She's the shining light of the hearth 'n' home set

December 27, 1991|By Janet Cawley | Janet Cawley,Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK -- Martha Stewart, sleek and blond and trailing 40 acolytes as she leads a tour through an antiques show, pauses before a display of pricey curios, waves her arm and offers a

quick insight into her purchasing philosophy.

"My motto," she says in that clipped, boarding school accent, "is, if you love it, buy it."

What she means is buy it on the spot. Don't dillydally. That wasn't the way Martha Stewart became a one-woman conglomerate, overseeing an empire built on hearth, home and hype. She would never let the grass grow under her feet or if she did, she'd figure out a way to paint it with gold leaf and weave it into a decorative centerpiece for Thanksgiving dinner.

Stewart is a phenomenon of the '80s and '90s, tapping brilliantly into the stay-at-home, nesting mentality of those no longer able to shell out big bucks for travel, entertainment or elaborate dinners out.

At the same time, she offers a vision: life as we all would like it to be but somehow never quite manage ourselves.

In Martha Stewart's world, there are no cracked plates (cracked? they aren't even mismatched), no moldering takeout Chinese in the fridge, no pets throwing up on the carpet, no homegrown tomatoes that look like wormy marbles.

Instead everything is and here's the word most associated with Martha Stewart perfect.

It's a romantic vision, the idea that no matter what is going wrong in your life, if you just follow her directions make pomanders with nuts and pine cones; gild tiny, hollowed-out pumpkins to make soup bowls; slip sage leaves under the skin of your Thanksgiving turkey to form a mosaic; make a gingerbread house from architectural plans then life is going to be better.

In the world created by Martha Stewart and dazzlingly displayed in nine books (the latest, "Martha Stewart's Gardening" is just out), four videos and her own magazine (fittingly titled "Martha Stewart Living") life seems to proceed on a different, but seductive, plane.

An Easter egg hunt consists of little girls in starched organdy dresses carrying ribbon-bedecked baskets and looking for colored eggs in a topiary garden.

An article on making your own compost features a compost arrangement that looks like a Japanese still life. Meals prepared in less than an hour include peppered roast rack of lamb with carrots and yellow pepper soup and zucchini-potato pancakes.

Is this real life or what?

"It's not imaginary," Stewart says as she sits for an interview over camomile tea in her magazine office in Manhattan's Time-Life Building. "It's fantasy up to a point, but underneath it all, it's total reality."

And as for the people who say that when they stagger in from work, the last thing they're going to do is knock around the kitchen making roast rack of lamb? "I'm sorry they won't try it because it's really good," Stewart earnestly replies.

She knows she frequently is singled out for ridicule but says, "I always laugh about it.

"What I'm really doing is leading a very healthy, normal, nice existence and doing things I think everyone underneath all their facades really likes. So it's funny to see any kind of backlash to that kind of living. I think it's kind of unnecessary and foolish in a way."

As for suggestions she is possessed by possessions, Stewart looks hurt. "I don't know what they're talking about," she says. "You can't live in a vacuum. You can't live in an empty box. There's nothing wrong with owning things.

"I could leave my house tomorrow and all I really would have to take are my cats and my dogs and my pictures ... so I'm not married to my possessions but it's nice to have them around. Why not feel really comfortable? Why not love beautiful things?"

Stewart also is an appealing target because, let's face it, who likes people who seem to lead a perfect life? She just turned 50, but looks at most 40 with a girlish hairdo and lilting giggle.

She is tall, svelte and looks glamorous, even when mucking around in the garden. She has three homes (houses in Westport, Conn., and East Hampton, N.Y., as well as a 5th Avenue apartment), a staggering income and so much energy she only sleeps, at most, four hours a night.

But it hasn't always been this way. Despite the all-American WASP looks and name, Stewart was born Martha Kostyra, one of six children of Polish parents. She grew up in modest circumstances in Nutley, N.J., and put herself through Barnard College by modeling.

Stewart is her husband's name and that particular segment of her life had a most un-Martha like ending. They divorced a year and a half ago, after 29 years of marriage. By one account, they separated while she was out promoting her "Weddings" book.

Andy Stewart, the lawyer turned book publisher prominently mentioned in the early books and videos, is probably the only subject Martha Stewart is unwilling to discuss.

"It's all old information now," she says, cutting off questions on her ex and the circumstances of their breakup. "I'm divorced officially. I really don't like to talk about it."

She says she has "beaus" but no one who lives in and would very much like to marry again. Period. The end. Stop asking.

She says she never runs out of ideas. And with the help of a housekeeper and two gardeners, her Westport home remains a showplace, the focal point of her work. Right now she's working on cleaning out the attic (somehow it's hard to avoid the thought that this venture will one day turn up as "Martha Stewart's Attic").

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