Dispatches From The Martha Stewart Trial

What Martha Learned in Prison

Martha’s back, and she’s not sorry.

Free at last

So, Martha’s back, and she’s not sorry.

Her detractors are incensed that she’s getting out of jail, free—that she gets to go back to being rich, powerful, and famous. They seethe that the jailbird has made no groveling apologies or pleas for forgiveness. Perhaps, once her appeal is finished, Stewart will provide them. Based on her comments so far, however—don’t hold your breath.

In the oceans of Martha coverage, it would be nice to see some acknowledgement that Stewart has not only paid dearly for her mistakes, but proved that she has learned from them. It would also be nice to see acknowledgement that Stewart might not, in fact, have much to apologize for. Given the extraordinary risks and costs of defending oneself, most (sane) criminal defendants don’t go to trial just to try to “beat the rap.” Instead, they fight when A) they have nothing to lose, or B) they believe they have been falsely charged and would rather get convicted than confess to something they didn’t do. In some cases, including this one, the belief may be based on denial, but only the defendant knows for sure. Normally, we admire those who remain true to themselves no matter the cost, and perhaps Stewart will someday get some credit for doing so. Or at least a grudging admission that, apology or no, she’s paid her dues.

In any event, Stewart’s prison sentence has provided another opportunity for her to apply her true gift, one that infuriates those who lack it: the determination to forever make lemons into lemonade. Turning a jail sentence into a public-relations asset is no mean feat, but Stewart has done it. Based on reports from prison, she has embraced her fate and tackled her one glaring weakness: her reputation as a snooty, rich, ice queen. The groundswell of enthusiasm about her “comeback” has already carried the stock of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia from $8 to nearly $34, and, judging from recent commentary, her public approval rating has surged as well.

Normally, it’s best to buy stocks on the rumor (in this case, the impending release from prison) and sell on the news (the actual release), so the safe bet is that as Stewart’s chartered plane jets away from Alderson Federal Prison Camp, her company’s stock will tank. On the other hand, the herd of advertisers who refused to be associated with a criminal may now fall all over themselves to be associated with a determined woman fighting to come back.

Stewart’s comeback won’t win over all those who loathed her perfectionism and delighted in her mistakes. But perhaps, here, too, she (and we) have learned something.

One of Stewart’s challenges has always been that, unlike other executives or celebrities, she has had to juggle multiple roles: mother, friend, product, spokesperson, CEO, and brand. Each of these requires different skills and behavior, and it is hard to do even one well, let alone all at once. When Stewart-the-TV-star stomped her feet and blamed her studio-kitchen mistakes on her production staff, she wasn’t just being self-involved TV “talent,” sniped critics, she was also proving she had a terrible management style. When Stewart-the-wife got a divorce and then sold images of domestic perfection, she was being disingenuous. When Stewart-the-mogul dumped a few shares of stock while riding a private jet to Mexico, she was selfishly risking the business and image of her entire company. As 78 others have pointed out (thankfully), most of the criticisms of Stewart were deeply sexist, and she was often pilloried for behavior that would have been applauded in a male CEO.

What has Martha learned? One thing, everyone hopes. Perhaps, after a graphic trial and five contemplative months, Stewart has recognized her one truly unattractive personality trait: a penchant for treating the help and the little people like dirt. (If I hadn’t heard this directly from people who have worked for her, I’d be inclined to dismiss it as the usual carping, because I’ve never seen it myself.) Prison is a humbling experience for everyone, and probably was even for Stewart. Reports from Alderson have described apologies to other inmates for “bossy” behavior, microwaved apples for Valentine’s Day, donated linens and comforters, yoga lessons, and deep empathy (and public support) for first-time offenders clobbered by mandatory sentencing guidelines. Martha as mensch—that would be a truly formidable businesswoman and celebrity.

Martha Stewart’s life is now the quintessential American story: from rags to riches to destruction to—one hopes—grace. In the last 20 years, she has demonstrated enough courage, stamina, vision, determination, and pluck to have earned every bit of her fortune and fame. Now, with the addition of more humanity, she will serve as living proof that life is what you make it—that, no matter what, there’s always a way to mix lemonade. And then sell it.