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Vol. 8 – Deconstructing Byron: Making the Best-Seller List
By Andrew Ritchie

It was at a launch party for Andy Stewart’s runaway hit, Gnomes, where Martha was introduced to Alan Mirken, the head of Crown Publishing, who was munching on Martha’s delicious hors d’oeuvres. Martha and Andy made their pitch to Mirken for a book called Entertaining – a kind of cookbook extraordinaire with recipes and decorating tips that she was sure would be a hit. Given Andy’s excellent reputation at Abrams Publishing and the enormous success of Gnomes it didn’t take much convincing before Mirken gave the go-ahead.

The book was the result of close collaboration between Martha, Andy and a few other people who had been in the Stewart’s inner circle of friends and acquaintances for some years. Martha selected the recipes and was the primary "face" of the book; Andy did most of the picture editing, using photographs of Turkey Hill and his wife in the layout of the magazine; and the book was written by Betsy Weinstock, the wife of Davis Weinstock who had first steered Martha toward a career on Wall Street. The finished product was a large, glossy-paged volume about how to entertain, complete with numerous recipes, photos of intricate table settings and plenty of shots of Martha smiling reassuringly out at the reader.

The book was a phenomenal success, becoming the most popular cookbook since Julia Child’s and Simone Beck’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which had been released two decades earlier.

Byron makes several criticisms of the book in chapter 7 of his book, saying that the first edition revealed a shocking lack of credit to both Andy and Betsy. This is likely not Martha’s fault so much as it was the bigwigs at Crown Publishing who perhaps saw it more fitting to make Martha the center of attention, given her good looks. In recent editions of the book, the credits have been altered appropriately, with Andy and Betsy clearly given their due credit.

Byron is not alone in his criticism, however, and he follows on the heels of numerous writers and chefs who jumped on the book when it was released and began to disseminate it, looking for stolen recipes or any sign of poor production. When the book was first released a few reviewers noted that some of the recipes bore a striking resemblance to Julia Child’s recipes or that the ingredients were improperly listed.

As Byron points out, however, they were missing the point entirely. The book was not so much a cookbook, in the tradition of The Joy of Cooking, as it was a book about lifestyle and social etiquette on a grandiose scale. For instance, in Entertaining readers can learn about how to make cocktails for two hundred guests, or prepare a country luncheon for one hundred and seventy-five.

Here, Byron can’t resist yet another jibe at Martha’s past, gleaning satisfaction by making fun of Martha’s family in a tasteless display of mockery:
"In this world, dad no longer came downstairs to breakfast, zipping up his fly and yelling at mom for splitting the English muffins with a knife instead of a fork. Gone was everybody grabbing at once for the last slice of raisin bread. On this breakfast table sat nothing with lettering on it at all: no boxes of cornflakes, no jars of Tang. In this world, no one rose from the table and exited farting, or opened the fridge and drank from the milk carton…In this world, children didn’t fight and throw food: They came to the dinner table in starched linen Sunday clothes and sat without a sound like porcelain figurines."

Addressing this kind of arrogance is never easy but suffice it to say that no one would want to make a cookbook touting people who exit from the kitchen farting while zipping up their flies and yelling at one another, nor one that places emphasis on name-brand cereals and jars of Tang. Was Julia Child’s book any more "real" than Martha’s book? Were there references to food fights and imagery of people drinking from milk cartons in Julia Child’s book where there were none in Martha’s? Of course not - and it’s no more pretentious of Julia Child to want to master the art of French cooking than it is for Martha to want to entertain on a large scale. Granted, her books didn’t go quite as far into the ether of perfection as Martha’s, but quality and preparation were always elements one could expect to see in Child’s books and for that most readers were thankful.

Byron does make an interesting point about the nature of quality Martha was going for, however, and he rightly attributes it to the trappings of the new decade of decadence. He writes: "[It was] a celebration of a certain kind of tinselly, nouveau-grandeur that was seeping into American life as the 1980s began." In this case he hits the nail on the head.

With Nancy Reagan in the White House and Joan Collins on the Prime Time soaps, the new wave of 1980s glitz and glamour was steadfastly becoming the way of life for anyone who could afford it. The 1980s mantra said that bigger was better and the more opulent things were, the more enjoyable they would be. Martha Stewart was at the forefront of this movement and her career soon took on a life of its own as she ventured further and further into the business of creating the ideal lifestyle – not only for herself, but for the entirety of North America.

After the success of Entertaining, Martha found herself in the pages of the New York Times and Newsweek and her popularity began to grow ever more rapidly. Soon she was catering huge parties for 1,500 people on Manhattan piers, all decorated and organized by Martha herself, with cypress trees trucked in from special greenhouses and arranged in perfect symmetry around an enormous white tent, ovens and griddles at the ready, sheltered from the eyes of the guests. She catered parties for many of her famous neighbors, including Paul Newman. Having Martha Stewart at the helm of a party eventually became a boon to anyone who could afford her. She quickly became New York’s top caterer.

But, even as the fame and fortune swelled around her, her marriage to Andy was slowly but surely disintegrating. Entertaining soon eclipsed the success of Gnomes and, as Byron puts it, "Andy was back in the shadows again."

Like any man who feels slighted by his partner, he searched for affection elsewhere, namely the arms of another woman. Byron makes some attempt to justify this behaviour by insinuating that if Martha had not focused so much effort on her career, Andy wouldn’t have been driven to distraction – the old "she made me do it" syndrome. Yet even Byron realizes that there were other alternatives for Andy. He could have simply separated from Martha, assuming all attempts at discussing their problems had failed to yield any productive solutions. Instead, he chose to have an affair.

The "other woman" was Erica Jong, who had attended Barnard College a year or two behind Martha and who now lived in the same upper-class community as Martha and Andy, working as a fiction writer. Her most successful book was one called Fear of Flying with a salacious character named Isadora Wing who celebrated the same kind of commitment-free sexual lifestyle as that of her author. Andy met Erica when he chose her to be the writer for his follow-up book called Faeries, a companion to Gnomes. It is assumed that the more time they spent working together, the more the affection and attraction grew. Neither Andy nor Martha have publicly discussed his affair with Erica but court documents filed during the divorce case cited Andy’s adulterous behaviour as one of the reasons for the separation.

At this point in the mid-80s, however, his extra-marital affairs were a well-kept secret and if Martha did know about them, she wasn’t saying a word. Instead, Martha poured more and more energy into her career, which was taking on a life of its own. She delivered her second book, Quick Cook, in 1983 and her third called Hors D’Oeuvres in 1984. The following year came Pies and Tarts and in 1987, Weddings. These offerings made Martha the most successful writer at Crown Publishing’s Clarkson Potter imprint and also increased her visibility in the media, which was both beneficial and something of a curse.

She was featured in House & Garden magazine, People magazine and Bon Appetit, and became a freelance writer for House Beautiful magazine. All the while she was continuing to cater for huge parties for companies like Tiffany’s and Sotheby’s as well as socialites like Betsy Gimbel, making her one of the most news-worthy names in entertainment circles.

As her fame and visibility grew, so too did the criticism surrounding the kind of life she was promoting. Some called it "the art of showing off" while others saw it as an impossible idealism with too many fussy details to be realistically achieved by anyone other than Martha herself. Friends, family and coworkers noticed a cool efficiency come over Martha during the mid-80s – a no-nonsense tone of voice that facilitated command sentences and a kind of urgency that had not been detected before. Martha was becoming a business woman.

By this point her Market Basket store had closed, since her catering jobs became more and more demanding. Similarly, she threw herself into continuous renovations and gardening projects around the house and by this time she and Andy had planted 122 trees on the grounds of Turkey Hill. But it wasn’t enough to escape the resounding cries of discontent from the first group of people to speak out against her: her neighbors.

They complained about the delivery truck traffic that was more or less consistent on Turkey Hill Road and were undoubtedly resentful, too, about the emerging success of their neighbor. They also accused the Stewarts of running an illegal home-based catering business in a residential neighborhood. Martha attempted to have the zoning bylaws changed but eventually had to move her catering operation to a rented space in a commercial zone.

Local business people began to complain as well. One that Byron mentions is Robert Satter, Westport’s most famous family photographer. He complained that Martha blocked his view of a wedding by stationing her own photographer in front of him, saying that she was rude and indignant when he asked her to move: "Do you know who I am," he claims she said to him. "I’m Martha Stewart!"

By this point, Byron says that Martha’s and Andy’s marriage was entirely for show and that any semblance of their initial love for one another had dissolved almost completely. The tension had reached the point where Andy took a ski trip with Alexis in 1981, leaving Martha alone at Christmas. He took a solo trip to Tierra del Fuego the following year, refusing to spend Christmas with Martha. Martha was an emotional mess as a result of Andy’s tactics and went so far as to post an article in The New York Times on December 19th of 1982, saying she was going to be alone at Christmas again: "Consider this an SOS to friends," she wrote.

Byron does a fairly good job in this chapter of capturing the tone of the 1980s, particularly as it concerned feminism and the urge to have it all. He rightly notes that the women who found Martha so intriguing were those who rejected the strong current of women in the workforce but who also yearned for power of their own, most notably within the home. They were not as wealthy as Martha, nor as ambitious, but they spent money on her books to achieve the idea of what Martha stood for – quality, presentation and idealism.

That Martha wasn’t living the life herself and had a troubled marriage is beside the point, something that may have been lost on Martha herself in the beginning. She seemed so eager to present herself as living the life she produced on the pages of her books but should have perhaps been more aware of the insidious workings of jealous onlookers who were looking any signs of tarnish. All she was doing was marketing her dreams, and in the process she sowed many accomplishments, realizing her fantasies of fine living through hard work and a strong vision of what she wanted.

Her marriage failed in the process, which is not surprising given the strain such success would place on any union. But what she did to fill the void left by a troubled marriage was reinvent the homemaker to give thousands of women fresh hope while also rediscovering the industries and businesses who facilitated the workings of the home. She made the homemaker cool again – an oversight that far too many of Martha’s detractors are guilty of.

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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