Becoming Martha

An original Jersey girl looks back at her Nutley youth—and
forward to the digital future.

A store-bought sign reading, “Martha Stewart Doesn’t Live Here!!” is more than whimsy to the family that lives at Stewart’s old address in Nutley.
Chris Preovolos/The Star-Ledger.

It’s a Thursday morning and Martha Stewart is being driven to the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan to film a segment on quilts for her daily show on the Hallmark Channel. Of course, given that she’s Martha Stewart, she’s also talking to a reporter on her cell phone and probably doing two or three other things at the same time, all with equal aplomb. This is a woman, after all, who wrote, in her high school yearbook, “I do what I please and I do it with ease,” and who was once described by a friend as “more focused than a bullet in flight”—a perfect metaphor to sum up Stewart’s determination and to explain her extraordinary success.

Later in the day she’ll promote her 73rd book, Martha Stewart’s New Pies and Tarts, at a pop-up store in the West Village. After that, she’ll drop in to see her newborn granddaughter, her first. At some point, she will return to her Westchester County home to sleep, but it’s a good bet that it won’t be for long. Stewart is reputed to get by most days on four hours or so of shut-eye, and then she’s up and out and focused again on the road in front of her.

This spring, that road includes a trip to the New Jersey Hall of Fame. She will be inducted into the hall on June 5—fittingly, in the enterprise category.

Talk to her about growing up in Nutley in the 1950s, and you sense that Stewart has always been driven. “It was very important to me to be an all-around student,” she says, reminiscing about her days at Nutley High School, when she was Martha Kostyra. “I was pretty centered on being smart and well read and had a lot of hobbies, and I was the art director of The Gauntlet,” she says, referring to the school’s literary magazine.

The list goes on: “I was on the student council and I ran for president of the class—you know, all that stuff.”
“That stuff” included being one of the few kids in her class to make it all the way to Latin V, which she achieved while earning extra money after school by modeling at Bonwit Teller. Charles Kucinski, a current member of the Nutley Board of Education and a former classmate of Stewart’s, remembers, “You could tell even then she’d be successful…. She was very smart and involved in quite a few of the high school’s academic clubs.”

Stewart was also acutely observant, even then, of the way other people lived and what they wanted out of life. Nutley in the 1950s was largely white and working or middle class, but within that demographic there were subtle variations, and, says Stewart, “I paid attention to the difference.” She rattles off the names of streets emblematic of the town’s social hierarchy: Satterthwaite Avenue, where the wealthier residents lived; Passaic Avenue, mostly working class in those days; Elm Place, the socioeconomic middle and, as it happens, the street where Stewart grew up. “I had friends on all those streets,” she says. “I made sure I always had friends everywhere.”

It was at the homes of those friends, she notes, that she “got to know how everybody lived and got to know what they needed and what they wanted.” Stewart has built her company, and her fortune, on that knowledge. If you’ve ever had the sense that she anticipated your needs before you did—a cookbook so pretty you could display it on your coffee table, stylish kitchen utensils whose good looks matched their utility, handmade crafts that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to show to friends—you were probably right.

Stewart was born in Jersey City in 1941, the second in a family of six children, to Edward Kostyra, a pharmaceuticals salesman, and his wife, Martha, an elementary school teacher and homemaker. When Stewart was three the family moved into the tidy three-bedroom house at 86 Elm Place in Nutley that would later become a focus of her nostalgic essays in Martha Stewart Living, her first magazine. It’s clear that she inherited many of her most valuable traits, not to mention her considerable energy, from her father. “He was an intellectual,” she says, “and he was also active. He was a scoutmaster and ran the Eagle Scout jamboree, a giant job. He was also very particular and very perfectionist, and sometimes kind of difficult.” But, she adds, “that was good. I learned a lot from him.”

From her mother, who passed away in 2007 and was a familiar guest on Stewart’s TV show, she learned the domestic arts that she would go on to enshrine in books, magazines and television programs. Stewart describes “Big Martha”—as she was known to her family—as “the mother hen of six children and all our friends. She was the cook and she sewed our clothes and did all the laundry.” It’s no small irony that Stewart’s mother, the very model of ’50s domesticity, could not wait to get out of the house. “The minute that the youngest child was five years old and in kindergarten,” recalls Stewart, “Mom went right back to teaching.”

In those days, Stewart wasn’t thinking much about the future. “I lived for every day, and I tried to get all my work done, and I was a good child, basically,” she says. Sam Stellatella, who dated Stewart when she was a senior in high school and now lives in Toms River, remembers her as “beautiful and wholesome.”

Apparently, when Stewart was not gardening with her father or learning to cook from her mother, she was hitting the books or enjoying the modest entertainments that Nutley offered in mid-century. As a child, she caught crayfish and tadpoles in a local brook, skated on the pond still known as the Mud Hole, went to high school football games and bonfires and earned her Red Cross badges in the town’s only public pool—on the old grounds of International Telephone and Telegraph. “There were just a couple of tennis courts, so I didn’t get to play tennis,” she says with a hint of wistfulness. “And there was really no place to horseback ride; you had to go up to West Orange for that.”

Today, of course, she doesn’t have to leave home to ride or play tennis. There are courts on her property in Bedford, New York, where she also raises Friesian horses (and heirloom chickens). And if she wants to keep her aquatic skills fresh, she can take a swim at her house in East Hampton or at Skylands, her 63-acre estate on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, originally built by Edsel Ford, which Stewart describes as “an American treasure.” Stewart’s millions of fans might well apply the same appellation to Stewart herself; her ambitions, originality, economic trajectory and capacity for reinvention are all quintessentially American. She has gone from small-town girl to young married (she and lawyer/publisher Andrew Stewart were married for 29 years) to stockbroker to caterer to founder of a media empire—and her message that domesticity is an art worth cultivating continues to resonate with stay-at-home moms and working women alike.

The umbrella for Stewart’s business acumen is Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, a multimillion-dollar media and merchandising corporation whose ventures include four magazines (Martha Stewart Living, Martha Stewart Weddings, Everyday Food and the newest title, Whole Living), as well as original television programming on the Hallmark Channel (The Martha Stewart Show and Mad Hungry with Lucinda Scala Quinn); Martha Stewart Living Radio; numerous books; and a series of websites, digital apps and blogs. Stewart controls more than 90 percent of MSLO stock.

Then there are the products. Stewart didn’t invent crossmerchandising, but she has elevated the practice to an art. Readers of her magazines, books and blogs can find signature products for cooking, crafting and decorating at Macy’s (the Martha Stewart Collection), Michael’s and other craft retailers (Martha Stewart Crafts), PetSmart (Martha Stewart Pets) and Home Depot (the Martha Stewart Living line of home-improvement products).

Stewart is not just the brains behind the brand; in a very real way, she’s the brand incarnate—which is why many financial analysts were convinced the company could not survive her 2004 incarceration for obstruction of justice after an indictment for insider trading. In fact, the brand not only survived this setback—which she refers to as “my legal dispute”—but is now back to turning a profit, with reported operating income of more than $3 million in the final quarter of 2010. Compare that to the $19.8 million loss the company suffered in the first quarter of 2005.

At a time in life when others might be looking back, Stewart, who will turn 70 in August, says she is “totally focused” on the future. “With the advent of the strength of the Internet,” she asserts, “I think we have to focus on the future.” That means attracting a younger demographic through the canny use of social media. Want to make cookies à la Martha? There’s an app for that. There also are iPhone and iPad apps for Everyday Food and Martha Stewart Living. MSLO hosts 13 blogs, including Taste of the Test Kitchen, Home Design with Kevin Sharkey, the Bride’s Guide and the Daily Wag, the last “written” by Stewart’s two French bulldogs, Francesca and Sharkey.

Stewart has been an eyewitness to the drift toward digital media. At one point, she says, readers of Martha Stewart Living would complain when the magazine posted a template for a craft project online. But now everyone’s plugged in, and the complaints have stopped. In fact, on an average day, half a million people read Stewart’s personal blog, and more than 2 million follow her on Twitter. For Stewart, even a phone interview seems archaic. “Do you know how odd this is to have to talk on the telephone?” she asks.

She admits that she doesn’t write all her own posts, but as with most things Martha, she manSave Changesages to be hands on: “I carry a camera with me all the time, and I pretty much take all the pictures for the blog,” she says. She also takes notes for each post, then hands them over to two MSLO employees who do the writing. (She admits that her sister Laura Plimpton and Eliad Laskin, Stewart’s director of social media content, post for Francesca and Sharkey.)

There’s another aspect of the future that Stewart is embracing wholeheartedly: her granddaughter, Jude, presented in March by her only child, Alexis. In typical Stewart fashion, she genteelly describes Jude as “a very good baby, and very charming.” But she may have been as focused on becoming a grandmother as on every other aspect of her life: “I was very patient on the outside,” she says of waiting for a grandchild, “but I was getting very impatient on the inside.”

In fact, after the Today show segments and the commutes to and from the set of her TV show, the marketing and editorial meetings and in-store promotions, the radio-show tapings and appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman, Stewart tries to spend a couple of hours every day with the baby. Hearing all this, a reporter can’t help but ask if she ever gets tired.

“Well,” she says, drawing the word out in thought, “no. I have too much to do.”

Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a longtime contributor. She lives in Nutley in a home filled with Martha Stewart-branded products.

Click here for a list of the 2011 New Jersey Hall of Fame inductees.

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