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

Vol. 6., A Nascent Empire: the Martha Moment is Born

Martha Stewart has difficulty being idle – that much is known to be true. A free moment can be spent in the garden, or reading a volume on Asian cooking, or reorganizing the pantry, or cleaning the patio with a Javex and water solution to prevent mildew.

In 1975, once the bulk of the renovations to Turkey Hill were completed, she found herself idle. She spent her days with friends like Norma Collier, the former Glamour Girl who befriended Martha during their modeling days, a decade prior. They toured country craft shops, visited antique stores and began collecting little knick-knacks here and there. Martha, though, felt a void. She missed the excitement of Wall Street, of earning money, of making her mark.

During the 1970s, as Chris Byron points out in chapter five, women found themselves in a bit of a quandary. Collectively and socially, they were at a crossroads and all directions seemed to promise both curse and charm.

The former duty of a wife to stay at home and look after all things domestic was less of a duty and more of a luxury during the 1970s, when women found it necessary to work outside the home to earn extra income; their husbands could no longer support a growing family alone.

Also, there was a growing feminist movement that was tied very tightly to the notion of women in the workforce. Women, increasingly, wanted and needed to work outside the home to gain a sense of empowerment and self-worth.

And yet, the leftover vestiges of the 1950’s and ‘60’s mentality bore seeds of resentment for being required to work in order to help the family stay afloat. After all, it was the man’s job, typically. Working outside the home was not so much a choice for women as it was a necessity.

It was this environment that Martha and Norma inhabited. They wanted, and needed, to do something to earn money. And so they pooled their resources as upwardly-mobile, middle-class homemakers and did something to help line their pocket books with cash.

"The Uncatered Affair" was their co-operative venture. It was a catering company, operated out of their own kitchens, which provided food-preparation services to their numerous wealthy neighbors – Martha had Westport and Norma had New Canaan, but the deal was that they would share the profits.

The attractive pair would cater a dinner party to make it look, precisely, as if they had not catered it at all, leaving the sublime housewife who hired them to look as if she had done all the work herself. They would prepare the menu using the clients’ own cookware and would hurriedly disappear before the guests arrived. It was ingenious. It was also in line with the new feminist philosophy that was sweeping across America: a woman can, and should, do it all. Or at least appear as if she can.

But while business was booming, the partnership between Norma and Martha quickly became strained. Norma alleged that Martha would belittle her in front of their clients, tell her she was doing it wrong and take over the demonstration.

The final straw came when Norma walked in on Andy and Martha, who had been preparing a catering job for 200 guests. The revelation was that Martha had been booking clients without Norma and was secretly pocketing the profits from these solo jobs.

"I was flabbergasted," Norma said later. "And frankly, I felt like a fool. I mean, I had been hurt by her financially before, when she lost all my money in Levitz Furniture and never told me that she’d bailed out from her own personal investment in the stock, months earlier. And now here I was, discovering that she was ripping me off all over again."

Norma stormed out and called it quits, after yelling at the Stewarts who apparently were mortified by the spectacle.

Like a vulture sniffing out a dying lamb from a mile away, Chris Byron dives down and has his way with the carnage of their ill-fated working partnership, reveling in the little details of disintegration and decay, making them all the bloodier with his fantastical fiction writing techniques.

Martha called Norma and asked her to pick up the last of her things at the boutique Andy’s sister owned in New York, a week or so after "the incident."

"At the appointed hour, Norma arrived, apprehensive but determined to be civil," Byron writes. "When she entered the shop, Martha strode from behind a curtain and directed her to go back outside and wait."

Cue violins. Cue lights. Cameras ready? Action!

"It was cold outside, and a drizzly autumn rain had soaked the streets. People hurried past with their collars pulled about them as Norma waited for Martha to reappear. Momentarily, the door opened a crack and Martha’s eye peered through. Then, in an instant, the door swung open the rest of the way and onto the sidewalk tumbled a torrent of bundles, bags and parcels – Norma’s ‘things’ from their partnership. Then, even as the shocked Norma stooped to collect them as people hurried past, the door slammed shut and Martha was gone from her life."

This ludicrous tendency of Chris Byron to dramatize everything with hyperbole is tiresome, to say the least. The probable reality of the situation was likely much less melodramatic: Norma arrives, Martha is curt but calm, she hands Norma her stuff and that’s that.

What Byron neglects to examine in this whole scenario is the possibility that Martha may have been better at catering than Norma was, or found a passion in it that Norma just didn’t recognize.

There was apparently no written agreement stating that either woman couldn’t do solo catering jobs, only loose verbal guidelines that were determined at the genesis stage of the catering company’s inception. So, to say that Martha violated some well-established code of conduct and swindled her partner is not entirely accurate.

Perhaps if Norma had maintained a cool head during the revelation that Martha was doing jobs on her own, new parameters may have been discussed and the partnership may have expanded to include solo jobs, giving both women the freedom to work alone or as a unit when the occasion called for it.

We’ll never know what might have been. But let it be restated that Norma ended the partnership with a temper tantrum, not Martha.

Fifteen years after their partnership ended the two met again at a "bury-the-hatchet" dinner party that was awkward and uncomfortable. Today, Norma has said that she wants nothing to do with Martha, calling her a sociopath and a horrible woman. To say that Norma Collier is bitter would be an understatement.

Never one to let obstacles stand in her way, however, Martha continued her catering jobs, suggesting that she did, in fact, have more of an innate ability to entertain than her former partner Norma Collier, who went on to do other things.

This time Martha’s business was called "The Market Basket" located at the front of a new store in Westport owned by an up-and-coming fashion designer named Ralph Lauren. Martha sold home-made pies, jams, cookies and cakes, all attractively packaged and arranged on a large wooden table with a smiling, well-dressed blond woman standing next to it – it was the birth of the Martha Moment.

Martha’s buzz word for The Market Basket was "quality" and people ate it up, literally and figuratively; some would pay as much as $20 for a single apple pie. Word soon began to spread about this self-starting woman from Westport and she was doing radio interviews and appearing in newspaper articles.

As demand grew, she needed to expand her operations and put out ads in the local paper, the Westport News, to subcontract housewives who were willing to bake pies and pastries for The Market Basket, thus expanding her team of helpers.

Eventually, however, the Westport Health District inspectors forced Martha to open a single cooking location, since little was known about the conditions in which these pies and pastries were made, in the kitchens of numerous women across town.

She opened her own shop and hired Vicky Negrin to oversee the operation of the store. Martha, in the meantime, was contributing articles about cooking and lifestyle to Family Circle magazine, Cuisine magazine, even The New York Times.

In 1977 she became a business and began conducting her affairs under the business moniker, Martha Stewart Inc., based out of her home on Turkey Hill.

Since it is Byron’s duty to end the chapter on a sour note, he lambastes her with accusations that she treated her husband Andy like a second-rate servant in the midst of her growing fame and wealth:

"Just as the kiss of good fortune set [Andy’s] career on fire, he wound up on his wife’s payroll, schlepping food to her catering affairs and eventually orchestrating the book deal that would make her famous…while he himself wound up with cancer."

Did Andy really "schlep" the food to her catering affairs or did he simply bring it? Did he get cancer because of Martha? That’s the implied meaning.

Byron’s usual, pejorative refrain in all matters Martha is alive and well in this chapter. You can just hear the undertone of horror in Byron’s words when he writes that Andy "wound up on his wife’s payroll." Oh, the humanity, the utter humiliation of such an emasculating realization!

What Chris Byron is itching to say throughout Martha Inc., but never actually does, is rife with all the ugly misogyny that has afflicted his generation’s "Old Boy’s Club" since American women first entered the workforce. It goes something like this: "Martha is an uppity, greedy bitch who forgot her place as the dutiful housewife. She eats men for breakfast and uses their bones as floss, all the while plotting how to conquer the world, bent on a little girl’s fantasy of the perfect, doll-house life."

The sentiment is there, throughout the book, in all his references to her as the "alpha male," as the frigid mother who never had time for Alexis, as the wretched wife who is more interested in bank books than caring for her husband’s every need.

What we now realize, thanks to an article he wrote on October 7th, is that he would like to stick ice picks in the eyes of her supporters; that he thinks she is the "Queen of Ridiculousness" and that she is guilty of any and all allegations leveled against her, regardless of any assertion of innocence on her part. He is her nemesis, the thorn in her side.

What he’s done in the process of writing such tripe, over and over again, is undermine the legitimacy of his biography on Martha Stewart, reducing it to a puffed-up tabloid rag on par with its predecessor, jerry Oppenheimer’s Just Desserts, which will remembered not for its balanced research but for its nasty tone and cruel intent.

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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