I love libraries because I can wander the aisles and just browse, inviting that unexpected book title to jump out at me. I’ve certainly browsed online retailers and the Arrowhead Library …
I love libraries because I can wander the aisles and just browse, inviting that unexpected book title to jump out at me. I’ve certainly browsed online retailers and the Arrowhead Library System, but it’s not the same at all. Face-to-face with the bounty of books, I can audition them: Is it a good size for reading in bed at night? Coffee table books, while beautiful, are just too awkward. Does the dust jacket blurb sound interesting? How about the font style and size? My 20-20 vision is no more, and I refuse to struggle with difficult-to-read text styles. If the author decided it’s artsy to forego punctuation or capitalization, opting instead for a lot of dashes, that book isn’t going home with me, regardless of how enlightening the content might be. Browsing the shelves, I also might choose a fondly remembered book that is worth a reread.
Without our beautiful library to roam in, I would never have read about Martha Stewart. As I was looking for a different biography, MARTHA, INC. grabbed my attention. I had always thought Martha was kind of a flake, showing how to set a table, add candles, and make silly crafty things that I thought people ought to be able to figure out on their own. However, she had become a recognizable first-name-only celebrity, with perhaps a bit of a challenge from Martha Washington, so I thought I should open my opinions and see what I could learn.
I was amazed at how this woman drove herself unceasingly, sleeping four hours a night and working the other twenty; how she created opportunities to promote herself and her products; and how she skillfully negotiated contract with chains such as K-Mart and large media outlets, always to her own benefit. She even structured the IPO when she took her multimedia company, MARTHA, INC, public in 1999, causing Wall Street jaws to drop at her audacious timing and strategies. That move made her a billionaire, but she lost the title along with a lot of money when she was convicted of insider trading in 2004 and sentenced to five months in prison. She rarely socialized unless it benefitted her public image or her bottom line. A typical day could start at 4:00 a.m. feeding the goats and collecting eggs from the henhouse, putting on an exquisite breakfast spread to be televised, and commuting to New York to broker some deals, broadcast her TV show, and dine in an elegant restaurant with important people, staying long enough to be noticed, then heading home to work until midnight. Some days she would personally make presentations or broadcasts in four different cities across the country.
Martha’s career started in Wall Street in the 1960s, but when the market collapsed, she and her husband, Andy, exited Wall Street and New York, purchasing a falling-down, six-bedroom farmhouse in upper-crust Westport, Conn. They couldn’t afford to renovate unless they did the work themselves, which provided the foundation for Martha’s new career as a suburban caterer in the ‘70s, best-selling author in the ‘80s and media impresario and businesswoman in the ‘90s, with Martha at the center as the hearth-and-home maven, in spite of the fact that her personal life was drastically different from the image she worked so hard to maintain. As she gained success and expanded her model farm and her realm of impressive real estate holdings, she apparently morphed from a pleasant, considerate friend, into a raving, abusive harpy, shrieking at all within earshot to do as she demanded, including telling guests that they had to do farm and renovation chores. Needless to say, she lost friends. Ironically, she stated that her job was to be the role model for the perfect American woman. Her husband, Andy, consistently took the brunt of her aggression, yet he put up with it for 30 years for some bizarre reason. But her fans adored her. Why?
As I learned more about her seemingly impossible life and personality, it occurred to me that her profile was similar in many ways to that of Donald Trump. They both had grown up with a severely critical, verbally abusive father and an inadequate mother, which shaped an adult life of insatiable need for success, money, and approval. Both of these larger-than-life figures cared only for their own needs, cheating friends and relatives out of money invested in their various ventures. They used whatever and whomever they could to get ahead. Martha antagonized neighbors in multiple neighborhoods, and we have seen Trump viciously turn on people who have been loyal to him, working for his success and protection, and serving in his administration. They both accumulated ostentatious properties, although Martha was financially more astute and is very rich, unlike Trump who just says he is.
Martha’s unauthorized biographer, Christopher Byron, said sometimes her words didn’t hold up to scrutiny when she blurted out something unprepared, “as if inspired by little more than the sense that it ought be true.” Sound familiar? Trump frequently seems to be out of touch with reality, contradicting himself, and making statements that are transparently untrue or downright indecipherable. His mindset seems to be the same: if he wants it and says it, it must be true.
My overriding question is why do people fall for it? The conclusion I’ve come to so far is that Martha and Trump are both selling versions of the American dream. Martha’s carefully crafted image is of a beautiful woman breezing through her life, capable of doing anything from high finance to farm work with elegance and panache, yet with homegrown values, while ending up incredibly rich. Trump sells a slightly different dream of getting rich combined with the “values” of simpler time when white men ruled exclusively; annoying groups like women, people of color, and immigrants (and basically anyone who doesn’t buy his twisted perspective) could be ignored and suppressed; and manipulation of money, laws, and people was even considered admirable as long as you got away with it. They both appeal to people who want to believe that the American Dream of great success is magically possible for them, that it’s someone else’s fault if they don’t achieve it, and who yearn for a life without the complex issues facing us in the 21st century.
Martha appears to be maintaining that image a bit better than Trump. At the age of 81, she was on the cover of the 2023 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. In the words of award-winning writer Ryan Murphy, who interviewed her, “Her secret, I think, is that we all kind of want to be her — optimistic, daring, adventurous, capable of turning the most mundane into exuberance,” he wrote. She apparently decided to pay her taxes, and she served her time. If justice prevails, Trump will also.