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The Pantry
Deconstructing Byron
An exclusive Save Martha serial by Andrew Ritchie

Vol. 2 – Nancy Drew and the Case of the Hidden Childhood

No childhood is perfect. No child grows up with ideal parents or escapes the sometimes-hurtful experiences that come with emotional growth in a family unit. And there isn’t a child in America who doesn’t imagine beyond his own surroundings, with hopes and dreams of future prosperity.

And yet, Byron makes the very typical mid-20th century family life Martha grew up with seem like a uniquely depressing experiment in dominance and submission, anger and bitterness, when in truth it was probably quite ordinary.

In this chapter he sets the tone by using intentionally demeaning hyperbole to describe rather commonplace traits that were typical of any household of the late 40s and 1950s. In the process, he places a very definite value judgment on the quality of Martha’s family in an attempt to overshadow the lifestyle she enjoys today.

The intent, which is transparently clear, is to debunk and dispute the highly glazed image of perfection Martha is known for in popular culture, an image that is the cornerstone of her business and much of her public persona. It is an image that has brought her as much backlash as it has success.

Byron goes out of his way to make her early childhood years seem unbearable, describing the daily events of the Kostyra family as scenes reminiscent of "A Streetcar Named Desire," with Martha’s father (Eddie Kostyra) playing the part of the domineering Stan Kowalski, who presides over the trembling residents of Elysian Fields.

How dramatic.

The chapter is rife with references to Martha’s parents, Edward and Martha Kostyra. Martha Sr. is described as a cold and meek woman who spent her days in a dowdy housedress, working hard hours in the home, caring for six children as well as her demanding husband. He alleges she would occasionally scream back at him in Polish or relieve her tension with a swig or two of beer.

But it is Eddie who gets the brunt of Byron’s pen with descriptions of behavior intended to make him seem like a grotesque portrait of disappointment and anger. There are the tales Byron spins of him urinating in the small bathroom adjacent to the kitchen each morning while the family ate breakfast, unnecessarily adding that the Kostyra children must have felt like they were growing up next to an economy class washroom in an airplane.

He urges us to imagine Eddie retreating into the basement to develop his photographs (one of his hobbies) after yelling at his family, "dreaming of a life more fulfilling than the one he was living upstairs."

But the opening of the chapter sets the tone perfectly, not only because of what it alleges but how it is alleged. Byron lays us back in our comfy leather sofas and puts on his psychologist’s voice for the first of many times throughout the book and takes us on a journey through Martha’s past:

"Her father was a self-absorbed narcissist named Edward Kostyra, who escaped the draft, and, blaming the world for never allowing him to live up to his own expectations of himself, wound up a high-school gym coach and after that a salesman. Nonetheless, he had the artistic sensibility of an aesthete, and that – combined with the mercurial temper of a bad drinker – made him the most powerful force in Martha’s life, setting standards of excellence and intolerance that became in time dominant characteristics of her own personality as well."

One must ask where Byron studied the fine art of psychoanalysis since he so convincingly paints us the emotional background of his protagonist, as he does throughout the chapter:

"As the years went by [Martha] simply read more and more from the first ‘relationship script’ she had ever learned – the one in which the authority figure maintains control by yelling the loudest and oppressing the most harshly, while insisting on undifferentiated and blind obedience as the expression of true love."

The problem, of course, is that he has no degree in psychology and no actual proof of such intangible emotional development on which he bases his conclusions.

We see in the source notes at the back of the book that the vast majority of the information for this chapter came from the tabloid text of Just Desserts, the sensationalistic bio by the National Enquirer’s Jerry Oppenheimer. Martha sued the publishers of Just Desserts because of its horrendous portrayal of her life but eventually settled out of court.

Still, Byron feels safe in using the information from Just Desserts about Martha’s childhood in this chapter because, as he describes it, "No factual errors involving anything in the book or excerpts were ever established in the suit…" Well, then – I guess it must all be true. If high-paid lawyers couldn’t dispute what were alleged to be facts in Just Desserts, why should he?

The only sources directly quoted in the chapter are Martha’s older brother, Eric, and Martha herself, using an array of her Remembering columns as ammunition against her. The rest of the live sources are unnamed "neighbors" and "visitors to Turkey Hill," some of whom were interviewed by Oppenheimer for Just Desserts.

Eric is quoted as saying, "My father was super critical and Martha is very demanding. It’s the family curse." In the context of this chapter it reads quite negatively, but when observed out of context there is really nothing that incriminating at all.

In fact, how are we to know if Eric didn’t make the statement with a wry grin on his face, offer a knowing wink or finish the sentence with a little chuckle? What’s more, Martha herself has admitted that she is very demanding and has said that her father was very critical. It’s not as if she was ever hiding it.

Ironically, we can find evidence that Martha did not intend to hide her feelings about her family, as Byron alleges she did, in her Remembering columns. Using the quotes he uses in this chapter, we can see that she was always honest about her feelings upon reflection. Martha writes:

"When I was growing up, I wasn’t one of the lucky ones whose every meal was accompanied by a fine damask napkin in a silver napkin ring. Nor was I fortunate enough to receive a trousseau of heirloom table and bed linens when I married."

Far from being a "poor me" cry for sympathy, it was likely more of a statement of fact, perhaps even a proud acknowledgement of her working-class roots and how, despite her longing for such luxuries, her family always made due.

In another Remembering column by Martha, which is used by Byron in the chapter to convict her of her own complaints, she says she found herself crying in front of her closet because all of her clothes were homemade and she did not have suitable jewelry to attend her first real New Year’s Eve party. There’s nothing too unusual about that. Few young girls would twirl about gleefully in front of such a closet, or happily resign themselves to a life of handmade jumpers and artificial pearls.

The chapter succeeds on one level, however. Byron skillfully describes the nature of the times in which Martha grew up, a rip tide of post-war ideals and old-world traditions. He includes a history of Tupperware and its creator, Earl Tupper, and the rise of the housewife as a commercial and respected consumer.

He also includes descriptions of the division between the younger students at her high school and the class that Martha belonged to, a decidedly more conservative group who still espoused the ways of yesterday but with a very forward-looking attitude of independence. And so he situates the young Martha in a time of great change but also great tradition, which is key to understanding the nature of her business and her product.

But when he describes Martha’s enjoyment of the Nancy Drew books at the end of the chapter, he inevitably reverts back to his initial focus, which is Martha’s personality and private life. He reads all kinds of psychological undercurrents into her affinity for the books, stating that she wanted all that the Nancy Drew character had, from the adventures in jets and roadsters, to the perfect, handsome father who adored her.

There is nothing wrong with wanting more. And yet, Byron uses Martha’s wonderful dreaming abilities, her imagination and her desire to accomplish something beyond the usual as evidence against her, as if it’s a crime to have regrets, to wish things had been different and to achieve beyond imagining.

Was there nothing in Byron’s childhood he was at odds with, that he wishes had been different? Did he always get along with mom and dad and never dream beyond his surroundings? Doubtful.

But then, Byron has never been a billionaire with his own media empire so there won’t be a slanderous biography written about him anytime soon. He has nothing to fear.

Visit Save Martha next week for the next edition of Deconstructing Byron where I will look at chapter 2 of Martha Inc., A Model Life.

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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