Politics & Policy

Miss Know-It-All

Prison for the Paragon of Perfection, Martha Stewart?

Will it be six months in the slammer? Or will Martha’s newest accessory be a not-very-chic electronic-monitoring anklet? We’ll find out this Friday, when the diva of domesticity will be sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, who proved to be a bit of a diva in her own right during Stewart’s February trial.

Regardless of how it goes: Home confinement or up to 16 months, probably at a “Club Fed” such as the Federal Correctional Institute in Danbury where the “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley did her time–it is, to modify that most familiar Martha-ism, not “a good thing.” Possibly Stewart could even remain free while lawyers appeal her case, but that may be, once again, just postponing the inevitable and leaving her, like her 180-count cotton blend Three Star sheets, available in eleven stylish colors, to slowly twist in the wind.

What do I think about Martha? I’ve been asked that a lot during the past few months. And here’s the truth: Both sorry for her and a bit snicker-y. A reaction, by the way, that I don’t think is unique. How, I wonder–Don’t you?–could the Paragon of Perfection, Miss Know-It-All-And-You-Don’t, goof up so badly? Why was it so hard for her to say what she should have said months and months ago: “Hey, I made a stupid mistake–and I’m sorry. And I’ll be more than happy to contribute my ill-gotten gains, and then some, to my favorite charities.” Case closed.

But no, Miss Martha, who was so full of clever little ideas for carving artistic jack-o-lanterns or glue-gunning dozens of cranberries to a holiday wreath seemed incapable of saving her own skin, weather beaten as it may be, from pruning her prize azaleas. Sure, copping a plea for a misdemeanor might have been embarrassing, but didn’t her high-priced lawyers explain it sure beats the heck out of daily body searches?

But then Martha has this thing about mistakes. Especially other people’s. I know that as a fact. My secretary once sent her a letter from me that included a typo. Her assistant, Ann Armstrong, who testified at her trial, was a pal of one of my staff members. Remember, on the witness stand, Ann, weeping all the while, admitted that Martha had changed and then quickly ordered restored an incriminating e-mail. She also mentioned in passing that Martha had given her a homemade plum pudding for Christmas that holiday season when Martha sold her ImClone shares. That was when Martha was riding high in her private jet, off on a Cabo San Lucas Mexican vacation, spending thousands for New Year’s Eve dinner with a longtime girlfriend. Only a plum pudding? Excuse me, but wasn’t that what Scrooge might have handed out to his loyal, hardworking personal assistant before Marley’s Ghost made him see the light?

Well, discovering the typo in my letter, Ann called and told my staffer. She explained that she didn’t want to give the letter to Martha who she felt just might enjoy showing it around. Wouldn’t my secretary like to send it again?

But let’s just ignore the fact that Martha may have gotten her jollies by pointing out other people’s errors. There is a lot I really do admire about her. One thing that I found remarkable was her skill and shrewdness as a marketer to women. In the early 1960s, Betty Friedan jumpstarted the modern feminist movement with her book The Feminine Mystique. In it Friedan decried the lifestyle of upper-middle-class homemakers, the trapped housewives of the time, who, she claimed, spent long, lonely, wasteful hours cooking and crafting and arranging flowers. Exactly the same activities Martha so skillfully repackaged and so profitably sold to the same demographic a couple of generations later.

Another thing for which she deserves credit is her innovative magazine Martha Stewart Living that raised the design quality of all magazines. Martha Stewart Living begat Oprah’s O, and Time Inc.’s Real Simple, among today’s most successful publications, both of which, in the wake of her troubles have scooped up much of her magazine’s advertising pages. And although I’m sure the thread count of the sheets Martha currently sleeps on are a lot higher than the ones she offers for sale at Kmart, she did prove that the American public could and would respond to tasteful home products. Just check out any of your local mass merchandisers and you’ll see Martha’s influence there too.

But just as Martha changed our culture, she got entangled in it too. She courted publicity nonstop and she got it. Over the years, she became a Page Six regular, partying with P. Diddy. When she got into trouble, it was hard to focus only on her achievements when her public image had often veered into Dr. Ruth territory.

And there was Martha’s obdurate personality that allowed her to browbeat her stockbroker’s assistant, Douglas Faneuil, who certainly got his own back at the trial. Or explain crisply to Barbara Walters, when she was trying to get the public’s sympathy, that the money she gained from selling her shares merely “amounted to about….0006 per cent of my net worth.” Or who just had to make sure that New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin knew how to spell “schadenfreude” correctly. And she still has refused to say she did anything wrong or apologize for her actions even if it will help her get a lighter sentence.

But then Martha was always so sure she was right and so confident of herself that she once told Oprah, “I can almost bend steel with my mind. I can bend anything if I try hard enough.” In a short while, maybe she’ll have the opportunity to practice that skill.

Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.

Myrna BlythMyrna Blyth is senior vice president and editorial director of AARP Media. She is the former editor-in-chief and publishing director of Ladies’ Home Journal. She was the founding editor and ...

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