Humility, Done to Perfection

Times Staff Writer

Martha Stewart knows how to antique a mirror, monogram a tea cozy and now, it seems, resurrect a media and merchandising empire with a dramatic image makeover, all while serving five months in a West Virginia prison camp for lying to the government about a stock sale.

Naturally, it took a lot of hard work -- scrubbing prison bathroom floors, foraging for wild onions on prison grounds, learning to cook with a microwave, befriending women whose lives bore no resemblance to her own, even losing a Christmas decorating contest. But Stewart is more sympathetic, perhaps more human, than she’s ever been. After 23 years as the world’s most capable hostess, a fantasy so many Americans loved to hate, she seems to have acquired the one useful trait the public felt she lacked: humility.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 2, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 02, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 115 words Type of Material: Correction
Martha Stewart -- An article Feb. 26 in Section A about Martha Stewart said her childhood home had one bedroom. It was a one-bathroom house with three bedrooms. The article also said that after his conviction, Michael Milken reinvented himself as a philanthropist. Milken had been a philanthropist before his prison term. In addition, the article said that in September, many of Stewart’s attorneys wanted to appeal her conviction, but that Stewart chose to begin her sentence. The article did not mean to imply that her decision to begin serving time meant there would be no appeal. Her appeal is scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit, on March 17.

People who know Stewart say the ordeal has simply underscored the strengths she acquired during a hard-knocks childhood as one of six kids living in a one-bedroom house in Nutley, N.J. But expert spin doctors recognize good PR when they see it. This kind of rebound, they say, is the work of true genius. Few, if any, have come back this fast, this strong.

Post-conviction comebacks are tricky for celebrities. Many stars, such as Winona Ryder (shoplifting), Paul Reubens (indecent exposure and possession of child porn) and Robert Downey Jr. (drug abuse), have had only limited success in salvaging their careers. Others have had to reinvent themselves completely.


Michael Milken, known in the 1980s as the “junk bond king,” served nearly two years in prison for securities fraud before reemerging as a philanthropist. President Nixon’s so-called hatchet man, Chuck Colson, who served time for Watergate-related crimes, went on to become a Christian activist and a talk radio star.

But Stewart has a different plan. She intends to immediately reclaim her well-established role, this time as a survivor who is more marketable than ever.

“It’s one of the most remarkable turnarounds I’ve ever seen,” says Allan Mayer, managing director of Sitrick & Co., which has handled damage control for such clients as Rush Limbaugh, Paula Poundstone and R. Kelly. “When people saw she was going to suck it up and go to jail, they thought, ‘Maybe she is arrogant. Maybe she is overbearing. But she’s taking it like a grown-up.’ ”

When Stewart, 63, leaves Alderson Prison Camp next weekend, she will become the star of two new TV shows on NBC produced by Mark Burnett, of “Survivor” and “Apprentice” fame. In one, she revives her daily homemaking show with guests and a live audience, and in the other she will test and ultimately select a new employee a la Donald Trump on “The Apprentice.”

On Wednesday, her company’s president and chief executive, Susan Lyne, predicted that ad sales in Stewart’s magazine would increase with her “unencumbered return” to the company. The same day, share prices reached $37.40, their highest point in five years.

“I think she’s become an even stronger role model for women in terms of self-empowerment,” says Jonathan Holiff, whose L.A.-based company, the Hollywood-Madison Group, aligns celebrities with products. “I fully expect her to be bigger and better than ever.”

In a matter of months, Stewart’s image has morphed from that of a petty, condescending perfectionist whose wealth and prestige had so isolated her that she had no real empathy for, as one juror put it, “the little people,” to a gutsy broad who took her lumps like any other citizen. “See what one can do with nothing?” she told Living magazine Editor Margaret Roach in a letter from prison.

Though luck and timing played a role, Stewart’s comeback is based on a calculated strategy involving crisis management teams, attorneys, friends, family and the one person who understood Stewart’s image better than anyone: Martha Stewart.

“She seemed too perfect,” says Walter Dellinger, the Washington, D.C., attorney handling the March 17 appeal of her conviction. “Her life seemed too good.... Now she can be seen as someone who can come back from very tough places.”

Stewart’s fall from grace began in June 2002 when the government launched an investigation into her sale of about $45,000 worth of shares in the biotech company ImClone Systems Inc. the day before a negative FDA ruling on the company’s cancer drug caused the stock to plunge. It looked as if she’d gotten an illegal tip, but Stewart seemed to ignore the seriousness of the allegations.

Her first public appearance after the news broke was a live salad-making demo during her regular segment on the “CBS Early Show.” Anchor Jane Clayson asked Stewart to respond to the allegations. “I’d like to focus on my salad,” she said. When Clayson pushed, Stewart famously snapped, “I will be exonerated of any ridiculousness.”

That crucial misstep set the tone for her ordeal. For the next two years, Stewart was frequently cast as a megalomaniac who considered herself above the law. At the time, Christopher Byron, a former neighbor of Stewart’s, was making the rounds with his bestselling book “Martha Inc.,” an unauthorized and unflattering biography that portrayed Stewart as a Jekyll-and-Hyde character, preserving her best face for the cameras while belittling and abusing people behind it. A year later, just two weeks before Stewart’s indictment, Cybill Shepherd brought those harsh stories to life in a TV movie based on the book.

For the most part, her New York damage control firm, Citigate Sard Verbinnen, kept her under wraps. Of particular concern to them, says a source close to the team, was an allegation that Stewart had illegally attempted to buoy her company’s stock price by publicly declaring her innocence. On June 4, 2003, Stewart was indicted. She was not charged with insider trading, but rather with conspiring with her broker to make it appear that her ImClone trade was unrelated to the FDA ruling, and then lying repeatedly to federal investigators.

That day, the Citigate Sard Verbinnen team launched a website, They began posting open letters from Stewart, fan mail, legal briefs and case updates. The site got nearly 2 million hits in its first 17 hours.

Stewart agreed to televised interviews with Barbara Walters and Larry King. Yet try as she might, she seemed incapable of channeling warmth or provoking sympathy.

“Martha Stewart has an interpersonal cadence that’s very patronizing,” says Eric Dezenhall, president of the Washington, D.C.-based corporate crisis management firm Dezenhall Resources. “That’s a personality thing. Oprah Winfrey would have done a lot better because Oprah Winfrey has certain vulnerability -- her ethnicity, her weight, her disastrous romances. But Martha is always telling us she’s better than us.”

In early 2004, Stewart’s image took a beating at trial. Through it all she was stoic, wearing a look often described as “grim.” She didn’t testify, leaving unchallenged characterizations by associates and former staff that she was mean-spirited, prone to tantrums, hypocritical and overly demanding.

Stewart was convicted in March 2004 on all counts -- conspiracy, obstruction of justice and two counts of lying to investigators. It was, said juror Chappell Hartridge, “a victory for the little guys.” Her company’s shares plummeted 23% the same day, and Stewart lost $95 million on paper. Four days later, a CNN/Gallup poll showed that more than half of those surveyed believed she should go to jail.

In the days after her conviction, Stewart resigned as director and chief creative officer of her company and from the board of Revlon. Viacom announced it was pulling her TV show, “Martha Stewart Living,” from CBS and UPN. Within weeks, Stewart’s magazine dropped her monthly editor’s letter and planned a redesigned cover that downplayed her name.

Yet a subtle effort to reimagine Stewart had already begun. Her younger sister Laura Plimpton and niece Sophie explained to Larry King how after Plimpton’s husband died prematurely, Stewart bought Plimpton a house and set her up with a job. Stewart’s friend Salli LaGrone appeared on the “CBS Early Show” describing her as a “great friend” who is “warm and generous,” and Stewart’s daughter Alexis told King her mother was “incredibly saddened” and “disappointed over feeling like her life was wasted.”

Importantly, everyone stayed on message: Martha Stewart was a scapegoat, the victim of an overzealous government and the dreaded double standard that punishes women for being unabashedly successful.

In July she was sentenced to five months in prison, a $30,000 fine, five months of home confinement and two years of supervised probation. Stewart didn’t bemoan her fate. Instead, during an impromptu news conference on the courthouse steps, she urged supporters to help “by subscribing to our magazine, by buying our products, by encouraging our advertisers to come back.” “I’ll be back,” she promised. That day, her company stock rocketed up 37%.

“She was not haughty,” says Gerald McKelvey, crisis PR manager at the New York firm Rubinstein Associates. “She wasn’t imperious. She did not act as though she was entitled to some sort of special consideration.”

Not long after, she appeared again on CNN’s “Larry King Live” and ABC’s “20/20,” stressing her interest in helping others. She told King she might write a book about her ordeal with tips on “what lawyer to choose, how to behave.” Stewart even seemed to apologize while at the same time justifying her behavior.

“I have sometimes, probably, forgotten -- and I know I have -- to pat the back of someone or said ‘thank you’ enough times or maybe even once sometimes,” Stewart said. “I wish I were perfect. I wish I were just the nicest, nicest, nicest person on earth. But I am a businessperson.... If I were a man no one would ever say that I was arrogant.”

Crisis management experts say the turning point in Stewart’s public rehabilitation came in September when she asked to begin her sentence immediately. Many of her attorneys wanted to appeal the conviction. But Stewart made a business decision, according to those close to her. She said she wanted her release to coincide with spring planting. “I must reclaim my good life,” she told a federal judge.

She entered prison in October, giving Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia advertisers and investors a finite end to the ordeal. The day she was ordered to report to prison, her company stock surged 12.5%. Ultimately, it seemed, Stewart’s failure was necessary to defang her most ardent critics.

“By going to prison,” Dezenhall said, “I think a lot of people said, ‘All right. We win.’ ”

Within weeks, the news turned to Stewart as humble prisoner -- using her daily power walks to gather dandelion greens and wild onions, requesting yogurt for the prison vending machines and comforting one weeping inmate with a yoga lesson. She took to her chores -- cleaning the grounds and the administrative offices -- dutifully and, according to one report, even offered a lesson to other inmates on the value of turpentine. After one visit, Barbara Walters reported to the audience of “The View” that Stewart “loves scrubbing the floors in the bathroom” and “misses absolutely nothing material.”

Tabloid photos depicted a wan Stewart in oversized prison garb, wearing large, clunky glasses (contact lenses weren’t allowed), no makeup and really bad hair. She craved visitors, one friend said, because they provided the only time she could access the vending machines, which offered the prison’s most palatable food -- chicken wings. Stewart and her friends and relatives began describing her prison term as a much-needed respite from the world, time to catch up on sleep, drop those 20 pounds and finally master the art of crochet.

“I have had time to think,” Stewart wrote in a posting on, “time to write, time to exercise, time to not eat the bad food, and time to walk and contemplate the future.”

For the next five months Stewart will remain under house arrest, but friends say she’ll jump right back into the business, working from her estate in Bedford, N.Y., when she’s not at the office during the 48 hours a week outside the home that her sentence permits.

“I don’t think she has yet had time to fully internalize and integrate the experience that she’s had there,” one friend said. “The degree to which she’s become so interested in the lives of others, months and years after she comes out she’s going to be drawing on this experience in ways that deepen her understanding of the world. She’s living in the moment now.”

Clearly, much of Stewart’s energy will be spent on her TV shows, both of which are scheduled to air in the fall. Stewart also has her own projects in the works: She has ordered seeds for her garden and will continue renovating the Bedford house. And she’s gearing up as a spokeswoman for prison reform by considering requests from nonprofit groups that champion the issue. In the March issue of Living, editor Roach heralds a return to the magazine by “our Martha, always formidable, always moving forward.”

“She’s a brave woman who made a choice to get it over and done with,” said reality show producer Burnett. “Americans love to see people make good after being pushed down.”