'Martha, Inc.': loving a love-hate tale

April 14, 2002|By Clarinda Harriss | By Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

Martha, Inc.: The Incredible Story of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, by Christopher Byron. Wiley & Sons. 405 pages. $27.95.

In the American subconscious, Martha Stewart and Bill Gates have joined in unholy matrimony to become the King & Queen whose prototypes have lurked there since nursery-rhyme days. The King is in his counting house (what better name for a computer hub-of-hubs?) counting out his money. The Queen is in the kitchen making bread-and-honey (money, with golden sweetener! Yes!!) Grown-ups, read this page-turner to each other at bedtime, chapter by compelling chapter. All you'll lose is some sleep.

Chris Byron's Marthagate-expose of a Queen whose reign began in a suburban kitchen substantiates the nursery-tale mythology, providing castles (Turkey Hill and the Adams House) and wily courtiers, notably Sharon Patrick, the Harvard MBA who created the Martha Stewart industry that made them both vastly wealthy; Charlotte Beers, an advertising executive who was Stewart's first mentor; and Allen Brugman, an entertainment "lawyer to the stars" whose handling of Stewart's business contracts made Martha a billionaire.

The book made this reviewer fantasize a pair of mythic twin daughters for the royal pair: Anorexia and Bulimia, offspring of Queen Martha's policy of control-by-food. This was a policy she apparently inherited from both her parents: the father who dominated and subjugated the family's every activity, beginning with what verged on force-feeding; the mother who spent her days cooking kielbasa and baking Polish pastries in a fiercely immaculate house as the prototypical middle-class '50's home-maker -- household ruler and slave.

The Martha Stewart empire, which in Byron's depiction seems more monomaniacal than Saddam Hussein's, has moved far past the kitchen, but control-by-food remains its central metaphor. One of the book's many fascinating, chilling anecdotes underscores that metaphor. We are shown Stewart stalking "backstage" at an elaborate dinner given by Mel Karmazin, head of CBS, and, "stony-faced" with silent rage, serving the dessert course herself when a delay threatened to waste her valuable time.

No stranger himself to the marriage of serious economics and show biz, author Christopher Byron is host of a syndicated daily radio show, Wall Street Wakeup with Chris Byron. A Yale graduate who holds a law degree from Columbia, he knows how to cut to details that will affix diverse interests. Many will be fascinated by his careful detailing of the legal / corporate quicksteps that danced Martha Stewart to Martha Stewart Inc. And a few, like me and a pair of Martha's dinner partners, will be drawn -- with a certain grudging admiration -- to the migrant worker's cut, bruised, broken-nailed and callused hands her elegant sleeves expose.

Martha Stewart -- and this book -- tap into the American love for love-hate relationships with its Great and Famous. We can both admire and be appalled by a whole smorgasbord: the Sherman-like, 'mow-em-down resolve of her power offensives; the ruthlessness with which she got rid of anybody who stood in her way, including her first catering partner, many friends and her husband of decades, Andy Stewart; even (or maybe especially) the ambivalence of her blond good looks. Can we help being titillated when the royal Ice Maiden appears naked-shouldered under her K-mart sheets in recent television commercials? If we ever had any doubts that Martha Stewart is our American "Virgin Queen," a la Elizabeth I, growing up to be the spittin' image of her father (only more so), toying with male rulers and amassing an empire, Bryon's wickedly fascinating book will dispel them.

Clarinda Harriss, chair of the Towson University English Depart-ment, has published three collections of poetry and contributed two scholarly works on poetry. Her work appears in many U.S. magazines, including Touching Fire: Erotic Writing by Women. She edits and directs BrickHouse Books Inc., Maryland's oldest continuously publishing small press.

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