Martha Stewart, the One-Woman Industry, Adds a New Line for K Mart and Subtracts a Husband

updated 11/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

In a gleaming stainless-steel kitchen at her Westport, Conn., office, Martha Stewart is holding court. Casually chic in Ralph Lauren sportswear and running shoes, she kneads pastry dough, then bones a chicken, chattering all the while about her daughter, her pets and her recent weekend with Michael and Shakira Caine. A group of the faithful—26 men and women who have paid $900 and signed up months in advance for this three-day cooking seminar—sit rapt throughout. And when it comes time for Stewart's seafood pot pie in puff pastry to emerge from the oven, a devoted dozen or so, exclaiming with delight, leap to their feet, cameras at the ready, to record the crusty-brown masterpiece for posterity.

Such is Stewart's power over her public. In the six years since she published her first coffee-table cookbook, Entertaining, Stewart, 47, has acquired a following most gurus would envy. Each year millions of women, and the occasional man, turn up at her lectures and seminars, watch her videos and buy her books, of which there are now seven, including this fall's entries, Martha Stewart's Quick Cook Menus and The Wedding Planner. Part of the appeal is her recipes for ornate concoctions that look as luscious as they taste. "Her groom's cake is beyond description," gushes one fan. "People weep when I make it." But what Stewart is selling in addition is a glossy fantasy of American home life at its most folksy-opulent. Just as her signature style of "presenting" food is to let it spill onto the table, Stewart's books overspill the traditional bounds of cooking-and-serving manuals. Each one is chock-full of decorating tips and personal anecdotes and is illustrated with photos of her own antique-filled Connecticut home, with its swimming pool, herb garden, rose bushes, orchard, smokehouse and beehives. "I'm telling people," she says, "that they can enhance their lives."

And she's not just telling that to people who can afford the edible gold leaf called for in her chocolate truffles recipe or who can spare the time to spin sugar to decorate their desserts. Since last year, Stewart has been catering to simpler tastes in her capacity as home-and-lifestyle consultant for K Mart department stores. "There's no reason why you can't have pretty things at a good price," says Stewart, who is introducing her own line of paints, tableware and linens to K Mart shoppers. "These people watch Dallas and The Colbys—they know what elegant living is. They need help, and I see myself as the helper."

It is a role she has never shirked. As a self-described "very proper, very busy, very driven" child in middle-class Nutley, N.J., Martha helped her mother, Martha Kostyra, a sixth-grade teacher, cook for their family of eight. Her father, Edward, a pharmaceutical salesman who was also, according to Martha, "a total perfectionist and aesthete," taught her how to oil paint and how to distinguish peau de soie from taffeta; she, in turn, often helped him in the family's vegetable garden. "I loved it all," she says.

But domesticity, even on a grand scale, was not her life's goal. A straight-A student, Martha went on to Barnard College, where she studied art and history and helped pay for her tuition by modeling. At 18, she met Andrew Stewart, a law student. She agreed to marry him, she says, "because he was nice and he was a philosopher—I didn't know any philosophers."

After graduating, she found lucrative employment as a Wall Street broker, but it was not until she got bored and quit that she discovered her proper realm. She and Andy, a book publisher, bought and renovated an old Westport farmhouse in 1973, and in 1975 Martha opened a cooperative so local women could sell their baked goods. She started a catering business and in no time at all was whipping up crème brulées for the likes of Robert Redford and her Westport neighbors Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. The Stewart empire had begun its expansion.

Today it takes her every waking moment to keep it going. A chronic insomniac, Stewart often starts the day with a 6 A.M. workout in her barn. If there is time, she grooms her eight cats. "I feel it brings me closer to them," she says of the pets, which are also objects of veneration to the most obsessive Stewart fans. One woman telephoned recently to ask their breeds and names so she could duplicate the lineup at home.

After breakfast Stewart confers with her staff, then heads off to a meeting, a lecture or book signing. She travels about 150 days a year, but tries to spend most nights at home, an 11-room monument to the renovator's art, containing a symphony of little touches like hand-stenciled floors. She even finds time, now and again, to perform the household chores most people try to avoid. "I love doing laundry," she says. "I like ironing. I love cleaning the basement. Basically, I'm a homebody."

In recent years, though, the bodies keeping her own exquisite house in order have been employees—two housekeepers, two gardeners and two kitchen assistants, plus a financial manager and a secretary. And while Stewart was busy getting the form of her domestic life just right, certain aspects of its substance were suffering. Her daughter, Alexis, now 23 and a New York fashion model, is close to her mother but teases Martha about never giving her enough attention. "I didn't know she was missing anything," says Stewart. "If I did anything wrong, it was not spending the casual time that she probably craved."

Unquestionably, living with a dynamo imposes certain demands. Her staff, Stewart says, has sometimes reacted to these by referring to her as "Martha Dearest"—though only in jest. But not everyone is laughing. Last year Andy, whom Stewart calls "my best friend for 27 years," left her. "It's still a total mystery to me," Martha says. "I loved my husband. I noticed him growing away, but I didn't pay any attention to it. He said I was too much for him, that I was going too far too fast. What does that mean? If I should be punished for being too critical or too perfectionist, I've been punished."

The separation has not been amicable. "He does not speak to me," says Stewart. "He has a court order that I'm not allowed to speak to him or his family. Can you imagine?" Andy will say only that "the court order was by mutual agreement. It won't last long. Court orders are not all that unusual."

The patroness of the happy home, it seems, now finds her own backyard in disarray, and it hurts. "If that's the price you have to pay for success," she says, "it's not worth it." Still, there is plenty to keep her busy. She is redoing her new Manhattan apartment as "a cross between a palazzo and a monastery," searching the world for "big stones that have been walked on" so the floors will have a worn look. She is also writing books on gardening and home renovation, and planning Thanksgiving dinner for 15 in Westport. Appearances will be more than kept up. And someday, Martha hopes, she will find a man who won't mind how far she goes or how fast. "What I write about is marriage and family," she says, "and I still believe in it all."

—Kim Hubbard, and Joyce Seymore in Westport

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