A few years ago, a friend of mine called from New York. It was Christmas. "I hope you're making your own decorations," she said. "From dried orange peel. It's so Martha." Who's Martha? "Oh my god," she said. "You don't know Martha Stewart? Martha is so cool. You have to check her out!"
So I did. I tuned into a show where Martha was making a Thanksgiving dinner. This involved a pumpkin soup that was served using the individual carved-out pumpkins as bowls. There was an elaborate system for balancing the pumpkin lid back on top at the end, using potato chips as levers. Martha herself was pale, cool and lifeless. She didn't say much. The whole thing was over-lit and strangely formal - think Jamie Oliver, then think the polar opposite. It was like something from the 1950s. I just didn't get it at all.
I called my friend back. "Are you serious?" I asked. My friend is gay and lives in one of those New York apartments in which cat-swinging is a federal offence. Her kitchen is the bathroom's other half. "Of course I'm not serious," she said. "You watch Martha and then you order in pizza. That's the whole point."
My friend represented a whole generation of real-life Americans who were too busy to live the American Dream - so Martha Stewart lived it for them. But last week her 10-year reign as the US domestic goddess ended in nightmare. She was convicted of insider trading and of lying to cover it up. She will soon be exchanging the Elysian fields of her pastel-shaded, vanilla-scented omniworld for time in a US jail. She has not yet been sentenced, but 16 months has been predicted.
From Polish immigrant origins, Martha Stewart sold a nostalgic vision. A housewifely world where people had time to snip the curly edges from poached eggs. This, despite the fact that she had long been too busy building her billion-dollar empire to do these sorts of things herself. Nor did she have a family to speak of - her husband left, her only daughter was grown up. None of that mattered. She embodied the tall blonde waspy mother - distant, perfect, somewhat forbidding, keeping you up to a fictional scratch.
Like Victorians who outgrew their repressive mothers and in adulthood had guilty fantasies of being spanked, so Americans outgrew their "traditional" family values and invited Martha to punish them for it. Easy-iron polyester was their guilty secret and Martha Stewart Living was lifestyle porn for those who were never going to make a candle holder out of a pine cone.
So she was an exacting mother figure - and a control-freak extraordinaire. It came out in court that a senior magazine editor once had to ask Martha's personal permission to clip a single leaf from a bush at her Easthampton home. And the illegal share sale that has proved to be Martha's downfall only saved her - at the time - the loss of some tens of thousands of dollars. This, when her company was worth a paper billion. It must have been a control freak-ism too far.
Some commentators have pointed up the impression Martha gave of barely bothering to defend herself in court. Her chief defence witness was only on the stand for 20 minutes. Also criticised was her deployment of celebrity character witnesses. The jury said they were not impressed. Did Martha, it is implied, think she was above the law?
I would imagine she did. America has always loved a control freak. In fact, America doesn't really countenance the idea of being powerless over anything. Climate change? We'll just look the other way! Martha Stewart promoted the illusion of perfection That's what they bought. That's what she sold. She believed her hype. They believed her hype. Well, not any more.Reuse content