The Washington Post Column

Martha Stewart Fantasizing

Martha Stewart has been indicted, Martha Stewart has resigned from the chairmanship of her company, Martha Stewart is in disgrace. But Martha Stewart, Incorporated — or, more precisely, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. — lives on. Late last week the company quietly announced it will begin publication of a new magazine, Everyday Food, with an estimated distribution of a mere 900,000. According to Sharon Patrick, the new CEO of Martha’s company, the experimental issues of Everyday Food were not hurt at all by Martha’s indictment. The company, she says, “is not skipping a beat.”

If she is right, and if the company does recover, that will not only provide a shot of optimism to legions of other companies with disgraced executives, it will also prove that the Martha Stewart phenomenon, as I have long suspected, is far more resilient than anyone previously thought. The fuss surrounding her is often inaccurately described as an ordinary celebrity cult: Much has been made, in recent days, of Martha Stewart and her allegedly perfectionist personality, of Martha Stewart as the focus of envy or admiration. Not nearly enough, in my view, has been made of the peculiar fantasy niche that Martha Stewart Living (the magazine), “Martha Stewart Living” (the television program) and marthastewart.com (the Web site) have managed to fill, none of which have much to do with Martha Stewart (the woman) herself.

For like J.K. Rowling or Oprah Winfrey and her book club, Martha Stewart, accidentally or on purpose, stumbled upon something missing from pop culture and supplied it. Children want to read something darker and scarier than the earnest, “educational” literature written for them these days — hence the Harry Potter phenomenon. Adults want to read something that speaks to them more deeply than airport romance novels, but don’t know what — and that’s why Oprah’s recommendation has just turned “East of Eden,” an almost forgotten John Steinbeck novel, into a runaway bestseller.

The explanation for Martha Stewart’s endurance lies in a slightly different direction. There are, after all, plenty of other magazines containing recipes and home decorating tips. But the Martha Stewart magazine didn’t merely tell you how to cook, it told you how you could live a completely different sort of life, one in which you had an infinite amount of squanderable free time. The first issue I read contained a long, loving description of how to make your own Valentines, using family photographs, bits of tin foil, stencils and waxed twine. Valentines! I hadn’t given out Valentine cards in 25 years, let alone made them from scratch. I read on — and a whole alternate universe unfolded before me. There were clear instructions on how to make and use a pastry cone. There were advertisements for kitchen utensils I hadn’t known existed. One-cup bundlette pans! Cherry pitters! Ice-shavers! Heart-shaped pancake molds!

It has never occurred to me, not even once, to actually use any of them — or to make pastry, or to poke around in flea markets looking for oddly shaped bits of ceramic — or, for that matter, to feel inadequate because Martha says I should. For I can’t imagine many other women actually do all of these things either, although I’m sure many purchase the cherry-pitters and the stenciling kits anyway, fervently believing that one day they will. What working mother, non-working mother, or indeed working non-mother could possibly have the time? Millions keep reading the magazine nevertheless, just to fantasize about what the world would be like if they did have time — oceans of time. If I had absolutely nothing else to do, I might well enchant my children by making red-white-and-blue paper wind streamers for the Fourth of July, or spend my days painting wicker chairs that perfect shade of robin’s egg blue, or treat my friends to homemade apricot tarts, served with homemade vanilla ice cream on placemats I’d woven myself.

Or I might not, but it’s riveting to imagine life in that parallel world. Besides, every era has had its quintessential daydream, and this is ours. The practical Victorians dreamed of medieval romance and pre-Raphaelite maidens; we dream of having no planes to catch, no phones to answer, no forms to fill out, no babysitters to call. This may well be the source of our peculiar, amazingly enduring and otherwise inexplicable national obsession with Martha Stewart, and it could be the clue to her company’s future survival — or failure. For if Martha’s company can’t find a way to keep supplying us with this particular fantasy, then someone else’s company will.