A morning with Martha
MENTION her name and watch people's eyes roll. They can't bear her. Her and her damned cult of gracious living.
This is a woman who files her garden catalogues alphabetically in baskets, who designs her own writing paper, and knows how to decorate food with edible gold leaf.
This is a woman who, while the rest of us are plopped in front of the TV all winter, is cleaning and painting her garden tools.
Yes, there are so many reasons to hate Martha Stewart:
She is rich, she is perfect, and she is everywhere.
Since 1982, this former model and stockbroker has published nine books, and a tenth is in the works; among them are the sumptuously illustrated Entertaining and Gardening. In 1987 she signed an estimated $5-million contract with K mart to be its national spokeswoman and home-fashions consultant. Then, last year, she went multimedia, signing a 10-year deal with Time Warner Inc., which, besides turning out her new magazine - Martha Stewart Living - has plans for more books, videos, and television projects. Big television projects. Like a 24-hour channel devoted to do-it-yourself-ing.
Then of course there are her quarterly newsletters, her three-day seminars (cost: $1,200), her regular appearances on the Today show.
Not to mention the fact that she is 50 years old but looks 35.
Martha haters seem to come in two types: those who find her shallow (Who would bother to make her own potpourri?) and those who would love to be as creative or as efficient, but don't have the time (She makes me feel so inadequate]).
And then there are the professional Martha haters: the press.
For a few years now, the press has had considerable fun at Stewart's expense, charging her with everything from recipe plagiarism to stinginess to cruelty to animals, and, worst of all, fabricating a phony image.
As Newsweek put it, "No one can live like Stewart, probably not even Stewart.
"In one of the most scathing stories about the woman who is America's living symbol of graciousness, she is portrayed as - blasphemy] - an inconsiderate hostess.
A free-lancer, writing in a March issue of Northeast, The Hartford Courant's Sunday magazine, reports that during an interview at Stewart's Westport, Connecticut, home, Stewart answered questions "half-heartedly," spoke roughly to the help, ordered them to feed Pepto-Bismol to a desperately ill dog, and when a photographer's light pack exploded in a shower of sparks, expressed concern about damage to the electrical socket. Then, having reportedly told her interviewer nothing much at all, she coldly dismissed her - but suddenly remembered "who she's supposed to be" and told an underling, "Get her a Perrier on the way out.
"Unflattering though the piece was, it was nonetheless compelling - it had the kind of edge that editors like - and it was reprinted at least once.
The Sunday Journal Magazine was also planning to reprint the story and - how's this for nervy? - an editor called Stewart's publicist about obtaining photographs with which to illustrate it, at which point the publicist made an irresistible offer: Don't run that story - come and do your own interview. Decide for yourself what Martha Stewart is like.
IT IS A sunny, hot Tuesday morning.
Stewart appears, right on time, on the slate patio (she laid it herself) of her 1805 farmhouse (she renovated it herself) on eight acres of elaborate gardens (she designed and planted them herself) in Westport, Connecticut.
The place is every bit as beautiful as in the books. There are butterflies everywhere, just as in the videos. (I'd cynically assumed they'd been flown in for the shoots.)
Stewart, too, looks fantastic - tall and trim and very sturdy. (I make a mental note: Find out what she eats, her exercise routine]) She's wearing a white cotton sweater over white stretch pants and she's barefoot. On her face is a touch of makeup - also, fleetingly, a distracted look, the expression of a busy person who's between tasks and needs a second to get her bearings.
Quickly enough, she focuses. She shakes hands, pours us each a glass of iced tea (she blended the teas herself, of course), and sits in an iron patio chair at a glass-topped table. On the table are some distinctive Stewart touches: flowers and a small silver basket containing some lace-edged linen napkins, each one rolled up. Stewart is using hers as a coaster, and when I fail to follow, unrolls one for me, as well.
She's cheerful, making small talk about having just given each of her six Himalayan cats their monthly wash and blow-dry.
"All cats should be washed, but people don't know that. Have you ever washed your cat?"
"No," I confess, and feel a pang. (The inadequacy] The inadequacy])
"That's terrible," she says.
"I'm afraid she'd be so unhappy," I say.
"Oh, they're so happy. They howl and make the most terrible noises, but they're all so happy now." She hikes up a sleeve. "Let's see what I've gotten today. Not so bad today. Actually, they were pretty good - just a few little bites. That's pretty good."
She pushes down her sleeve. We both perceive that the preliminaries are over and we should start. An assistant, Carolyn Kelly, who helped arrange the interview, sits in. Stewart and I agree that we can skip such basic facts as her date of birth, number of books, and so forth, since all that can be found in her press material.
"The other kind of material you shouldn't get," adds Stewart, "is from The Hartford Courant, which is why you're here."
This is lucky, I think. I don't have to bring it up myself.
"And that's not why you're getting iced tea when you first come in the door]" she says.
I give her a look of mock suspicion. "I was warned by my editor, 'She's going to be very nice to you . . .' "
"No]" she says, indignant. Her voice becomes squeaky (why do I think of Cher?): "I'm being the same way that I was to that other reporter, believe me. She was offered a Perrier on the way in. Because they were out in the kitchen - they were out there - she was . . . To invite someone to your home . . . ]"
Just what does she make of such meanness?
She doesn't know, but says she's glad for the opportunity to set the record straight with a journalist who is not "ill disposed" toward her.
This is true. I am not ill disposed toward her, although, a few years ago, I was annoyed with her. I'd caught her on TV and she was curing her own meat in her own backyard smokehouse. I don't know; maybe it was a smokehouse like the one you have in your backyard. Me? I couldn't relate. And, well, that was it. I lost interest in Martha Stewart.
It's only recently that I became aware of her again - aware of how people don't like her, how it's become sort of fashionable to dislike her, even too easy to dislike her.
Which, human nature being what it is, makes me like her.
I TAKE STOCK of this liking and disliking as I sit on Stewart's patio, and try to forget all of it. True, I am not "ill disposed"; but neither should I be favorably disposed. After all, I don't know this woman. I resolve to keep an open mind and find out who she is, if that's possible.
I take a sip of my iced tea and mention another negative story I've seen, one by a reporter who'd scheduled a phone interview but was instructed by an aide to call back again and again, only to be eventually informed by Stewart that she should have called earlier.
Stewart thinks a second, then recognizes the piece. "Remember that?" she says to Kelly, her assistant. "Wasn't that a big lie, too? That was a big lie. Total fabrication. Total fabrication."
As she's talking, the phone rings. "Go to the kitchen, Carolyn," she says. It is the first of several times Kelly is sent into the house for something, prompting me to tease her, "Does she always order you around like this?" Stewart objects, laughing: "I'm not ordering her around] She's my trusted partner in this] Don't you dare put that down, that that's ordering around, because that's not - gosh . . ."
It's just more efficient, she says, for Kelly to get up than for Stewart to interrupt the interview.
"You should count how many phone calls I get here," she goes on. "That woman saying I was not answering phone calls - I work here. Last Friday I got eighty calls. This is one of my three offices. So if you come here for an interview, you have to sort of understand that I'm also a working person. She's taking it as 'Here's this little housewife who's started this little business.' Well, it's not like that anymore]"
"But," I offer, "someone could argue that, well, your business is graciousness."
"But I'm not ungracious] You know? I can be a businesswoman and still be gracious at the same time. And the whole thing about my dog and - what is that pink stuff called?"
"Well, look, my dog was very ill. In fact, that dog died. Okay? It had cancer, which we did not know about. It was throwing up. And that stupid girl - I mean, I consider her a very, very insensitive and a very stupid person to write an article like that. My animals come first. If you're sitting here and this poor little dog starts to throw up, I will certainly take care of that dog and I will worry about it because they're my family.
"The weird thing about that was the Pepto-Bismol - I had just gotten it that day, because the doctor said just try it, maybe it's an upset stomach or something - the dog wouldn't even touch the Pepto-Bismol. And then we found out that the dog had cancer. He spent a week in the hospital in intensive care and then died, all of a sudden, and it's the cruelest thing to read something like that, but it's in your own house. If they've come to my house to do a story on home decorating, that's what she should have been talking about. And that other things happen around a house is what happens around a house."
As for the photographer's exploding light pack:
"He started a fire in my house] He was an inexperienced photographer. I said, 'Don't plug those things in there, because it's not a heavy line - there's a heavy line over there for photography.' He plugged it in anyway and blew a line. What would you think? In your own house? In an old 1805 farmhouse that's like a tinderbox?"
The perception, I point out, was that she's more concerned about her property -
"You bet I'm more concerned. You bet I'm more concerned about my house than about a photographer who's inexperienced and comes and almost starts a fire in my house. I care about the photographer but he did the wrong thing, and that's bad."
Meaning no offense, I say, "Aren't you being a little thin-skinned?"
"Me? Being thin-skinned? No, I am not at all thin-skinned about the criticism. Good, valid criticism is helpful. Nasty lies are unhelpful. My reader doesn't want to read that stuff, because my reader knows that I'm not like that. My reader knows that I couldn't write books and create a magazine and do all those things if I were such a horrible person."
"Well," I say, "you probably could."
"No, you couldn't."
"You couldn't be a horrible person and work very hard?"
"Create like what I create? Create gardens? No, you can't. I don't know any horrible people that live in a beautiful home, that make things themselves, that have very nice people like Carolyn working for them, that are horrible people. That have gardeners who have worked for you and with you for seven years, young boys who stay on and really have learned and worked. They don't stay on for the money; they stay because they have a nice job.
"Look," she says, "I've been with the same publisher for twelve years. How many authors have done ten books with the same publisher, one a year, and have had no trouble?"
"So what's going on?" I say. "Why do you think that these kinds of things happen?"
"It started with the foodies," she says. "Are you a food writer? Oh, okay. It was the food writers that really started this whole thing."
"Why?" I ask. "You'd think they'd love you."
"No, you would not think they'd love me. I am not food establishment. I did not come from a restaurant background or a food-styling background. They think I didn't pay my dues. That's how it really started in the olden days. Out of the blue comes this person: she writes a book called Entertaining, which takes the world by storm. This book is still selling an amazing number of copies every year and it's having its tenth birthday this year - "
She interrupts herself: "I don't like to analyze this stuff very much. I really don't like spending my time worrying about it."
"You must think about it," I say.
"No. I did think about it. In the beginning, I thought about it. I don't think about it very much anymore because it doesn't mean anything anymore."
Stewart mentions one journalist in particular whom she'd invited to a three-day seminar and who ultimately panned it. The journalist - "who is a foody, who has never written a book, who's probably earning the same amount of money she earned in the olden days" - took advantage of her hospitality, she feels.
"She didn't pay to come to that seminar and she was in my house and she ate with these people. No one in the class said anything bad, but she had only bad things to say. Everyone else loved it. She was a guest. She could have said after the first day, 'I can't stand it here, you're so horrible, I'm leaving.' "
Stewart stops. She looks positively betrayed.
"She wasn't honest with you," I say.
"No," she says. "And I liked her. That was the weirdest thing. I sort of liked her. She seemed to be asking good questions. She seemed intelligent. I think she went to Barnard College Stewart's alma mater . And I was sort of, like, warm to her."
"Does it make you mistrust people?"
"No, because I'm not a paranoid person."
"I'm surprised," I say, "that you would have a reporter in your house again."
Stewart seems to agree it's a risk. "I don't know what you're like. We'll see the article, we'll see the article."
WE TALK FOR more than two hours, and it's very easy. Stewart moves from topic to topic like a hostess at a dinner table.
She talks about politics: Formerly for Ross Perot, she is now for Clinton-Gore. "I would never vote Republican. I believe in paying taxes. I believe that what we worked for, we should give back."
She talks about religion: "I was brought up strict Catholic. I still have a very fond place for the church, but I don't believe in a lot of things the church believes in. The world has changed and women have changed and opportunities have changed - it's a very different thing now. I'm a good person. I'm moral and honest. I don't tell lies."
About literature: "If I could meet anybody in the whole world, it would be Garcia Marquez. I think his writing is, like, better than Dostoyevsky. A Hundred Years of Solitude is my favorite book."
About her philosophy of life: "To be active. Otherwise, you die. You lie down in Miami, Florida, and you die. You don't do anything. You complain about your arthritis."
About her empire: "I'm not rich. I'm not so rich. What do I do with my money? I pour it back into my work. I don't have a big stack of gold in the closet."
About living beautifully now, given the recession: "Why not? That's the perfect time to focus on the home, on bettering your life."
About rumors that she's frugal: "I'm very frugal. I'm not a tightwad. I don't have fancy things. I'm very frugal because I would rather buy a tree." She mentions that her sweater is a hand-me-down from her 26-year-old daughter, Alexis Stewart, and that her pants, a gift from Kelly, were $18, marked down from $89. She insists that she shops at K mart - that "I've gotten my daughter to shop at K mart."
About diet and exercise: I wonder if she's a vegetarian - she looks so healthy - then again, she's always glazing hams. "My diet has changed a lot. I don't - " She stops herself. "Last night I ate a little fish. I eat very - I eat a lot of food; I don't care if it's meat or fish. I eat a very balanced diet." As for exercise, she works out with a trainer for 90 minutes a day. She says she has not had cosmetic surgery. (What can I say, I had to ask.)
And about her love life: "Oh, my love life. It exists." It is the only evasive answer of the whole interview. Not only does she respond to all my questions, but she's touchingly candid.
"My only disaster," she says at one point, "was having an unhappy end to a very long and good marriage" - a reference to her divorce two years ago from stockbroker Andrew Stewart. "And my only mistake was not having more children." (Her husband, she says, insisted on having only one.)
All in all, she says, her life's been "not bad."
Not bad, even though she says the "disaster" has made her uncomfortable in her own house. Her real life, she says, is not lived in this beautiful place she and her husband created together, but elsewhere, mostly on weekends.
"I have to get away from here," she says. "I mean, I don't have a husband now. When I had a husband here, this was a home. Now that I'm totally alone, I have my animals, who I love - they're part of it - but this house, um, is lonely. I have a house in East Hampton on Long Island that is filled with my closest friends." And Alexis lives there, in a cottage right behind the house.
She catalogues the friends who recently spent the weekend: among them, Charlotte Beers, the CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, the advertising agency; actor Terence Stamp ("he gave us all breathing lessons in yoga"); Susan Chesnoff, wife of journalist Richard Chesnoff; her lawyer; her daughter's ex-boyfriend; and her publisher, Eric Thorkilsen.
Stewart cooked paella for 20.
"That's how I live on the weekends," she says. "I entertain. I have guests."
"Doing, doing, all the time?" I ask.
"I'm doing things all the time - that's the whole idea, yes. I have a gorgeous garden there. I grow roses. And it's more me there than - Well, I still do all of that here but I feel less inclined to entertain here than out there. Because this has memories."
Why doesn't she sell this place?
"I'm working on it," she says. "It's not going to happen for a while. It's hard to give this place up. I've spent twenty years creating a beautiful place here that I love. I love this place, I love it. But I'm not real comfortable here anymore. My daughter doesn't like it here anymore - she doesn't come here because she has bad memories. Everybody has that in their lives. Everybody has a memory."
I tell Stewart she's surprising me, that I'd expected her to be more guarded.
She makes a face that says, What for? "Look," she says, "it happens to people. It happens to people all the time."
STEWART'S SO straightforward and fearless that I almost don't mind bringing up a touchy subject: the charges that she's plagiarized recipes.
Wearily, she responds. "Where do recipes come from? Where do they get them? Where did French bread come from? Do you think it came from Julia Child? No way. And Julia Child is the first to admit it. It's an evolutionary thing . . . come on, that's old hat."
Restaurateurs, unlike "foodies," love to make her dishes, she says; they don't give her credit but she doesn't mind. She's glad to be "useful."
I ask if she thinks people are jealous of her. She says she hates to think so, because she is not that way herself, although "sometimes," she admits, "I'm envious if somebody is ultra-beautiful and she's a hundred years old or something. But that kind of jealousy - everybody has that kind of feelings. But I am never, ever envious of a person who does a lot of good work and is successful at it. Ever."
She adds, "Why shouldn't I be competent? What else do I do, do you know? I don't go play golf. Why don't they pick on golfers?"
People who are envious, she says, "should not be journalists."
"But it's not just journalists," I say. "In the past week or so I've been telling friends, 'I'm going to be interviewing Martha Stewart.' Serious eye rolling] Oh, my God. Make your own potpourri] Grow your own herbs]"
"Okay, but that's not jealousy," says Stewart, brightening. "That's women who think, 'Oh, God, she does so much of this stuff, it's like overkill.' And some people don't have patience with overkill."
If she didn't overdo it, she says, how would she satisfy her magazine readers every month? "I mean that's the whole idea: to give them more ideas than they can possibly ever use, in hopes that they'll use one of them. Do you think that Sidney Sheldon, when he writes a novel, isn't overkilling everything? Isn't there a little too much in those books?"
So okay, I say, "let's talk about Martha Stewart the real person, who's not a celebrity who has a million pages to fill. What is your life really like? Your real life. Do you pour cereal into a bowl in the morning?"
"Did I have time to eat today?" she replies. "No, I haven't had any cereal yet."
I mention having read that she cries every day.
"Yes, I do. I wrote a column about it in my magazine. The crying thing is - I think that it's a very nice and valid emotion, crying. It's something people can do. Everyone can do it." (She's giggling; does it sound silly to her?) "I read the newspaper in the morning; there's always something to cry about in The New York Times. Always. There's something to cry about in The Wall Street Journal. That's just a nice thing to do."
"What, for instance, would make you cry?"
"Oh, gosh, anything. Reading about Somalia and seeing pictures of starving children. I mean, just seeing those - with the flies in the corner of their eyes. That's the kind of stuff I cry about every day, and that's a very good thing. I cried this morning because my poor cats had fleas in their eyes, hanging around their fur. I cried about that. It's a very nice release. And it's a good thing for you."
It's surprising that she takes the time, given her productivity and pace. "You're going, going, going," I say to her; "doing, doing, doing. Someone who'd taken Psych 101 would say, 'Well, obviously she's trying to make up for something; she's trying not to look too deeply into her own life.' "
"I'm a very introspective person," says Stewart. "I spend a tremendous amount of time alone. In the garden, that's where I do my thinking. That's who I am. But people choose to see a woman who's been successful and a woman who is busy and thinking about forty different things at the same time. You can also be a sensitive person when you do that. You know, Picasso certainly was a sensitive person."
"In a manner of speaking," I say, going along with the conversation's unusual turn.
"I'm sure he was]" says Stewart, who majored in art history. "I'm sure he cried and I'm sure he had feelings. How could he create like that?"
"He was also a terrible brute," I say.
"How do we really know?" she says. "I mean, we don't really know. I mean, sometimes he was a brute, but that was his personality. He's a bull. You know? A Spanish bull]"
This leads to a conversation about the kind of art she likes (Renaissance, the Hudson River School), her interest in sculpture, and the fact that some of her friends are art dealers.
ALL OF IT makes me wonder whether, as the daughter of schoolteachers in Nutley, New Jersey, Stewart ever feels disconnected from her roots.
"Absolutely not," she says. "I live exactly the same way that I lived there."
I'm a bit dubious, but I let it pass. For one thing, it's almost time to go. Also, I have to admit, I am now, well, favorably disposed toward her.
True, she drops names, taking care to add titles (although perhaps it's to be helpful). Also, she's brusque with the help (not that they seem to mind). And she's a bit highfalutin; she pronounces the h in herbs.
Yet when I quickly review the morning and weigh it all - her energy, her directness, the fact that she did not put on a phony show of sweetness - I actually like her.
Yes, she's a shrewd businesswoman; but she also seems guileless. Whatever's in her head comes out, unedited. I suspect it's her own words that get her into hot water with journalists - particularly journalists looking for trouble.
So why hate Martha Stewart? Because of her Neoclassic Dinner for Eight to Ten, her Osso Buco Gremolata (braised veal knuckle), her washed cats and backyard smokehouse? Okay, they're not for everybody. But she has an aestheticsense, and, judging from her videos, she knows what she's doing and can describe it clearly. Sure, a lot of it is pure fantasyland, but it does no harm, and obviously some people find it nourishing.
My feeling is, there are bigger targets.
STEWART HAS AGREED to pose for some photographs.
First, though, her driver - and tag-sale "picker" - has returned from an assignment. He has brought her a small table on spec. Should he go back and pay for it?
Stewart is characteristically direct: she doesn't like it.
"It's too plain?" he asks.
"It looks like plywood," she says. "See? It's really ugly. This looks like homemade. It's ugly, it's ugly." She examines the hardware. "They're not even nails." The wood, she says, "is homemade stuff that somebody oiled. Arts and Crafts style, but it's not made by anybody."
He'll have to take it back.
Now the photographer asks her to stand in front of a pretty doorway, and she does. She's smiling, she looks great, and yet she needs reassuring. "Do I look fat?" she asks Carolyn Kelly. (Now I really like her.)
"No," Kelly replies.
Stewart poses some more. The former model lifts her chin, lowers it, tilts her head this way, that way. Her eyes are twinkling all the while. The photographer is very pleased.
"Martha," I call, "what are you thinking when you're doing that?"
"I'm thinking about a dead tree right in front of me, to tell you the truth." She asks the driver-picker, "Is that something on the other property? I'm afraid in a storm . . ."
He says he'll take care of it.
We walk through the gardens, looking for different backdrops, and on the way Stewart issues commands to a gardener: "Don't bother transplanting carrots - put a few rows of beets there."
Moving along, she comes upon the sweet peas, a lush patch of flowers climbing string trellises (she strung them herself). Stewart remarks that these flowers must be snipped, that snipping encourages them to grow, and with a pair of scissors that have appeared out of nowhere she gets to work.
She's snipping and snipping until, finally, she has a bouquet - a bouquet that she offers to me.
"Hold on]" I say. "Should I take these? Is this a bribe?" I'm laughing and looking frantically at the photographer, who shrugs.
"Take them, take them," says Stewart. And putting them into my hand, she mugs for the camera as the photographer snaps our picture together. Then we shake hands good-bye.
"We'll see what the article is like," she says, walking off into a field. "We'll see what the article is like."