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Deconstructing Byron: Vol. 11
Strategy: Get Others to Pay
by Andrew Ritchie

With a title reeking of contempt for Martha, Chris Byron begins a descent into unabashed criticism and nastiness that peaks during the next three chapters of Martha Inc. Her business strategy, he asserts, has been to get others to pay for her success, often using sneaky and devious methods to worm her way into the best possible deal for herself.

As an example, Byron cites Martha’s purchase of the Adam’s house up the street from her home in Connecticut, a purchase that totaled $535,000. But as we will see, Martha’s “strategy” was to simply ask a question.

Byron says that with Andy now gone from her life Martha needed a way to refinance the purchase of the second home (which she had already bought) without Andy’s help. Her strategy, or “ploy” as Byron calls it, was to ask Kmart for a $400,000 loan (75% of which was interest free) to help cover the expenses of the home since she could not afford it without Andy’s financial input.

Byron alleges that Martha may have hidden information from Kmart executives about the fact that she already owned the home and was now looking for a way to help cover the expenses. Martha, he says, told the company she needed $1,000,000 to buy the house so that she could make a second video series called “Martha Stewart’s New Old House” for eventual sale on the shelves at Kmart.

According to Byron, Kmart hastily declined, but their marketing consultant, Barbara Loren-Snyder, was worried that Martha may take her ideas to another company, like Home Depot or Sears. Barbara knew that most Kmart shoppers would probably not be interested in viewing a video of a restoration of a fancy Federal-style home, and yet she also knew that if Martha did strike a deal with another retailer for the production of the video series Kmart would like fools. “Kmart would then be in the position of promoting a spokesperson who’d be selling her home renovation video tapes through a rival retailer – with Kmart getting none of the benefit from the star it had created,” Byron notes.

Barbara finally thought of a way of making it work for everyone. Kmart would develop a series of “At Home with Martha Stewart” print and TV ads, a campaign totaling $14 million for Kmart, which would focus on one aspect or another of the Adam’s house renovation. To pay for the campaign, Kmart would gather housewares and renovation vendors, like General Electric and Sherwin-Williams, to supply their merchandise and expertise for the project, allowing them to film their own ads at the Adam’s house as the project progressed.

The result was that Kmart and the vendors would get advertising nearly free of charge and Martha would get her house. Kmart would also have the added benefit of being associated with some of the country’s top home and renovation vendors, furthering its objective to raise the bar on the quality of its image. Martha, the face of Kmart’s housewares department, would also be appearing in ads for the vendors who were supplying the materials for the project, hence giving Kmart more exposure via Martha’s smiling face in ads that had nothing to do with Kmart itself.

Kmart CEO Joe Antonini agreed that it was a win-win-win situation and gave Barbara the go-ahead.

Where, in all of that maneuvering and deal making, is Martha’s “ploy” to get others to pay? Yes, the initially asked for Kmart for money to cover the cost of the house but she evidently had nothing to do with making the final deal happen. In fact, if anyone had a “ploy” it was Kmart: how to keep Martha, make the advertising pay for itself and simultaneously enhance its image. Kmart footed the bill of its own free will and determination without any prodding from Martha at all. All Martha did was ask a question.

The real ploy in this chapter, and throughout this book, is Byron’s overt effort to paint Martha as a mean and manipulative shrew. Byron rides on the coat tails of his predecessor, Jerry Oppenheimer (author of Just Desserts), in creating a book apparently filled with hearsay evidence and gossip with no attempt, whatsoever, to provide a perspective other than those that place Martha in the worst possible light.

Byron uses Kathy Tatlock, yet again, as Martha’s perennial victim. In the previous chapter Byron referred to her as Martha’s post-Andy “whipping boy” and now he finalizes her role in this drama by comparing her story to what happened with Norma Collier, decades earlier, when “The Uncatered Affair” went terribly wrong.

Byron describes Kathy sitting in the back seat of Martha’s chauffeured Mercedes, with Martha riding shotgun, on their way to a meeting with Kmart executives regarding the renovation video tape series, which Kathy had agreed to direct.

According to interviews with Kathy, Martha tossed Kathy’s invoices into the backseat, covered with red ink scribbles over Kathy’s tallied list of expenses, costs that had been incurred during the filming of the last two tapes of the “Secrets for Entertaining” series.

Gone were the $10,000 script-writing fees, which she had been paid for the first video, as well as expenses racked up during the daily production schedule. Regarding the script-writing fees, Kathy alleges that Martha said she did not deserve the money, since Martha had done most of the writing. Without Martha to comment or defend herself, it’s impossible to give a balanced report about what was actually discussed in the limousine. Kathy’s account, in Byron’s context, seems very one-sided, as did Norma Collier’s account of how her partnership with dissolved years earlier.

Byron seems to be only interested in portraying Martha as an egomaniac who had a
troubled childhood and refuses to give her the benefit of the doubt by presenting an argument which may make Martha’s actions seem justified. Perhaps Kathy didn’t deserve the script-writing fees, but in Byron’s book Martha is almost always the villain and this is likely because she refused to take part in this biography.

In any case, Kathy was furious with Martha but tagged along to the meeting anyhow. Byron alleges that at one point during the meeting Martha got so animated about the fine print of her contract that she began to jab her finger at the piece of paper and said in a raised voice, “I’ll talk to my lawyer!”

After the meeting, and a dreadfully silent drive home, Kathy packed up her bags and left Turkey Hill for good, vowing to never again think of Martha Stewart. So deep was the anger that when Martha called her a year later when she was in Boston, Kathy told her to stay out of her life and then hung upon her.

Byron then shifts his focus to Martha’s other venture: starting her own publishing company and developing her own magazine.

Byron must realize that this segment of the chapter seems skimpy, at best. One of the most defining moments in Martha’s career (the creation of “Martha Stewart Living” magazine) is summed up in a few pages. What this shows is that without Martha as a primary source of information for his book, significant career developments in Martha’s career are hastily contextualized and offered up as fast-food info without any real insight or background.

One would never know, while reading Byron’s bio, how Martha came up with the title for her magazine or what the events and thought-processes were behind such a venture. All Byron can do is offer up the bare facts and then speculate about why it happened the way it did.

In Byron’s quick summary, we learn that Martha took her idea for a magazine to five different publishers, all of which turned her down except for Time Warner Inc.

She first went to Crown, the publishers of her books. But they were making enough money off Martha anyhow; why invest more? Her next stop was Time-Life Books but an inside department shuffle soon prompted Martha to look elsewhere. Conde-Nast Publishing was third, and at Newhouse she found someone who would listen. They liked the idea so much that they decided to make a prototype for her.

Their idea was to put Martha’s face on the cover of each issue and get a free ride on its brand identification with Martha herself, who was now famous thanks to Kmart’s ad campaigns and her books. But Newhouse executives thought that with another home and garden magazine in their nest they may eventually cannibalize the market. They abandoned the idea, allowing Martha to keep the prototype to take it elsewhere.

Finally, she wound up back at Time Inc., which had just merged with Paramount Communications and Warner Communications. They snapped up her prototype because it was in line with the company’s new “synergy” policy: a kind of cross-referencing tactic that used Hollywood-brand fame to promote its content; a film made by Warner Bros. for instance could be written about and featured on the cover of a Time Inc. publication. Martha’s prototype had “synergy” written all over it. Here was a famous woman who could bring in millions worth of advertising and sell a lot of magazines for Time simply by virtue of the name-brand recognition, which was thanks to Kmart.

Byron acknowledges that Time was very much an “old boys club” and that the men at the top would be skeptical about having a self-celebrating woman on the cover of a magazine that promoted the lifestyle of the woman herself.

This was actually genius in the making. However, until magazines like “O,” the Oprah Winfrey magazine, and “Rosie,” Rosie O’Donnell’s magazine, were out on newsstands to prove how effective a trend it actually was, people thought the idea was a bit silly. But Martha was the first and deserves every ounce of credit for being the number one magazine trend setter in the 1990s.

Eventually Time Inc agreed to take it on as a possibility and Martha met with the boys upstairs to present her ideas.

Byron attributes Martha’s success in this case to luck, not hard work or devotion to duty. He says she was “born under a lucky star” as if to say that had she not been lucky she would never have succeeded. This is typical of Byron’s absolute inability to give Martha any credit where credit is so obviously due. She thought of the idea herself, took it upon herself to seek out a publisher and didn’t give up until she found one. This shows both determination and a belief in the quality of her ideas and products. But Byron calls it luck. What happened to her “ploys” and “strategies,” Chris?

What is also striking is how thin and flimsy his account seems given the enormity of the deal in question and the complex ladder of information that could have been investigated for his readers’ benefits. But Byron seems to focus on the sleazy side; the tragedy and drama and gossip. He must know he is adding to the enormous pile of anti-Martha drivel, but it sells books. What it cannot do, however, is solicit respect.

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Also, visit The Pantry each month for a closer look at the cover subject of Martha Stewart Living Magazine with insightful articles that broaden the scope of the cover topic, written by Andrew Ritchie

Comments? Write to Andrew

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