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Martha: On Trial, in Jail, and on a Comeback

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This sample chapter introduces the central question of the book Martha: On Trial, in Jail, and on a Comeback. How and why did the federal government put so much effort into prosecuting Martha Stewart over a minor infraction?
This chapter is from the book

Martha Stewart became the most famous businesswoman in America, a cultural icon whose very name evoked a style and elegance that pervaded all walks of life. She 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.

She had a knack for knowing how to brighten American households with her food, her flowers, and her gardening; and while many had difficulty articulating precisely what her profession was, millions knew instinctively that her perfectionist emphasis on elegance and simplicity was her unique signature. "Here's how Martha would do it," her loyal fans declared lovingly, as if there were only one way of baking a cake or planting a garden.

She was so good at what she did, she was watched and admired by so many people, that she eventually established standards in a wide variety of homemaking and entertaining spheres affecting the lives of millions of people. By choosing to establish those standards in the most important institution in our lives—our homes—and by helping a newly emerging class of wives and mothers, breadwinners with little time or energy for the home, she came along at just the right time and with just the right message.

And could she deliver the message! Indeed, she was unique in designing all of her products and then serving as chief spokesperson for them. Ordinarily, designers remain in the background and beautiful models show off the products. But in Martha Stewart's case, she was front and center, a television fixture explaining clearly and simply how to become an ideal homemaker and home entertainer.

One of a Kind

She seemed to have it all, a successful eponymous company, an incredible ability to establish her own personal brand through her products, and a personal authority that gained her wider and wider acceptance with each television appearance and with each book published.

Certainly she was one of a kind.

Who else could say that she began her career in catering and wound up a billionaire? Who else could lay claim to so much celebrity for tossing a salad or arranging a floral display? Who else had so much visibility and so much familiarity that the mere mention of her first name was enough to identify her? Who else had fans that knew her style well enough to say, when someone set a table just right, or nurtured a garden with flair, "That’s very Martha."

Nothing was harder in business than to create a personal brand. Only a handful of people had done it: Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Coco Chanel, and Donald Trump come to mind. Martha Stewart did it too, and the more products that bore her name, the smarter she seemed. She fused her name and her personality into the company that she founded and eventually took public—Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

Few other business enterprises were as dependent on a single person. The company embodied Stewart’s tastes and Stewart’s business strategies; she was its major shareholder, its founder, and its chief executive officer. As the company grew and it became an indelible fixture on the business scene, MSLO seemed indestructible and Martha Stewart appeared invulnerable. Sure, a bus might hit her, company executives joked darkly, but the company’s future seemed secure: Even if Stewart one day passed from the scene, her iconic stature would serve as the company’s anchor forever.

She was a perfectionist. As she went, in her early years, from modeling to trading stocks on Wall Street to a career in catering, she had to be the best. Her fans responded favorably to her setting such high standards for herself. She began to believe that she really did know what was best for everyone. That became her version of reality.

Clinging to that reality, she called herself an educator and took on a didactic demeanor toward everyone. In her version of reality, she was in command of all that she purveyed: her taste, her preferences, her rules prevailed. As the teacher, she was always right, never wrong.

Millions of people sanctioned her view of reality by establishing her as the "domestic diva" and the "queen of homemaking." With so many people fawning all over her, yes-men and yes-women one and all, she had no time for anyone who thought she was less than perfect; she had no time for anyone who did not conform to her view of reality.

She assumed that just being Martha Stewart was enough to ward off any assault on her world. Should anyone dissent from her version of reality, she was armed with a whole set of defense mechanisms: She knew how to marginalize people, to trivialize them, to make them feel inferior to her.

To her great shock, some did not share her view of reality. They saw no reason to idealize her or to pay her obeisance. Theirs was a different view of reality, and in their world, there were no queens or princesses who made their own rules. They made the rules.

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