living it up at 75
Martha Stewart, 75, stands over the conference table in her light-filled corner office, primping a shallow bowl of pale, nearly stemless blossoms. “I can’t stand flower arrangements like this,” she says.
“It is just such a waste of flowers.”
I can’t identify the flowers and they look rather stylish to my untrained eye. “I don’t know much about arranging flowers,” I say, trying to fill the silence.
“You don’t?” Martha asks, looking up with surprise. “You should.”
I’m in Martha Stewart’s world, the massive ninth floor of the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Manhattan, New York. From here, Martha has guided her highly curated lifestyle brand through the height of its influence, and made cooking, gardening and decorating aspirational activities for a generation of Americans.
Now, at an age when many people are already more than a decade into retirement, Martha has undergone the most dramatic change in her wide-ranging career. In December 2015, she let go of her closely held company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, in a merger with US promotions company Sequential Brands.
Today, Martha works long hours as Sequential’s chief creative officer for a CEO less than half her age. But the changes don’t stop there. She’s revelling in the shock value of appearing with controversial artists and celebrities. She’s giving her funny and even raunchy side freer rein.>>
And she’s easing away from her image as the epitome of perfection and propriety – during an appearance on The Ellen Show a few months ago, where she sat alongside her good friend, rapper Snoop Dogg, Martha shocked the studio audience when she revealed she was familiar with modern romantic behaviours, admitting she had sexted.
“Martha, do you even know what sexting is?” a taken aback Ellen asked her guest.
“I have used technology for a lot longer than you have, Ellen,” Martha responded archly, later admitting she is not shy about visiting nude beaches either.
It’s a side to the lifestyle guru and business magnate we have rarely seen before. But then Martha, it seems, is in a new and much happier place than ever before. Just over a decade on from her infamous fall from grace, when she spent five months in a federal prison for obstructing an investigation into the sale of stock
(and spent her time in a most Martha way, creating culinary delights from fruit and vegetables harvested on prison grounds), the former model is finding yet another new side to herself.
Sitting across from Martha, who is addicted to her iPad, endlessly curious and far warmer in person than her reputation as an icy perfectionist suggests, it begins to sink in just how incredible her reinvention is. Having built a household name, having made the money, most would have decided long ago to withdraw and enjoy their spoils. But then again, Martha’s vigour is superhuman.
So don’t ask her if or when she plans on retiring. She doesn’t. Moreover, she seems to find the question slightly offensive. “Why? Why!? Why!” is her response.
“No, it is not the time to slow down,” she tells me. “Not for me. I’m not the retiring type of person. I enjoy all the things I do. The only challenge I have is finding time to do as much as I want to do.”
Now in charge of the creative direction of some 15 brands – from US celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse to fashion
I do have a good sense of humour and a lot to say.
labels – Martha says she has more work than ever giving each company the Martha Stewart touch. Heelys, the wheeled-shoe fad that swept schools in the early 2000s, is another brand she is overseeing.
“I actually like to do all kinds of sports,” she says. “I like rollerblading. I’m not good on a skateboard, but I’m also not good on a snowboard. I’m very good on a hoverboard.”
A picture of a barefoot and slightly tipsy Martha riding a hoverboard through the home of Qatari diplomat Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser went viral last year when she tweeted: “Aziz let me use his hoverboard before dinner but after Champagne. Really easy but be careful of antiques!”
It was one of several youth-oriented stunts of late that have helped Martha introduce herself to a new and notoriously capricious generation of consumers. It seems to be working.
Last year, she landed an original series on Amazon based on her online craft shop, American Made – a deal reportedly worth US$200,000 an episode. She’s adapting decades worth of content for online audiences, often live-streaming classes from her own homes. She has made a push into the hip and ultra-competitive meal-kit delivery business, with a “Martha & Marley Spoon” line, which targets young urban professionals who struggle to find time to shop for and prepare meals at home.
“I think every business is trying to target millennials. But who are millennials? Now we are finding out that they are living with their parents. They don’t have the initiative to go out and find a little apartment and grow a tomato plant on the terrace,” she says. “I understand the plight of younger people. The economic circumstances out there are very grim. But you have to work for it. You have to strive for it. You have to go after it. I got married at 19 and I immediately got an apartment and I fixed it up. I was very proud of everything I did. I got the furniture at auctions for pennies. Beautiful furniture. My apartments were lovely and homey and comfortable.”
At a recent dinner at her farmhouse in Bedford, New York, David Chang – the head of the Momofuku restaurant chain and culinary brand – implored her to focus on educating young people.
“David Chang kept saying, ‘Martha, you know so much and the millennials have to know this stuff! They don’t know anything and they have to learn. They want to learn but they have grown up without teachers. They know how to make money and how to develop software, but they don’t know how to plant a tree. They don’t know how to grow spinach,’” she recounted, noting that a recent Facebook livestream on seed-starting attracted 500,000 viewers.
Of course this isn’t the first time Martha has successfully adapted. The model-turned-stockbroker-turnedcaterer-turned-guardian of good taste has an uncanny talent for reinvention on a large scale. And this time the changes aren’t merely good business – they’re personal.
The first time most people noticed that there was something different about Martha Stewart was when she
I have had to be balanced because of propriety, really.
was baking brownies with Snoop
Dogg on television.
“I have to say he is off the chizzle fo shnizzle and today he’s in the hizzel. Representing gangstas everywhere, welcome Snoop Dizzel,” Martha said, holding back laughs, at the start of a 2009 episode of her show Martha.
Snoop: “When do we add the, uh…”
Martha: “When do we add the eggs?”
Snoop: “No, when do we add the, uhm…” Martha: “The good stuff?” Snoop: “Yeah!” Martha: “Oh later, later. And that’s secret.”
The Snoop Dogg appearance quickly became one of the most memorable moments in Martha’s career, with multiple versions of the video on YouTube attracting millions of views. She had actually hosted Snoop on the show one year earlier to make mashed potatoes, but the potency of the brownie episode, where Snoop insisted on making “green” brownies, turning the episode into an extended marijuana joke, seems to be what people remember.
“I think my television career started a little before reality TV set in. And when reality [TV] set in I wasn’t so comfortable being the real funny me
– I am funny,” Martha says. “I do have a good sense of humour and I have a lot to say. But then I am the founding editor of a major magazine and you can’t be as outrageous as reality TV stars. I don’t believe you can.
“So it is kind of weird,” Martha tells me. “I have had to be balanced because of propriety, really.”
Propriety was nowhere to be found during Martha’s appearance on Comedy Central for the network’s “roast” of Justin Bieber – and the internet ate it up faster than one of her old-fashioned lemon sugar cookies.
In a particularly raunchy bit,
Martha said, “I believe the bedroom is the most important room in the house. But I don’t have to tell you that, Ludacris. You have three kids with three different women. May I suggest pulling out sometime and finishing on some fine, highly absorbent Martha Stewart bedlinens?”
“Everybody in my office thought I was nuts to do that,” Martha tells me. “And a billion and a half impressions later, guess what? I wasn’t so nuts. It was fun to do. It was a little nerveracking, sitting with all those strange characters,” she says, referring to Justin Bieber, Snoop Dogg, hip hop star Ludacris, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, and a host of stand-up comedians. “But I had fun and it showed another side of me that enabled me to go to other places.”
“But why now?” I ask. “Is there a reason you are showing a new side of yourself?”
“Not really,” she answers. “It’s just evolution.”
Martha races the sun out of bed each morning at her 62-hectare farm in Bedford, Massachusetts, where her peony garden is in full bloom. “It is a farmette,” she says. “The garden is a work in progress.”
She purchased the 1925 farmhouse back in 2000 and, surrounded by famous neighbours like Ralph Lauren, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Blake Lively, and even Donald Trump (who leased his estate to the late Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi in 2009), she has built her Shangri-La.
“I have five dogs, two cats, five horses, three donkeys, five peafowl, 200 chickens, geese and turkeys. Oh! And a black bear!” she says, showing me a video of a bear she recently filmed on the property. “Oh, and canaries. I have amazing canaries.”
But Martha’s reputation as a domestic diva, celebrity hostess, and dogged businesswoman has obscured another relatively recent change in her life – becoming a grandmother. These days, the lush gardens, rolling farmland and picturesque stables of her Bedford estate are as frequently used as playgrounds for her grandchildren, Jude, six, and Truman, five, as for high-profile guests.
“I can’t see my grandchildren enough,” Martha says. “I had a fantastic party for my granddaughter. She brought her whole class and their parents and their siblings up to the farm… They did potato-sack races and egg and spoon and tug of war. I made sure all those games were ready for them. They had delicious food. They got to eat rhubarb crisp. I made all of these fresh fruit sorbets and all of the fruit was from my garden.
“It was an old-fashioned day in the country, very similar to a day I remember from when I was a child,” she says. “We had a relative who had a farm in southern New Jersey, a dairy farm, and I liked going there more than I liked going anywhere. And my grandchildren love coming to my farm.”
But it’s not all nostalgia and trays of homemade cookies. With characteristic determination, she is channelling her
love into something productive, working tirelessly to educate and to improve the environment for her grandchildren, including the clean-up of the Hudson River.
Last year, she took her daughter Alexis and her grandchildren to the Galápagos Islands, another area of environmental concern.
“A lot of un-indigenous species have been introduced there,” she says. “The kids should see all of those species before anything happens.”
Martha is also an active proponent of sustainable farming and of eating well-grown and well-cared-for meat and fish. “I am very concerned about the future and the food supply,” she says. “I am a big proponent of no-waste, organic-is-good, all of that… [But] I think we have a tremendous amount of work to do.”
Martha’s day begins with some outdoor time with Francesca, her 12-year-old French bulldog, and Ghenghis Khan, her Chow Chow. Then it’s the New York Times, the gym, the green juice made from vegetables grown on her farm yearround. Unless she is filming on the farm, she commutes to Manhattan every morning – a former employee tells me she is always walking the block-length floors.
She tries to visit every new restaurant that piques her interest.
“It is my business. I’m friends with all the chefs,” she says. But Japanese food has become a particular passion and she is encyclopaedic about the cuisine.
“I can distinguish the uni [sea urchin] from Maine from the uni from Japan and Santa Barbara. We just had a test and they were very impressed that I knew each one,” she says. “I fish for uni in Maine. I have an uni opener… It’s a little esoteric. You can only buy this tool in Japan and it cracks open the shell of the sea urchin without destroying the eggs inside it.”
The daughter of two teachers, Martha says she has tried to live by the motto “learn something new every day”. She says she’s still looking for time to grow a tropical garden and to explore Tasmania, Western China and Siberia. “I haven’t been to Antarctica,” she says with disappointment.
“It seems very simple and almost trite, but it’s not,” she says. “‘Learn something new’ is essential for everybody… Learning and learning and learning is important to me because you cannot be a good teacher without learning all the time.”
Martha’s 87th book, Vegetables, was published at the end of last year. But she says her legacy is not solely that of a lifestyle mogul, but rather as an educator whose library of content will live on for generations.
“I have taught a lot of people a lot of things,” she says. “These are not fly-by-night books. These are seriously tested recipes and tested how-tos. I think that we [the brand] will live on and be valuable and be remembered as good teachers.”
But Martha has a second motto, one equally practised, she assures me. “When you are through changing, you are through. Change is good,” she says. “Change is good for anybody.”
LEFT: Martha sees herself as an educator and says it is essential that we always keep learning.
FROM LEFT: Martha after being released from prison in 2005. With rapper Snoop Dogg at the MTV Awards in May this year. The hoverboard antic that went viral last year. OPPOSITE: At the Justin Bieber Roast in 2015.
Martha and her granddaughter Jude in 2014.
FROM LEFT: Martha began modelling when she was just 15 and continued through her student days. Her life has taken many different paths since then, but she has retained the elegance and style of a fashionista, as shown in these photographs from the past two years.