Be Like Martha: My Secret Obsession With Martha Stewart

By Todd Savage

I recall the first time I saw Martha, on her how-to-do-a-perfect-Thanksgiving PBS program. As she set the dinner table, she announced that each guest would be served his or her soup in an antique, turkey-shaped, glass candy dish. Now it’s one thing to have a clever serving idea. It’s another thing entirely to have the dishes. Since they were antiques, each of the dozen dishes likely came from a different source, implying weeks spent scouring the flea markets, all for the sake of a whimsical Martha dish-queen moment. Next she opened the door to her special dishware-storage closet, revealing pin-neat shelves with orderly arrays of glasses and goblets and platters and cruets and demitasse cups. In that instant I grasped the breathtaking difficulty of truly living like Martha. Taste is free, ownership takes money, but maintaining stuff on this level requires staff.

Like an iceberg that’s only one-tenth visible, we see Martha but are never shown the battalions of employees who make her Martha-ness possible. Behind the scenes, they do the necessary tasks that free her to add those unnecessary, perfect touches. Someone prunes the 700 rosebushes at her East Hampton garden and stocks her pantry with staples, so that she can paint the flowerpots with buttermilk (for that aged, mossy, Tuscan look) and make topiary animals and select perfect organic tomatoes at the farmers’ market. Realistically, even those chores are being performed by someone else, while she reenacts them before the cameras. The full-time staff that toils for Martha includes three assistants (one a sister-in-law), two housekeepers, and three men who take care of the buildings and grounds. For big events and seasonal work, one assumes she hires specialists: florists, party-tent roustabouts, barn painters, dog groomers, tax accountants. Then there are the countless designers and stylists and researchers whose work leads to her books, videos, and magazine. Clearly Martha knows how to delegate work and, like any good boss, rewards herself for this cleverness by taking credit for everything.

Once you realize the extent of her invisible staff, “Martha’s Calendar” makes more sense. The centerpiece of every issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine, this page offers us an imaginary, privileged peek at Martha’s Day-Timer. It contains three kinds of entries. Some are the practical kind that might appear on anyone’s to-do list (“April 8: Thorough car and truck cleaning”). Then there are the vicarious entries that allow us to imagine ourselves living Martha’s fabulous personal life (“February 18: Get guest bedrooms ready for garden experts”). The most fantastical entries imply a whirlwind, eight-armed, never-sleeping Martha, entries that only make sense if prefaced “Order the servants to…” (“August 22: Wash mildew from pergola and garden gates”).

Martha Stewart Living stands out from the traditional “women’s magazines” for what it doesn’t contain. None of their focus on plebeian problem-solving, exercise programs, diets, rocky marriages, troubled teens, or children with rare diseases.

And no dubious stars and media figures clutter its pages–there’s only room for one celestial body in these heavens, and that’s Martha.