Friday, February 27, 2009

Merely Martha

Last Thursday my parents and I went to see Martha Stewart at the 92nd St. Y for their Captains of Industry series. She was being interviewed by the EIC of Business Week. (He was forgettable, so he shall go nameless.)

The highlight of the night was the table of free magazines outside the auditorium.

It was the blandest display of two adults interacting in front of a paying audience since... I don't know, you'll have to fill in the blank for me in the comment section. You know I usually make an effort to keep my posts upbeat, but a week later, I still feel insulted by the the experience. A whole lot of nothing with a price tag, and two hours of our lives we'll never get back.

If I sound bitter, it's because it was all my idea. I am fascinated by Martha, and completely envious of her career. She has built an empire on entertaining, home cooking, the floral arts, decorating, and crafts. I admire her as much for her ability to tie a perfect bow as her serious credentials as a business woman. You'd think that dynamic would make for a very interesting person, and an interesting Q&A. Not so, my friend, not so. She basically evaded every question with a watered down, coached non-answer. And these questions were soft balls to begin with.

For instance:
Q: "Martha, you have so much going on. How do you manage your time?"
A: "Well, I know what I have to do. It's all up here [pointing to her head]. I go to bed very late and wake up very early. Sleep is tertiary."

Gee, thanks for that illuminating insight into the inner workings of your universe.

I scribbled down notes of anything that I thought my dear readers might find interesting. I'm not going to dress them up, so here they are:

-She spoke with conviction about the Martha Stewart Center for Living at the Mount Sinai Medical Center. After watching her mother navigate old age and deteriorating health, she was inspired to create a place devoted to geriatric care and living, since she feels it is a greatly overlooked area of medicine. 

-Recently MSLO acquired, an online party planning and invitations service. Papyrus also made a move like this recently. Both empires are looking to gain a foothold in the online universe, but I don't see how this is A) a good idea for Martha considering her brand is premised on quality, handmade goods, and B) profitable. Actually, I happen to know for a fact that it's not profitable for Papyrus.

-In case you missed it, MSLO also acquired all of the Emeril brand with the exception of his restaurants.

-She is developing blogs for her pets.

-She wouldn't admit to grooming any one person in particular to be the face of the brand after she steps out. All she would say is that they are training the various editors of her magazines to be in the limelight more and more. 

-She plans on writing an autobiography, and perhaps even a novel. Autobiography, yes. Novel, please God spare us.

She got really excited twice. First, when she talked about the Valentine's dinner she hosted at her house. She must have gone on for 8 minutes about all the different cookies she made, the menu, the guest list. Then she really got going when asked about the move of her corporate offices. She actually brought up the Gawker incident about sanctioned pens. (It's too long to go into here, just click the link for the full story.) She was very feisty. It may be a ridiculous topic, but that's the woman I want to hear. Give us the good stuff, the real stuff. Give us who you are -- your opinions, your smarts, your edge, your joy. Save the evasive, reserved saleswoman for your board meetings, or your television show, if you must. 

She mentioned that she has long ago given up trying to keep Martha the brand separate from Martha the woman. She said she just has to know who she is and be okay with it. That sounds like great advice, but I can't help but think it's a delusion. We showed up to hear Martha, the woman, and all we got was the brand.

If she wants pointers on livening things up a bit, I suggest she seek advice from Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase. His 2008 interview with Charlie Rose transported him from some banker I had never heard of to a man that I instantly admired for his wit, honesty, intelligence, and attitude. 

Just in time too, since as a former Washington Mutual customer, he's my guy now.


Pops said...

It can't be easy being Martha. Her story is more than interesting -- read all about it in Wikipedia. Maybe not rags to riches, but she's accomplished much, built a media empire, built a personal fortune. She's the face of the brand. She is the brand. She's Martha.

Some are fascinated by who she is and what she's done. Others are jealous, or suspicious, or unhappy shareholders, or federal prosecutors, and their criticisms are not hard to find. Was her inclusion in the ImClone insider trading case warranted? I dunno, but she was and she served 5 months in prison. Is the company run for the benefit of insiders? I dunno that either, but a little time with Google provides a great deal of reading matter on the subject. Which doesn't make it true, but does add to the legend. Her legend. A very American legend.

She is the brand. She is a felon. She is ambitious and talented. She is a force. She isn't what we'd like her to be, doesn't open up to make plain who she is and how she did it. Maybe in the autobiography? Or the novel? Maybe never -- she has fiduciary responsibilities. Maybe owning nearly all the voting shares of MSLO is both a grant of power, and a prison -- a very special kind of prison, to be sure, but a prison for all that. This tension makes her all the more interesting, and all the more frustrating when she appears on stage before a curious or adoring paying audience and says next to nothing.

Maybe it's too much to expect. Maybe she's reached such heights that this exchange is in fact her reality: Asked "So if you have something that you really don't want to do, do you do it early or do you put it off?" She replied, "I don't do it". Must be nice. I almost believe her. Almost. I want to, at least.

There was a charming moment -- when she let something slip out from behind the mask. Late at night, on her treadmill, watching television, she saw an ad for an upside-down hydroponic tomato growing gizmo, ie, something like this And she got on the phone and ordered two of them, at $19.95 each. I can imagine the rep in the call center taking the order ... answering the phone with Martha Stewart on the line. Martha Stewart? Really? The Martha Stewart? Really?

sevprez said...

thanks for the thorough comment, pops. you are right, she is a very complex animal. as whitman would say, she "contains multitudes."

i forgot about the tomato infomercial! thanks for remembering. that was a rare moment of levity. i guess we'll know if it works if it shows up in her magazine, or on her tv show.

i know i'll be watching.