The vindication of Martha Stewart

November 03, 1999|By David Plotz

HERE IS a (partial) list of objects that Martha Stewart has gilded on recent TV shows: pomegranates, pumpkins, cookies, chocolate truffles, wrapping paper, oak leaves, acorns, and -- no kidding -- okra. The only thing Ms. Stewart has not gilded is the lily. But wait till it's back in season.

She has proved that alchemy is not impossible: Brush enough gold paint on enough flora, and eventually you'll make real gold. Her recent initial public offering for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia killed on Wall Street, rising from $18 to $52 before settling at $36.

She arrived at the stock exchange on the morning of Oct. 19 toting a tray of brioches. She left that evening holding $1.2 billion (in stock, not dough).

Investors bought a brilliant company: Omnimedia -- a Web site, mail-order operation, two TV shows, two magazines, Kmart partnership and 27 books -- netted $24 million last year from the gospel of Ms. Stewart. Kmart sold more than $750 million worth of Stewart-branded products in 1998.

Her 1997 decision to divorce Time Warner and go solo -- a split that cost her more than $50 million -- has never looked better.

What was missing from Ms. Stewart's IPO was the sniping and mockery that has dogged all of her ventures. Traditionally, she has been battered by three criticisms. First, she is simply ludicrous. You could not imagine better comic material than her ideas of "living": the "midnight omelet dinner for 1,000."

Parodies barely exaggerate when they imagine Ms. Stewart turning water into wine ("a lovely Merlot") or manufacturing condoms from her own lamb.

A second and more thoughtful batch of critics has charged her with encouraging class division, promoting soulless domestic conformism and undermining working women by making them feel domestically inadequate.

The final criticism has been personal. As her unauthorized biography, "Just Desserts," contends, Ms. Stewart is an icy, horrible person who abused her (now ex-) husband, ignores her daughter, belittles her mother, sues her gardener for pennies, plagiarizes recipes from better cooks and humiliates her staff.

The allure of money

These criticisms have subsided partly because of America's culture of financial idolatry. Anyone who's worth a billion on paper is worth sucking up to.

Ms. Stewart is benefiting from parody fatigue as well. She has been a figure of fun since "Entertaining" was published in 1982, so all the jokes are old.

But the critical silence may also represent a long-overdue recognition that Ms. Stewart is, as she would say, a good thing. In a recent TV interview, she called herself a "teacher."

What she does is not silly at all, or at least no more silly than most advice magazines. Her magazines and TV shows retain just enough nonsense to make them irksome ("sew your own pashmina from home-raised llamas," and the like), but she supplies valuable instruction about the mundane tasks of life.

It is not false consciousness that makes tens of millions of people follow Ms. Stewart every month. It is her good advice.

But the great achievement of her domestic gospel is not practical but moral. She has a puritanical sensibility. She believes in the uplifting power of work. She instructs you so that you will know how to create objects yourself, grow plants yourself, learn home repair yourself, cook food yourself.

Doing something well is good and liberating and fulfilling. It strengthens friendships and families: When I saw her making waffles the other day, it made me want to make waffles for Sunday breakfast. If I make waffles on Sunday, I will invite the downstairs neighbors up to eat them, and that is undoubtedly a good thing.

Dreamers and doers

Even if most viewers rarely practice anything Ms. Stewart preaches -- she calls such slackers "Martha Dreamers" as opposed to "Martha Doers" -- she is still a worthy goad.

Ms. Stewart is democratically snobbish. She hews to a country-house sensibility, but anyone can follow it. It doesn't cost much, because you do it yourself. If a middle-class Polish girl like Ms. Stewart can blossom into an affected, Breck-girl faux-WASP, you can too!

The final, and most important, reason Ms. Stewart is escaping criticism is that Martha Stewart the person has been separated from Martha Stewart the brand. The principal topic of discussion about the Martha Stewart Living IPO was Martha Stewart's death. Analysts speculated what would happen to Omnimedia if Ms. Stewart were hit by a bus or cab (or succumbed to an accident in "the potting shed," as the New York Observer's Christopher Byron nicely put it).

There were two answers: First, the company has bought a $67 million life-insurance policy on her. Second, Martha Stewart the brand can survive without Martha Stewart the person, as Ralph Lauren the brand survives without Ralph Lauren selling every shirt.

(Ms. Stewart does not appear at all in the current issue of Living.) The zooming stock price is evidence that Wall Street can distinguish Ms. Stewart from her product.

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