Behind the Martha Mystique

By Diane Brady


The Incredible Story of

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia

By Christopher Byron

Wiley -- 405pp -- $27.95

Even Martha Stewart's fans might guess that there's a hard-nosed personality lurking behind the affable domestic-diva face. After all, anyone who claims to repair deer fencing and whip up lavish meals for 20, all while running a sprawling media-and-retail empire, has to be, at the least, a tad driven. But few would imagine Stewart as an abusive wife, negligent mother, or egocentric tyrant whose path to success is littered with angry former associates and embittered ex-friends.

However, after reading journalist Christopher Byron's scathing biography, Martha Inc., it's hard to avoid a more jaundiced view of America's celebrated homemaker. The book chronicles Stewart's evolution from a pretty girl in working-class New Jersey to one of America's richest and most recognized entrepreneurs. Byron takes readers through Stewart's stint on Wall Street, her foray into catering as a stay-at-home mom, and her rapid rise after publishing her book Entertaining in 1982. And while he clearly admires Stewart's ability to turn herself into a multimillion-dollar brand, his focus is squarely on the tormented and duplicitous person he sees lurking behind the public face. If Byron started out liking his Westport (Conn.) neighbor as he claims, he clearly didn't think much of her by the end.

It makes for a fascinating, if clearly lopsided, read. Byron, for example, revels in anecdotes that portray Stewart as a mean-spirited egotist. At a 1995 dinner for Diana, Princess of Wales, he says Stewart screamed at public-relations mogul Robert Dilenschneider: "If you don't know who I am, you don't deserve to be at this table!" During a trip to Colombia in the early 1970s, she allegedly informed her staph-infected husband: "You're not going to ruin my vacation." The author quotes insiders saying that she is prone to berating and hurling obscenities at her employees. Byron also has Stewart lying about her past, including later-retracted allegations that her husband became sterile from cancer.

The problem, of course, is that those who actually like Stewart didn't grant interviews to the author. Through a spokeswoman, Stewart declined to comment on the book. It's not clear that Stewart ever agreed to cooperate on the project, preferring to save her insights for her own book due out next year. But Byron says she initially seemed cooperative, then froze him out and tried to derail the project. Given Byron's reputation as a columnist who has skewered many subjects, it's hard to blame her for avoiding him. As a result, he has no quotes from many of the key players in Stewart's life--such as business partner Sharon Patrick, advertising maven Charlotte Beers, and former companions like Sam Waksal of ImClone Systems Inc. and publisher Mortimer Zuckerman.

But enough people did share their stories to make for a meaty account. These include a host of former pals such as Kathy Tatlock, who spent a disastrous year working on videos for Stewart, and ex-model Norma Collier, who now calls her former catering partner "a sociopath and a horrible woman." Among other things, Collier charges, Stewart secretly booked catering jobs on the side and denounced Collier in front of clients. Then there are disenchanted folks from Kmart Corp. and Time Inc. who helped give Stewart her start, as well as the tour guides, restaurant owners, neighbors, and journalists Stewart has alienated. Byron quotes them all, stringing together anecdotes that cast his subject as a coiffed Attila the Hun who will trample on anyone and anything to get to the top.

The moments of sympathy often come in the form of armchair psychoanalysis. Here, the author harks back to Stewart's tough Catholic upbringing in Nutley, N.J. Her father is portrayed as a hard-drinking bully; her mother as a cold, disengaged wife and mother. Martha had five siblings vying for parental attention. Byron asserts that this bred a deep insecurity and bitterness fundamental to Stewart's personality, accounting for boorish behavior and a penchant for misrepresenting her past. The anger-filled childhood left Stewart incapable of forging an intimate relationship with her daughter, he says.

It's anyone's guess whether Stewart is haunted by a past in a dysfunctional family. But Byron does offer a compelling case that the perfection epitomized by Martha the brand hardly resembles the life of Martha the person. On another level, the book underscores the difficulty of maintaining a business built around one human being. While Stewart may like to compare herself to Walt Disney, the two brands have fundamental differences. For one thing, Mickey Mouse is a timeless icon. That can't be said for Stewart, a woman in her 60s. And Disney's fantasy world never pretended to echo the life of its founder and namesake. Yet the key selling point of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia remains Stewart herself.

Byron's best moments come when he examines the business--from the post-public-offering sell-off by insiders to the vulnerable footing on which the empire rests. Unfortunately, much of that is treated only in a brief epilogue. Byron's tale effectively ends about two years ago, soon after the company went public. We hear little about the drama behind Kmart's bankruptcy or the evolution of Stewart's business. That's too bad, because Byron is one writer who could rise above the Martha mystique to pick apart her enterprise. In the end, it's a testament to the power of Stewart's personality that Byron, too, is consumed with figuring out what makes this woman tick.

Brady covers Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia from New York.

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