In his can’t-put-it-down book about America’s best known lifestyle guru, Christopher Byron portrays Martha Stewart as a bossy, arrogant egomaniac, a callous abuser of friendships, a witch as a wife, a non-nurturing mother, and a chronic liar, but, at the same time, an incomparable businesswoman and marketing genius.

“Martha Inc. – The Incredible Story of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia,” is the story of a poor girl who doesn’t just make good, she makes a cool billion in 1999 when her media empire goes public on the New York Stock Exchange. Author Byron, a business columnist for the New York Post, may not much like his subject but he clearly admires her vision, energy and drive. Over and over again, he says, Martha Stewart has been “two steps ahead of the people [she’s done business with], who never seemed to grasp that they weren’t dealing with just another pretty face and a giant-sized ego…”

There is no better example than Martha Stewart’s deal with Kmart.

In 1987, Martha was a successful caterer and the author of a series of best-selling coffee-table cookbooks that contained recipes more likely to be fantasized about than whipped up. (Cookbook buyers are well known to buy recipe collections just to read ingredient lists and enjoy the photographs.) Kmart saw this engaging young wife who advised that Beluga caviar is best spread on home-baked “pain de mie sliced very thin” as the perfect icon to pitch products for the home and improve Kmart’s image in the process.

Then-CEO Joseph Antonini signed her up to a five-year deal as a “consultant” at $200,000 a year plus another $90,000 for making personal appearances for the company – not a huge amount as such sums go. But Byron notes that, before signing on the dotted line, clever Martha made sure that she didn’t have to share royalties for any of her books or tapes sold by Kmart. She also insisted on knowing exactly how much publicity she would get.

Byron contends that Kmart’s advertising campaign benefited Martha more than Kmart. She capitalized on the TV, magazine and newspaper ads selling her eponymous merchandise lines at Kmart to market herself in other ways. Only later did Kmart realize that their contract with Martha Stewart did not bar her from making a deal with a competitor like Sears (which she has done).

In 1990, when Martha came up with the idea for a magazine about herself to be called “Martha Stewart Living” Kmart turned the idea down, as did the smart guys at Conde Nast, Murdoch and Time & Life Books. Finally, Time Warner agreed to test-market it, says Byron, even though “no one at Time Warner liked the idea.”

The first 130-page Martha Stewart Living featured “Martha arranging flowers, Martha wearing a sweater, Martha decorating a Christmas tree.” Time Warner printed 500,000 newsstand copies, figuring that “if they sold half, they’d be happy.” They sold 70%. They’d hoped to sell 20 pages of ads and sold 25. Only Martha was not surprised. Byron points out that Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O’Donnell also have their own magazines today, but Martha was the pioneer.

According to Byron, Martha once again used the publicity paid for by others to her own financial advantage when she developed her TV shows. She sold the TV syndication rights to Group W Productions, a Time Warner competitor. Group W’s Richard Sheingold, although a Martha fan, expressed doubt that a TV show in which Martha advises “Don’t cut your roses until there’s dew on the petals” would sell in such urban environments as
Cleveland and Detroit. “They don’t have gardens,” he told her. “Yes, but they want them,” she replied.

In this and other stories, Byron portrays Martha Stewart as a woman with an unerring sense of how millions of American women would like to live their lives – even if they have no possibility of doing so – and how to turn that yearning into profits.

At one point, Byron writes, Kmart’s Antonini lost patience in dealing with Stewart’s seemingly insatiable demands, given that her merchandise lines account for only 3% of total Kmart sales. He describes Antonini’s attitude as: “Attention Kmart shoppers. Martha Stewart English Butter Cookies in aisle six. I don’t think so.”

It’s hard not to wonder now whether he might not have been better off to “think so” and even ask Martha for some advice on other aspects of the business since Antonini is gone from Kmart, while Martha’s product lines are expanding. Kmart is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy while Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia’s profits are in the black, even if down in the most recent quarter. In 2001, Martha Stewart Living had revenues of $296 million and $21 million in net income. The company’s market capitalization in early June 2002 was well above $900 million.

Byron gives Martha most of the credit for her success. Few could work any harder. She maintains a daily schedule of appearances and meetings that is exhausting just to read. She didn’t inherit a business or position. She was born Martha Kostrya, the second of six children in a working class Polish-Catholic family from
Nutley, N.J. Her father, a salesman, was a boorish, alcoholic, control freak. Her mother was a mousy, housedress-wearing housewife.

While still in high school, Martha parlayed her blonde good looks into modeling assignments. Byron says Martha’s “sheer hustle” got her named one of Glamour Magazine’s “ten best-dressed college girls in
America” in 1961. She had submitted an entry packet of fashion shots of herself wearing clothes she borrowed from friends or sewed from patterns. She became Martha Stewart when she married lawyer Andy Stewart who, Byron gossips, disappointed Martha by not having as much money as she thought he did.

Martha Stewart, now age 60, is a woman who has spent a lifetime creating a public image of herself as the personification of grace and charm. Byron claims the woman behind the image is a harridan who shrieks at subordinates, an ingrate who paid a friend only one-fifth what she’d promised for months of work after the work was done, a henpecking wife who attacked her husband for “spoiling their vacation” when he became ill with a staph infection.

This is a woman, he writes, who owns seven homes yet writes that “material possessions don’t matter,” who had a hysterectomy after her daughter Alexis was born to make sure she’d never be bothered with another child, then later wrote that she’d dearly wanted more children but husband Andy’s medical problems prevented them. (Andy, divorced and remarried, had twins with his second.)

Byron has interviewed dozens of former friends and colleagues who delight in dissing the domestic diva. The book is as much filled with anecdotes about Martha Stewart’s dysfunctional personal relations as it is with stories of her business triumphs.

But, then, says Byron, Martha Stewart, the person, and Martha Stewart, the business, are one and the same. When Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia stock had its initial public offering in 1999, Byron, then at the New York Observer, wrote that the only negative he could see was that the company is so dependent on Stewart herself. “What if Ms. Stewart were to be run over by a truck or, more likely, were to accidentally hang herself while demonstrating 10,000 new and interesting ways to make festive dining-room-table centerpieces out of pine cones and discarded garden hose?”

Byron hasn’t changed that opinion. “Take Martha out of the picture and what’s left?” he asks. “A money losing website, some merchandizing royalties from a foundering retailer, the residual royalties on her books and a magazine that will need even more promotional and marketing money to stay in business.” At the moment, however, both Martha Stewart and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia are very much alive and Byron’s book about them makes very lively reading indeed.