Billionaire businesswoman Martha Stewart bio and interview
Martha Stewart’s image as the personification of gracious living may lead some to imagine that she grew up in the sort of rural luxury pictured in her books and magazines. In fact, she was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, a location known more for heavy industry than for rustic charm. Her parents, Martha and Edward Kostyra, were a schoolteacher and a pharmaceuticals salesman, respectively. When Martha was three, the family moved to Nutley, New Jersey, where she grew up with four brothers and sisters in a close-knit Polish-American family defined by her father’s intense ambition for his children. Edward Kostyra taught his daughter gardening when she was only three; her mother taught her cooking and sewing; her grandparents taught her to put up preserves, and she learned to make pies and cakes from a pair of retired bakers who lived next door.
By all accounts, Martha Kostyra was a hard-working, serious child. A straight-A student, she won a partial scholarship to Barnard College in New York City and worked as a model to help pay expenses. She began her college career intending to study chemistry, but later switched to art, European history and architectural history. Just after her sophomore year, she married Andrew Stewart, a law student. She took a year off from Barnard after their 1961 wedding but returned to graduate with a double major in history and architectural history. After graduation, she continued a successful modeling career, appearing in print and television advertisements for Breck, Clairol, Lifebuoy soap and Tareyton cigarettes until her daughter Alexis was born in 1965.
In 1967, Martha Stewart began a second career as a stockbroker, her father-in-law’s profession. Meanwhile, Andrew Stewart founded a publishing house and served as chief executive of several others. When a recession hit Wall Street in 1973, Stewart left the brokerage. She and her husband moved to Westport, Connecticut, where they undertook the complete renovation of an 1805 farmhouse on Turkey Hill Road, a location familiar to viewers of her later television programs. In 1976, she started a catering business, which she ran from the basement of her house. She gained additional business experience managing a gourmet food store in Westport, the Market Basket, which she guided to success. Her catering business also prospered. In only ten years her basement business had become a $1 million enterprise.
Catering publishers’ parties in New York City brought her valuable contacts and led to a book deal. In 1982 her first book, Martha Stewart’s Entertaining, appeared. Co-written with Elizabeth Hawes, the lavishly illustrated volume became the best-selling cookbook since Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 20 years before. More books followed, on hors d’oeuvres, pies, weddings, Christmas, gardening and restoring old houses. In addition to her books, Stewart served as an editor and columnist for the magazine House Beautiful and later as a contributing editor toFamily Circle. While her career prospered, her family life changed, and in 1989, Martha and Andrew Stewart divorced.
In 1990, she started her own magazine, Martha Stewart Living, serving as Editor-in-Chief. The publication was an immediate success. Appearances on the Oprah Winfrey and Larry King television programs led to a regular weekly spot on the CBS Early Show as well as a series of holiday specials on the network. In 1993 she debuted a weekly half-hour television program, also called Martha Stewart Living. Half an hour once a week was not enough for her growing audience, and the program eventually expanded to a daily hour-long broadcast, with half-hour episodes on weekends.
Martha Stewart’s television appearances had made her not only a household name, but a one-woman industry. A second magazine, Martha Stewart Weddings, began appearing regularly in 1993. Stewart’s merchandise and licensing operations were also growing; she signed an advertising and consulting contract with retailer Kmart for a reported $5 million. In 1997, she purchased all of the publishing, broadcasting, merchandise and licensing ventures bearing her name and consolidated them into a new company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO). When MSLO went public in 1999, the share price more than doubled on the first day of trading. Martha Stewart retained most of the shares in her company, while serving as Chairman, President and CEO.
In 2001, Ladies Home Journal named her the third most powerful woman in America. By 2002, the magazine Martha Stewart Living was selling more than 2 million copies per issue, and her syndicated television program was seen by millions around the world. In June of that year, she accepted an invitation to join the Board of Directors of the New York Stock Exchange, but resigned her seat only four months later, when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission accused her of violating insider trading rules. The charges led to a lengthy investigation by the Justice Department. MSLO’s share price fell, Stewart’s television program was cancelled, and as the company’s losses mounted, many doubted it could ever recover.
Although Martha Stewart maintained her innocence of all charges, she was brought to trial in the first months of 2004. The court dismissed the original accusation of insider trading from which the other charges stemmed, but in March, the jury found her guilty of misleading federal investigators and obstructing an investigation. Her stockbroker and the CEO of the involved company were also convicted. The court ordered Stewart to pay a $30,000 fine and serve a five-month prison sentence. Although she initially planned to appeal her conviction, she ultimately decided to accept the sentence rather than pursue an appeals process that could drag on for years. She was confined from October 2004 to March 2005. Her imprisonment was followed by two years of supervised release, including five months of electronic monitoring.
After her release, Stewart immediately set about rebuilding her business. She began a new daily television program, The Martha Stewart Show, as well as a weekly call-in show on the Sirius satellite radio network. In a new book, The Martha Rules, she shared her strategy for starting and managing a new business. More new books followed, including The Martha Stewart Baking Handbook and Homekeeping Handbook. She made regular appearances on The Today Show, while her own program was nominated for six daytime Emmy Awards. Within a year of her release, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia had returned to profitability.
Today MSLO operates in four main areas: publishing, Internet, broadcasting and merchandising, all of which cross-promote content and products. In addition to an ever-expanding library of book titles, the publishing arm issues the magazines Martha Stewart Living, Weddings, Everyday Food and Whole Living, as well as special issues on family and holiday themes. MSLO’s Internet presence, marthastewart.com, features content from Martha’s television and radio programs, as well as magazine content, while the magazines Whole Living and Weddings have web sites of their own.
The broadcasting arm includes the PBS program Everyday Food and the Martha Stewart Living radio program. In 2010, MSLO announced that the syndicated Martha Stewart Show, recorded before a live television audience, would move to the Hallmark Channel, to air every morning, followed by MSLO programs featuring Stewart’s daughter Alexis and other Stewart associates. Martha Stewart has also expanded her merchandise lines, creating product lines for Home Depot, Sears, Macy’s and Wal-Mart, a Martha Stewart brand of wine and a line of fresh and frozen foods. MSLO has even expanded into home construction, building and selling houses modeled after Stewart’s homes in New York and Maine.
Over the years, Martha Stewart has shown patience and good humor in the face of the criticism and satire that are the inevitable lot of public figures in the mass media, but the quiet stoicism she displayed through her trial and imprisonment — and the perseverance with which she rebuilt her business empire — have won the admiration of many who never bought her books or watched her television program. While the company she founded continues to thrive, Martha Stewart has had more influence on how Americans, eat, entertain, and decorate their homes and gardens than any one person in our history.
Did you have a vision of what you wanted to accomplish when you were young?
Martha Stewart: When I was young, I wanted to be a teacher. I was greatly inspired by my third grade teacher, Miss Irene Wire, and by my fifth grade teacher, Miss Mitchell. My parents were both teachers. So I really pursued that idea as a career, until I got to college.
In college I discovered the world of chemistry, which I loved. I discovered the world of architectural history. I discovered so many different things that I decided that maybe I would forgo the teaching career for a while. The first thing that really caught me was the stock market. I became a stockbroker, immediately out of college, forgoing architecture school. My dream now, in retrospect then, was to be an eclectic knowledge-gathering person, in order to be able to learn and then to teach. And I’m still doing that, so I think I am a teacher.
Tell me about what made those teachers so special.
Martha Stewart: I just saw my third grade teacher last year at my mother’s 80th birthday party. She lives in Newark, New Jersey. She is still as feisty and as honest and as ethical a person as she was when I was in third grade. She’s a tiny little powerhouse of energy. I thought about her a lot when I saw her again. She was special because she took time and cared for each of her students. There wasn’t a moment that wasn’t devoted to her children, as she called them. She was a spinster, but that never deterred in her love of all the other children. In fact, I think it made her more loveable. And she was fair, but she was stern. She was strict, but she was forgiving. She was the ideal teacher to me.
And the fifth grade teacher?
Martha Stewart: Very much in the same mold. A family person, someone who shared her students with other teachers, because we started to have moving classes in fifth grade. In fifth and sixth grade you traveled from one room to another to study the different subjects. And she would share, and she was fair. It’s the fairness and the ability to listen, and to answer questions that I really find very, very important with teaching.
Any experiences as a young person that inspired you?
Martha Stewart: Oh, I have an experience a day, at least. And it’s not like seeing Jesus Christ in a dream or something like that, it’s not a religious kind of experience that I experience daily. It’s more involving nature, involving natural resources, involving a special quote said by a special person.
I really found that I was drawn to what I call my mentors. I have developed over the years a whole group of important people, people important to me that I consider mentors. Now, they may be the gardener in the estate down the road. They may be a farmer who milks his cows. They may be a very special professor. All different kinds of people fall into this group of what I call my mentors. It may be someone I’ve never met, but only read, like Garcia Marquez. One of my dreams is to meet him. But those are my mentors. George Eliot, the great novelist. Jane Austen is a mentor of mine, in terms of language. So, I’ve informally constructed this structure in my life of mentors.
What books did you read when you were young?
Martha Stewart: I was a very avid reader. In third grade I won the contest at the public library for being able to get a score of a hundred on a reading test. The reading test was based on the numbers of books you read, and the amount that you retained from those books. As a special treat, when you were in the Children’s Room, you were allowed to go to the next level of the library, which was the Stockton Room, named after Frank Stockton, a famous author who had lived in our town. And then you got into the Stockton Room if you passed a test. I was the first to pass that test; at a very young age I was allowed to go into the adult library.
We had a lot of chores at our house, a tremendous number of chores, but we were always granted the time to read. And I had a reading chair that I sat in and read in. I also had a favorite tree that I sat in and read in. It sounds a little idyllic, sort of Mark Twainish, but it was true. I would find a quiet place. On Sunday mornings, because we had such chaos around our house, everybody running and getting dressed to go to church and everything, I sat in the car and read. I read everything. I read from A to Z in the Stockton Room. I just started on the As and went all the way through.
In the adult library I had to be more choosy because there were so many books. But I would talk to the librarians, I would get suggestions, I would read the book reviews, I would find out what I should be reading. So it was kind of an informal against structured kind of existence.
I read everything from all the Europeans, the Russians, the English novelists. I read an awful lot of biographies that were very inspiring. In the children’s library there were those orange books. I don’t know if you remember those orange biographies of everybody, everyone from Harriet Beecher Stowe to the presidents. I read every single one. So that was a good experience.
Now I read constantly. I’m reading lots of different books, but I get inspiration again from those. Nowadays I’m still reading voraciously. Really as an opportunity to learn, to constantly figure out what I really need to know in homes that my reader will have the same desires and the same need. Right now I read a lot of gardening. I read a lot of theory of gardening and landscape. I just acquired an 1805 book by Humphrey Repton, who is one of the great English landscape architects, but who also had a very serious view of how to live and how to structure one’s exterior life. So I’m reading a lot of that stuff. I’m still reading novels. I’m reading James Dickey’s new novel To The White Sea, which is fascinating. But that’s more about the writer’s craft than it is about the stories: the bombing of Tokyo, and fire bombings. Horrible story, beautifully constructed. I’m reading constantly, and it’s very inspiring.
Where do you get all this “get-up-and-go?”
Martha Stewart: I have a lot of energy. I have a great desire to absorb information. I’m not a sponge exactly, but I find that something I look at — just walking around Williamsburg, for example — is a great opportunity for ideas. I’ve been here before, I’ve seen things before, but now my eye gets keener and keener. So I can pick up little things: just the pattern of a brick walk, or the way they’ve attached a light to a house.
There are jars in all the apothecary shops here that I’ve been trying to find all morning. Now I’m running around looking for these jars, they’re beautiful. They have leather, which you wet and you draw over the top, and it makes a very beautiful cover, a very inexpensive way to cover a jar. You’ll see that in my magazine soon, because I think it’s a real good thing, as I call them.
I’m always on the lookout for those good, simple solutions to everyday problems. And it’s the energy that enables me to run around and do the things that I like to do. I don’t need a lot of sleep. I find that when you have a real interest in life and a curious life, that sleep is not the most important thing. More important is the discovery. And I’m really trying to discover everyday good things.
That makes me read, in the night. You know, when most people are sleeping it’s hard to be up and around, so I read. That’s when I get all my reading done. It’s a peculiar life, but it’s fun. I tell you, my daughter is 28 years old, she has the same lifestyle. And she drives her friends crazy, I drive my friends crazy. But she has the same kind of interests. It’s an absorbing kind of curiosity, and it’s nice to have.
How do you account for your success?
Martha Stewart: I’ve tried to figure out why it happens to a person, because I feel that I’m the same person that I’ve always been. I have grown and become probably smarter in my work, and developed and built a business that’s growing, and growing, and growing. But I’m basically the same person. My likes are the same. My tastes may have gotten a little better, or a little bit more educated. But still, I always get up and clean out the kitty litter. You know, I make sure everybody is home, all the animals. I go down through the garden and prune, and pick, and do all those things. I keep grounded, and by keeping grounded you can then see very clearly what’s happened to you.
The subject matter that I am really spending my time on has become an acceptable subject matter. Living, lifestyle, family, is now in the forefront of interest in America, and I’ve just stuck with it. I mean, I’ve been doing this for years, and I never got angry. I never said, you know, listen, I’m fighting for this subject. That wasn’t my point. My point was to continue working in a subject matter, knowing full well that finally it would be recognized as a viable subject once again.
It was a viable subject. I mean, here in Williamsburg you see how important development was — development of life, development of belief and it comes and it goes. So I’ve just stuck to it.
The big, big turning point was when I wrote my first book. Americans look at you very differently, respect you greatly more when you write a book. It doesn’t even matter if it’s good, you have become an expert in everyone’s viewpoint. Or if you become a television star, a talk show host, or something, then you’re the expert. You may not be, but it’s the perception. I’ve written 12 books after that book, and they’ve all been really well received and good books. I don’t do anything unless I think it’s going to be good, I’m real picky about that. I have set a standard, and I’m going to stick to the standard. I may have been able to grow faster and maybe my business could have been bigger, but because I really feel very serious about my subject, I really want to be hands-on.
What are the most important characteristics for success?
Martha Stewart: For me it’s a dedication to your real interests. It’s an ability to be open-minded. Without an open-minded mind, you can never be a great success. The great artists have been open-minded, even though they may seem, like Picasso, to be very directed, you can be directed and open-minded at the same time. I think you have to be really intensely serious about your work, but not so serious that you can’t see the lightness that may also involve your life. You have to have that lightness too. You have to not be so heavy-handed and so ostentatious. It’s very important not to be.
I live in the same house I’ve lived in for 25 years. I haven’t gone off and bought mansions. Even though my subject is living, living in a mansion wouldn’t do for my readers. I have to keep my credibility alive with my readers, so we’re in the same place. I just make that place nicer and nicer. And that’s a secret. People don’t know that. People think, oh, she lives in this fabulous place, but it’s the same old place. It started out like a farm, it got to be a farmette, then it got to be an estatelet. I built a wall; it helped a lot. But it’s the same place, the same grounded nature.
As I evolve, I hope my readers evolve, I hope my viewers evolve. And also, I think it’s very important that whatever you’re trying to make or sell, or teach has to be basically good. A bad product and you know what? You won’t be here in ten years. You might be rich, you might be famous, but you’re not going to be here in 10 years.
That means integrity.
Martha Stewart: Total integrity. A work ethic, and an ethic about work.
What does the American Dream mean to you?
Martha Stewart: For me, an American Dream, if you read Theodore Dreiser, or you read other people who have written about what they consider the American Dream, it always has to do with monetary success, or poor boy makes good, or that kind of thing. To me that’s not what it’s all about. It’s about, actually, when you get to be my age, having kind of a serenity about your life, and a good feeling about what you have done and what you can still do.
And also, believing all the time that there is the freedom to do what you want to do. The ability, in your walking existence, to go out your front door and not be obstructed in any way. But there are always limitations, and there are limitations that are set by geographical boundaries, territorial boundaries, political boundaries that you have to live with and you have to understand those.
We’re not so free that we don’t have to listen to rules, and laws, and regulations. Those are important. But the spirit, the freedom of the spirit, that’s what I think of American Dream, that we are free here to do what we want to do, what we set out to do.
Looking ahead 10 years, what will you be up to then?
Martha Stewart: Well, I’m real interested in technology, as is probably every one of those kids out in the audience. The technology of the future really interests me. The dissemination of information as quickly, and as thoroughly, and as well as possible, really is fascinating to me.
Looking at it from my viewpoint as a homemaker, as a tastemaker, I think that I have a lot now to help people with. I want to get that information to them in an easy fashion. So I’m working now with computer manufacturers, with computer technology, to help develop some sort of system where we can get that information across in a sensible, usable, friendly, non-talking down fashion, like our magazine.
To what do you attribute the success you’ve had?
Martha Stewart: When I was growing up my mom was home. She wanted to go to work, but she waited. She was educated as a teacher. The minute my youngest sister went to school full-time, from first grade, mom went back to work. But she balanced her life. She chose teaching which enabled her to leave at the same time we left, and come home pretty much the same time we came home. She knew how to balance.
When I got married and had a child and went to work, my day was all day, all night. You lose your sense of balance. That was in the late ’60s, ’70s, women went to work, they went crazy. They thought the workplace was much more exciting than the home. They thought the family could wait. And you know what? The family can’t wait. And women have now found that out. It all has to do with women, or the homemaker leaving the home and realizing that where they’ve gone is not as fabulous, or as rewarding, or as self-fulfilling as the balance between the workplace and the home place.
So, I think that that’s what’s happened, all of a sudden. Women are wanting to spend more time at home, men are wanting to spend more time at home. They want to garden, they want to do all that stuff. And they want to see their kids grow up, and that’s what’s happened. That’s why this intense interest in how to polish a floor, how to wash a car. You know, all that stuff is coming back. And you know who likes it the best? The kids. They’re so happy. Many viewers of my TV program are three-year-olds, because they’re learning, learning, learning.