She mesmeize eventhose who doubt her (National Post, March 06, 2004)

Martha Stewart is guilty. She may go to jail. It isn't quite the kick in the stomach it was when I watched the O.J. Simpson verdict come in, but that was murder.

The mechanics of her case are not that interesting to me. I am simply fascinated with the psychology of beings who, in their plummeting fall from Olympian heights, belong more to the world of myth -- Midas, Icarus -- than to our own workaday world.

Martha's beginnings were fairly ordinary. She grew up in a large working-class New Jersey immigrant family. Her mother taught her the traditional skills : cooking, sewing, cleaning, while her father taught her to garden and -- unusually for her day -- to fix household appliances. She was smart. She did extremely well in high school and went on to Barnard College.

She was lucky in her all-American looks, which landed her modeling jobs in print and TV ads. She married and went on to a successful career as a stockbroker on Wall Street.

Then she turned the maintaining, decorating and entertaining processes of a home into a new planet called Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

I have watched Martha arrive at the courthouse accompanied by her minions and her lawyers, with her too-long hair (remember when she used to wear it chin length with bangs that knew when to get cut?) and her pale pashmina scarves loosely tied in a jaunty way to signal her self-possession, with that frosty air of studied calm, and all I can think of every time I see her is: What the hell were you thinking! You looked at the nesting instinct in women, a completely untapped gold mine, you staked your future to it, and you were right. You're a bloody genius. So how could you gamble it all for a lousy -- what, $50,000?

She is the American dream woman. Her legions of fans will not desert her, even if she actually goes to jail. We know she isn't a very nice person and is mean to her staff. She has a terrible temper and her perfectionism makes her seem eerily robotic. But she has made a fortune in a good way -- by enhancing our homes and reassuring us that we can be both houseproud without embarrassment, yet successful in a man's world at the same time. She embodies the conservative woman's values of hearth and home (even though her own marriage broke up and there is little evidence of togetherness with her daughter), but she is also a poster woman for feminist values and goals. She is the capitalist par excellence, but she dresses and presents like a suburban socialist.

Do people like Martha begin as ordinary people and then, when they ascend to the rarefied summits of their success and celebrity, suddenly begin to think they are special, with entitlements others don't deserve? That they won't be caught because their success has transmuted them into untouchable gods?

Is it the other way round? Were the egoism and sense of entitlement inherent, the oil that keeps the pistons of ambition driving at a rate less self-adoring mortals can't keep pace with? Or is there a tipping point, when your strength of purpose has made you so rich and so famous that incremental advances in wealth and celebrity become meaningless, where your childhood fears and character flaws rise to the surface like buried shrapnel, and overwhelm your reason and judgment?

Martha, you really had it all, success, influence and public approval: Please, please tell us -- what the hell were you thinking?

© National Post 2004