Living Just Turned 30, But Martha's Reach Remains Limitless
The first time I saw Martha Stewart in person was at her company's bright West Chelsea offices, where I worked as an editor at Martha Stewart Weddings in 2013. Her blonde highlights glimmered in the sun-drenched hallways, practically a runway for her signature outfit: an oversized button-down shirt, Vince leather leggings, and espadrille wedges. She was holding a plate of salmon (her lunch, delivered from the in-office test kitchen) during a walk-and-talk meeting with a colleague. I was undeniably starstruck.
It was hard not to be wholly obsessed with Martha if you worked at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO), the company she built from the ground up in the '90s. Her name appeared everywhere—in a "Martha Blue" cornflower circle at reception, on notepads, even on the coffee mug you received as a new employee. (Mine broke in a recent move; tears were shed.) And of course, her name was emblazoned across the magazines and products we were creating, the things that made our boss' reach so wide that you only needed to say one word—Martha—and people around the world knew exactly who you were talking about.
Martha has evolved with the times, and so has her influence. Even Siri recognized her power: One morning a few years ago, Kevin Sharkey, the EVP and Executive Director of Design for Martha Stewart Brands (and Martha's notable best friend), was walking Martha's grandson, Truman, to school. Obsessed with United States presidents at the time, Truman asked Siri, "Who's the most famous American Martha?" assuming the very first First Lady, Martha Washington, would be the response. Instead Siri named Truman's grandmother. "I just remember this look on Truman's face," Sharkey says. "He just couldn't believe that his grandmother was the first Martha that came up. It was pretty epic for him."
Born Martha Helen Kostyra in 1941 to Edward and Martha Kostyra, Martha, the second of six children, grew up in what she calls an "open-minded household" in Nutley, New Jersey. "We had a very positive attitude towards learning, and learning everything," says Martha, whose parents encouraged regular—even daily—trips to the library, so long as their children completed their chores. "That was the rule in our house. As a result, we all read tremendously, and we did so many different kinds of projects." That well-read child grew up to be an ambitious teen: She began her modeling career during high school at 15 to earn extra money, which she continued during and after her time at Barnard College, where she majored in history. She appeared in fashion shows and editorials, as well as in ads for popular brands, such as Breck, Clairol, and Lifebuoy Soap. After graduation, she worked as a stockbroker on Wall Street, a career she left at age 31 to move to Westport, Connecticut, and start a catering company out of Turkey Hill, her 1805 farmhouse. In the nearly five decades since then, she's shaped the way we think about our food, our homes, and each other.
It's a testament to her leadership (and sense of humor) that some of the people who have worked for Martha have done so for decades. Sharkey, for instance, first interviewed with her 25 years ago—and he hasn't left her side since. He's witnessed a myriad of her firsts: becoming the first self-made female billionaire in the United States, launching an eponymous lifestyle magazine, popularizing department-store lifestyle collaborations, filming a cooking show with Snoop Dogg, and making homemaking, cooking, and crafting accessible for everyone.
And then there are the firsts you won't read about in Forbes: Over the phone, Sharkey says she's the first woman to ever wear velvet hot pants on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. Martha confirms this, acknowledging that she owned two pairs—one brown, one peachy pink—when she was a stockbroker in the '70s. "I wore them with an alligator belt, a bodysuit, and a pair of boots or high heels," she says. "Why the hell I wore them to work I'll never know—I must have had really nice legs."
Despite her start in finance, Martha will tell you that her career really began with Entertaining, her 1982 missive on homemaking. The 310-page tome is still referenced by her peers and millennials alike for its flower charts and party tricks, with helpful and somewhat harrowing entries such as "Cocktails for Two-Hundred." It was a hit, and still is (for anyone who doubts Martha's influence over a younger generation, consider Hannah Howard's "How Martha Stewart's 'Entertaining' Changed My Life," a 2017 article that ran on Teen Vogue).
Following Entertaining, Martha wrote Martha Stewart's Quick Cook (1983), which is how she met Susan Magrino, who would become her lifelong publicist and close friend. At the time, Magrino was an assistant at Clarkson Potter, the books' publisher, and the pair toured the country to promote the third volume with demonstration materials, such as knives, forks, and plates, in tow. As they visited television stations and newspapers across the States, Magrino could tell that Martha hustled like no other. "Nowadays, people don't want to go out and tour that much," she says. "But Martha was tireless. And she really understands publicity. She knew that if she wanted something to succeed, she was going to have to go out there and promote it, and she understood that in a way that few of her peers ever did."
Entertaining didn't just alter the way we think about Thanksgiving dinner: "That book changed my life," Martha says. "I found my voice, and I found my career." So, she kept writing—the books Martha Stewart Weddings, Martha Stewart Christmas, and Martha Stewart Gardening appeared in subsequent years. She liked making books so much that she thought, why not create an encyclopedia of sorts, all revolving around her knowledge of the home? She pitched the idea as a series of how-to books, but Clarkson Potter wasn't interested. (Despite the initial rejection, Martha has published 97 books to date.)
Ever the innovator, Martha changed tactics and went to magazine publishers with a prototype of a magazine called Martha Stewart Living. Considering the timing, it was an ambitious endeavor. "I was attempting to do something difficult: Starting a magazine in 1990, when many were closing. That was a downturn year in publishing," she reflects. "And yet, I was able to start a lifestyle magazine different than the other lifestyle magazines." It would have gorgeous photography, inspiring ideas, and Martha's name on the cover. S.I. Newhouse Jr., the president of Condé Nast at the time, liked the idea, but insisted on calling it Condé Nast Living. After all, it wasn't Tina Brown's Vanity Fair, or Anna Wintour's Vogue, he said, according to Martha. She refused, and took her prototype to Time Inc., where a room of all-male execs greeted her mockup of a July issue with enthusiasm—and confusion. "They said, 'We love this, but what are you going to do next July?'" Martha recalls. "And I said, 'Gentlemen, what you don't understand is that Living is limitless.'"
Time Inc. made the deal, agreeing that Martha's name would be on the cover. During negotiations, the suits handed her a piece of paper with a number—the price at which she could purchase back the magazine and assume complete control of its operation. Martha kept that note, and her company, MSLO, bought Living—which marks its 30th anniversary this December—back just five years later.
Martha can tell you exactly what she wore on the first issue of Living in 1990: a plaid Ralph Lauren jacket that she still has in her closet. "That cover spoke to every woman in America," she says. "I was the girl next door, the woman down the street, a teacher. I was somebody who was inspired and inspiring." Inside, the stories reflected her personal interests including cooking, entertaining, gardening, decorating, holidays, housekeeping, crafting, and collecting. "She was the first one to revere the most mundane," says photographer Douglas Friedman, a close friend of Martha's whose work has appeared in the pages of her magazines. "She is the only person that can do an entire gorgeous photography story on salt. Or, you know, lampshades."
In the early days, Living operated more like a start-up, with employees wearing multiple hats. For example, Darcy Miller, now a celebrations expert, author, and Martha Stewart Weddings' editor-at-large, was an editorial assistant back then, but her job title didn't necessarily encompass the full scope of her role. On an entertaining shoot in Louisiana, she reflects, the crew needed more time to set up for Martha—so the two women went for a drive. "First, I was so nervous because I don't really know how to drive, but of course I would never tell Martha that," Miller says. "And she says, 'Let's go to Walmart.' So, we go—I remember we were buying espadrilles and spices—and then I lose her. I look at my watch, and I see that we need to go back, but I can't find her anywhere. I was freaking out because I promised them we would be back in time." So, Miller did what any young, nervous, and resourceful assistant would: page Martha on the store's loudspeaker. "And she was working with KMart back then. I just thought, 'Great, I just paged Martha Stewart in a Walmart.'"
After working on Living for three years, Miller was asked to help with the launch of Martha Stewart Weddings in the mid '90s, a magazine inspired by the success of Martha's book of the same name. The magazine added yet another title to Martha's ever-expanding resume: matchmaker. She had just taken her company public (and brought croissants to the traders during the New York Stock Exchange opening) with the help of a young lawyer, Andrew Nussbaum. "Martha said to me, 'I found your husband,'" Miller says. "And I said, 'Oh, I don't know about that.'" Any time after, when Miller would bring a date to an office party, Martha would ask, "What are you doing with him? He's not as cute as Andy Nussbaum." So, when the pair finally started dating, Miller kept mum. "I was like, 'Oh my god, I cannot tell her because what if this doesn't work out?'" she says. But when Martha's right, she's right: The couple has been married for 19 years and share three daughters.
By 1999, Martha was a billionaire with celebrity appeal, the result of her stardom on the small screen. Her daytime syndicated show, Martha Stewart Living TV—the weekly half-hour program debuted in 1992—had become a daily full-hour show and held the coveted 9 a.m. slot on CBS four years after it first aired. It was the first of Martha's many ventures into television: In 2005, The Martha Stewart Show premiered, which featured celebrity guests and segments that let her expertise in cooking, gardening, crafts, and design shine. Everyone from Tom Ford to Tom Selleck was excited to sit beside Martha.
"Growing up, we always had a TV in every room in the house—and we always had Martha on," says cookbook author Chrissy Teigen, who, as a child, was endlessly inspired by Martha's crafts. "I think of Martha around the holidays, when she would air those Halloween episodes and her whole set would be transformed with Styrofoam pumpkins. It made me so, so happy. It's so nostalgic now, to think back to those days."
Before influencer was even a word, Martha was the living embodiment of someone who could take their skills and transform them into a brand. Not only was she schooling others on croquembouche in celluloid (Julia Child, included), she was on newsstands, at KMart, then at Macy's, on our sheets, our plates, our holiday decorations—everywhere. "Martha has made it so that people could brand themselves," Sharkey says. "She's created a path, an opportunity for them to say, 'Oh, I'm gonna do that, too.'"
Teigen, for example, now sells her own branded cookware line, Cravings, at Target and Macys. "If Martha had just kept to food, well that's hard enough as it is," she says. "But to put your name on something, it has to be good. And you really have to have full 1,000 percent confidence in it. She taught me that's the only way you can do things. You have to really stand by every single thing." She adds that Martha has always done it her own way. "When you think of somebody who is the ultimate multi-hyphenate when it comes to life and lifestyle, there really isn't anyone else," Teigen says. "And her voice is there throughout everything."
And that's the thing—Martha has never been anything more than just herself. "She's never put on a persona or played a character," says Antoni Porowski, a chef and the food and wine expert on Netflix's Queer Eye. "She knows who she is and has never wavered from that. When you watch her either with Snoop, at a roast, or in her own home with her grandchildren, she is always the same person. I respect that about her tremendously."
It's Martha's genuine spirit, paired with her wry sense of humor, that make her more recent endeavors—such as the Emmy-nominated Martha & Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party and her just-launched line of CBD gummies—feel completely on-brand, even if none of us could have predicted these next steps. No one, after all, saw her genuine friendship and business partnership with Snoop Dogg coming. But the unexpected and seemingly off-kilter twosome is one of the most complementary pairs of our day—watching them together, so in sync, often feels too good to be true. "But isn't that what Martha's career has always been about?" Sharkey says. "It's always been about, 'It's too good to be true.' Christmases are more beautiful. Thanksgiving, more delicious. Valentine's Days are sweeter. Everything is better with Martha involved."