Stocks & Bonds

Like all things Martha Stewart, the relationship with her daughter is complicated. In mom's time of trial, though, Alexis stands by her.

February 10, 2004|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - It is just one of the thousands of soft-focus, idealized images that over the years have presented the world of Martha Stewart as Martha Stewart would have you see it: the weedless Giverny-esque gardens, the sun-lighted kitchen of polished pots and nary a stray crumb, the lavish parties with gemlike canapes and sparkling crystal.

This particular picture, bathed in a warm glow suggesting candles or a crackling log fire just out of camera range, shows a young blond woman enveloped by the arms of a dark-haired man. It appears in Martha Stewart's Christmas, a 1989 book in which the author lays her claim to the holiday, along with this caption:

"In the library, beneath a collection of Copeland's china by Spode, my daughter, Alexis, and her boyfriend, Sam Waksal, embrace in what they thought was a private moment."

It's classic Martha, of course, from the competitive, name-dropping description of the decor (subtext: These aren't some Hummel plates like the ones hanging on your wall, hon!) to the discomfiting sense that everything, even a daughter's stolen kiss, is fodder for a life not so much simply lived as stage-crafted for public consumption.

Today, though, the images from the House of Stewart emerge in a distinctly unvarnished state.

Alexis Stewart - now a brunette - sits directly behind her mother in the New York City courtroom where the gracious-living guru is on trial for her role in a stock-dumping scandal surrounding a company owned by Sam Waksal - now in prison.

In comparison to her ubiquitous mother - star of a self-named empire of TV and radio shows, books, magazines and product lines - Alexis Stewart, a one-time hotelier and gym owner in the Hamptons, has lived a decidedly lower-profile life.

But with Martha on trial for obstruction of justice and securities fraud, the daughter is emerging from the long shadow of the mother as she stands by her side through the intensely watched trial.

Although they are said to have had strained relations over the years - one book describes Martha's parenting of her only child under the chapter title "Mommie Dearest" - Alexis turns out to have been the link between Martha and her co-players in the ImClone scandal. She introduced her mother to college pal Peter Bacanovic, the handsome stockbroker who subsequently drew Martha into his stable of top-drawer clients at Merrill Lynch and now is standing trial at her side. And, of course, Martha and Waksal became friendly through Alexis, growing even closer after Waksal and Alexis broke up and he began squiring Martha around town.

This small, incestuous universe of intersecting orbits - Bacanovic once worked at ImClone and by one account had a hand in introducing Alexis to Waksal - has added a certain frisson to what instead would be just another trial of corporate misdeeds. While Alexis is not charged with anything, she hovers around the edges of this unfolding story, an intriguing figure whose lanky, streamlined style - long, straight hair, simple trouser-and-sweater courtroom attire - contrasts with her more solidly built and imposing mother with her rumpled blond bob and unstructured pants suits.

In addition to her daily public show of support in the courtroom, the 38-year-old Alexis appears involved behind the scenes as well in her mother's defense. Her husband, John Cuti, is part of Martha's team of lawyers, and Alexis herself proved key to a victory her mother won during pre-trial wranglings: Martha successfully convinced the court that an e-mail she sent to one of her attorneys was privileged lawyer-client communication despite the fact that she had shared it with another person - her daughter.

"Alexis is the closest person in the world to me. She is a valued confidante and counselor to me," Martha said in an affidavit regarding the forwarded e-mail. "In sharing the e-mail with her, I knew that she would keep its content strictly confidential."

It's a surprising statement, in some ways, given the way the mother-daughter relationship has been characterized, correctly or not, in the past: Two unauthorized biographies of Stewart and a number of media accounts have portrayed the two as occasionally estranged. In this telling, the career-obsessed Martha alternately ne- glected Alexis - who once was quoted in a magazine article as saying she couldn't "remember 10 seconds where Mom wasn't immersed in the business" - and pressured her to live up to exacting standards. Not unexpectedly, this version of their relationship goes, Alexis grew up to be a sullen teen-ager and then an angry young woman, often adrift as she searched for her own identity apart from her domineering mother.

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