PRINT January 1993


Martha Stewart

BUSY RHAPSODIZING OVER Ralph Lauren’s tartan highboy and penning essays about his influence on American life-style, pop-cultural critics have been too caught up in their insular urban worlds to recognize the true genius in our midst. The person who has had the biggest impact on the quotidian esthetics of the average suburban American household is the one and only Martha Stewart.

Barnard graduate turned stockbroker turned House Beautiful editor turned caterer turned life-style empress: Martha Stewart manages an empire that includes books, videos, her own magazine (Martha Stewart Living), and a highly lucrative contract with K-Mart to put her personal stamp on mass-produced housewares and linens. She’s cook, gardener, hostess, interior decorator, hack social anthropologist (“recipes are like folktales”), businesswoman, and visionary. Marabel Morgan without the negligees, without the sex, without the husband, Martha is the Total Woman for today, presenting her vision of a more esthetically pleasing life as a matter of self-empowerment for married and unmarried women alike. “It’s about the American Dream and the reality that’s in our hands.” In short, “It’s about living.”

Having acquired her perfect WASP name and credentials by marriage, Stewart was originally just a Polish-Catholic girl from Nutley, New Jersey. And while her affected Locust Valley lockjaw probably doesn’t endear her to the middle-class women she’s targeting, she does marshal her middle-class ethnic background to good purpose in her books and magazine. Reminiscing about her unsophisticated baby-boomer childhood—“I was brought up in the aftermath of World War II, amid victory gardens and a ‘save for the morrow’ mentality . . . . On summer visits to my grandmother Ruszkowski I picked [fruit] and learned about preserving”—does a lot to warm up the public image of the omnicompetent homemaker The New York Times called “the over-achiever’s Vita Sackville-West.”

Martha is the Madonna of life-style, and in the last ten years she has reclaimed the image of the homemaker in much the same way Madonna has subverted the role of the sex object. Martha takes out her entrepreneurial aggressions (and has made her considerable fame and fortune) on the lowly, traditionally feminine domestic arts. In the process, she’s spawned thousands of cottage industries: inspired by Martha, women all over this country, who have chosen to stay home with the kids, are making money stenciling lampshades while the baby naps. Although Martha lags behind Madonna when it comes to costume changes, she’s undergone at least one major image overhaul. The married Martha of ten years ago wore her hair long and wavy and dressed in Victorian ruffled blouses, cameos, and pearls. Today, divorced from husband Andy, to whom most of her early work was dedicated, she’s short ’n’ sassy, wash ’n’ wear. She’s ditched the calico and cinnamon in favor of blue jeans, and even drives a pickup.

Martha is everywhere: lecturing on gardening, promoting a new book on window treatments, teaching us the secrets of perfect tempura on the Today show. She has even dabbled in music, putting together compilation CDs for use as background mood enhancement while entertaining. There’s the Dinner for Two album, and Sunday Brunch—the liner notes include recipes. Indeed, like Madonna, she mounts multiple attacks in various media, targeting most, if not all, of the senses. “Like a Prayer” was scented with patchouli; Martha Stewart single-handedly created the potpourri boom.

But one thing Martha’s got that Madonna hasn’t—yet—is her very own magazine. Madonna may get the cover of Vogue and Vanity Fair, but Martha is guaranteed the cover of her own bimonthly magazine six times a year. Inside sources suggest that even a breathtaking photograph of summer flowers just can’t move the magazine like an image of Martha pouring a perfect pitcher of Bellinis. For me, counting photos of Martha in each issue has become a game—like tallying the Ninas in a Hirschfeld caricature.

Like another self-sufficient American homeowner, Thomas Jefferson, who kept elaborate almanacs and planting journals for his Monticello gardens, Martha keeps a calendar in her magazine reminding us to “plant kale seedlings” and “wash house with bleach solution for mildew.” But she’s also smart enough to include a few business entries—the dates of her traveling lecture series. Like her famous forefather, Martha even writes thought-provoking little essays about matters of general concern. One month it’s potatoes, but another it’s a treatise, “On Honesty,” filled with gems like “One doesn’t hear about honor systems anymore.” Ethics aside, I admire her ferocious do-it-all-yourself attitude. I have no doubts that Martha could survive a nuclear war, and do so in style.

Tina Lyons is a hostess and writer who lives in New York.