Martha Kostyra, 93; passed skills to her daughter, Martha Stewart

Times Staff Writer

Martha Kostyra, the Polish American mother of Martha Stewart who passed on to her daughter enough cooking, sewing and other household tips to fill several books, has died. She was 93.

Kostyra died Friday at Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut, according to information provided by Kevin Lesko of Lesko and Polke Funeral Home in Fairfield Center, Conn. Stewart told her daytime TV audience last week that her mother had been hospitalized after suffering “a small stroke.”

“Big Martha,” as she was affectionately called, despite her diminutive stature, was the earliest inspiration for the woman who would turn a small catering operation into an international business empire devoted to achieving domestic perfection.


Martha Ruszkowski was born Sept. 16, 1914, in Buffalo, N.Y. She married Edward Kostyra, and together they raised six children in a middle-class Catholic household in suburban Nutley, N.J. Both were teachers, although Kostyra’s husband later became a pharmaceuticals salesman.

The Kostyras instilled a strong work ethic in their children and expected them to learn to become self-sufficient.

“They were very good parents,” Stewart told the Washington Post in 1994. “They never didn’t have time to explain something. That’s how I raised my daughter, Alexis, too. And that’s what I hope the American family could be and should be: busy and happy and everybody helping each other.”

Stewart, the second-oldest child and oldest daughter, credited her mother as the source of many of her recipes and her culinary expertise. Her 1983 book “Martha Stewart’s Quick Cook” was dedicated “to my mother, Martha Kostyra, and her mother, my early teachers.” As Stewart wrote in her 1985 book “Martha Stewart’s Pies & Tarts,” “My mother spent most of her time in the kitchen, cooking, baking and sewing.”

Stewart acknowledged her mother’s influence throughout her lavish books and magazine articles and featured Kostyra on her television program dozens of times, kneading dough side by side with her at a kitchen counter or having her demonstrate a sewing technique.

After Stewart was indicted in 2003 on charges related to her alleged insider trading of stock, Kostyra regularly attended the trial in New York City. (Stewart was found guilty in March 2004 of conspiracy, obstructing justice and making false statements, and served five months in federal prison.)


Kostyra remained close to all of her children and after her husband’s death in 1979 moved to Weston, Conn., where another daughter, Laura Plimpton, lives.

In addition to Stewart, of Katonah, N.Y., and Plimpton, Kostyra is survived by her other children: Dr. Eric Scott of Williamsville, N.Y., Frank Kostyra of Fairhope, Ala., Kathryn Evans of Old Greenwich, Conn., and George Christiansen of Fairfield, Conn.; 13 grandchildren; a great-grandchild; a brother, Alexander Russ; and a sister, Clementine Carriere.

Stewart posted an announcement of Kostyra’s death Friday on her blog, blogs1.martha, and offered a video tribute to her mother. In one clip, Kostyra tells her daughter with a smile, “People ask me all the time, ‘Did Martha learn everything she knows from you?’ So I say, ‘Of course.’ ”