Westport’s Dragon Lady


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.

As you watch Stewart needlessly complicate every job she undertakes, apparently without ever having asked herself its purpose, it dawns on you that this must be a parable of sorts. But about what? In this case, I suspect, class struggle–which in this country almost invariably means the struggle to get into one, not usurp it. Yet it’s also a parable of alienation, since most American strivers are deeply puzzled over why the blue-chip version of the good life that’s held up to them seems to involve so much poppycock. Like the latter-day Calvinist she is, Martha promises her viewers that they can achieve gentility if they only work hard enough at the silly but fraught tasks she sets–a conundrum of sorts, since the definition of gentility is not having to work at it. Unless she’s dumber than I think, she herself must wake up every morning fully aware that Westport’s bluebloods will go to their graves still thinking of her as that Polack chippy with the trowel. Since her value system doesn’t permit her to hate them back, she takes out her raging aggressions instead on helpless plants and foodstuffs–wow, the very tools of her trade, and talk about displacement. Marx would understand this, even if Martha doesn’t.

According to Oppenheimer, she was never more berserk than in the interlude between her fizzled career as a stockbroker and her launch into the catering business–when cooking and gardening was all she could do. If tranquility had ever interested her, those might have been pleasant times. But for someone whose goal in life is proving herself, this was a claustrophobic arena. Of course, it’s also precisely the ambit that Stewart now sells back to her viewers as fulfilling, which must mean she just doesn’t think they’re as driven as she is. Who could be? In her deliberately frilly way, she also defines her pursuits as purely feminine bailiwicks, to oppressive effect. Keep in mind, at one level her story is stark tragedy–all that braininess and ambition deserved a better object. So did Phyllis Schafly’s.

Then again, if Stewart wasn’t acting out all this murky stuff for our benefit, she’d be a lot less interesting to think about. To see so many of American life’s abiding grotesqueries emerge from such unlikely developing fluid is uncanny; the line from Pilgrims hacking away at the Injun-concealing forest they hated to Martha bashing her garden into perfect order is shorter than you might expect. So’s the line between her and Theodore Dreiser’s status-hungry Clyde Griffiths. But that’s also why the show isn’t much fun to watch. It may be the loneliest half hour on television.

Bar Nun

The BBC import Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, now airing Sundays on PBS, is certainly charming as all get-out–the camera’s alert to the drollness of that molelike figure in its black habit, gamely traipsing through another museum to find the masterpiece our 67-year-old Carmelite tour guide can’t wait to burble on about. Well, don’t let a low tolerance for whimsy cheat you. Whatever else she is, Sister Wendy may be the most unabashed romantic ever let loose on Western art for our lecture-glazed benefit. When was the last time–if ever–you heard anybody get this excited about Giotto?

Although she’s hardly the aesthetic naif you’d gather from the art critics nettled by her trespassing, she seems to have schooled herself so she could articulate her enthusiasms–which gets the horse and cart in the right order, if you ask me. However enraptured and–by jargonaut standards–simplistic, she’s always specific, unfazed, and shrewd. If the Mona Lisa is a tribute to “the eternal mystery of womanhood,” that’s well and good for Leonardo; the sitter, however, “is probably within smelling distance of her kitchen…and she’s amused.”

Of course, that’s just the better to praise a Genius–Sister Wendy’s no revisionist. Still, she’s got surprises up her capacious sleeves, and one in the September 21 installment is astonishing. If Artemesia Gentileschi isn’t a name to you either, we must both have ye olde patriarchy to thank for our ignorance of 17th-century Italy’s greatest (only?) woman painter; Gentileschi, whose obsessive subject was the story of Judith and Holofernes, makes Andrea Dworkin look boy-crazy.

Even so, you don’t watch this show for its discoveries. You watch it for a way of talking about art that crit-speak rarely leaves room for–agog, delighted, runnething over. The carpers aren’t all wrong: the nun’s story leaves a lot out. But if you can’t respond at this level, well–then all that other stuff doesn’t have much point, now does it? –T.C.

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