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Deconstructing Byron – Volume 9
by Andrew Ritchie
Kmart Calls

In chapter 8 Chris Byron at last delivers what the summary of "Martha Inc." promised: an account of the development of Martha's ever-expanding viability as a media personality and businesswoman. Chapter 8, Kmart Calls, is the retelling of how the union between Martha and one of the leading North American retail chains was initially forged, and it makes some interesting and relevant observations about the partnership as it existed in the late 80s.

It was Barbara Loren-Snyder who brought Martha to Kmart that year. She had been hired by the president of the company at the time, Joseph Antonini, as a marketing consultant. It was her responsibility to revamp the sad state of Kmart’s housewares department (kitchen and bath) and to provide a face for the new and improved section of the store. Jaclyn Smith of Charlie’s Angels was on board as the spokeswoman for the company’s lady’s wear department and now it was time for more faces to give the discount retailer a much-needed makeover.

While it’s true that Martha Stewart and Kmart initially seem like strange bedfellows, Byron goes out of his way in this chapter to denigrate the image of Kmart and its shoppers by reaching for more of his storybook narrative. He describes the average Kmart customer, "rushing for the Blue Light special in aisle six, with her impatient 12-year-old son dragging along." He adds to this image by calling Kmart "the tackiest discount retailer this side of JC Penny."

Still, he gives credit where credit is due and seems to hail Ms. Loren-Snyder as a heroine of sorts for her brilliance in luring Martha Stewart into Kmart’s cozy family of famous faces, saying her efficiency and devotion to duty was supremely professional.

As Byron tells it, Loren-Snyder inadvertently spotted one of Martha’s books in a store one day and browsed through its crisp, colorful pages at the smiling blond woman who seemed to have it all – looks, brains, money, an up-tempo lifestyle rooted in small-town charms. She had not heard of Martha Stewart prior to this moment but she instinctively knew that Martha was the one she was after.

Other possibilities in Loren-Snyder’s rolodex of candidates included Jennifer Lang, a cookbook author and co-owner of a trendy Manhattan restaurant called Café Des Artistes. She was beautiful and intelligent but was not as well-known as Martha Stewart, who by now had several best-selling books on the store shelves, a syndicated column and a new Thanksgiving television special on Boston’s WGBH. Third in line was Jill St. John, a film actress from the ‘60s who had toured with Frank Sinatra and co-starred in films with Sean Connery. She had little to do with cooking or homemaking, however, and her image was not particularly wholesome: ‘Was she a sexpot?" Byron asks.

So, Loren-Snyder presented her idea of Martha Stewart to the Kmart executives, spreading Martha’s colorful books out in front of them like a visual feast. She saw their faces light up. Some of them knew of Martha Stewart and some of them did not, but the lovely culinary expert who exuded elegance, charm and sophistication was perfect for the job and Antonini and his cohorts gave Loren-Snyder the go-ahead.

When she called Martha to present Kmart’s offer, she did not name the company she was representing but did promise that Martha could make millions from this deal. Martha was intrigued enough to agree to a meeting several weeks later. Loren-Snyder had asked that Martha’s lawyer be present at the meeting, and at the time her lawyer was also her husband, Andy Stewart. So, the Stewarts showed up at Loren-Snyder’s office and she presented the deal.

After a bit of buttering up, she told Martha that she represented Kmart, America’s second leading discount retailer. Martha didn’t respond but instead stared blankly ahead, motionless and expressionless. According to Loren-Snyder, Martha was particularly frigid that day and was awkward during most of the meeting. By this time, Martha and Andy were on the verge of divorce and the tension must have been excruciating between the two of them.

Martha finally asked how much money she would make and Loren-Snyder offered her $50,000 annually, knowing full well she had permission from Kmart to pay her $250,000 a year. Martha was apparently outraged by the quoted price and said she expected at least $200,000. Loren-Snyder, smirking to herself, said she would see what she could do.

In the end, the deal was made in the winter of 1987 and Martha could add Kmart’s annual payment of a quarter of a million dollars to her list of multiple incomes. In exchange, she would be the face of the retailer’s housewares department and would be featured in Kmart ads, both print and television, as well as tour the country to promote Kmart’s items. Eventually, this deal would have Martha selling her own brand of signature Kmart merchandise and would balloon to make Martha one of the wealthiest women in America.

Mercifully, Byron leaves out a lot of the details of Martha’s personal life at the time, except to say that her marriage to Andy was reaching a boiling point. He also mentions that her daughter, Alexis, was dating the now-infamous Sam Waksal who is 20 years Alexis’ senior, and notes that Kathy Tatlock had moved in with the Stewarts after she and her husband Chris had divorced. Martha offered Kathy a job as a filmmaker for the WGBH television special and provided room and board in the interim.

She also told Kathy of the tentative approval and funding she had received from Crown Publishers, as well as a California wine distributor, Sterling Vineyards, to produce a home entertainment video about cooking. She wanted Kathy to film and produce the project with another director.

Byron says that Martha had originally agreed to pay Kathy 50% of the profits made from the sale of this video, but Martha has denied such a promise was ever made. No firm agreement was ever reached between Martha and Kathy stating that Kathy would be entitled to 50% of the profit, although it is Kathy’s assertion that Martha initially promised her what amounted to $100,000 for the project. At this stage however, Kathy was pleased to have the work, despite ambiguities of the deal.

Byron does a good job in this chapter of presenting the reader with relevant information about how the Kmart deal was made, naming his sources and conjuring a coherent account of the deal. He includes many details and provides some interesting insight along the way.

Byron’s continuing commentary on Kmart and Martha Stewart in his NY Post column, however, has completely undermined the supposed professionalism of his business bio of Martha Stewart. Resorting to calling her "Main Mama Martha" in a recent article about her lucrative liaisons with Kmart, he has proven that he is more interested in name-calling than any kind of balanced reportage. This only clarifies his original vision for Martha Inc.: "…the story of a little girl who never got over what life never gave her…"

For what it’s worth, we hope that the story of a little boy who never got over being snubbed by Martha Stewart ends with the eventual flowering of his maturity.

Stranger things have happened!

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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