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Going out of style 

Like a lot of women who've stitched together domestic life and work, I often wonder what it would've been like to follow just one thread: deadlines or baby bottles; notoriety in The New York Times Book Review or a lifetime of Mister Bubble. My friend Emily, who has three children, calls these imaginary systoles and diastoles "parallel universe fantasies," or "poofs." In her favorite poof she works as a lighthouse keeper on a remote, unpopulated island, making chowder and staring for hours into the briny distance. In mine, I live alone in a small apartment scoured of creature comforts. There are papers and dirty coffee cups strewn about the place, and a plain writing desk where I sit, churning with cigarettes, typing like a madman. In both Emily's and my poof, we are, tragically, infertile.

I have another poof, though. In this one, I live in a Vermont farmhouse with my husband and a half-dozen soap-scrubbed children. There, in the lazy, sun-struck days of summer, I tend my kitchen garden, sew my own slipcovers, grow heirloom tomatoes and bake elaborate cakes with buttercream icing. At the close of the day I stand languid in a doorway of the house with an armful of cut flowers, trying to decide between lamb shanks and panzanella with fried sage.

I don't know which fantasy is more ridiculous--neck and neck as I judge it. But while I've never really been tempted by the tiny apartment, I confess I am continually drawn to the farmhouse and the buttercream icing. Not because such an existence is within my reach, abilities or temperament but because for years it has had a powerful promoter, a rug merchant with an exquisite and relentless pitch. Known by the IRS, the FCC and the SEC as a multi-million-dollar media conglomerate boasting 34 books, three magazines, a TV show, a syndicated newspaper column, a radio program and a Web site, we know her more casually as Martha Stewart.

Of course, Martha's pitch--her adroit and oh-so-discreet message that happiness is a consumptive ethic satisfied by an East Hampton armoir and a vase of exquisite bluebells--has not been universally embraced. Like any rug merchant, she's been reviled, spat upon and run out of town by those who despise her wares, her caravan of opulence. She has been variously described as pretentious, absurd, shrill, ruthless, anti-feminist and nouveau-feminist. Her clever do-it-yourself household tidbits have been dismissed, slammed and parodied with great glee. (To wit: tip suggestion in recent "Martha Stewart" calendar: "Blanche Thanksgiving turkey carcass, paint gold, turn upside down and use as a sleigh to hold Christmas cards.") She is said to be downright evil to the countless minions who lug her potting soil, turn her compost, load her glue gun and squeeze her pate brisee. She has been the subject of a catty biography, ridiculed as the uber-hausfrau of the new millennium and, finally, accused of wiping out decades of gender progress by returning the yolk of the perfect home to the neck of the American woman.

For her critics, the past several months have been a time of great jubilation and fanfare, as they've witnessed Martha's involuntary slumming expedition into the halls of common justice. Three years ago, on a tip by her broker at Merrill Lynch, Martha sold her stock in ImClone, a company owned by Martha's friend, Sam Waksal. ImClone's much anticipated anti-cancer drug had just been rejected by the FDA; Waksal himself was bailing and encouraging his friends to sell fast. Acting on the tip, Martha saved herself roughly $45,000, but the transaction showed up on the radar of the Securities and Exchange Commission, whose henchmen came calling. In her interview with the authorities, Martha was less than truthful and before she could say rosemary dumplings found herself tried and convicted on four counts of obstruction of justice.

It was a hard fall for the priestess of petit fours, around whose carcass the talking heads have assembled, either to tear at the flesh or drive away the flies. From those who despise Martha, there are the predictable sermons of fitting comeuppance. From those who support her there are bitter accusations (Ms. magazine's Elaine Lafferty called the trial a "bitch hunt") that Martha's enormous success was intolerable not because she was dishonest or ruthless, but because she's a woman.

It's true that ambitious women are frequently "brought to justice" in a way that ambitious men are not. In Martha's case, if you want herb sausages you have to get out the butcher knife. But if I hear the tenor of the anger at Martha right, this was more about class than gender. Jurors accused Martha of putting herself above the ethics and laws that constrain the masses. And pundits lashed out at her stony demeanor, her arrogant disdain of the "underlings" who had witnessed or reacted to her mendaciousness.

The irony being, of course, that Martha was all about underlings--all about bringing the finer things in life to the masses. Unlike other icons of taste and style--Jacqueline Kennedy or Grace Kelly, for instance--Martha Stewart built a career on sharing--or pretending to share--that je ne sais quoi of the privileged class with any American housewife willing to toss out her jar of Cheez Whiz and stock her pantry with shortbread and pine nuts.

There was already a market for this sort of thing, courtesy of L.L. Bean, Laura Ashley and the abundance of the '80s and '90s, but Martha cashed in big on it, convincing millions that, with a putty knife, a pastry bag and a sturdy pair of garden gloves, they too could bring the genie spirit of affluence into their lives. When, in the late '80s, Martha signed a deal with Kmart, it seemed that the last barrier between linen curtains and the middle class had been lifted, and "taste" slid down several income brackets, into the homes of secretaries and factory workers and NASCAR fans. Bring a set of Martha Stewart sheets into your home, and yours is a world where there are no worries about rent or doctor bills or layoffs. Buy a Martha Stewart non-stick aluminum saute pan and the worst that could happen--death itself--is nothing more than a discreet shuffling of documents, a shifting of assets and a banquet table of cold meats.

A friend of mine once bought a set of Martha Stewart valances and showed them to me when I was at her house. This woman had struggled most of her life to make ends meet, raising children on her own, working the night shift cleaning office buildings. I never asked about her parallel universe fantasies, but I could make a guess: a husband to help out, a nice house, money in a savings account.

She didn't have any of that, but she did have these valances. When I remarked on them, she said she had also been trying to build a trellis out back, just like the one she saw on a Martha Stewart TV show. But it was more work than she'd bargained for, and the project had stalled.

"You know, she has a lot of people who help her," I said. "A whole staff of workers to cut the wood and haul things around."

"I believe it," my friend said.

"I hear she acts ugly to them, too."

"Really?" My friend paused to let her disenchantment settle. "Well. That'll come back to haunt her then."

I thought about that conversation in the aftermath of Martha's convictions. Someone has said that Stewart's fall was like a Greek tragedy, a tale of hubris and its consequences. I hate to think we're reduced to assigning tragic stature to a fallen decorator and her corrupt broker, but there you have it.

And maybe there is a bit of truth in it. In the end, Martha was convicted not for insider trading but for lying about it. And, really, not even for lying about it, but for mistreating the investigators who came to talk with her, shooing them out of the room, the story goes, with the admonition that she had a business to run and no time for such nonsense.

It was this image of Martha--ill-bred, peevish, uncivil--that dominated the legal proceedings and ultimately, I think, took her down. Having led her packed camels into the streets, she proved herself contemptuous of the rabble who showed up to buy. The best part of the trial was the testimony of Douglas Faneuil, the former Merrill Lynch assistant who phoned Stewart back in 2001, recommending she sell. Faneuil's relationship with Martha was evidently ragged at best. Evidence was produced that she frequently yelled at him, threw fits, slammed the phone down. Once, having been put on hold, she told Faneuil that if Merrill Lynch didn't get better hold music she'd find another investment brokerage firm.

For all her buttercream and bluebells, Martha simply had no class. At least, not as class is defined by the average American juror. Who is, one might assume, also the average American consumer. I don't know how many Bertram-tufted armchairs and cotton tablecloths have been returned since Martha's conviction, but for a lot of people, frozen pizza and synthetic fibers are looking pretty good.

Martha was the perfect rug merchant: She told the American public what it wanted and then she sold it to them. Like any successful mogul, she created--or at least tweaked--the desire in order to fill it. In the end, though, she handed out her favors at the back door. Pocketed the money and washed her hands. She could hide her maneuvers well enough on camera, and in the slick pages of a magazine, but in the crude light of a public courtroom her true colors emerged. And they weren't celadon or pomegranate.

There's a great line in Joan Didion's essay on self respect that says, "to give formal dinners in a rain forest would be pointless did not the candlelight flickering on the liana call forth deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before." Stewart had the flickering candles--dipped them herself, in fact--but there was none of the rest. In the end, she was just another material girl, a rug merchant whose finest fabrics showed themselves, upon closer inspection, to be threadbare and soiled. EndBlock

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