Martha Stewart (born 1941) has become more than an author, entertainer, or businesswoman-she is an American icon. She has turned herself into one of the world's strongest brand names and sits atop a $200 million empire built around the ideas of domesticity, style, and elegance.
Born Martha Kostyra on August 3, 1941 into a large Polish-American working class family in Nutley, New Jersey, Stewart's parents raised her to be self-sufficient. Both of her parents were teachers, and they were strict and disciplined at home. These values instilled a strong work ethic in the Kostyra children. At an early age, Stewart helped her three brothers and two sisters trap muskrats and sell the skins for extra money. Stewart's first thoughts about entertaining can be traced to the large Sunday dinners the Kostyras held each week with friends and family. Other chores performed under the watchful eyes of her parents, such as gardening, cooking, and sewing, were necessities to make ends meet in the lean years of her youth.
An excellent student, Stewart began modeling while in high school. In an interview with Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, Stewart recalled those years: "Instead of going to the football games with my friends, I spent my time modeling clothes at Bonwit Teller on 57th Street. I was making, at first, $15 an hour, which was a lot better than the $1 an hour we were getting babysitting." Her girl-next-door appearance and photogenic face made her a favorite with photographers. The money she earned modeling helped Stewart make her way through Barnard College in New York, one of the nations top women's colleges.
While at Barnard, Stewart studied art history. Driven to succeed, she continued modeling, and eventually began appearing in major national and international magazines. Stewart was named one of the ten best-dressed college women in America by Glamour magazine, in 1961. Modeling helped pay her tuition, but she was constantly strapped for money, nonetheless. Stewart took a live-in maid position for two elderly widowed sisters on Fifth Avenue so she could move away from home.
Marriage and Wall Street
Andy Stewart, a young Yale Law School student, entered Stewart's life early in her college years. Described as "love at first sight," the whirlwind courtship ended in marriage on July 1, 1961. They began life as penniless newlyweds living in New York City. Soon, Stewart interrupted her education at Barnard to help support her husband as he finished up at Yale.
By early 1965, Stewart was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, Alexis Gilbert, in September. A month later, the Stewarts bought a rundown 19th century schoolhouse in Middlefield, Massachusetts that had no running water or plumbing. Stewart would later recall planting gardens in front of the little house and in Martha Stewart's New Old House, she wrote about "lugging water in large pails from the stream to cook with, wash up with, and drink." It took the Stewarts five years to renovate the house. After her daughter's birth, Stewart's modeling career tapered off. She began looking for other moneymaking ventures.
One evening in 1968, Stewart brought up her career search with some friends and one suggested she call one of his stockbroker friends in New York. Stewart's mix of beauty and brains impressed Andy Monness, a partner in the firm. He hired her on the spot because she was bright, aggressive, and hungry for success. Stewart passed the broker's exam easily and was registered with the New York Stock Exchange in 1968, right after her 27th birthday.
Stewart was successful and soon made a six-figure salary. She traveled to both coasts and led a celebrity lifestyle. Eventually tiring of the city life in New York, the Stewarts bought an old farmhouse in Westport, Connecticut that required more renovation. The house, dubbed Turkey Hill Farm by Stewart, would play a major role in her later career as a caterer and budding lifestyle expert.
Into the early 1970s, Stewart continued her string of successes on Wall Street, while her husband worked as a high-powered corporate attorney. However, the heightening Watergate scandal and uneasiness it caused on Wall Street led to problems for Stewart and the upstart firm where she worked. Unable to deal with the fluctuating market and unhappy that her accounts began losing money, Stewart resigned in 1973.
At age 32, Stewart once again found herself without a career. She retreated to Turkey Hill to decide what she should do next. Turkey Hill proved to be her inspiration. She threw herself into remodeling efforts and ways to improve the old farmhouse. Obsessive cleaning and home improvement projects served as a therapeutic escape for Stewart after the wild years spent on Wall Street.
No one had any idea at the time that Stewart's next move would launch her into the living rooms of millions of people and land her atop a $200 million multimedia empire. The accounts differ regarding Stewart's entry into the catering business: she has said that it grew out of cooking classes held for Alexis and her school friends, while others said it happened after long discussions with friends from Westport. Regardless, catering was an ideal choice for Stewart, ever the perfectionist and very concerned with details.
With partner Norma Collier, the catering company named "Uncatered Affair" was born. For several years, the two friends catered parties and taught cooking classes around Westport. The relationship soured, however, when Stewart's controlling instincts dominated the business. Her need to reign over everything around her proved the old adage about too many cooks in the kitchen.
Stewart's next effort was at the Westport Common Market, which combined an upscale mall and food court. Stewart approached the owners of the mall about running the area and serving freshly prepared food. After charming the owners over lunch at Turkey Hill, Stewart was given the job and a $250 a week salary. She renamed the food area the "Market Basket," and turned the store into a moneymaker. She hired women to cook the food at home and then resold it at the store. Stewart went too far, however, when she told a New York Times reporter that she was the "proprietor" of the shop. The owners fired her shortly after the story ran. Stewart kept this a secret and let people believe she left on her own to spend more time running her catering business.
Stewart got her first taste of national media exposure when People magazine ran a story on her and Andy, who had left legal work to become a publishing executive. The article mentioned how she catered parties for famous Westport residents like Robert Redford and Paul Newman. As her reputation spread, Stewart began getting further national press from Mademoiselle, Bon Appetit, Good Housekeeping, and Country Living. Stewart was hired to be the free-lance food editor for House Beautiful, a national magazine that helped solidify her growing reputation.
Alan Mirken, president of Crown Publishing Group, attended several parties Stewart arranged and was taken by her style, good looks, and talent. After several attempts, Mirken convinced Stewart to write a book and paid her an advance of $35,000, a sum her husband negotiated using his knowledge of the book industry. The resulting book, Entertaining, became a bestseller and propelled Stewart to dizzying heights.
No longer just a successful caterer, she was on her way to becoming a national symbol of good taste and style. With the publication of her second book, Quick Cook, Jerry Oppenheimer wrote in his unauthorized biography Just Desserts, her publisher's goal "was to make her as recognizable as Betty Crocker." Putting out a book a year, Stewart's reputation spread across the nation.
Stewart's first national television appearances were with Willard Scott on the Today show. Scott visited Turkey Hill and viewers saw the Stewarts as they prepared for Thanksgiving. Stewart's true goal, however, was to have her own television show, like her idol, Julia Child. Her first television special and mail-order video appeared in 1986, called Holiday Entertaining with Martha Stewart. Several years later, Stewart would have her own television show, estimated to reach 97 percent of the country.
Stewart's seemingly perfect life has included some sour moments. In early 1987, Andy left her and began divorce proceedings. Years later, recalling the painful split on 60 Minutes, Stewart said, "I know a lot of successful women who are not, at the present time, married. I hope that we could all find a balance, that you could balance a career, you can balance success, you can balance having a garden and having a husband at the same time."
Regardless of her personal situation, Stewart continued to build her business empire. She made a deal with media conglomerate Time Warner to produce her own magazine, Martha Stewart Living, which first appeared in late 1990. The company tied in appearances on the highly popular Today show. Stewart stayed with the program until January 1997 when she left to join CBS's This Morning as part of a package deal with CBS.
Martha Stewart Omnimedia
Always demanding to take full control of her own destiny, Stewart left Time Warner in 1997 to form her own multimedia company. As a result, Stewart was Chairman and CEO of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, a $200 million dollar company. The cornerstone of the company was Stewart herself. Her television show, which appeared on 185 stations, and her radio show, which was carried on 260 stations, were both produced by Omnimedia.
Stewart achieved every goal she has set. Arguably, she was more recognizable than Betty Crocker. Martha Stewart Living magazine had a circulation of 2.1 million. She got 925,000 visitors to her web site every week. Revenues for her K-Mart-sponsored Martha Stewart Everyday collection reached $1 billion. In her free time, Stewart continued to write books (also released in several foreign languages) and had more than 25 bestsellers to her credit.
Like most popular culture icons, Stewart had her supporters and detractors. She was parodied relentlessly on Saturday Night Live and inspired the farcical magazine, Is Martha Stewart Living? However, the number of viewers, readers, and listeners do not lie. Stewart told MSNBC's Matt Lauer, "My whole business has been based on the pursuit of perfection and the pursuit of accuracy and good information and good inspiration. So if I am ever, you know, called difficult to work for, it's by people who really don't care about those qualities in work. But my whole life is based on those qualities."
Labeled "the world's No. 1 living mega-brand" by Fortune magazine, Stewart sits atop an empire built on the simple premise that domesticity is good and should play an important role in society. Perhaps Stewart's entire life can be summed up by the assertion she wrote in her high school yearbook, "I do what I please and I do it with ease."
Further Reading on Martha Stewart
Oppenheimer, Jerry, Just Desserts, The Unauthorized Biography, Martha Stewart, Avon, 1997.
Forbes, March 22, 1999.
Guardian, April 15, 1996.
Sacramento Bee, June 27, 1997.
San Diego Union-Tribune, July 20, 1997.
Tampa Tribune, September 6, 1997.
Washington Post, March 17, 1996; January 23, 1997.
"She's Martha and You're Not," http://www.salon.com (March 1, 1999).