it? Oh, and look at how she pleats it under her belt, that’s so clever.”
The fact that Martha seems to have a better understanding of the digital world than most teenagers is one of several factors that have endeared her to a whole new generation of twenty-to-thirty-somethings, who may have grown up on a diet of mass consumption but hanker after the kind of knowledge that’s based on doing and making rather than ordering through PayPal. Unlikely as it might sound, she’s quite the toast of the craftier parts of Williamsburg. “It’s because I’m so straightforward,” she says, “and they love it. You should check out my video on YouTube on how to deseed a pomegranate. It’s short and snappy enough to retain people’s attention.”
So what if she’s a 72-year-old grandmother of two? “I really don’t think it’s down to age. America’s always embraced people who are different or have something interesting to say. You just need to look at Julia Child, who was also working well into her 70s,” she says of the celebrated cook, who introduced French cuisine in the United States from the 1960s onwards. “And the reason for her continued success? She made amazing food, which was created with a huge sense of goodwill – if the public see that, they’ll reciprocate.”
Child had to be content with traditional publishing, and then television in the later stages of her career. But Martha has moved with the times, through books and then magazines to TV, cable and now the Internet, all the time increasing her range of retail products. She has more than 173 million hits on Google alone (though some of that’s to do with her brush with the law, more of which later). And while her new hipster audience isn’t showing much interest in the print version of her magazine, it turns out they do want to know how to make a throw out of an old jacket, a table runner out of sewn-together tea towels, a silk-wrapped wood bead necklace, and cupcakes with splatter icing (an homage, says Martha, to Jackson Pollock) – and they’re flocking to her website. The British designer and architect John Pawson, with whom Martha has worked in the past, says it’s her willingness to explore and exploit each new media epoch that keeps her relevant to new audiences. “She’s always been fascinated by the push into unfamiliar territory and the need to keep things fresh,” he says. “I love the fact that she takes things as far as she can – whether it’s beekeeping or deep-sea fishing or the latest redesign of the magazine, she channels intelligence and drive into everything she does.”
We order dessert (affogato al caffè and lemon tart – “I love anything citrusy” she says) and I begin to relax. In spite of its happy effect on her profile, Martha declares she’s ambivalent about the Internet, viewing it as a necessary tool to promote her business interests but one with obvious drawbacks. “Wikipedia is just a disaster,” she says. “I’ve almost given up on getting people to correct my entry.” She subscribes to Pinterest, but only as long as it doesn’t start to exploit its bank of copyright-free imagery for financial gain; if it does, the game’s up. Most of all, though, she says, “I do worry that it’s making the world too small. There’s no room for discovery from your little computer screen. You know, a lot of people have said to me, ‘Why bother taking the kids to a museum when we can see it all online?’ For me that’s rather sad. When I go to a museum I want to see stuff.”
Martha’s love of stuff – or “good things”, as she likes to say – is legendary, though she claims not to be acquisitive, except with plants. “Trees, they’re my first love,” she declares. “Did you know I’ve visited nearly every stately home in England? I just love the garden rooms at Hidcote, and the way it separates plants by colour, and the landscaping at Stourhead is like being in paradise.” Her only collecting regret – about not acquiring art – turns out to be financial. “I’m kind of sorry about that. When I was married and my husband was running [the fine art book publisher Harry N.] Abrams, we had plenty of opportunity to buy art very cheaply and we didn’t get wise to it. In hindsight, that was a mistake because it was such a good investment.”
Given the number of houses Martha has restored as her own residences over the past three decades, she knows her Chippendale from her Biedermeier. She relates how one makeover required pieces from 1776, 1887 and 1925 to remain in keeping with the building’s pedigree. Her daughter, Alexis, remembers somewhat different aspects. In her 2011 memoir of life with Martha, Whateverland: Learning to Live Here, she recalls how as a child she would go on regular antiquing forays with her mother, armed with a toolkit that included a piece of rope and a knife. The items were used for securing purchases on the roof of the car but to her resembled a murderer’s armoury. In the same book, which is less Mommie Dearest and more a fairly jocular tale of a mother-daughter relationship, she mentions that she was never allowed to sit on her own bed, because it had an antique coverlet. “I do love antiques, and the thrill of the chase in finding them,’’ says Martha, who admits that in that respect her tastes are out of step with the youth of today. “Kids want furniture that doesn’t need polishing and tableware you can put in the dishwasher. It’s so depressing.”
Her New York apartment, she tells me, is furnished with midcentury modern Gio Ponti pieces mixed with concrete faux bois and Scandinavian lights. Skylands, her 35,000-square-foot residence set in 63 acres in Maine, which once belonged to the tycoon Edsel Ford, is all polished wood and chintz. She is, she says, in the process of decluttering. “I recently asked Alexis if there was anything she wanted, I mean anything, and all she took was three glasses. Can you believe it? But then I really like the Japanese analogy that all a monk needs is a robe and sandals, chopsticks and a bowl for rice, and a holy book.” When I look slightly incredulous, she says, “Don’t forget that a while back I spent five months experiencing that for myself.”
“I’m very careful what I tweet. Even spelling mistakes have been misinterpreted as me being drunk.”
Ah, yes. Martha’s five-month sojourn at the Federal Prison Camp at Alderson, West Virginia, in 2004–5, and the events leading to it, make an extraordinary blot on a stellar career, though one that if anything has left it even more nuanced and remarkable. (She was indicted in what is known as the ImClone scandal for dumping the pharmaceutical company’s shares before the news leaked out that its experimental cancer drug Erbitux had failed to get the expected Food and Drug Administration approval; the act netted her a paltry $51,000.) She says now that she wouldn’t do anything in life differently if transported back in time, “except maybe focus a bit more on childcare.” And who can argue? The Martha Stewart story and the foundation of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO) is one of the great business parables of our time. Her understanding of the cult of personality and how to monetise it through media and product is peerless. Whether it’s a bread bin or a TV show or a perfect apple pie recipe, Martha is always selling herself, a little bit at a time.
She sees herself, however, as an educator. “All these cooking competitions and cooking game shows are about titillation, and my stuff isn’t. I think, ‘You may never do this yourself, but if you decide to, here’s how you can.’ Einstein said everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler, and I agree. It’s that and accuracy. If you’re going to be a teacher and give people information, recipes cannot be inaccurate. I don’t care how long or how complicated they are, as long as they’re thorough.”
And Martha is thorough, driven by a mania for perfection that is legendary and, some say, terrifying. “I do admire people like Tom Ford, or anyone who’s detail-driven,” she says, referring to another, equally legendary perfectionist. “It’s little things that make the difference. Like swing tags – the string needs to be long enough so you can pull the label up to read it properly. It should be tied on, so you don’t need to get a pair of scissors to cut it off, and attached in such a way that it doesn’t damage the fabric if it’s on a garment.”
Ford, in return, is a great admirer of Martha’s and tells a story about the time he replaced all the machinery on his ranch near Santa Fe with black versions, since he couldn’t bear to see bright yellow tractors roaming the landscape. It didn’t work, however, since the earth in New Mexico was red-brown and stood out against the pristine black paint. “And Martha said, ‘Well, why don’t you try grey?’” explains Ford, who replied that he’d thought of that, but every manufacturer had a different grey, and they’d never match. “And Martha said, ‘You should do what I do. I have my own grey colour mixed and I send it to each manufacturer so all the greys are the same.’ I must admit that I was pretty impressed, and of course a bit jealous.”
Martha maintains strict control over the products she lends her name to, insisting on having every piece passed before her. “Of course, sometimes we’re obligated to say yes [to a product], and that doesn’t make me the happiest, but as long as it isn’t going to harm people, or break down, if it serves a decent purpose and it’s not horrible horrible, then it can sometimes pass muster. But for the most part, no – if a teacup doesn’t have a handle you can stick your fingers through or a spoon is too shallow, why bother?” This is perhaps why in 1999 she became America’s first self-made female billionaire. In 2005, she crept into the Forbes 400, at number 377.
Martha Helen Kostyra grew up in New Jersey, the second oldest of six siblings. Her Polish parents were hardworking. Her mother returned to teaching as soon as her youngest was in kindergarten; her father was a pharmaceutical salesman who constantly encouraged her to reach her potential. “He said, ‘You can do anything,’ which was very positive advice for a girl at that time. Instead of suggesting that I become a secretary or maybe a teacher, he told me to set my sights high.” She talks fondly of teenage trips with him to New York’s central library on 42nd Street to research the family tree. “We got right back to the ninth century,” she says with pride. “We had a coat of arms and everything, but fundamentally we’re from Tartar stock. I may well be related to Genghis Khan.” (She named a chow chow and then its offspring after the conqueror, in any case.)
She was clever enough to get into Barnard College, where she studied European and architectural history, and pretty enough to earn money with the occasional modelling job. At university, she met Andy Stewart, a Yale law student, and the two married in 1961, divorcing acrimoniously 29 years later. In 1967, two years after the birth of their daughter, Martha went back to work, this time as a stockbroker and financial advisor for the boutique firm of Monness, Williams and Sidel, where she rose through the ranks, seemingly unchallenged by being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
In 1972, the Stewarts relocated to the Connecticut suburbs, and the Martha we recognise began to emerge – initially in the guise of a caterer, via a business founded in her newly restored home’s basement. Within a decade, Martha Stewart, Inc., had grown into a million-dollar concern serving a number of corporate and celebrity clients, partially thanks to the fact that her publisher husband would rope her in to cater for his swankier launches. At one such event, a party for the bestselling Secrets of the Gnomes, Alain Mirken from Crown Publishing, a subsidiary of Random House, spotted the elegant blonde amidst a sea of canapés and liked what he saw. One introduction and a tense boardroom discussion about launching an unknown author onto the unsuspecting American public later, the concept for Entertaining was born. Martha’s book, published in 1982, went on to be the American middle classes’ dinner party bible for the next decade and the bestselling US cookbook since Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published 21 years earlier.
In 1987, Martha – having already reached the celebrity benchmark of the single name – was invited to become the lifestyle consultant to the discounter Kmart, then the largest retailer in the US with a turnover of $33 billion. “When I started, nobody was paying any attention to the mass market,” she says. “Other designers were doing total luxury, but for ordinary people America was a pretty bad place to shop.” The British designer, retailer and restaurateur Sir Terence Conran agrees, crediting Martha with improving the quality of homewares not just in America but across the world. “Martha has a natural instinct for what people want and dramatically improved the quality of what people could buy in the 1980s,” he says. “Whether you share her taste or not, Martha has helped make good design available to millions, and for that she should be celebrated.”
Based on a philosophy that encompassed practicality, affordability and quality, Martha’s first products for the store included high-thread-count cotton bed linens in a range of pastel colours. “At the time Kmart was making polyester sheets, which were, frankly, crap, and it took a lot of convincing from me to make the owners believe that people would bother ironing cotton ones. Then I suggested colours – yellow, pink, a beautiful pale green – and again they said no, on a pretext that ordinary people don’t launder their sheets as often as the wealthy. Eventually they capitulated. And because of the volume you produce for the mass market, the price comes down anyway.” The ensuing range, which became part of the Martha Stewart Everyday collection, heralded a relationship with the retailer that would last for over 20 years before its dissolution in 2009 and became the paradigm for many of the celebrity–department store collaborations that followed. At its pinnacle the collection was worth over $1 billion of business per annum; devotees still bemoan its demise on numerous online forums. “You know, I’ve still got those sheets on the beds at Skylands, my house in Maine,” says Martha, “and they haven’t worn out yet.”
“When I started, nobody was paying any attention to the mass market. For ordinary people, America was a pretty bad place to shop.”
The magazine Martha Stewart Living was launched in 1990. “It was just a new way of looking at things women had been doing for centuries that were considered more drudgery than joy,” says Martha. “I sold the idea to the publisher Time Inc., and it was an instant success.” The smell of freshly baked cookies swept the country, sales of Kilner jars rose, table decorations were handmade and plentiful, and a nation adopted Martha’s particular taste for crystalware. “I’ve kept some of the early copies of the magazine; we used it as a reference when we set up Wallpaper in the mid-’90s,” says the magazine publisher and entrepreneur Tyler Brûlé. “It was a great teaching tool for my team, simply because of the intensely focused narrative it delivered.” But it wasn’t just Martha’s flat plan that made an impression on Brûlé. “She invited me out to Balthazar in New York,” he recalls. “And she was really excited because a couple of great yard sales were coming up that weekend, one in Maine and one in Connecticut. When I asked how it would be physically possible to cover such distances in one day, she replied that it was easily done when you owned a Gulfstream. I loved that – using a private jet to buy brown glass jam jars and garden furniture. No matter how big her empire, she still wanted to get out and find things for herself.”
In 1993, she debuted a weekly half-hour television programme on CBS, also called Martha Stewart Living, which became so popular that by 1999 it had become a daily hour-long broadcast. Early shows included such tips as securing climbers with old tights (it looks better); later ones reflected her position at the centre of the celebrity world. In 2009, she performed an impromptu rap with Snoop Dogg on the secrets of making marijuana-laced brownies, to a delighted matronly audience.
Martha cites the success of blockbuster soap operas such as Dynasty as a game-changer in how the public viewed interiors and lifestyle. “You might laugh, as it’s lavish and over the top,” she says, “but it portrayed a quality lifestyle that people aspired to. I saw the potential in that.” Martha worked with people’s aspirations in a different way, associating pleasure and happiness with cooking, crafting and fresh flowers, extolling the use of pastel tones and the growing of veg. Stylistically, she brought a country with six time zones and a diameter of over 2,000 miles closer together than it had been before. “Television unites us and unifies our style,” she asserts. “Homes may well have differed beforehand, but not anymore.”
If true success is marked by a person’s becoming the butt of satire, there are plenty of examples proving Martha’s iconic status in American pop culture, from Tom Connor’s 1990s spoof magazine Is Martha Stewart Living? to this year’s book The Tao of Martha, in which Jen Lancaster documents her haphazard efforts to live life according to the advice of America’s premier homemaker for one year. Some critics have been less accommodating, accusing Martha of setting the bar so high in the quest for domestic perfection that pursuers end up demoralised. In her 1996 essay “Les Très Riches Heures de Martha Stewart,” writer Margaret Talbot branded Stewart a “corporate overachiever turned domestic superachiever, Mildred Pierce in earth-toned Armani”, who disguises rampant consumption as honest-to-goodness common sense. Martha, of course, is unfazed by the accusation. “I say ‘Why not?’ If you want it, you can have it. And it’s not just women either; we reach out to a lot of two-male households. I don’t see anything wrong with arranging some flowers beautifully or creating a wonderful meal. Plus we’re careful how we come across. We don’t talk down to people, we elevate them; we want them to feel good about themselves and instil a sense of self-confidence.” Even the forthright social theorist Camille Paglia has agreed that Martha is “someone who has done a tremendous service for ordinary women – women who identify with the roles of wife, mother and homemaker.”
In 1997, Martha successfully secured funding to purchase the various television, print, and merchandising ventures related to her brand and consolidate them into a new company, MSLO. Scarcely two years later, a high initial share price on the New York Stock Exchange momentarily made her a paper billionaire. And by 2004, she was in prison. Her use of her daily power walks to gather dandelions and wild onions to augment the appalling prison catering and her confession to news anchor Barbara Walters that she gained satisfaction from scrubbing the bathroom floors have been well documented. Now, almost a decade later, bathed in the warm light of the Riviera, she answers questions about her incarceration with a sense of weary inevitability. “Yes, it was a culture shock, but not in the way you’d anticipate,” she says. “For the most part, the prisoners weren’t the problem; they were ordinary people who’d done something wrong, or hadn’t done something wrong, who’d spoken up for someone or not. What really shocked me was how the American prison system is really sick – the lack of empathy and intelligence and basic interest on the part of the employees. They just do their job so badly. That’s not a good thing.”
Upon her release, she paid some lip service to consciousness-raising with regard to the US jail system, but unlike the prison reform campaigns of other celebrities who’ve fallen foul of the law, hers was short-lived. Instead, she embarked on a highly publicised comeback campaign that included new television formats, new licensing deals and another slew of books encompassing yet more baking advice. Her viewers seem to delight in the fact that behind the kitchen’s work surface, their idol has feet of clay and an ankle that once wore a security tag.
Being cast as a survivor is just one thing Stewart has had to adapt to since her release, along with other significant changes. The global economic downturn of 2008 fundamentally altered the way Americans consumed. To put it bluntly, there was little point in heeding Martha’s advice to mulch your rose beds if your house was about to be repossessed. Add to that a shifting media market and a company that’s scarcely been in profit since the mid-noughties, and it turns out Martha will be taking a 10 per cent pay cut for the next four years. MSLO is also in litigation with Macy’s, which disputes her right to sell products under her name through J.C. Penney as well as its own department stores. “It’s awful” is all she’ll say on the subject.
But give up she will not. For Martha, work is fun, and fun is work. On her three-day sojourn to the south of France, she’s visited all the best restaurants in search of the perfect bouillabaisse, conducted numerous business meetings and even taken a dip in the Mediterranean. Lunch is peppered with nuggets of information, from tips on the best way to fry chips at home (use olive oil and a heavy metal saucepan) and a failsafe method of cooking eggs (bring to the boil and then leave for 13 minutes with the lid on and the heat off) to the fact that the poppy seeds on our bread rolls come from the very same variety used for growing heroin in Afghanistan. “I grow them at home, but purely for the flowers, which are very pretty,” she says. She’s managed to fit in a 7am market visit – “I just love looking at local produce, from the fruit and vegetables to the yoghurts and cheeses” – and a spot of clothes shopping, the one activity she normally eschews because of her broad shoulders. “Nothing ever fits, so I have to get things taken in all the time.”
Martha is still the epitome of everything she espouses: elegant, understated and, although it might be politically incorrect to say so, rather sexy. Also, despite the brutal light of the midday sun, she comes across as physically much younger than her seven decades. The introduction of her new book discusses age using the image of a bonsai tree. “I chose it to illustrate the fact that the more old and gnarled we become, the more valued we should be too, just as in Asian countries, where the elderly are part of the integral fabric of society and not swept under the carpet.” Between sections on the early symptoms of osteoporosis and choosing the best cosmetic products for ageing skin, Martha casually mentions that for her, ageing kicks in at 40. “Well, you should have realised by now I’m all about being prepared,” she says, laughing. Her preferred motto is “When you’re through changing, you’re through” – something current evidence suggests is a long way off for her.
At the mention of retirement, she quickly retorts, “Did Picasso put down his paintbrushes?” And the thought of MSLO without Martha at the helm is unthinkable, both to her and to the many investors banking on the company’s return to profit. Fortunately, she believes current medical advances, coupled with the results of a personal genetic analysis, mean she could live to 110, making her a bankable commodity for quite a while. Personally, I think she’s immortal.