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Pursuing Martha Stewart

I figure it went down something like this. Martha is lounging on her private jet on the way to Mexico for a post-Christmas holiday with pal Mariana Pasternak. Pasternak mentions in passing that her ex, Bart, thinks that the US Food & Drug Administration is going to refuse to review ImClone Systems Inc’s heavily-promoted treatment for cancer, Erbitrux, and that this is likely to cause a melt-down in the inflated price of the company’s shares. Stewart’s eyes barely flicker. "Interesting," she says, and they move on to the next topic of conversation: frozen strawberries, show scripts, place-mats & napkin rings, whatever wealthy women talk about on private jets. But at a fueling stop an hour or so later, Stewart steps off the plane and calls ImClone president Sam Waksal, who’d been dating her daughter, to see if he’ll confirm the FDA refusal. He’s not answering, so she calls her broker and tells him to unload the 4000 ImClone shares in her portfolio. When the price of ImClone shares collapses the next day, Stewart has saved herself a cool $200 grand, and she has that patented I’m-smarter-than-you smirk on her face for a few minutes until she has to brow-beat an inattentive servant or slap a momentarily unworshipful executive assistant. A fairly typical Martha Stewart morning, in other words.

But in a turnaround that is almost enough to make you believe that what goes around really does come around, Stewart’s fueling-stop sell order has cost her roughly $240 million, as accusations of insider trading swirling around the ImClone collapse have tarred Stewart’s reputation, causing a 36 percent drop in stock values at her Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.

Now, the stock market has always been the playground of scumbags, swindlers and scoundrels, from the margins of the current Enron fiasco to the storied core of the Mt. Sinai Oil Company swindle, which, for those with short memories, sold shares to born-yesterday Christians in an oil exploration venture that proposed to find oil by using Bible prophesy, so the current tut-tutting at Martha Stewart’s slimy behavior with her ImClone shares is a little disingenuous. Yes, she did cop an op from a casual remark made by a friend, but she’s far from the worst offender in the ImClone collapse. Sure, it’s marginal insider trading. It’s true she had to get off her private jet for a few moments to make the $200 grand, and maybe she even ordered the fuel stop so she could do the deed. But hey! It’s probably not the nastiest stunt she pulled during the Christmas Season, 2001.

Which is, precisely the point. Martha Stewart’s empire, and MSLO is almost entirely constructed on niceness. It began with—and maybe rests to this day on—Stewart’s tasteful, patrician television persona and the structural inference it makes that comfortable middle class women can do flower arranging, make meatloaf that doesn’t taste like sawdust and manage their own stock portfolios without breaking a sweat or displaying emotions more extreme than can be evinced by a small smile, a slight chuckle or, occasionally, a slightly furrowed brow or contrary murmur.

But over the last couple of years, beginning with an unauthorized biography, there have been persistent rumours that the real-world Stewart isn’t exactly in synch with her media persona. She is said to be Class A Diva, bad tempered, authoritarian, prone to scream at or even physically abuse employees, and scorched-earth ruthless with anyone who gets in her—or MSLO’s—way. How a girl is supposed to build up a billion dollar empire without a little kick&bite violence eludes me, but never mind that bit of common sense. On the heels of the first rumours the revelation about her mixed ethnicity—she’s of Polish descent—surfaced, and the desecration of her reputation really got going: the woman who seemed the epitome of WASP/American Republican taste and calm resource turned out to be a social-climbing outsider. About the only thing that hasn’t now been questioned about Stewart character is whether she’s a woman at all, and between you and me, I’ve got doubts. Just look at her size and build, her steely eyes, square jaw and the you-won’t-like-me-when-I’m-angry body English that is somehow now detectable even on television. She ain’t Nigella Lawson.

What we can say without much risk of error is that none of this means that the stock market is developing a moral code or a social conscience. My best guess is that the destruction of Martha Stewart is about the return to ascendancy—visible nearly everywhere else these days—of the bad old boys who’ve always run things. They don’t like her. A woman like Stewart, large, attractive and visibly in control of her surroundings must have been giving the bad old boys’ trophy wives funny ideas, not to mention that slight contraction in BOB’s testicles whenever she shook her increasingly voluminous booty. It’s enough to make the rest of us feel sorry for bad old Martha.

Well, on second thought, no. But it does confirm what we already ought to know: that the stock market will screw anyone or anything the moment it becomes vulnerable. Even Martha Stewart.

844 w., June 26, 2002

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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