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Stewart Has the Towels for Tea, and Now Sympathy

After relentless derision for her omnipresent perfection, some say the home arts maven is a victim of sexism and just plain jealousy.

June 05, 2003|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Martha Stewart doesn't know how to spell schadenfreude.

Or at least she didn't when journalist Jeffrey Toobin recently offered the term, which means glee at another's misfortune, as a possible explanation for the enormous amount of publicity her alleged insider trading of ImClone stock has received in the last year. According to Toobin's New Yorker article, Stewart agreed with this analysis, and then asked him if he happened to know how to spell it.

Since then a few things have changed. "Martha Stewart says she has word that she will probably be indicted tomorrow," Jay Leno announced in his Tuesday night monologue. "She's still getting inside information -- how did she know she's going to be indicted tomorrow?"

Indicted she was on Wednesday afternoon, proving once again that Martha Stewart is always right. The nine-count charge included obstruction of justice and making false statements, but not insider trading. After pleading not guilty, she surprised many by stepping down from her position as chairman and chief executive of her multimedia empire, although she will remain as chief creative officer.

The Age of the Sugared Iced Tea Spoon has ended.

Ever since she waltzed into the collective dining room with her 1982 breakout book, "Entertaining," Stewart has been an inescapable and polarizing figure in American culture. Any woman who would publicly extol the virtue of homemade Christmas ornament hooks, or name a paint in her signature line after the blue eggs produced by her Araucana hens, or put the word "Omnimedia" in the name of her business is going to attract a lot of attention. And since the investigation into her possible wrongdoing was announced two days after Christmas 2001, every satirist and wag in town has been working overtime -- from network TV, where NBC recently aired the unflattering "Martha, Inc.," to the Internet, where dukes it out with the Martha Stewart Loathing site. Why, the headlines practically write themselves: "Martha, in the Soup," "The Dish on Martha," "The Salad Days Are Over."

But an interesting thing has happened in Round 17 of the never-ending Saga of Martha Stewart. Long supported by stalwart fans, Stewart is now getting kind words even from those less enchanted with her tea-towel-starching ways. Years after inheriting Leona Helmsley's tiara'ed Queen of Mean title, Stewart is getting a little more sympathy.

"People have a problem with women who have power and money in this country," said Lilly Bernel. Bernel, who used Stewart's bridal magazine when planning her wedding last year, was shopping for Stewart products at the Kmart on Third Street near Fairfax Avenue as the indictment was announced.

Other former fans have become hard-liners. LuAnn Hancock, who works in a real estate office in Newport Beach, at first thought this was just a case of celebrity-bashing. Then she learned Stewart was a former stockbroker. "Once I realized she had a degree and a license and a seat on the stock exchange, my opinion changed 100%," she said.

Toobin, who scored the only post-scandal interview with Stewart so far, said on CNN Tuesday that he didn't see anything like insider trading during his research. In fact, the New Yorker's Stewart defense began three years earlier, when Joan Didion pointed out that Stewart had every right to behave in the often autocratic, driven ways many empire-builders find expedient.

Didion's opinion has not changed. Stewart "attracts a lot of negative feeling," she said Wednesday from New York. "And it definitely stems from the idea that she has overstepped herself. And most offensively to those who condemn her, she has done it by making a fortune out of home-making."

More than that, Didion believes, this is a case of the crime being tailored to create the criminal. "It's perfectly clear that if the ink wasn't there, the prosecution wouldn't be there," she said.

In fact, according to Ian Blecher, a former reporter with the New York Observer who wrote about the ImClone scandal, until Stewart became part of the story, it was difficult to get the public's attention focused on that or any other Wall Street scandal. "People were pretty psyched when they found out Martha Stewart might have been involved in one of these insider trading deals," he said. "At the time, Wall Street was in an uproar with these type of scandals. [But] it seems you needed a better face than Ken Lay. It made it easier to sell papers."

Blecher, who has since left journalism to study philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, subscribes to Martha Stewart Living and watches her on television. "I like features on how to build a fence," he said. "She went down South and showed everyone how to make this really difficult type of fence with this artisan fence-builder.

"She really didn't take all that much money," he added. "Any responsible reporter would have to acknowledge that even if she did screw up, it wasn't a huge screw-up or cost a lot of people their livelihoods and jobs."

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