Martha Stewart (1941–)

“She’s Martha Stewart and You’re Not,” trumpeted New York Magazine across its May 15, 1995, cover displaying a dazzling photo of Martha herself in full gardening gear. Thus thumbing its nose at the American women who might aspire to be Martha, the magazine went on to devote eight pages to the woman it called “a blue chip perfectionist,” “a powerhouse workaholic” in “Schwarzeneggerian overdrive” who seemingly was able to cultivate acres of flowers and vegetables, tend to the chickens, stitch up new slipcovers, and put a four-course dinner on the table all in one weekday afternoon. She was, the magazine cooed, “the definitive woman of our time.”

Martha Stewart may give millions of women an inferiority complex, but she has been a powerhouse on the home front, a “diva of domesticity” as she is often called, a change agent reviving for a generation of baby boomers and their latchkey kids the neglected household arts of cooking, cleaning, sewing, crafting, gardening, and more, and restoring the dignity of such homekeeping tasks. This was no small accomplishment in an American culture where half of all women and more than half of all women with kids were away at work all day and not eager to be stuck with the housework.

Martha Stewart became one of the richest self-made women in the world on the strength of those household arts. She is “a cultural icon” who “had far greater influence on the way Americans cooked and entertained, and decorated their homes and gardens, than any individual in the nation’s history,” says Robert Slater, author of Martha, one of numerous books about her.

The peak of her power may have been in October, 1999, when her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (which she had consolidated in 1997 to include her book and magazine publishing, television shows, catalogs, radio, and Internet ventures) went public on the New York Stock Exchange. The initial public offering (IPO) came at the top of a major bull market, and it made Martha a billionaire, on paper. For the occasion, she served fresh-squeezed orange juice and homemade brioche to the stockbrokers and reporters on the exchange floor. The company stock doubled on the first day.

Martha Stewart is often called the diva of domesticity for restoring the dignity of household tasks. Her books, magazines, TV shows, and videos give full instructions and beautiful photographs on how to keep house and entertain.

Martha Stewart is often called “the diva of domesticity” for restoring the dignity of household tasks. Her books, magazines, TV shows, and videos give full instructions and beautiful photographs on how to keep house and entertain. (Shutterstock)

Martha Stewart had already been named one of Fortune magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women—twice—and had already begun collecting accolades, winning four Emmy Awards and the James Beard Award for her television program, Martha Stewart Living. With some of her newfound wealth, she bought yet another house, a 153-acre, $15 million estate in Westchester County at Bedford, New York, which has become her principal residence. In 1998, she had purchased the 12-bedroom house, Skylands, on Mount Desert Island in Maine, formerly owned by Henry Ford’s son Edsel. She already owned a big house on Lily Pond Lane in East Hampton, New York, along with a Fifth Avenue pied-à-terre in Manhattan, and the house, Turkey Hill, in Westport, Connecticut, that had been her base of operations for more than 35 years.

Her first book, Entertaining, published by Clarkson Potter in 1982, was so successful that it virtually broke the mold on the way cookbooks and recipes were presented. It was based on the catering business Martha started in Westport, and it showed how the visual appeal of food was as important as its taste. In subsequent books, Martha would first choose the setting (usually Turkey Hill), then pick out the recipes and props to go with it. By 1999, she had published 13 more books using this formula. One of the books, Martha Stewart Weddings, was published the same year (1987) that Martha and her husband, Andrew Stewart, were getting divorced.

By the time she took her company public, Martha had launched her magazine, Martha Stewart Living, as well as Martha Stewart Weddings magazine and Everyday Food, a checkout counter monthly. She was producing a cable television show, a radio show, a syndicated newspaper column, an Internet site, a mail-order catalog business, and a series of how-to books. She was chairwoman, president, and CEO of her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, controlling 61 percent of the stock and 94 percent of the voting rights. The company’s yearly sales of Martha Stewart Everyday items reached $1 billion in 1999, the year of the IPO. This level of success was definitely “a good thing,” as her trademark phrase would put it.

Martha’s appeal to her audience and customers was partly that she showed women the imaginative side of homemaking and made it look clever, easy, and important. She gave dignity and authority to the work of maintaining a home, and she gave meticulous instructions on how to do it. She was a good cook and demonstrated each step of a recipe on her television program and in her books. Her cookbooks offered inventive ways with family meals and elegant but accessible ideas for entertaining. “I am a teacher, not a preacher,” Martha says. “I really hope and pray I will be remembered for teaching people that the art of homekeeping is interesting and a pleasure.”

Her timing was good. Although domesticity reigned during the period after World War II when returning soldiers and their wives and babies populated the suburbs, by the 1970s, women were leaving home, pouring into the workplace, going back to school, and, with the new birth control pill, able to delay marriage and children in favor of a career. Feminism was in its second wave, and Betty Friedan had written about the malaise of women trapped in domesticity in The Feminine Mystique. Now divorce was on the rise, and domestic life—“I’m just a housewife”—was no longer on the agenda. Today, almost 60 percent of the 122 million women in the United States work outside the home. Tasks like cooking elaborate meals, entertaining, and creating a beautifully decorated home move to the back burner when women are working eight hours a day elsewhere. While they may have wanted a fuller domestic life, many women had no idea how to manage it, their own working mothers having taken shortcuts themselves. They have welcomed Martha’s ideas and explicit instruction in the art of homekeeping, cooking, entertaining, and decorating.

It helped that she herself was a stylish, attractive woman, photogenic and passionate about what she was doing. Martha Stewart was also a superb manager, organizing her business and her kitchen in superefficient ways. Some women grumbled that they too could achieve such heights of organization and efficiency if they had helpers like Martha had, following them around in the kitchen, chopping onions, icing the cake, and timing the pie. But most women (and many men) were only too happy to be shown the ins and outs of putting a meal together, decorating a house, planting a garden, and staging a successful party. Many of the techniques and tricks of Martha’s trade were well known in earlier generations but lost and forgotten as women moved on, out of the house and into the workplace. But she herself had grown up making her own clothes, working in the backyard garden, and helping her mother cook for the family of six children, so Martha had a running start on what she would call “homekeeping.” She was good at it, and she set new standards on how it should be done.

It all started to come tumbling down when, in January 2002, federal prosecutors investigating possible insider trading requested an interview with Martha Stewart in connection with her recent stock sale. She had, just weeks before in December, sold her shares of stock in ImClone, a biotech company founded by her friend Sam Waksal, on the day before the Food and Drug Administration turned thumbs down on a new ImClone cancer drug, Erbitux, and sent the stock plunging. Martha’s stock sale did look suspicious, but she and her Merrill Lynch broker, Peter Bacanovic, claimed that they had done nothing but execute a stop-loss order on the stock. Martha hired a high-priced law firm to advise her, but Federal investigators, gunning to catch any inconsistencies in what she would say in their interview, caught her. They charged her with insider trading, and because Martha chose to fight the charges, the case went to court and, eventually, Martha Stewart went to jail.

It was an astonishing turn of events in her success story. Many people said she was a victim, a famous woman picked out to be an example to the American public. In the annals of white-collar crime, Martha was small potatoes compared to Ken Lay of Enron and others who would later be brought to justice. But she had a huge following and would serve the prosecutors’ purpose of giving investors a major wake-up call about insider trading.

She had saved herself $45,000 by selling the ImClone stock, but that transaction was going to exact a much higher price. In March 2004, a jury convicted Martha Stewart not of insider trading but of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and lying to investigators. In July 2004, she was sentenced to serve five months in jail at the Alderson Federal Women’s Prison in West Virginia, with two years’ probation including five months’ home confinement and a $30,000 fine. She was 63 years old.

While Stewart and her lawyers had filed an appeal of the verdict, she decided that going to jail while the appeal was pending would be her best move, allowing her to complete the sentence and put the case behind her. Meanwhile, she had to give up her position as CEO of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, and she had to resign from the board of the New York Stock Exchange to which she had been appointed only that June. The company’s stock fell, staffers lost their jobs, and CBS took Martha’s weekly television show off the air.

It was a terrible comedown for a woman who had become one of the United States’ most powerful and well-known women. Yet while she was in prison, Martha Stewart apparently conducted herself as a model prisoner at Alderson, known as “Camp Cupcake” for its relaxed atmosphere. She taught cooking and crafts to other women prisoners, went to nightly yoga classes with the other inmates, helped with weeding and gardening, and did her assigned daily maintenance chores of scrubbing floors and cleaning offices. She launched a campaign to help first-time offenders, prisoners who had been jailed under mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent crime.

On the morning of March 4, 2005, Martha Stewart walked out of Alderson and onto a private plane provided by her friend Charles Simonyi of Microsoft. Wearing a gray poncho knit for her by a fellow inmate, pants, and a black ankle probation bracelet, Martha waved to members of the press shivering on the tarmac, climbed into the plane with her daughter Alexis, and flew home to Bedford, New York, to begin her five months of house arrest. She was not to go anywhere outside the confines of her farm, but Martha was all set to stage a comeback.

This was a woman who had been born Martha Helen Kostyra on August 3, 1941, in Jersey City, New Jersey, to middle class Polish-American parents, Edward Kostyra and Martha Ruszkowski Kostyra. Her parents already had one child, a son named Eric, and they had four more children after Martha. Her father Eddie was a physical education teacher, having earned a teacher’s certificate at a local college as did his wife. The family income was modest but steady in those post-Depression, World War II times, and Eddie moved his family into their own three-bedroom house in Nutley, New Jersey, when Martha was 3. From there, all six of the Kostyra children went to grade school and high school.

Eddie was a demanding father, hard on himself as well as the children. He went to night school while holding down his teaching job and became a pharmaceutical salesman. But he also lorded it over the household, assigning regular chores and gardening jobs to the children and inspecting their work. As Martha told Oprah Winfrey, “I was trained to be productive.” One rule of the house: no crying, something Martha claims she holds to even today.

She was a good student, winning awards for her grades, and she was ambitious beyond the confines of Nutley, New Jersey. At just 13 years old, she landed a Saturday job modeling clothes at Bonwit Teller, a fashionable Fifth Avenue department store. In her junior year, she was hired to appear in several national television commercials, including one for Tareyton “I’d Rather Fight than Switch” cigarettes. Graduating from Nutley High School in 1959, Martha managed to win a Rotary Club scholarship, which, along with savings from her fledgling modeling and TV careers, meant she could pay the tuition at Barnard College in Manhattan, ranked as one of the Ivy League’s Seven Sisters women’s colleges.

Martha was a day student, majoring in art and architectural history, and commuting by bus to Barnard from Nutley. But by the end of her sophomore year, she was engaged to be married. The young man was Andrew Stewart, a law student at Yale, whose sister introduced them and whose father was a wealthy stockbroker. They were married in July, 1961 (Martha made her own wedding dress) and she took a year off from Barnard while Andy finished law school in New Haven, getting her degree in 1964. Their daughter, Alexis, was born in 1965. Two years later, Martha launched a career as a stockbroker on Wall Street. She turned out to be very successful at it, yet during a downturn in 1973 she decided she needed to be home with her young daughter and left the firm.

The Stewarts bought an old 1805 house on Turkey Hill in Westport, Connecticut, and plunged into renovating it from bottom to top. They purchased neighboring lots, planted orchards of fruit trees, flower and vegetable gardens, and installed a swimming pool and a henhouse. It was the perfect backdrop for what was coming, as Martha started a small catering business that was an instant hit in Westport where many professionals in television, theater, and publishing lived and commuted to Manhattan. She became known for her ability to stage large parties. Her first book, Entertaining, explained in detail how to do it.

Martha built that catering business into a complete empire. She made lucrative deals, like one to create products for the retail giant Kmart, signing a five-year contract to sell a line of Dutch Boy paints and Martha Stewart bedding and towels (later she would negotiate the same deal with Macy’s). Around the same time, she was also cooking up an idea for a magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and eventually sold Time, Inc. on the project. The first issue appeared in 1991 and became so successful that Martha was able to buy her magazine back from Time, Inc. in 1997.

It was one more example of the business savvy and discipline of a woman who claims she sleeps only four hours a night and who has, coming straight out of prison, revitalized her company and rejuvenated her reputation. Her latest show, The Martha Stewart Cooking School, premiers in the fall of 2012 on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). She has published more books, including The Martha Rules (sample rules: “Take risks, not chances,” “Make it beautiful”). And she has moved to the Internet, offering daily cooking and decorating lessons and plenty of Martha products. She writes a blog and publishes it on her Web site several times a week. She is on Twitter every day, amassing more than 2 million followers.

As her high school yearbook quoted her long ago, “I do what I please and I do it with ease.” It still seems to be the Martha credo.

—Mary Cross


Lippert, Barbara. “Our Martha, Ourselves.” New York magazine. May 15, 1995. .

Shields, Charles J. Martha Stewart. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 2002.

Slater, Robert. Martha. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006.