Martha Stewart’s image as the personification of gracious living may lead some to imagine that she grew up in the sort of rural luxury pictured in her books and magazines. In fact, she was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, a location known more for heavy industry than for rustic charm. Her parents, Martha and Edward Kostyra, were a schoolteacher and a pharmaceuticals salesman, respectively. When Martha was three, the family moved to Nutley, New Jersey, where she grew up with four brothers and sisters in a close-knit Polish-American family defined by her father’s intense ambition for his children. Edward Kostyra taught his daughter gardening when she was only three; her mother taught her cooking and sewing; her grandparents taught her to put up preserves, and she learned to make pies and cakes from a pair of retired bakers who lived next door.
By all accounts, Martha Kostyra was a hard-working, serious child. A straight-A student, she won a partial scholarship to Barnard College in New York City and worked as a model to help pay expenses. She began her college career intending to study chemistry, but later switched to art, European history and architectural history. Just after her sophomore year, she married Andrew Stewart, a law student. She took a year off from Barnard after their 1961 wedding but returned to graduate with a double major in history and architectural history. After graduation, she continued a successful modeling career, appearing in print and television advertisements for Breck, Clairol, Lifebuoy soap and Tareyton cigarettes until her daughter, Alexis, was born in 1965.
In 1967, Martha Stewart began a second career as a stockbroker, her father-in-law’s profession. Meanwhile, Andrew Stewart founded a publishing house and served as chief executive of several others. When a recession hit Wall Street in 1973, Stewart left the brokerage. She and her husband moved to Westport, Connecticut, where they undertook the complete renovation of an 1805 farmhouse on Turkey Hill Road, a location familiar to viewers of her later television programs. In 1976, she started a catering business, which she ran from the basement of her house. She gained additional business experience managing a gourmet food store in Westport, the Market Basket, which she guided to success. Her catering business also prospered. In only ten years her basement business had become a $1-million enterprise.
Catering publishers’ parties in New York City brought her valuable contacts and led to a book deal. In 1982 her first book, Martha Stewart’s Entertaining, appeared. Co-written with Elizabeth Hawes, the lavishly illustrated volume became the bestselling cookbook since Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 20 years before. More books followed, on hors d’oeuvres, pies, weddings, Christmas, gardening and restoring old houses. In addition to her books, Stewart served as an editor and columnist for the magazine House Beautiful and later as a contributing editor to Family Circle. While her career prospered, her family life changed, and in 1989, Martha and Andrew Stewart divorced.
In 1990, she started her own magazine, Martha Stewart Living, serving as editor-in-chief. The publication was an immediate success. Appearances on the Oprah Winfrey and Larry King television programs led to a regular weekly spot on the CBS Early Show as well as a series of holiday specials on the network. In 1993 she debuted a weekly half-hour television program, also called Martha Stewart Living. Half an hour once a week was not enough for her growing audience, and the program eventually expanded to a daily hour-long broadcast, with half-hour episodes on weekends.
Martha Stewart’s television appearances had made her not only a household name, but a one-woman industry. A second magazine, Martha Stewart Weddings, began appearing regularly in 1993. Stewart’s merchandise and licensing operations were also growing; she signed an advertising and consulting contract with retailer Kmart for a reported $5 million. In 1997, she purchased all of the publishing, broadcasting, merchandise and licensing ventures bearing her name and consolidated them into a new company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO). When MSLO went public in 1999, the share price more than doubled on the first day of trading. Martha Stewart retained most of the shares in her company, while serving as chairman, president and CEO.
In 2001, Ladies Home Journal named her the third most powerful woman in America. By 2002, the magazine Martha Stewart Living was selling more than two million copies per issue, and her syndicated television program was seen by millions around the world. In June of that year, she accepted an invitation to join the board of directors of the New York Stock Exchange, but resigned her seat only four months later, when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission accused her of violating insider trading rules. The charges led to a lengthy investigation by the Justice Department. MSLO’s share price fell, Stewart’s television program was canceled, and as the company’s losses mounted, many doubted it could ever recover.
Although Martha Stewart maintained her innocence of all charges, she was brought to trial in the first months of 2004. The court dismissed the original accusation of insider trading from which the other charges stemmed, but in March, the jury found her guilty of misleading federal investigators and obstructing an investigation. Her stockbroker and the CEO of the involved company were also convicted. The court ordered Stewart to pay a $30,000 fine and serve a five-month prison sentence. Although she initially planned to appeal her conviction, she ultimately decided to accept the sentence rather than pursue an appeals process that could drag on for years. She was confined from October 2004 to March 2005. Her imprisonment was followed by two years of supervised release, including five months of electronic monitoring.
After her release, Stewart immediately set about rebuilding her business. She began a new daily television program, The Martha Stewart Show, as well as a weekly call-in show on the Sirius satellite radio network. In a new book, The Martha Rules, she shared her strategy for starting and managing a new business. More new books followed, including The Martha Stewart Baking Handbook and Homekeeping Handbook. She made regular appearances on The Today Show, while her own program was nominated for six daytime Emmy Awards. Within a year of her release, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia had returned to profitability.
After fulfilling all the terms of her plea agreement, Martha Stewart rejoined the board of Martha Stewart Omnimedia in 2011, and the following year resumed her role as chairman. Today MSLO operates in four main areas: publishing, Internet, broadcasting and merchandising, all of which cross-promote content and products.
In addition to an ever-expanding library of book titles, the publishing arm issues the magazines Martha Stewart Living, Weddings, Everyday Food and Whole Living, as well as special issues on family and holiday themes. MSLO’s Internet presence, marthastewart.com, features content from Martha’s television and radio programs, as well as magazine content, while the magazines Whole Living and Weddings have websites of their own.
Martha Stewart has expanded her merchandise lines, creating product lines for Home Depot, Sears, Macy’s and Walmart, a Martha Stewart brand of wine and a line of fresh and frozen foods. MSLO has even expanded into home construction, building and selling houses modeled after Stewart’s homes in New York and Maine.
The broadcasting arm has produced the PBS program Everyday Food and the Martha Stewart Living radio program. In 2010, MSLO announced that the syndicated Martha Stewart Show, recorded before a live television audience, moved to the Hallmark Channel as Martha for two seasons, while she introduced Martha Bakes on the Hallmark Channel, and Martha Stewart’s Cooking School on PBS. In fall 2016, she unveiled a new broadcasting venture, Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party, co-hosted by Martha Stewart and rapper Snoop Dogg, airing on cable channel VH1.
Over the years, Martha Stewart has shown patience and good humor in the face of the criticism and satire that are the inevitable lot of public figures in the mass media. The quiet stoicism she displayed through her trial and imprisonment — and the perseverance with which she rebuilt her business empire — have won the admiration of many who never bought her books or watched her television program. While the company she founded continues to thrive, Martha Stewart has had more influence on how Americans eat, entertain, and decorate their homes and gardens than any one person in our history.
“I have set a standard, and I’m going to stick to the standard. I may have been able to grow faster and maybe my business could have been bigger, but because I really feel very serious about my subject, I really want to be hands-on.”
It is hard for most of us to imagine how Martha Stewart’s business could have grown any bigger or any faster, but it is typical that she can imagine it herself. She had already enjoyed successful careers as a fashion model and stockbroker before starting her first catering business in 1976. In a few years, a venture she started in her basement kitchen had become a multimillion-dollar industry.
Her vision of simple but elegant living has reached the public through dozens of lavishly illustrated bestselling books, through instructional videos and television specials, her own lifestyle magazine, branded housewares, and a daily television program. She has been celebrated as the “Queen of the Home” and America’s premier lifestyle authority. She has faced more than her share of challenges as a public person, and as a corporate leader, but she has kept her good humor through crisis and controversy, and that may prove the most remarkable accomplishment of all.
You went through a number of career transitions. You built a successful catering business in the 1970s and then became a successful author. When did that metamorphosis come about?
Martha Stewart: That came in about 1979 when I realized that the work I was doing, which was original and creative, the preparation of food, the serving of food, the building of a business from a basement, it was just the time when women were finally thinking, oh boy, we better get back to work. I agreed. I agreed that we could — but I agreed — and I thought that we could probably do it from home.
I had to fight town regulations and rules and laws. I had to persuade the health departments that I could cook from my home. I had to fight very difficult neighbor problems. And yet I was sort of paving the way for a lot of women to go back to work. And it’s — it was very interesting. I could have done it very differently. I could have just left my house and gone to a catering kitchen somewhere and spent all my days there, 12, 15, 20 hours a day somewhere else but because I stayed at home, because I still went out and picked the vegetables from my garden, and gathered the eggs from my chickens, and used all those things and the flowering roses and the lilies and everything from my garden, I created a style that I couldn’t have done if I hadn’t been organically interested in what was going on around me. And that is what gave me my edge and gave me the opportunity to realize that what I was doing was art. It was a kind of art that I could create a book from, and I wrote that landmark book.
How did you manage to get it published?
The publisher, Alan Merkin, who was the head of Clarks and Potter, Crown Books, he — I did a party for him. I catered a huge, huge party and he was so entranced that he asked me if I would do a book. So I did the book and I — somehow they realized that this was going to be an unusual book and that they at first wanted it to be in black and white. I said, “Oh, a food book like this cannot be in black and white. A lifestyle book has to be in color. You have to show people the beauty,” and I learned that from my husband’s publishing experience. You don’t show a painting necessarily, a Monet, in black and white. You kind of lose something if you do. You don’t show a landscape of vegetables and fruits in black and white.
It didn’t cost that much more and I knew that. I knew that again from the production of art books. I also knew that publishing — I mean, they were going to start publishing — printing 20,000 copies, which was a lot of copies in those days. I thought — I said, “Oh, my gosh. I know 20,000 people that will buy this book. I think you better print more.” They did. They printed 35,000 copies. It sold out immediately. They had to go back to press. It was a $35 book. It was expensive in those days, too. And yet it was such an instant hit, such an instant gratifying experience for me and I was — I became an expert overnight. And that’s what a book does. I mean when you hear all the authors outside, it’s that first book that makes you an expert even if it’s schlock.
You have to live up to a reputation of excellence. I, of course, was writing nonfiction so I had a grave responsibility to make sure the recipes worked, that the ideas were original, that the inspiration was there, that the photography was beautiful, that the production of the book itself was beautiful. Well, little did I know I was making a brand and that has come much later. I didn’t realize about branding until much later, although I had a natural inclination to create a brand. And that doesn’t happen very often. I have been told that by many advertising executives, by many Madison Avenue types that what I was doing was really making a brand, developing it, nurturing it, building it, protecting it.
The evolution of your brand, not intentionally, but just in the spirit of what you were doing, might be said to be the next period of metamorphosis.
I could write. I was prolific. I could write a book a year. To great advantage, I could get it on the bestseller list. My publisher was very happy. And I just kept writing, writing, writing, writing. Working so hard on these books but having the greatest time. And gradually becoming very well known in the country and again what everyone says, you know, she’s such a self promoter, but it wasn’t about self promotion. It was about filling voids. Every time I wrote a book it was to fill a void that I and my friends had to have filled. So when I wrote a book about hors d’oeuvres it was because there wasn’t a great book about hors d’oeuvres. I mean, it’s not self promotion to write a book about hors d’oeuvres, but I went out on the road and I lectured. I did fantastic fundraising for numbers of charities and groups like young women’s clubs, junior leagues, everywhere.
And I — I kept that library of books totally alive for me and my publisher. So that ten years after I published Entertaining, I sold more copies that year than the first year. So I kept going and I got snowballing. Every single book was a big bestseller. The library is still alive and well and I have 27 books now.
And it is — and they sell tremendous numbers, and it’s exciting that the voice is found, the brand is built, the information is evergreen, terribly important to me never to write anything that isn’t evergreen and fits into an asset library for me and my company now that’s very valuable.
In 1990 I start a magazine. This is a big deal because in 1990 many magazines were shutting down. It was an economic downturn. Advertising revenues for most companies were at a nadir. I come up with this idea for a magazine called Living, which incorporates everything that has to do about living, living well, how to.
And Time Warner thought it was a good idea. Very unusual for them because generally they didn’t really — they were buying dying magazines or buying magazines in trouble. They had started a magazine called People magazine, which was a huge success. They didn’t quite know if this magazine was going to be such a success but it was an instant success.
And again it was because we didn’t have to persuade advertisers. We were lucky. We had the funding. It wasn’t a lot of money but we had the funding to allow us to take our time to create magazines that would encourage not only readers but also advertisers that what we were trying to do was really valuable.
And it has been a wonderful success because we now have 2.3 million subscribers to that magazine. It has grown consistently for the last ten years. We are ten years old this year (2000). And it’s a big deal for us that this magazine has held up. It has won lots of awards. It’s beautifully designed. It only gets better. As I open issue after issue I just feel so good that the information is as good as it was and even better, and that’s what we want.
How do you account for your success?
Martha Stewart: I’ve tried to figure out why it happens to a person, because I feel that I’m the same person that I’ve always been. I have grown and become probably smarter in my work, and developed and built a business that’s growing, and growing, and growing. But I’m basically the same person. My likes are the same. My tastes may have gotten a little better, or a little bit more educated. But still, I always get up and clean out the kitty litter. You know, I make sure everybody is home, all the animals. I go down through the garden and prune, and pick, and do all those things. I keep grounded, and by keeping grounded you can then see very clearly what’s happened to you.
The subject matter that I am really spending my time on has become an acceptable subject matter, living, lifestyle, family is now in the forefront of interest in America. And I’ve just stuck with it… I mean, I’ve been doing this for years, and I never got angry. I never said, you know, listen, I’m fighting for this subject. It’s not… that wasn’t my point. My point was to continue working in a subject matter, knowing full well that finally it would be recognized as a viable subject once again.
The big, big turning point was when I wrote my first book. Americans look at you very differently, respect you greatly more when you write a book. The printed word, no matter… I mean it doesn’t even matter if it’s good, you have become an expert in everyone’s viewpoint. Or if you become a television star, you know, a talk show host, or something, then you’re the expert. You may not be, but it’s the perception. And that I’ve written 12 books after that book, and they’ve all been really well received and good books. I mean, I don’t do anything unless I think it’s going to be good, I’m real picky about that. And I have set a standard, and I’m going to stick to the standard. I may have been able to grow faster and maybe my business could have been bigger, but because I really feel very serious about my subject, I really want to be hands-on.
What are the most important characteristics for success?
Martha Stewart: For me it’s a dedication to your real interests. It’s an ability to be open-minded. Without an open-minded mind, you can never be a great success. The great artists have been open-minded, even though they may seem, like Picasso, to be very directed, you can be directed and open-minded at the same time. I think you have to be really intensely serious about your work, but not so serious that you can’t see the lightness that may also involve your life. You have to have that lightness too. You have to not be so heavy-handed and so ostentatious. It’s very important not to be.
I live in the same house I’ve lived in for 25 years. I haven’t gone off and bought mansions, you know, even though my subject is living… living in a mansion wouldn’t do for my readers. I have to keep my credibility alive with my readers, so we’re in the same place. I just make that place nicer and nicer. And… and that’s a secret. And people don’t know that. People think, oh, she lives in this fabulous place, it’s the same old place. It started out like a farm, it got to be a farmette, then it got to be an estatelet. I built a wall, it helped a lot. But it’s the same place, the same grounded nature. And… and as I evolve, I hope my readers evolve, I hope my viewers evolve. And also, I think it’s very important that… that whatever you’re trying to make or sell, or teach, has to be good… basically good. A bad product… and you know what, you won’t be here in ten years. You might be rich, you might be famous, but you’re not going to be here in ten years.