How Martha Stewart Got Her Groove Back

Lloyd Grove on how Martha Stewart remains cool under pressure.

Pool Photo by David Handschuh

Martha Stewart is no stranger to trouble. From a five-month stint in federal prison eight years ago to her testimony this week in a damaging lawsuit from Macy’s, she has grappled with reputational threats that might have destroyed a less-durable public figure.

Her eponymous company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, is—like many media-heavy enterprises these days—in the red; the once-robust stock price has collapsed; and the company could very well lose to Macy’s in the current trial in New York State Supreme Court, where MSLO and its latest corporate partner, JCPenney, stand accused of violating an iron-clad exclusivity agreement to merchandize Martha Stewart bedding, cookware, and other branded products.

And yet somehow, miraculously, she is managing to triumph over adversity, even in cases where the adversity is of her own making.

“Obviously she’s had her ups and downs,” says Stewart’s longtime attorney and friend, celebrity lawyer Allen Grubman, “but she’s considered, in my opinion, one of the great survivors. She has enormous personal strength, and she gets through everything. And what she has built is everlasting. It’s a totally iconic brand, in the same category as Betty Crocker and Calvin Klein and Coca-Cola, and it’s bigger than anything that’s happening at any moment.”

MTV founder and Clear Channel chief executive Robert Pittman, who has known the 71-year-old domestic diva since helping her launch Martha Stewart Living magazine two decades ago in partnership with the newly merged Time Warner empire, credits Stewart’s work ethic and uncompromising vision.

“Martha doesn’t just lend her name; she actually lends her expertise and her taste, and she has done that day after day, year after year. She never lets up,” Pittman says. “She’s stayed true to what she knows. She’s never tried to pander. I don’t think she’s ever tried to spin anything.”

An exception, of course, was her vain attempt to spin federal law-enforcement agents about a suspicious stock trade during a securities-fraud investigation—a misstep that earned her an obstruction of justice and conspiracy conviction and a stint behind bars at the Alderson, West Virginia, women’s correctional facility. Yet Stewart, who arguably received harsher-than-usual prosecutorial treatment because of the example-setting potential of her celebrity, made the most of her jail time; she befriended her fellow inmates and represented their interests to prison authorities. She even picked up an affectionate jailhouse nickname: “M. Diddy.”

“I think it’s endearing,” Pittman says about Stewart’s willingness to own her checkered past—even to the point of joking about it in court on Tuesday.

“I did my time!” Stewart quipped on the witness stand, adding with a laugh, “That’ll be the headline. Don’t read the [New York] Post tomorrow!” Even Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Oing chuckled at that one. “I stumbled in 2003. I had a terrible time personally,” she testified. “That could have taken down the company. It did not. That could have taken down the brand. It did not. They emerged whole and healthy.”

Pittman continues: “She’s not tried to hide it. She’s not tried to rationalize it. She hit it straight, and she’s very honest about it, and I think people appreciate that.”

Indeed, the American public, and not just the American public, finds it impossible to resist a heartwarming tale of ruin and redemption—and Stewart’s personal narrative is a shining exemplar.

“The secret of her success and survival is her enormous ability to persevere,” Grubman says. “I once had a client who used to say to me, ‘Allen, the secret of success is to keep moving. Whenever you stop, it’s over.’ And with Martha Stewart, whatever her trials and tribulations, as well as all the success, she always keeps moving. She’s always creating new products, she’s always enhancing the things she’s already created. And she just perseveres. She came back because of her perseverance and talent and brains.”

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Last August, she celebrated the end of a court-ordered prohibition against serving as a corporate officer by taking the title of MSLO’s non-executive chairman. A few months later, the New York Times noted Stewart’s powerfully persistent cachet among New York’s hipster designers. “She’s like the Jesus of the craft world,” one of them told the Times. “Not that I like criminals, but I heard that she just took some bad advice. Anybody can make mistakes.”

Pittman recalls his surprise at the excitement Stewart generated while visiting him recently in San Miguel de Allende, the Mexican resort town where Pittman and his wife, Veronique, have a vacation home. “The whole town was abuzz that Martha Stewart was in town,” he says. “It was extraordinary. They were tweeting about it and talking about it. As I walked down the street with her, heads turned. To me, that was sort of the physical embodiment of the kind of clout she has.”

He adds: “She never abuses it. She never tries to sell people something that not’s great. I’ve never seen her hold back on quality. It drives some people crazy. ‘Can’t you just shave this or do that?’ And the answer is no. She takes that trust very seriously. You might go up and down, but you never break the trust.”