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Martha Inc. : Behind the Turkey in Puff Pastry, Behind the Meticulously Manicured Herb Gardens, Behind the Hand-Stenciled Tablecloths Lurks One Shrewd Business Mind--Martha Stewart's

August 02, 1992|VERLYN KLINKENBORG | Verlyn Klinkenborg teaches writing at Harvard University and is the author of "The Last Fine Time," a nonfiction work about a bar in Buffalo, N.Y., published by Vintage.

I HAVE A FANTASY ABOUT MARTHA STEWART. WE ARE STANDING at the edge of the 30-acre property she recently purchased at auction in the wealthy New York suburb of Fairfield, Conn. The land is the site of an abandoned nine-hole golf course, now overgrown by rank grasses and weeds: no fairway, all rough. The season is April in a late spring, the weather still faintly raw. But Stewart raises her arm, gestures toward the horizon, and the land turns opulent, the season advancing swiftly into midsummer.

Rows of heavily laden fruit trees suddenly spring from sloping hillsides, and in the wet bottom lands shade gardens appear. Stewart waves with an open palm toward bare ground in the middle distance, and beds of fritillaries and Higo irises and Von Rebay poppies burst forth, blooming in clamorous sequence. Bourbon and damask and species roses leap onto arbors, and stately peonies march in rows down to the sea. I start to speak, but Stewart turns to me, points, and I am instantly covered in verdure, a green man carrying a notebook.

In fact, Stewart is pointing past me toward the border this property shares with its suburban neighbors. There, doing her work with no magic at all, a crew of men trims trees, thatches grass, bulldozes soil. "Looks great," she hollers, something her many fans might have trouble imagining her doing.

I am spending the day with Stewart in Fairfield and at her home in nearby Westport. Already I have seen perhaps a dozen people working at her behest this early morning, some gardening, some cleaning, some converting the attic of her house into a colossal linen closet. And like most Americans who are aware of Stewart, I sense the presence of many more people working behind the scenes for her: to produce her popular books and videos, to coordinate her lectures and appearances, to produce her music-to-eat-by CDs for Sony Masterworks, her Wednesday segment on NBC's "Today" show, the bimonthly magazine Martha Stewart Living at her Manhattan offices, and--always the punch line--at K mart, which markets home textiles under the Martha Stewart name. If Stewart, 50, does not have the power to turn journalists into topiary or make nature spring to life with a wave of her hand, she certainly has the power to make men and women spring to work.

More than that, Stewart has the ability to define an entire landscape of domestic dreams that stimulate her fans and irritate her detractors. Her world seems effortless, perfect and within easy reach of every American woman. Stewart doesn't merely work at home: Home is her work. As a result, there is something unusually personal in the reactions she causes in women, many of whom make room for their working lives only by sacrificing the quality of their domestic lives. Women love Stewart: "She's done more to aestheticize the presentation of food than anyone in the past 30 years," said one friend of mine. Women hate Stewart: "She should be shot," said another. They dismiss her life as a fantasy, but it is a potent fantasy, a vision of grace and creativity in a world full of haste and shoddy goods.

And yet every fantasist pays a price. Martha Stewart's price has been divorce--after 26 years of marriage to publishing executive Andy Stewart (they have one daughter, Alexis, 25)--and the ire of a venomous press. The marriage is now five years behind her, but the press is not. She has been called, sometimes directly, sometimes by implication, humorless, egotistical, cold, manipulative, bitchy--and a bad cook. Sniped Laura Shapiro in a 1986 Newsweek profile: "Entertaining in the spirit of Martha Stewart is an act of relentless display and ornamentation."

When I ask Stewart about the way she has been portrayed in print, her face drops, and she says, "I don't understand it. I'm only trying to make people's lives a little more pleasing to them."

To describe a man in her position, we might use a different, less openly sexist, set of adjectives: serious, confident, businesslike, managerial, demanding. And if that double standard gets applied to women in the workplace, how much more readily is it used to judge Stewart, whose workplace is her kitchen, her garden, her dining room? From her we expect only sweetness and light, which is not how most people go about building a business that generates a personal income of about $2 million a year and undisclosed multimillions in overall revenues.

Stewart's manner is perpetually businesslike, and when she needs to break away from work, the garden and the party circuit offer little solace. Last year she went trout fishing in Argentina. Another diversion emerged recently when Ross Perot, whom she had met while she was working on Wall Street, talked to her about his campaign a few weeks before he ended his non-candidacy. She was, she says, "an early advocate of his courageous program for change."

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