by Brendan O’Connor
“I live on a farm. I cook. I garden. I craft. I do all those things,” Martha Stewart said, as a giant, high-resolution lobster glowed behind her. “I’m your mom.”
Martha — it’s always “Martha” — had just returned to New York after a trip to China, where the Wall Street Journal reports she is plotting a “cupcake revolution.” She also met with the team behind e-commerce giant Alibaba, which she found to be very inspiring. “China is the land of opportunity. If you are an entrepreneur, or interested in the growth of a new middle class, China is the place to go,” she said. “I do hope the censorship is lifted.” Her enthusiasm for Alibaba notwithstanding, the wider Internet garners only imperious disdain from Martha. And why shouldn’t it? Websites like Pinterest and Instagram harvest the content of publications like hers all the time: “If we’re the most-pinned magazine, we should get paid for that,” Martha said. There is more bridal content available to consumers than ever, she lamented, even as fewer and fewer young people are getting married. “Shame on you!” Martha admonished the overwhelmingly female crowd of mostly journalism students. “It’s fun! It’s a rite of passage.” She laughed, and so did everybody else in the room.
As far as her own media consumption goes, Martha listens to NPR and reads the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and “a tabloid, the name of which I will not mention” on her commute from Katonah, New York, where she lives. She reads these cover to cover, and is disappointed in young people for reading newspapers on their phones. “You miss a lot,” she said. (She’s not wrong!)
Martha was speaking to former editor and publisher of the Nation, Victor Navasky, for Columbia Journalism School’s weekly Delacorte Lecture on Magazine Journalism, held in the school’s Joseph Pulitzer World Room. The appearance is part of an effort in recent months to rehabilitate her image — and in turn, her company, since the two are inextricably linked, and things have not gone well of late: Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia shares “have slid from a high of $37.40 to less than $3 for much of last year,” Bloomberg reported in January. “Along the way, the company has shed more than $1 billion in value.” (Martha did well by the estimation of at least one audience member: “She looks good,” admired the woman next to me.)
Martha referred to the incarceration that precipitated her company’s slide as “an unpleasant interlude.” While in prison, “I learned a lot about what is wrong with this country,” Martha said. “There are a lot of people who don’t belong there. We should be ashamed of what we do to people.” At some point, she will begin work on her autobiography, in which she plans to address her experiences with the American justice system and offer ideas about prison reform, but for now she’s busy working to save her floundering company.
Indeed, Martha is busier than ever — which is maybe why she earned $21.2 million between 2009 and 2011, even as MSLO lost money — and she likes it that way. “I don’t relax. I like ‘doing,’” she answered in response to a question about how she finds time for herself. “There’s no rest.” Even holidays are work. “We’re already thinking about my Halloween costume for this year,” she said. “I celebrate every holiday at least twice, maybe three times a year. I eat a lot of turkeys.”
Martha dodged one audience question from a young woman about how to use gender to one’s advantage, but tackled another about how women should manage work-life balance and stress. “I am very good at knowing who is pregnant and who is not,” Martha said, referring to the women who work for her. “They don’t want to tell me, but I always know who is going to come back and who is not.” Navasky chuckled along, looking like an old leftist Santa Claus. Martha said she failed at balancing her own life, however, since her own 29-year-long marriage ended in divorce. “I don’t miss him,” she added. Her daughter is divorced as well, although Martha had only praise for the sperm donor who fathered her grandchildren and has become involved in their lives. “I just keep telling myself, ‘It’s the modern family,’” Martha said. “You just have to adapt.”
Brendan O’Connor is a reporter living in New York City.