Martha Stewart's appearance yesterday on the steps of a Manhattan courthouse provided what the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson would have called a decisive moment. Always the perfect cover girl, Stewart was at that instant the symbolic embodiment of the Age of Entitlement.
The word cuts two ways. She deserves credit for teaching a generation of middle-class women that they were entitled to beauty at home. No one in our time has done more or better to nurture that aspiration.
But the same gilded tendencies that made Stewart a diva among homemakers now link her to an era of arrogance fostered by people accustomed to extraordinary power. Stewart, who reaped $1.2 billion when she took her namesake company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, public in 1999, has come perilously close to perfection in both arenas.
Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum sentenced the doyenne of domesticity to five months in prison and five months of house arrest, followed by two years of supervision by the probation office. Stewart is free pending appeal of her March conviction for lying during an investigation into a private stock transaction. Stewart sold 3,928 shares of ImClone Systems in December 2001, just before the price plunged. There was also a fine of $30,000, which is no more burdensome than the loss of the stock's value would have been.
House arrest conjures up Stewart's picture-perfect homes in Westport, Conn., Seal Harbor, Maine, and the Hamptons, made familiar to fans through magazines, books and television shows. Rooms, gardens and kitchens have provided the settings for articles and programming, or the inspiration for furniture. There was to be a duplex penthouse apartment in Manhattan in a building designed by Richard Meier. But Stewart put it on the market, reportedly for $8 million, before moving in. There is also a pied-a-terre. And a Westchester estate in Bedford, N.Y., where Stewart has asked to be confined.
Descriptions of the estate indicate 153 acres with 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century dwellings, a greenhouse, henhouse and barn for a collection of horse-drawn carriages. An expansive new home is planned.
Tales of lavish living tend to blur. And although the accusations against Stewart were always distinct from corporate malfeasance, her saga has become part of the imagery of decorating extravagance and multiple mansions, which entitled chieftains such as Tyco's L. Dennis Kozlowski enjoyed at shareholder expense and ultimately great cost to employees.
The tragedy is that Stewart's company was fine and employees' jobs secure until her indictment caused stock prices to plummet. (News that she received a minimum sentence caused a quick rise yesterday.) But fame is not always distinct from infamy. And Stewart remains far more photogenic than the faceless crop of suits awaiting their day in court.
By pop culture measures, Stewart, 62, is the best-known diva of white-collar crime since Leona Helmsley. The dowager New York hotelier and so-called Queen of Mean was convicted of tax fraud in 1989. She spent most of her 30-month sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., where Stewart has requested to be sent. At 84, Helmsley is still remembered for six arrogant words: "Only the little people pay taxes."
Like Helmsley, Stewart has been accused of imperiousness in and out of court. But it is revealing that her most memorable words were uttered while chopping cabbage on CBS's "Early Show" in June 2002. Confronted with a question about her indictment, Stewart retorted: "I want to focus on my salad."
If only she had, her reign as lifestyle icon and arbiter of taste might not have come to such a shameful -- her word -- conclusion. Yesterday, Stewart vowed, "I will be back." But it's hard to imagine that her image will regain its gloss. A New Yorker cartoon once captured Stewart's unlimited sense of possibility. Under the puckish title of "Martha Stewart Takes Over the Universe," it suggested "Formal Dinner for 24 on Mars," "Sunday Brunch for Eight on Pluto" and "Ultra-Perfect Christmas Feast for 200 in Alpha Centauri System."
Stewart's sin of excess was clearly decorative, easily lampooned and widely undervalued. As Stewart told the court yesterday, she has done a lot of good. For one thing, she gave post-1960s feminists permission to care about traditional women's pursuits. For another, a 1997 agreement to create home merchandise for Kmart forced a revolution in mass-market consumer goods. The Martha Stewart Everyday collection ushered in a modern palette of coordinated paint colors and changed the way other paint companies market. She produced coordinating linens in subdued English florals, stripes and plaids, dealing a blow to the assumption that people on budgets should make do with maroon and green zigzags. White porcelain dinnerware was sold in affordable boxed sets. Kitchen tools and housewares followed. Kmart sold $1 billion worth of Martha Stewart products in the first full year.
The story is now part of late 20th-century American lore. Martha Kostyra, a Polish American from Nutley, N.J., modeled her way through Barnard College, worked as a stockbroker, married and moved to bucolic Turkey Hill Farm in Westport. She became a mother, started a catering business and was divorced. In 1982, her first book, "Entertaining," heralded the coming of a star.
Ever blond and smiling, Stewart introduced working women in tract houses to the guilty pleasures of idealized homes, elaborate holiday decorations and gargantuan culinary feats such as "Bouillabaisse for 12 to 16." Books, television shows, a magazine and catalogue followed, saturating bookstores, newsstands, airwaves and mailboxes with Stewartian colors -- sage, taupe and pale blue -- and advice on folding sheets, spreading rose petals and gilding acorns. A subculture of people who found her ideals overblown -- or who couldn't keep up -- published vitriolic critiques and even an unauthorized biography.
In the two years since her indictment, Stewart's smile has all but disappeared from the publishing empire that made her a household name. Her television show has been put on hiatus. She has been removed from the Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia board. Come September, her name will be so diminished on the cover of Martha Stewart Living magazine that she might as well start another company. The August issue carries a wicked recipe for "Rocky Road Tart."
In the interim, Stewart has become part of that dizzying nightly news-and-tabloid parade of high-flying executives in the klieg lights. Her suits, handbags and hair have been dissected and critiqued. The SaveMartha.com fan site, which valiantly derides the legal debacle as a "tempest in a Cuisinart," has shifted appeals from Save Martha to Free Martha to Pardon Martha.
It is probably telling that Stewart, with her acknowledged eye for improving surroundings and bravura, sought to trade skills for time. But instead of considering ways to transform women's shelters, and thus raise the spirits of people in them, she offered to teach disadvantaged women to set up house-cleaning businesses, crediting the idea to the difficulty she had finding good help to clean her houses. Stewart came off like Marie Antoinette. The judge had her own ideas.
Back in the spring, when Stewart was still writing a signed column in the magazine, she produced an eerie ode to "cozy comfort" and the search for "the most comfortable bed in the world." Stewart may have been anticipating federally funded bunk beds when she reminisced about her childhood room in Nutley, the featherbed of a Swiss honeymoon hotel and the crisp, fine linens in a Hong Kong business hotel. She discussed fitted sheets and the firmness of mattresses with schoolmarm directness. The column ended with Stewart dreaming of soft new flannel sheets to ward off chills this winter.
Women who have done time at Danbury federal prison describe an environment of drab concrete walls, shared toilets and strip searches. They remember no softness or color, except for the khaki hue of prison garb. In the confines of the minimum-security camp, inmates get plain sheets on a bunk bed, a locker and a writing surface, according to Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley. Decorating is not allowed, and offering menu suggestions is "not part of the job description." Inmates are "service workers" who take directions from supervisors. Even a four-star chef would find himself mixing up meatloaf from a basic armed services recipe.
That makes this month's front-of-the-book "Letter From Martha" more poignant. She advises readers to follow the advice of the magazine's current editor, which is to "Breathe deeply all the while."
As for those charges of arrogance, she wrote in a July 15 letter to the judge: "I apologize for that. . . . I am sorry for that and wish I could always be polite, humble, respectful and patient."