I’ve never written a piece of fan mail before, but I had the urge to do so recently. Why? Because I have found myself profoundly affected by a famous person who just got out of jail. You’ve probably guessed that I’m talking about Martha Stewart. The news media has been saturated lately with footage of Martha arriving home from jail, analyses of what the experience meant to her, and where she will go from here. When I watched the news footage of her arrival at home after her five month jail term I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of admiration for her story of survival.
It’s odd, since there are other high profile people I admire, but I’ve never felt like writing to them before. I’ve also never really had much of an awareness of Martha Stewart. I don’t recall ever seeing her television show, in fact I don’t think we even received it here in Canada until the advent of expanded cable service, and K-Mart is not a widely-distributed chain in Alberta. To me, Martha Stewart was simply a humourous character sketch on Saturday Night Live. Although SNL gave me a sense of what she was all about, it was not until the ImClone scandal broke that I suddenly saw Martha Stewart as a person.
Right from the start of the scandal, I found myself feeling sympathetic to her. Yes, she appeared to have committed a crime, lied to investigators, and yes, this type of white-collar crime is just as serious as any criminal offense. But as days passed, the media reports began to lead me to believe that Martha was being punished, not just because of a crime she had committed, but because of who she was – a highly successful, self-made woman who elevated homemaking to a fine art. People loved to hate Martha, and you could see how the sharks moved in for the kill as soon as they saw a weak spot in “The Diva of Domesticity.”
From what I’ve seen and read, Martha had a rather ordinary childhood. She was raised with a demanding perfectionist father, likely leading to her develop many of the traits people criticize her for. They have called her a perfectionist who is demanding, intolerant, and ready to stomp on the weaknesses of others. Donald Trump, among many others, has pointed out that there is a double standard at play here, since these same traits would be admired in a man (MSNBC News Reports, March 6, 2005).
To me, Martha’s story of self-made business success is inspirational, since it is a story that makes you feel like anyone could do it. She worked hard to be successful, starting as a model while in college, and doing a stint as a broker with the New York stock market. It was after she and her husband moved out to the country and began to renovate an old farmhouse that she began what would become a highly successful catering business. Business flourished, and Martha’s sense of style and expertise at homemaking soon led to books, a magazine, becoming a spokesperson for K-Mart, and her own television show, Martha Stewart Living. By 1996, Martha was CEO of Martha Stewart Enterprises, later called Martha Stewart Omnimedia, a million dollar company that quickly became billions of dollars when her stock soared in value.
On the way up, Martha had assistance and support from her lawyer husband, who negotiated her first book deal and whose legal counsel no doubt played an important role in her success. But some accounts say she was intolerant of his passivity, in contrast to her strong and demanding nature, and there are rumours that she was abusive toward him. He eventually left and filed for divorce after 26 years – a situation Martha strongly fought against, to the point that he obtained a restraining order against her (MSNBC, Headliners & Legends, March 6, 2005). Critics and friends alike attribute this situation to Martha’s unwillingness to be seen as having failed – a typical response for a perfectionist.
Of course, unlike many divorced women and single mothers, she had a wonderful career worth millions, and was a highly successful female executive running a multi-media corporation. She also became a favourite target of comedians, particularly the talented Ana Gasteyer of SNL, who poked fun at Martha’s perfect homemaking and demanding personality. As a successful female in a man’s world, she drew her share of animosity. It wasn’t just men who resented her and were threatened; women were also intimidated by Martha’s seeming perfection and obvious success.
Martha’s stock experience and the amazing success of her own stock holdings did not protect her from making a very bad decision, which she considered a “small, stupid mistake,” a “small personal matter” that became “an almost fatal circus event of unprecedented proportions.” The trial itself gave many people an opportunity to paint a picture of Martha as “rude, demanding, cheap and mean” (Edmonton Journal, March 6). It seemed clear to me that Martha was being prosecuted very harshly for her mistake, far more harshly than she would have been had she been someone other than who she is – a highly successful female in a man’s world.
In some ways, though, that mistake may turn out to be Martha’s greatest legacy. It certainly seems to have been quite a learning experience, and the style and attitude in which Martha is now re-building her life is impressive. Media reports show Martha in extremely good spirits, joking about how she missed lemons while in prison (talk about making lemonade out of lemons!) Reportedly she has added prison rights advocacy to her list of upcoming projects, along with a new Apprentice show, and the continued growth of her Omnimedia company (although prosecutors reportedly plan on continuing their attempts to punish Martha by seeking an injunction to ban her for life from holding a company CEO position).
In a televised appearance at her first day back at work, Martha addressed her organization, stating that every person is unique, and that no matter their circumstances, everyone deserves opportunity and the comforts of a good home. She stated that her focus is on making life better, not just for herself but for all people, to fight negatives, conquer fear and to encourage people to do something great with their lives. One phrase really sealed my admiration – she stated that she believes, “life should be an adventure” (MSNBC News reports, Mar 7, 2005)- a philosophy that I myself have tried to embrace.
Martha merits my admiration for many reasons. She has taken homemaking and turned it into an activity worthy of respect. She has allowed women to take pride in the work they do at home, and to place high value on everyday tasks that a career-oriented society has tended to disparage (I’ve heard Martha say she loves ironing and vacuuming!). She bore the adversity of a public trial that examined not just her mistake, but also her personal integrity and character. She endured punishment for her crime willingly and with good grace – rather than dragging things out with endless appeals and legal wrangling, she made the decision to serve her sentence and then get on with her life. She has taken a very negative experience and turned it into a positive one that will have long-term benefits not just for herself, but for others. I also cannot help but admire that her first book was not published until she was 41, with much of her success occurring during the next decade. At age of 63, she is still actively progressing in her career – something very encouraging to those who, like me, are starting late.
I likely will never write that piece of “fan mail”, but I probably should. Individuals like Martha, in spite of the strong and powerful image they put on in public, need the support and respect of others. I understand that all too well, as I feel like I’m similar to Martha in many ways (without the success and the millions!). If I could demonstrate all of the qualities I’ve seen from her as “grace under pressure” I think I would be a much better person!
“I’ll be back, I’m not afraid”
– Martha Stewart, at her announcement that she would be going to prison.
Edmonton Journal, March 6, 2005. Prison rehabilitated Martha’s image: Humbler diva ready to rebuild life.
MSNBC News, March 7, 2005. Broadcasted in Edmonton, AB on Shaw Cable. Text at: MSNBC Reports: The New Martha: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7019986/
MSNBC Headliners & Legends: Martha Stewart. Broadcast in Edmonton, AB on Shaw Cable, March 6, 2005.
A new life for Martha Stewart, CNN News: http://money.cnn.com/2005/03/03/news/newsmakers/martha_walkup/
Martha Stewart Official website: http://www.marthastewart.com/