Martha Inc.
by Christopher Byron
Wiley, 2002; 405 pages; $27.95

The dramatic rise of Martha Stewart from a working-class New Jersey family to a billionaire businesswoman is a story filled with intense drama, power struggles and personal conflict. Byron, a respected business journalist, provides a compelling look at Stewart's struggles and triumphs while digging into her history for a three-dimensional view. Byron set out to discover "the secret world of Martha Stewart and her dreams," and came back from his research and experiences with an amazing (and unauthorized) story of a woman whose very name can polarize any group of people, and who turned the renovation of a run-down farmhouse in Westport, Conn., into a billion-dollar multimedia empire.

Modest Beginnings

The story of the richest self-made businesswoman in America starts in a working-class home in New Jersey where she was the second child (of six) born to Eddie Kostyra, a man who drank too much and had trouble keeping a job. Byron writes that his "standards of excellence and intolerance ... became in time dominant characteristics of her own personality as well."

From a family life set against "a backdrop of parental tension and ugliness," Martha grew up and graduated from high school in 1959, a year when many women listed gardening, cooking and homemaking in her high school yearbook as their primary interests in life. From her modest beginnings, Martha Kostyra struck out on her own and became a fashion model in New York City while attending Barnard College for Women as an art history major. She was selected as a "Best Dressed College Girl" in 1961 by a leading fashion magazine. It was at this time in her life that she met the man who would become her husband for the next 20 years, a Yale Law School student named Andy Stewart.

After putting her modeling aspirations on hold so her husband could get his law degree, and getting pregnant a couple years later, Martha Stewart became a socialite, hosting parties for dozens of "New York's fast tracking young power people." As her modeling career dwindled, and motherhood became a chore, she became one of a handful of female stockbrokers in 1968. By 1973, she decided she had enough and fled Wall Street as the bull market of the 1960s became the bear market of the 1970s, and her own brokerage firm became entangled in scandal.

A New Vocation

It was about this time that Martha and Andy scraped together enough money to buy a run-down house in Westport that the couple would spend every spare moment and dime refurbishing. This house, according to Byron, was where Martha began to exhibit the controlling and domineering behavior of her father, belittling her husband for being less of a provider than she had expected. As her relationship with her husband and daughter suffered, her friend and mentor Norma Collier helped her focus on turning her avocation of catering for friends into a true vocation. After six months of booming success, Byron describes a ruthless Stewart dumping her partner with cold indifference. How does Collier describe her once best friend now? "She's a sociopath and a horrible woman, and I never want to encounter her again or think about her as long as I live."

Martha went on to sell her pies and cakes in Westport boutiques. In no time, she was opening up her own commercial establishment, The Market Basket. Great publicity from local editors and writers from Family Circle and Cuisine brought her instant fame and fortune, and on the first day of 1977, Martha Stewart, Inc. was born. Soon after, riding on the coattails of her husband's unexpected success in the world of publishing, her book Entertaining was launched, making her a best-selling author. As her marriage finally crumbled into divorce, she made decisive moves into TV, Kmart, and her own magazine. The climax to her story arrives when Martha returns to Wall Street at the end of the century to sell stocks in her own company in an IPO that raised her worth to $1.27 billion.

Why We Like This Book: Martha Inc. is a page-turner filled with rare personal glimpses of celebrity, creating a panoramic view of the realm where Martha Stewart reigns supreme. Many of the unattractive details that brought her to an iconic height are placed into plain view, along with her successes and amazing accomplishments. Martha's rise in business looms larger than life, but remains rooted in the human drama and tragedy that make this book fascinating. Byron's writing talents turn Stewart's life into a visible experience that jumps from the pages; filled with literary and pop culture references that illustrate his subject with depth and precision, Byron's book reveals a character as complex as she is determined to succeed.

Copyright © 2002 Soundview Executive Book Summaries