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

Vol. 3 – A Model Life

Amongst all of the sordid chapters of Martha Inc., chapter two ranks among the better ones. It is a brief reprieve in the midst of an otherwise exhausting barrage of editorial hearsay. In this chapter, Byron seems to remember that he is no longer the acid-tongued columnist at the New York Post, but is, instead, wearing the hat of biographer and succeeds in fulfilling that position relatively well here.

In chapter two, "A Model Life," he devotes a great deal of his attention to the actual business of telling us the story of Martha’s early life, recounting the facts and attributing the information to actual sources rather than coloring the content with his own judgment and criticism, which is his habit throughout the book.

To begin we are presented with the image of a young Martha at Barnard College, where she majored in Art History, eager to expand her career as a model, surrounded by the excitement and energy of 1960s Manhattan.

The picture that emerges of Martha in this chapter is of a vital, attractive young woman with big dreams and self-assurance. Byron attributes this ambition to the pent-up frustration she allegedly encountered at her home on Elm Place, saying that it "burst forth" beyond those suffocating confines and spurred her forward until she left home three months after beginning day classes at Barnard, one of the Seven Sisters Ivy League colleges in New York State.

She worked in Manhattan as a live-in domestic for two spinsters on Fifth Avenue, which is a job she recalls with mixed emotion, saying it was "…kind of fun, but depressing." This is likely due, Byron assures us, to the fact that she was living off the very skill-set of homemaking she had desperately tried to flee while living at home.

While Martha was busy working as a housekeeper, modeling on the side and attending classes at Barnard (always a multi-tasker) her future husband, Andy Stewart, emerged onto the scene. Described by Byron as a "handsome six-footer" who was studying law at Yale, hailing from a family of wealthy Wall Street jetsetters, Andy met Martha through a blind date in the spring of her freshman year.

In an odd sentence that reads like a description of a baseball play, designed to make Martha appear calculating, Byron asserts that Martha was extremely intrigued by the prospect of marrying into money:

"Martha snagged this fluke grounder on the short hop and was soon spending weekends with him in New Haven."
Perhaps this is Byron’s way of attempting to recapture the long-lost jock within, whose time expired years ago. Nevertheless, he attempts to reduce the union between Andy and Martha to a two-second power play courtesy of ESPN.

The pair were married the following July and while money may have been the initial seed of Martha’s attraction, Byron says, they were clearly in love.

But when it was discovered that the Stewart’s family bank account was not as gilded as Martha originally believed it to be, Byron suggests the illusion of the marriage may have begun to fade. But, "Anyway you cut it," Byron notes, "He beat that whole crowd back in Nutley, who by now were fast fading from her world anyway."

And so it is assumed that she settled on Andy Stewart for all the wrong reasons:

"Mistakenly believing Andy to be from a family of eccentric stock market millionaires, Martha likely saw in him a way to bring affluence and security to a lifestyle she had by now begun almost completely to provide on her own. Andy was handsome, he was a Yalie, his parents were rich."

Later that year, Martha devoted a good chunk of her time to her modeling career, which up until this point had been limited to weekend stints as a floor model for Bonwit Teller on Fifth Avenue, small product ads in magazines, and a 30-second television commercial for Lever Brother’s Lifebuoy Soap.

But in the spring of 1961, she was named one of Glamour magazine’s "Top Ten College Girls" of the year, a position held by Norma Collier one year prior, who bore a striking resemblance to Martha’s own clean, radiant looks. Norma became Martha’s mentor and chaperoned she and Andy around New York for publicity purposes. This is the same Norma Collier who would eventually go into business with Martha as a caterer, some years later.

Shortly after winning the prize, however, she moved back to New Haven while Andy finished his law degree at Yale and Byron notes that it must have been a difficult sacrifice for a woman who was eager to realize her own dreams. But, being the early ‘60s, it was the woman’s duty to support her husband’s choices and there was little alternative.

Once Andy graduated, the two moved back to New York City where, for months, they barely made ends meet. Andy finally landed a job as an associate at a law firm and Martha could devote more time to her modeling career – at least that was the plan.

But Martha got pregnant in 1964 and her daughter Alexis was born nine months later. Here, Byron delves into the allegations that Martha was a cold and unfeeling mother and supports this claim with quotes by Andy Stewart who has said that neither he nor Martha were good at parenting and often did not have time for their daughter. Today, however, Martha maintains a relationship with Alexis and there have been no whispers of an upcoming "Martha Dearest" expose by Alexis Stewart. Whether Alexis had a happy childhood or not can only be determined by Alexis herself, and she is pleasingly absent from the pages of Martha Inc. Therefore, any attempt to deride Martha’s mothering capabilities rests on speculation and interpretation.

The arrival of Alexis did not hinder Martha’s modeling plans, although Byron rightly points out that the times had changed and wholesome looking girls like Martha were slowly being edged out by cute, angular models like Twiggy and the voluptuous, sexually-charged Veruschka.

It was Kathy Tatlock, who had worked as a photographer’s assistant at the Paul Elfenbein Studio in Manhattan, that pulled out a photo of a radiant woman named Martha Stewart from the studio’s face book and decided to give her another chance. Kathy had been assigned to find a mother and daughter combo for a Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder ad, and on a whim, decided to call Martha to see if she had a baby. Indeed, she did.

Kathy is one of the book’s main live sources and in this chapter she describes the initial titillation of meeting Martha, who was warm and personable, as a fortuitous event, having finally met a female friend in a profession populated by mostly male coworkers. She goes on to say that she had a feeling she and Martha would be great friends for years to come.

Byron interjects and says that in all relationships there is an "Alpha dog," or dominant leader, and he ascribes this role to Martha in the Kathy & Martha partnership, setting the reader up for the eventual calamity that will reduce their friendship to a pile of smoking ash in the chapters to come, laying the blame exclusively on Martha, of course.

Comparing Martha to a dominant bitch in a wild tribe of dogs must have tickled Byron in those places we just can’t discuss, but the reference is beyond tasteless and in future volumes of Deconstructing Byron it will not be afforded further attention, even though he uses the reference numerous times throughout the book.

In any case, Kathy presents us with a warm image of Martha at the time and the two would go shopping together, have dinner parties with their husbands (both lawyers) and work together, although the Johnson & Johnson model shoot did not pan out since Alexis was not the typical blond baby the company is usually interested in.

Martha, realizing that her modeling career had reached its peak, would discuss her big plans for the future with Kathy on their excursions to craft shops and material stores. Martha would speculate on all that she would one day accomplish: opening an exclusive antique shop, perhaps a chain of flower stores, or designing clothing. It was the initial seed of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia showing its first signs of growth and Kathy was more than impressed by Martha’s breadth of vision and talent.

Still, Byron says, there was a side to Martha that Kathy secretly resented: lavish parties at Andy and Martha’s Riverside Drive apartment, which Kathy was never invited to; a cancellation of dinner plans by Martha an hour before Kathy was about to take the coq au vin off the stove and set the table; deliberate snubs that indicated Martha was not quite as taken with their friendship as Kathy was.

And yet, she gave Martha the benefit of the doubt because she was inspired by her personality and ambition.

Byron closes the chapter with a chilling description of an event at one of Kathy’s dinner parties with Martha and Andy, which is used by Byron to cast a pejorative light on Martha’s capabilities as a mother:

"And then, suddenly, in the late evening hours, as the conversation drifted to a murmur and silence began spreading between the sentences, the bloodcurdling scream of a child split the air. For a second, no one moved, as Kathy’s eyes fell first on the TV and the pillow cushion where Lexi was no longer seated … then darted in the direction of the darkened bedroom, where the door that had been closed all evening now had swung open on its hinges.

"Leaping to her feet, Kathy raced to the bedroom with the most horrific visions that a mother can have flashing through her mind. And as she entered, she beheld a scene she’d never forget: Two-year-old Lexi had climbed up on the rails of the sleeping baby’s crib, and to get the attention of Martha and Andy, who had not spoken a word to her all evening, had leaned forward with her face toward [Kathy’s] baby and let out an ear-splitting scream that was still reverberating through the apartment as Kathy entered the room. It was Lexi’s way of getting the attention of parents who sometimes acted as if she weren’t even alive."

Or maybe it was a two-year old being a two-year old. Byron’s flowery narrative is so convincing one can often forget that he was not present at such events and is relying totally on one source for this information, buying it unquestioningly and further toning it with his own elements of creative writing.

Also, the initial intent of the book was to discuss the rise of Martha’s company, not the terrible-twos of a daughter who had no direct part to play in the "Incredible Story of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc." One must question whether the inclusion of this sort of personal material is necessary at all, given the title of the book. But Byron never seems sure which path to tread: Should he be writing a business bio or a tell-all personal history of the woman who built it? He wavers throughout the book.

If he had stuck with the initial intent of writing a history of the company, the first two chapters of this book could have easily been condensed into one, leaving out all of the harsh references to her deceased father, the uncalled-for hyperbole about her "abnormal" childhood and the soap-opera-like descriptions of her personal ambitions.

Visit Save Martha next week for a look at chapter 3, "To Wall Street," where Martha got her first taste of the world of finance and business.

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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