Westport's Dragon Lady

Martha Stewart Is One Burned-Up Cookie

A cat's eye will follow a tossed sock as quickly as a hummingbird's flight, and any fool can catch this culture's fancy. But only a handful of those who attract attention go on to become fixtures in a landscape that's given up on wondering why they're blocking the view. Martha Stewart crossed that line years ago--and sure, it's depressing to think that Westport's dragon lady of upscale busywork outlasted Madonna. But that was Madonna's fault; she didn't give her fans enough to do. Needless to say, what with the glue guns and the fennel and the hand-stitched shower curtains for the birdbath, no woman crazed enough to act on all of Stewart's nostrums will ever find herself at that kind of loss. Busywork, my foot--boot-camp Marines must get more sleep, and probably experience fewer anxieties over how they're measuring up.

All the same, to maybe half her own audience, Stewart's a figure of fun--they mine her books for tips while finding her affectations preposterous. At your local newsstand, her hoity-toity lifestyle bibles have been spoofed, if anything, too fondly, in Is Martha Stuart Living? and its followup, Martha Stuart's Better Than You at Entertaining. This summer, she's been outed as a virago in an unauthorized biography (Just Desserts, by Jerry Oppenheimer). Yet she goes on and on. Any overachiever so splendidly humorless as to style her corporate umbrella "Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc."--as Stewart has since buying her way free of Time Warner early this year--is unlikely to be fazed by mere derision. Although her name recognition with the general public has probably peaked, her special cosmos keeps expanding; surprisingly late in the day, she's now online, and her syndicated TV show has just started airing six days a week.

Well, whatcha gonna do? Nobody's ever gone broke overestimating the insecurities of the American middle class--and being uncommonly jailed by them herself, the former Martha Kostyra of unswanky Nutley, New Jersey, knows better than you just where the short hairs are most grabable. Still, if you've never seen her TV show, as I hadn't until she went daily, you may be nonplussed by the grimness with which Stewart undertakes the piffling business at hand. Welcoming she isn't; you aren't here to relax.

Although she does smile on occasion, as if she's just heard a pistol shot reminding her to, her usual expression is stern, a bit like the one in Zelda Fitzgerald's self-portraits after she'd gone insane. Instead of calming viewers' fears about the tricky sailing ahead, as most TV chefs' jolly prattle is meant to, her marginal remarks about the simplest tasks add tiny increments of tension: "You can overheat," she warned one day before setting the stove to bake chocolate-chip cookies, "so just be careful"--flinty pause--"not to." As she held up samples of the finished product, some stagehand fired a pistol, and Martha smiled: "And that's our Cookie of the Week." From where I sat, they all looked burned to a crisp, but what do I know about cookies? I only eat the damned things.

Stewart does plenty besides cook, of course. Of the unpredictable subject headings that drift across the screen like subliminal inserts slowed to a crawl for lip-readers--from the down-to-earth "Gardening" to the vapid "Good Thing"--the most ominous is the word "Project." This can mean anything from repainting the front door, which is at least practical ("I'm not going to get paint all over my pretty brass hardware," said Martha, brandishing masking tape), to devoting inordinate outlays of time, concentration, and (always) equipment to the home manufacture of tchotchkes like sun prints on light-sensitive paper or little boxes made of glass. Even Stewart can't quite figure out a term for these bibelots, much less a use for them. She usually just calls them "objects," in a lovely example of false-genteel vocabulary--as in "the beautiful object."

However, Stewart confronting nature is Stewart at her most determined, since no matter how often she goes down on her knees to it, their relationship is basically adversarial. It just wants to grow, more or less appealingly; she wants to brand it with her genius for artifice. If plants could scream, they would when they saw her coming--it's Dachau for fuchsias. Actually, it was the turn of hydrangeas a week or two back: "What an easy way to prolong the life of a flower," said Martha as the gun went off, having blanched the stems in boiling water, dipped them in alum, and covered the tops with paper towels (white only, remember--dyed ones can stain) before blasting them with a spritzer. At least the hydrangeas still looked more or less like flowers afterward; they might have been pressed into service for one of her objects instead.

On this level, making fun of Stewart has always been as easy as shooting sturgeon in a tureen. In her world, the means justify the ends. Yet even her detractors usually assume she's good at what she does; they simply find what she does trivial, and her approach to it ridiculously mannered. For my money, though, she's just awful at what she does--at least if you take her word for what she's doing. When it comes to glossy, florid chichi, Lee Bailey's Southern-themed books make Stewart look like a piker. But just like robust sensualist Julia Child and my fallen idol Jeff Smith, Bailey also genuinely loves food, which I doubt Martha does. In fact, the basic attitude she projects toward all her materials, under whatever gently wafted heading, is hostility--who'd dream of calling her an epicure? As Oppenheimer's bio recounts, a number of the recipes that she didn't filch outright from other cookbooks for her debut, Entertaining, turned out to be unworkable; she'd never bothered to test them. Even so, the book launched her spectacular career, proving that her fellow suburban strivers just love a good horror story.

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