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What has Martha wrought?

Marketplace Staff Dec 21, 2007
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What has Martha wrought?

Marketplace Staff Dec 21, 2007
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KAI RYSSDAL: Before the perfect pie crust and the signature series at K-Mart. Before the minimum-security federal prison, there was “Entertaining,” Martha Stewart’s first book. It was 25 years ago this month that she first shared her secrets with us. Commentator Peter Hyman thinks the lifestyle queen’s best design is herself.


PETER HYMAN: As we commemorate a quarter-century of Ms. Stewart’s reign as the doyenne of domestic culture, it seems appropriate to ask “What Has Martha Wrought?” The obvious answer: a nation where even NASCAR-loving tough guys understand why celadon is the best color for a powder room, to say nothing of the importance of the garden-fresh crudite platter.

And while public impressions of her range from antidote-to-first-wave-feminism to ruthless-tyrant-who-recently-did-time-in-a-federal-prison, these character assessments miss the larger point: Martha Stewart has always existed more as an aspirational ideal than an actual person. Like Ralph Lauren, Stewart’s gift is the ability to boil down WASP conventions into mass-market consumer items. She didn’t invent the Hamptons summer home. But, she did perfect the means of translating its components into magazine spreads and product lines for K-Mart.

Though her single-minded obsession with creating a lifestyle brand is evidence of a certain type of business chops, there is something desperate about her need to continually celebrate herself via every media channel known to humankind. After 25 years, she’s such a part of the cultural fabric that her omnipresence seems natural, until you consider just how calculated this interweaving has been.

Now, this is not to say her desire to help others beautify their worlds is inauthentic, or that she has not worked hard for her nine-figure net worth. It simply means that for all the advice she provides to others about crafting the perfect life, Martha Stewart’s finest creation is her own persona. She was, after all, raised by middle-class Polish immigrants, not Connecticut Yankees — though you wouldn’t know it by looking at her empire.

What she has wrought, ultimately, is the uniquely American idea that mining a culture you weren’t born into for purposes of self-invention is fine — actually more than fine, it’s almost a tenet of our national religion. . . . Especially if that culture excels at garden parties.

RYSSDAL: Peter Hyman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His first book is called “The Reluctant Metrosexual.”

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