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

Vol. 4 – To Wall Street

Getting her hands on a lot of money. That’s what Chris Byron says was the major subplot in Martha’s life in her late 20s when she found herself working on Wall Street in 1968. Rather than describing it as ambition, as he would have if Martha Stewart had been a young man, he colors her desire to be wealthy with shades of greed and sneakiness, making it seem as if Martha should have been ashamed of pursuing wealth and a career in a financial domain.

He says, with no proof whatsoever, that Andy’s salary was proving unsatisfactory to her expectations and thus she shifted her focus from modeling, which was never going to prove lucrative for Martha, to the stock market where she could make good money.

In 1968, she took a brokerage course at the New York Institute of Finance and was soon licensed to conduct securities transactions with the public as a member of the New York Stock Exchange. The market was so hot at the time, Byron notes, that firms were literally hiring people off the street.

Martha came to work for a firm called Perlberg, Monness, Williams & Sidel after Andy Stewart recommended his wife to his friend Andy Monness, one of the firm’s partners. Monness was impressed by Martha’s charm and intelligence, as well as her stunning good looks. She got the job and became one of only a handful of women working as stock brokers on Wall Street.

The most famous female stock broker at the time was a woman named Muriel Siebert, who worked with the firm Bache & Company, and she eventually started her own company, making her the only woman to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange at the time.

Martha’s salary at the firm was around $135,000, which was an enormous sum for a young, working woman in 1968, although tiny in comparison with the hundreds of thousands of dollars made by her male counterparts on Wall Street during the prosperous bull market.

Setting aside the early sketch that Byron is doodling of Martha as the money-grubbing, greedy conservative during a time of free-spirited hippie love, he notes with no trepidation, surprisingly, that Martha did her job very, very well and supports it with evidence.

Andrew Monness, the man who hired Martha, says that she was "the single most competent person I ever met." Byron also says that much of the evidence he came across supports the claim that Martha saved Perlberg, Monness, Williams & Sidel from virtual collapse a number of times because of her skill in sales.

Unfortunately, the stock the firm was peddling was less than respectable and the company eventually crumbled thanks to a horrendous deal with a company called Levitz Furniture, although Martha left the company long before it succumbed to the turmoil of a foul deal.

Byron writes: "Levitz Furniture was not only one of the most spectacular and widely chronicled flops of the 1970s, it was also a huge scandal, with allegations of kickbacks, market rigging and organized crime involvement swirling about the stock for more than a year." And this was the firm’s biggest stock investment.

Martha began to show signs of serious stress, admitting that she was waking up in the middle of the night with hives. She soon realized she needed to jump this sinking ship. In February of 1973, only five years after she had appeared on Wall Street, she bid the company and the rat race farewell. Just a year and a half later, Perlberg, Monness, Williams & Sidel went belly up.

It was Martha’s husband who recommended that she leave the company, after she had promised friends, such as former Glamour girl Norma Collier, that she could make them a fortune through investment. When those promises proved to be fruitless, thanks to the company’s poor handling of the Levitz Furniture deal, Martha got scared and fled the flames before it was too late.

Byron, of course, insinuates that it was something of a cowardly move on Martha’s part, since he seems bound by some unwritten law to criticize Martha for just about everything she does in life. He tries his best to debunk Martha’s claim that she left the firm simply because the market was tanking at the time and that her salary was going nowhere – all valid points. But Byron digs up an old friend of Martha’s, Professor George McCully, who used to stay with the Stewarts some weekends. According to McCully, Martha was terrified of losing everything, from her marriage to her friends:

"She was afraid she had lost every friend she had ever had," says McCully, since many of them had lost a lot of money based on Martha’s advice. "The pain was too much and she simply ran away."

Chapter three is short and relatively sweet, with no references to Martha as a senior member of a pack of wolves. Still, he manages to make subtle little gibes at Martha’s interest in money, coming right out and calling her greedy.

As far as the information in the chapter is concerned, it is relevant and interesting. Byron actually does a fairly good job here of presenting the facts in a way that is intriguing.

Join us next week when "The Page Turns" to the fourth chapter of Martha Inc.

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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