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Archive for Thursday, April 11, 2002

Unauthorized book looks at how Martha Stewart built her empire

April 11, 2002

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— No matter how much people say about Martha Stewart, and they say a lot, there's no escaping a fundamental irony about her: She has risen to the senior ranks of the male-dominated business world by very astutely selling the skills of being a traditional housewife.

Yet amid all the hubbub about this lifestyle icon  the tough projects she gives her readers, how she gets along her neighbors  relatively little spade work has been done on how she built a multimedia empire after starting out with a small catering business.

But financial columnist Christopher Byron has done plenty of digging into Stewart's business affairs as well as her personal history in a book released this week, "Martha Inc.: The Incredible Story of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia," (Wiley, 405p., $27.95).

Byron found an extraordinarily complex person, a very smart, tough businesswoman who would occasionally ride roughshod over friends and family on her way to the top.

Byron writes that Stewart once had her father pose as a garden attendant at her home during a tour of a local gardening club and balked on a promise to split profits from a video project early in her career with Kathy Tatlock, a friend and business partner.

Stewart, speaking through a spokeswoman, declined to make any comment for this story.

But Byron also writes that Stewart, as a savvy dealmaker, got the better of many big corporate executives, time and again turning a situation to her advantage. Kmart originally brought her in as a spokeswoman but wound up paying lavishly to promote Stewart's name as a brand of its own, something she would later exploit with huge success.

Warner Brothers turned down her idea for a TV show, then tried to get it back after it was successfully syndicated by Group W. Conde Nast developed a prototype for her magazine, then dropped the idea, which Time Inc. later built into a franchise that Stewart bought back on very favorable terms.

Byron described the deal as "easily the greatest financial coup in the history of American publishing."

Friendship soured

Byron found a lot, and he did it all without Stewart, who refused to cooperate with the book. The author said Stewart tried to get him to break his contract with Wiley and write a book on her terms for another publisher. She also asked people not to answer questions about her, he said.

"She was much more interested in strangling this profile of her over which she had no control. ... It was only after researching this book that I found out that was the kind of thing she did all the time," Byron said in an interview.

Ironically, Byron had a cordial and mutually beneficial friendship with Stewart for more than a year before approaching her in early 2001 with the idea for the book, which had been proposed to him by an editor at Wiley.

Stewart contacted Byron after he wrote a laudatory column in the New York Observer about her company's stock offering in the fall of 1999. Byron, who was better known for trashing the offerings of dot-com firms, wrote that Stewart "might be the smartest, cleverest woman in America today."

Stewart invited Byron out to breakfast, and they immediately struck up a friendship, he said. She made several key introductions to financial and legal contacts for him and invited him to appear on her show to promote one of his previous books.

Her own story

But soon after Byron's book deal was sealed, Stewart announced her own plans to write a book of her life. Titled "Martha: Really and Truly," the book is scheduled to come out next year.

Tellingly, a press release listed several areas of her life and career that would be covered in her book, including personal heartbreaks and "bumps in the road." The last two topics were: "The critics and how to deal with them" and "The press: friend or foe?"

Stewart has long had a difficult relationship with the press and was stung by a racy unauthorized biography by a National Enquirer reporter, "Martha Stewart: Just Desserts," which came out in 1997.

But her discomfort with press scrutiny goes deeper than that. At the end of a wide-ranging interview last month in Manhattan, she told her interviewer, the soft-spoken editor of Business Week magazine, Stephen Shepard: "Thank you for not being mean to me."

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