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

Volume 7 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

"I went to a lot of trouble to be fair and I’m sure the portrait in this is complete, three-dimensional and accurate," Christopher Byron said in an interview with MSNBC.com last April about his book on Martha Stewart.

This comment is almost laughable after one reads the book in its entirety, and certainly so when reading various passages in the book that are tainted with Byron’s acidic language and biased opinion. The fact that Byron was burned by Martha when she refused to take part in his book indicates that his requirement to be objective when writing this biography was traded in favor of vengeance and spite.

"She wanted me to take notes on her version of her life, which people can read each month in her magazine," he told MSNBC.

According to Byron, when he refused to do as she asked, she pulled out of the deal and went on to restrict his access to her close friends and family, working against him to the point of trying to buy the publishing rights to the book so she could shelf it.

Ouch.

That must have been painful for a burgeoning biographer who was desperate for a best seller and eager to get information from those closest to Martha, to make his book the best on the subject. Instead, he had to settle on old re-treads, borrowing a roster of bitter individuals from Michael Oppenheimer’s source list and coming up with his own sad, mock-psychologist’s interpretation of the events in Martha’s life.

So, realizing she had left him in a bit of a quandary, he went after her with pen and paper and made it his new-found mission in life to denigrate and devalue this woman he came so close to liking; the one he had dined with at Paci and had laughed with on the phone, his neighbor, his friend with the cute butt and attractive smile.

In chapter six of Martha Inc., a chapter whose title is a reference to a delusional, self-centered woman of fiction, he calls Martha a dominating shrew, a woman drowning in unresolved issues, consumed by anger and contempt for her father and all male figures in her life. "I went to a lot of trouble to be fair," he says. Pardon me while I laugh myself into a stupor.

The happenings of chapter 6 revolve around the gradual disintegration of Andy’s and Martha’s marriage and Byron provides hearsay evidence from Martha’s ex-friends to suggest that it was Martha who ruled the roost with an iron fist, just as Eddie Kostyra (Martha’s father) had done on Elm Place. He recounts how she would berate Andy in front of their guests, swearing at him if he stacked the firewood incorrectly or arguing with him in the kitchen over the smallest detail.

He says their friends gradually retreated from them as the foundation of their marriage became more and more fractured. It was Martha’s obsession with money, Byron says, that contributed to the bitterness, and Andy’s "spineless" behaviour as the accommodating husband who never spoke up for himself.

He says a visit to Turkey Hill during this stage in Martha’s life must have been like visiting a Torquemada’s Theatre of Tortures with "random provocations and ricocheting counterpunches reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? with the audience unsure from moment to moment what the central character’s husband might do (or not do) to send this real-life Martha into a rage."

Either Byron’s been watching too many Elizabeth Taylor films or he’s desperate for allusions to use as filler in a book that is more akin to gossip than biography, thin and shallow with only a hint of promising insight.

In any case, the Stewarts’ marriage was headed for the dustbin of history and Byron finds a disturbing glee in recounting the details, using old sources like Sandy Greene, one of Martha’s old friends from Wall Street as supporting sources.

Sandy and Martha apparently made quite a team on Wall Street and would secure deals with the firm in a "deadly combo" that saw Martha charm the clients and Sandy lure them in to the specifics of the deal with brains and research.

Sexism rears its ugly head here as Byron describes what it must have been like to be in a meeting with Martha and Sandy:

"Martha as the traffic-stopping blond who would sweep into the client’s office in her hot pants and tights and bring all conversation to a halt and Sandy as Mister Research who would trail in behind, settling in a chair at her elbow, his briefcase at the ready, primed to answer any question imaginable on the investment they were about to pitch."

Something tells me Martha’s fortune was not built on an affinity for hot pants and tights. While Martha is surely attractive, it’s secondary to her understanding of commerce and advertising, which should be the real story in Martha Inc. but plays second fiddle to Byron’s orchestra of damaging, sexist gossip.

Greene says that it was after Martha left Wall Street that her demeanor began to change, as though having too much time on her hands in the country contributed to her obsessive, detail-oriented behavior, which escalated her frustration with Andy.

Andy, meanwhile, had scored an excellent publishing deal with the release of a book called Gnomes, a beautifully-illustrated book about the mystical little elves who inhabit the forests and hinterlands of Europe. Unfortunately, however, just as Andy was beginning to enjoy his success he developed cancer and had to undergo radiation and chemo therapy.

Byron attributes the severity of his cancer to the stress he was experiencing with Martha, even though a recent study has indicated that a person’s attitude, whether happy or sad, does nothing to increase or decrease the development of the disease. But "Dr. Byron" knows best! Blame Martha!

One interesting subplot of chapter 6 is the allure Turkey Hill seemed to have to Martha’s family. First Martha’s sister Laura ventured out to Westport to live with them, then her brother George, then her mother and, finally, Martha’s father, the man Byron says was the root cause of Martha’s formidable resentment.

Turkey Hill had now expanded into the adjacent lot, which was purchased by Andy and Martha for $47,000, bringing the yard to nearly six acres of landscaped property. At this time, in the late 70s, it was already manicured to perfection with rows of flower beds, vegetable gardens and a large swimming pool in the middle of the yard.

"Nearby stood a chicken coop the size of Cotswold cottage, and a small penned-in area for goats. It was a gardening extravaganza, like something out of a child’s fantasy – only bigger than even life itself," Byron writes.

It was in this setting that Martha would host her Garden Club meetings with some of the ladies from the neighborhood. And it was here, too, where Martha’s father could be found, hoeing in the garden each day.

Byron suggests that he was placed there, as a prop, by Martha to impress upon the ladies that she had staff at her beckon call. Could it not be that she was trying to give her ailing and listless father something to do with his time? Might he have enjoyed it? Not according to Byron who says he had been "assigned" to stand at "sweating attention" when Martha and her gaggle of ladies strolled by him.

This is an unlikely scenario given Martha’s apparent timidity around her father. If everything in the previous chapters about Eddie’s tyrannical behaviour is true, it is doubtful that even Martha would have dared to "assign" her father a duty and command him to stand at attention for her ladies. It’s more likely he volunteered for the post.

Shortly after his move to Turkey Hill, Eddie Kostyra died and Martha transplanted the rest of her family to her home for support and comfort. "What she had also done," Byron writes, "is uproot the dysfunctional world of her childhood and move it from Nutley, New Jersey, to Westport, Connecticut … with the singular and notable difference that Eddie was no longer calling the shots, and Martha was."

He ends on an ominous and telling note with the creation of Martha’s first book, Entertaining. It soon surpassed the success of Gnomes, suggesting it was the final killing blow to their marriage as resentment grew on Andy’s part:

"…Gnomes was quickly overshadowed by the book he helped create for his wife – and, of course, she wound up with all the credit as Andy simply became known as ‘Martha Stewart’s husband.’"

The husband of any famous woman must deal with the actuality that he will be publicly eclipsed by his wife’s fame. It takes a strong man, indeed, to deal with that reality, one who is secure enough in his manhood to not care that his wife is the breadwinner and is more publicly visible than he will ever be. Society has made it so that a man is made to feel inferior if his wife is more successful than he is, as if it’s a sign of weakness, possibly effeminacy or even homosexuality, in the views of the ignorant.

That Andy couldn’t deal with it is not surprising, nor is it surprising that Byron joins the ranks of traditional males in his assessment that it’s unnatural for a woman to earn more money or be more successful than her husband.

This sentiment is at the root of his entire objective in Martha Inc., which is to undermine Martha’s incredible work the only way he knows how – by being nasty, resorting to name-calling and putting her in her place, back in the kitchen with the little women of yesterday where they can be more easily defined. It makes Byron more comfortable, as it does many men, to justify a woman’s unparalleled success by making her appear demonic or psychologically warped, criminal or even evil. It’s nothing new. It’s been going on for centuries, as the ghosts of many burned "witches" could likely attest.






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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