A Dispatch From the Martha Stewart Trial, Almost 15 Years Later

Crime Week
A Dispatch From the Martha Stewart Trial, Almost 15 Years Later
Image:Elena Scotti
“Sometimes in the awkward moments before a party begins, when authorities say you should be relaxed and enjoying a drink and I am not, I remind myself that I, too, am going to a fine dinner, designed specifically by me, in the company of good friends, selected specifically by me. Then I head upstairs to dress for such a grand occasion.”
Martha Stewart, Entertaining, 1982

One of the most damning, if not actually incriminating, moments of the 2004 trial that sent homemaking royalty Martha Stewart to prison centered around telephone hold music. Specifically, it was about Stewart really hating the music.

The incident occurred nearly mid-way through Stewart’s five-week trial, which investigated the sale of her shares in ImClone only a day before the company failed to obtain the expected FDA approval for one of its drugs. Stewart and her former stock broker, Peter Bacanovic, insisted that they had a deal to sell her shares if they fell below $60. Federal prosecutors, however, disputed that such an agreement existed.

While most people remember Stewart going down for insider trading, she was actually never charged for this crime in criminal court—instead, she was tried and convicted for lying to investigators, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. As Matt Yglesias recently summed it up in Vox, many believed at the time that Stewart was “essentially convicted of covering up a crime she didn’t commit.”

James Comey, then still a wee U.S. Attorney General for the Southern District of New York, infamously had to defend his decision to go after Stewart, announcing at a news conference in 2003 that the then-381th richest American was “being prosecuted not for who she is, but because of what she did.”

All that said, the telephone hold music incident certainly did not paint a favorable picture of Stewart as a person. The government’s star witness was Bacanovic’s assistant, Douglas Faneuil. He’d claimed he was ordered to give Stewart the tip that led her to dump her shares. The defense wanted to prove that Faneuil was really just out to get Stewart, in part because she was mean to him.

“Most people would love to come back as my chicken.”

To build their case, one of Bacanovic’s defense lawyers brought up the anecdote, in which Stewart allegedly was put on hold after calling his office. It left her so offended, apparently, that she threatened to take her business elsewhere because of “how bad the hold music was.” The lawyer described Stewart threatening to “leave Merrill Lynch unless the hold music was changed.” The jurors burst out laughing when Faneuil confirmed the account.

If you believe—as many did at the time—that Stewart’s public image rather than her actions were on trial, this was about as damaging as it could get. Today we might know that persona as an inherently self-reflexive one: Today Martha is a weird, ironic Twitter star, beloved as much for her stint in prison as for her flawless souffles.

But in the early 2000s, Stewart came off as haughty, demanding, and arrogant, and the story about her distaste for hold music was confirmation of the ruthless caricatures that had been associated with her long before James Comey came along. (One enduring urban legend started by Spy Magazine claimed that Stewart once ran over a pack of baby chicks with her Mercedes in her driveway. Stewart’s denial of the incident was perhaps the most Martha answer possible: “That’s ridiculous and totally untrue. Most people would love to come back as my chicken.”)

Now, almost 15 years later, Stewart’s trial has been dredged back up, this time, because Donald Trump has said that he is considering pardoning her, a move that is almost certainly meant to undermine Comey. But it’s not hard to see the other connections that would put Stewart on Trump’s radar. Both are white, wealthy celebrities who were hosts of The Apprentice, and both have made it known that they consider it a personal affront to be investigated. The two are entangled in the same social class, a class that regularly protects its own and considers itself above reproach: Celebrities like Bill Cosby and Rosie O’Donnell showed up to support Stewart at her trial; when Trump was elected, Stewart extended courteous words of support, though she did “obviously” vote for Hillary Clinton.

The possibility, then, that Trump might seek to absolve Stewart is not surprising. But as he threatens to do so it’s worth looking back at her trial and asking how our attitudes about wealth, celebrity, and the female executive class have—or have not—changed over the past decade-and-a-half. In other words, would we defend an imperious Martha today?

At the time of her trial, many condemned the vitriol against Stewart, the daughter of working-class Polish immigrants, as sexist; a backlash against a successful woman who dared to rise too high. After all it wasn’t, they pointed out, as if she were Enron-level guilty—Stewart saved less than a mere $50,000 through the trade that led to her conviction. Why was she being treated so harshly, when so many male executives who were actually responsible for the 2000-2001 stock market crash were walking free?

Dedicated fans were pictured standing outside the courtroom, holding up a signs reading “Stop The Witch Hunt Martha Stewart Is Innocent” and “Stop Persecution of Martha Stewart.” Even the Wall Street Journal questioned the misogyny found in the “open season” against Martha Stewart: “Why the schadenfreude, the palm-rubbing glee in watching this tycooness taken down?”

Stewart herself argued that the exacting ambition for which she was derided would have been celebrated in her male counterparts. “Those traits and that behavior, if it were applied to a man, would be admirable,” Stewart said in an interview with Barbara Walters. “Applied to a woman, you know, she’s a ‘beetch.’” Before the trial began, Stewart’s engendered little sympathy from the public, with three-quarters of Americans believing that she was guilty of obstructing justice. But even still, more than a third believed she was being targeted unfairly for being successful and female.

Years ago, Stewart was on the cutting edge of female success. Even Sheryl Sandberg had nothing on Martha, an entrepreneur who was not just in charge of, but built, a multi-billion dollar empire. Female managers and professionals—those were Stewart’s clientele, not who she aspired to be.

However, today, when even Lean In-style advocates for climbing the corporate ladder are rightfully criticized for promoting trickle-down feminism, it’s arguably more difficult to justify the tyrannical ownership of a corporation as a feminist pursuit. It certainly won’t engender more sympathy in an era of the highest income inequality in American history. According to a 2017 Bloomberg poll, only 31 percent of Americans viewed corporate executives favorably.

Undoubtedly, there was sexism to be found in the glee over Stewart’s prosecution; there is certainly a strong case to be made that she should have never been sent to jail for her relatively minor transgressions. But in revisiting the trial today, Stewart’s claims that she was just being derided as a B-I-T-C-H, specifically when it came to her managerial style, seem extremely outdated. If empire is out of fashion, so is defending shit treatment of underlings as necessary casualties to secure your own place at the top.

In the Faneuil telephone incident, it wasn’t, of course, the music that Stewart objected to: It was the fact that someone had the gall to put her on hold, which, in turn, is really about having the nerve to make her, Martha fucking Stewart, wait. This attitude isn’t unique to Stewart: it’s a common mindset of the powerful and wealthy, that their time is worth way more than yours. To rob them of it is a criminal act.

That attitude of exceptionalism was reflected during Stewart’s sentencing, when the judge sent her to prison for the minimum time of five months, for a crime Stewart dismissed as “a small personal matter.”

This veiled disdain was not limited to stock brokers like Faneuil. Stewart’s gardener once sued her in 1995 for not paying him overtime for chores he did outside of his job description, like washing Stewart’s cars and grooming her dogs. He produced a note that Stewart sent him, saying “Basement smells BAD look for cat poops, change litter. Happy Valentine’s Day.” Stewart won the case by arguing that her home was technically a farm and that she wasn’t obligated to pay agricultural workers overtime, taking advantage of the fact that agricultural workers were left out of New Deal-era labor protections, an exclusion grounded in racist history.

The argument that these traits are defensible as necessary characteristics to become a successful female CEO ring increasingly obsolete in a era of rising populism, when people are questioning whether such power should exist at all. Ten years after the country—especially black and Latinx families—are still recovering from the Great Recession, it’s difficult to imagine many women rallying around the “persecution” of a billionaire and ex-Wall Street executive like Martha Stewart, even among her most die-hard fans.

Stewart, always an eminently savvy businesswoman, seems to have understood this shift herself. Rather than continue to sell what Margaret Talbot once called “a dreamy advertisement for independent wealth—or, more accurately, for its facsimile,” the cult of Martha today is centered around poking fun at the perfectionism of that dream. Instead of teaching us how to make complicated place settings or designing five-tiered wedding cakes, Stewart can more often be seen rapping Migos lyrics on helium on her new potluck dinner show with Snoop Dogg or posting 26 unflattering photos detailing her teeth bleaching experiences.

Stewart’s crimes are positively quaint in comparison to the way others in the celebrity class—Trump, Cosby—have abused their power and wealth. But today, after we’ve seen transgression after transgression, we should be less willing to give celebrities any benefit of the doubt. Fifteen years ago, Stewart could have made the feminist case for being a trash boss with a straight face. Not that much has changed since then: Trump is president, after all, and Martha Stewart isn’t the worst person he’s considered pardoning by far. But at the very least the collective will to forgive the celebrity home-maker’s sentence only really exists in the realm of the deluded.

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