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3.20.2004

Martha and Julia: A Comparison

by John O'Connor, expert gourmet

The fall of Martha has provoked a great deal of commentary, much of it interesting in its own right. But almost nobody I have read has asked why. Why would a very wealthy woman do such a dumb thing? Greed is one reason, of course. But perhaps there is another.

Nobody could actually practice Martha Stewart living without a staff of 12. This is widely conceded by all but the most die-hard Stewartistas. In other words, the idea that she is offering some version of the simple life, or even the possible life, is simply a scam.

Also, it transpires that, to the surprise of few, Martha is not a terribly nice person. She is particularly a not-nice person to her subordinates -- ie, to people she can mistreat with impunity. So the image of the happy, nice, always-smiling person is also a scam. This woman is Imelda Marcos in a kitchenette.

There is a third area of delusion, which is that Martha is always well-dressed, well-groomed, and svelte -- not exactly what you might expect in a woman who made a career of cooking and eating.

Looking it over, these truth-shortages may the actual cause of Martha's demise. The entire package is based on illusion, a kind of Potemkin-village designed to deceived the American woman. These villages are nice to look at, but you can't live there. Yes, there is a moral angle to the story. But there is an ontological aspect as well, which is that this person wasn't living in the real world, and was marketing a fake world on television. To my way of thinking, the strain of living a lie -- of living several lies at once -- was what made Martha do something incredibly dumb. Viewed one way, she didn't need to do it, because she didn't need the money. Viewed another, she had to, in order to escape from the prison of her life and lies. She is not entering a prison, she is simply transferring.

A comparison with Oscar Wilde is not out of place. What Wilde actually did to bring about his own downfall doesn't make a great deal of sense. But Wilde's life, like Martha's, was based on things which were the opposite of his true self. He, like her, put on shows for the public and had a mask to go with that. He, like her, was a very different person in real life. My own view is that, in both cases, the strain of the sustained dishonesty proved too much, and led to an act which, however self-destructive, did end a structurally dishonest situation.

Yes, Martha did commit some dishonest things. But to focus on those details is to miss the big picture, which is that the entire act was a sham. If she goes to jail, it will be for the technical legal things she did wrong. But her whole oeuvre is a piece of fiction, and it is the most damaging piece of dishonesty she has committed: telling the American woman, in effect, you can have perfect hair, perfect clothes, a perfect figure, and also whip up perfect dinners, in a perfectly decorated house, without being hurried or ever once losing your temper. If this is not a lie, nothing is. Tbis is consumer-lifestyle pornography, and it amounts to an agenda which SuperWoman would reject.

By contrast, I would offer Julia Child, as an antidote and possibly an anti-Martha. Child's humanity is very much in evidence. For starters, there is the question of appearance. Julia looks as though she has spent much of a long life eating rich food and drinking good booze with it, and enjoying both activities enormously, thank you very much. There is no question of perfect clothes or hair. There is also no evidence I have ever heard of pertaining to a hidden cruel streak. I have never had a meal with either woman, but I can tell you right now who is probably the better cook, and whose house I would most prefer to be invited to. No, I will probably never master the art of French cooking. Hell, I'll never even finish a book on the subject. But Julia is a real person in a way that Martha is not, and the available evidence suggests that she is a good person as well. She is a far more appropriate icon of what an American cook is capable of achieving.


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