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Free Martha

Ted, my fiancé, and I weren't planning to register anywhere for wedding gifts. I find the whole business slightly tacky, and we're both grown-ups. We've each been living on our own long enough to accumulate toasters, dishes, pots, and pans, and neither one of us has any interest in fine china or silver or crystal. But married friends told us, repeatedly, that it would be folly to not register, and then we found the I Do Foundation. We both felt a little better about asking for nice bakeware and good knives and a two-person hammock knowing that, with every gift purchased, a little money would be kicked back to charity.

I really, really want this.
Anyway, Martha Stewart's Catalog for Living was one of the merchants where we registered for gifts. A few days ago, however, I got a message from the I Do Foundation saying that the company was no longer one of their partners. This was a major disappointment to me, as I really, really wanted that Kitchen Aid mixer in Martha's green. Obviously, I can blame Stewart's recent brush with federal prosecutors and its cultural fallout for this upsetting turn of events. I've been kind of pissed off about the way the media have handled the Stewart case all along, but now it's personal.

In his March 22 New Yorker article, Jeffrey Toobin offers a concise summary of the actions that might land Stewart in jail. Contrary to popular belief, she wasn't convicted of insider-trading: she was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and making false statements. Her crime was, essentially, lying to the government to cover up actions that were not criminal. The stocks she sold when ImClone was on the verge of disaster were a tiny part of her holdings, and the money she made on the sale was minimal. It was an entirely personal transaction. Her actions had no direct impact on the financial health of her company—a corporation that remains, for the time being, awash in cash. She didn't defraud her investors or her employees. Nevertheless, the media's sensational coverage of her case makes it look like corporate malfeasance of Enron proportions.

During her trial we learned that a company bookkeeper was responsible for balancing Stewart's checkbook and paying her bills. So what? When my friend Griffin was an "editorial assistant", one of his jobs was walking his boss's dogs—and "walking" is, of course, a euphemism for standing there, trying to look nonchalant, while the dogs take a shit and then cleaning up after them. The bookkeeper's job was to maintain the ledgers of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. For a CEO to expect this to include her personal finances, too, might seem imperious, but it's hardly unusual, and it's not nearly as egregious as suggesting that dog-walking is part of the job description for an entry-level position in publishing. And Stewart reimbursed her company for the bookkeeper's time. I don't think the editor Griffin worked for was carefully tracking the minutes he spent scooping poop off the sidewalks of Manhattan so that she could pay for his services out of her own pocket.

While the Toobin article is informative, the Us Weekly cover story of the same date—"The Fall of Miss Perfect", the giant yellow letters scream—is instructive in a a different way. It focuses almost entirely on her personal life, telling us what she's had for dinner over the past few weeks and that, according to Westport, Connecticut, resident Paula Conway, Stewart "looked terrible" on a recent trip to the movies. Anticipating that Stewart will do some time, the authors consulted a few famous ex-cons for their advice on surving life in the big house. Thus we get this bit of wisdom from Tommy Lee: "Jail is no fun."

Of course Us spares some column inches to parse Stewart's courthouse wardrobe, comparing it unfavorably to the more contrite ensembles of such celebrity defendants as Winona Ryder, Pamela Anderson, and Anna Nicole Smith. The authors note that, throughout the trial, Stewart carried a $6,000 bag, and they tsk-tsked the chinchilla-fur scarf we all saw again and again on cable news channels. I would like to point out that she wore the fur muffler on the day the verdict would be announced; thys, the jury had already made up its mind. I kind of admired the extravagance. It seemed like a long-suppressed but much-needed bit of self-expression, a sort of sartorial "fuck you" to the whole sorry proceedings. And, as for the Hermès, what percentage of the population recognizes a Birkin bag when they see it?

I'm not suggesting that Martha Stewart isn't kind of crazy, nor am I defending the culture of corporate assholery that seemed to reach its mad and horrifying crescendo in the '90s, when CEOs became gods among men. I don't think it's acceptable to berate and belittle ones colleagues, as Stewart clearly did—hell, she yelled at her own mother when the old lady was making on appearance on her show—nor is it anything other than psychotic to believe that the whims and desires of one individual should define a huge company. However, it's worth noting that, in this case, the corporation is, to a large extent, an extension of Stewart's whims and desires—her taste and style transformed into media products and bed linens and cake-decorating supplies. Michael Eisner might be synonomous with Disney, but nobody vacations at Eisnerland.

It's also worth noting that behavior that is apparently unacceptable in a female executive is tolerated—admired, even—in male executives. The Us Weekly article bothered to note that Stewart "hasn't spent as much time cultivating her relationships as developing her businesses." Don't we take that for granted in successful men? Business professionals are not generally known as family-oriented, people-pleasing nice guys, and the higher up the corporate ladder a man goes, the less we expect him to be a big sweetie. The fact is, a CEO who doesn't scare his employees at least a little is hardly worthy of the title. While the cubicle-dwellers might grumble among themselves, they generally accept that business is a cut-throat, fiercely competitive, testosterone-fueled world. They don't have utopian daydreams of a more congenial, co-operative working environment; rather, they fantasize about a future in which they're powerful enough to terrorize some underlings themselves. Unlike her male counterparts, though, Stewart doesn't get to be a demanding, aggressive, ambitious, results-driven visionary; instead, she's just a bitch.

The rewards of working for an impossible boss are not generally emotional ones. People put up with scary bosses for much the same reason we allow artists to be rude and scientists to be unkempt: genius makes its own rules, and, in her sphere, Stewart was—is—a genius. She turned a little catering company into a hugely lucrative and influential empire. She completely transformed magazine design, and, in doing so, popular aesthetics in general. She made patrician tastes available to the hoi polloi—how many K-Mart shoppers knew the significance of "thread count" before the advent of Martha Stewart Everyday? You can argue about whether her impact on American culture has been good or evil, but you cannot dismiss it as insubstantial, and I, for one, am going to be a little bit sad and a lot irritated if the Martha Stewart empire falls apart and its emperor goes to jail while Kenneth Lay still walks the streets. And I am, in closing, still kind of pissed that I won't be getting that mixer.

March 22, 2004 | Permalink

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