Any adult who gets enough fresh air knows that image is not reality. Oprah Winfrey is possibly as charming a lady at the supermarket as she is on the air chatting with Dr. Phil. But most public figures — particularly those who, like Hillary, Madonna, and Britney, are famous enough for first-name-only recognition — are, dollars to doughnuts, not nearly as together, daring, or pure as they look under the camera lights.
Then again, most people don’t work as hard as Martha Stewart to convince others that their way is the ideal way—or if not ideal, at least (as her trademark tag line goes) A Good Thing. Nor do they elicit such strong emotional response. It’s not just that Martha is famous enough to be called Martha even by cashiers at the checkout counter: Martha also aggressively sells her Martha-hood as the embodiment of a desirable lifestyle attainable by all who buy the products she sells—the magazines, TV shows, books, bedsheets, and garden trowels. And under such circumstances, it’s A Bad Thing when personal reality is discordant enough with public image to bleed through into semipublic reputation.
Christopher Byron’s sniping case study, Martha Inc.: The Incredible Story of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, isn’t the first dispatch received to enumerate the differences between Martha the business legend and Ms. Stewart the woman who doesn’t observe the very lessons in hospitality and homemaking she peddles. Magazine articles, gossip items, and an unauthorized biography have regularly gloated over instances of bad behavior from the arbiter of good taste. Still, the veteran business writer contributes further evidence to the reports that, no, Martha isn’t anywhere near nice, or even honest about where she came from, how she got to be a style-setter and billionaire, and what she sacrificed for success. Although he grudgingly admires the ruthless savvy with which she built an empire out of meringue and painted pinecones, he’s more interested in describing, with theatrical emphasis, the many ways she has ”erected around herself and her past a perimeter of Potemkin village defenses more elaborate than those of any figure in American public life since Frank Sinatra.”
To read Byron’s acid report — barbed with complaints from former friends and colleagues who have felt hurt or discarded along the way — this mistress of omnimedia became a how-to guru in direct psychological reaction to her under-nurtured childhood: Little Martha Kostyra was one of six kids born, Byron writes, to a mother who was a ”coldly disengaged housewife” and a ”self-absorbed narcissist” father.
And thus, he concludes, even while excelling in the great American activity of self-renovation, this divorced, 60-year-old mother of a grown daughter (with her own ”complex personality”) can’t help re-creating the coldness and lovelessness she experienced as a child. ”I let her get away with things I probably should not have. I suppose you could say that I trained her to mistreat me,” wails one particularly voluble source who used to work with Martha and once considered her a ”best friend.”
”Rarely has America produced a public figure who appears more tortured,” Byron writes – and that’s as sympathetic as he gets. But there’s more to the story of Martha Inc. than telling the story of Martha Stewart. And it’s here that any adult who gets enough fresh air also ought to know that a writer’s relationship with his subject is never just a good thing or a bad thing, but usually A Murky Thing, too. Byron’s got a zippy, swaggering storytelling style with a fondness for dot-dot-dots clearly influenced by Tom Wolfe. But the author also appears to have a competitive relationship with his subject, a woman who offered him networking help in the past, and whom he has known ”in a casual way for years — decades even — because we were neighbors.”
Why would such a busy, successful writer, columnist, and radio host who ”hadn’t planned to write such a book” jump in just because the subject was suggested to him by a book editor? Who is Martha to him? Why is he so fascinated with what will happen to Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia when its founder dies? Like its bitchy predecessor, Jerry Oppenheimer’s Martha Stewart—Just Desserts: The Unauthorized Biography, this book may be the revenge that so many who know the woman behind the image want to serve cold. That doesn’t mean, though, that we should swallow it whole.