Martha Stewart picks a new path

A year after merging her company, the lifestyle guru is revealing her offbeat sensibility and trying to connect with millennials

Stewart enjoying her peony garden at her farmhouse in Bedford.
Stewart enjoying her peony garden at her farmhouse in Bedford.

Martha Stewart, 74, stands over the conference table in her light-filled corner office, primping a shallow bowl of pale, nearly stemless blossoms. “I can’t stand flower arrangements like this,” she says. “It is just such a waste of flowers.”

I couldn’t identify the flowers and they looked rather stylish to my untrained eye. “I don’t know much about arranging flowers,” I say, trying to fill the silence.

“Oh, you don’t?” Stewart asks, looking up with surprise. “You should.”

I’m in Martha Stewart’s world, the 154,000-square-foot ninth floor of the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea. From here, Stewart has guided her highly curated lifestyle brand through the height of its influence, when its products kept multibillion-dollar businesses like Kmart afloat. From here, Stewart has made cooking, gardening and decorating aspirational activities for a generation of Americans.

Now, at an age when many people are more than a decade into retirement, Stewart has undergone the most dramatic change in her already wide-ranging career. In December 2015, Stewart let go of her closely held company in a much publicized and speculated-about merger.

Today, Stewart is working long hours at a new company for a CEO less than half her age. But the changes don’t stop there. She’s reveling in the shock value of appearing with controversial artists and celebrities. She’s giving her funny and even raunchy side freer rein. And she’s easing away from her image as the epitome of perfection and propriety.

Reports first emerged one year ago that Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia was merging with Sequential Brands, a licensing company that owns a potpourri of branded product lines from Ellen Tracy and Jessica Simpson’s clothing collection, as well as Revo sunglasses and the Franklin Mint.

The deal was necessitated by years of painful losses and a stock price that had dwindled to less than the cost of a Martha Stewart-brand oven mitt at Macy’s. Prior to the merger, Stewart was the largest shareholder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which was valued at nearly $2 billion in 1999. The deal closed in December for $6.15 per share in cash and stock, which valued the company at about $353 million.

Stewart’s new title is chief creative officer at Sequential Brands Group. She is a significant shareholder in Sequential and a member of its board of directors.

In addition to five horses, Stewart owns dogs, cats, donkeys, several types of fowl — and a black bear visits the property.
In addition to five horses, Stewart owns dogs, cats, donkeys, several types of fowl — and a black bear visits the property.

“Martha Stewart connects with people of all ages — from millennials to boomers — you name it … She’s here to teach smart, stylish and functional solutions to help everyone live better,” Yehuda Shmidman, the 35-year-old CEO of Sequential Brands Group, told LLNYC.

The merger was both panned and praised, with the Washington Post predicting “the end of the Stewart empire” and Jim Cramer’s The Street tipping its hat to her “sweet deal.” But according to Stewart, it was simply time for a change.

“I was very hands-on before my hands were taken off,” Stewart says to me, referring to her arrest for lying to investigators and insider trading, and her subsequent five-year ban from serving as a director of a public company. “That is where the problems began. But it is back to being creative. Having a voice in a company with lots of other voices that are good. It’s hard work.”

And despite the dramatic role change, Stewart says that she is happier than ever in her new position.

“It’s almost like it’s back where it was in the beginning, “ she says. “I think it is going to be really good.”

Sitting across from Stewart, who is addicted to her iPad, endlessly curious and far warmer in person than her reputation as an icy perfectionist suggests, it begins to sink in just how incredible her reinvention is. Having built a household name, having made the money, most would have decided long ago to withdraw and enjoy their spoils. But then again, Stewart’s vigor is superhuman.

So don’t ask her if or when she plans on retiring. She doesn’t. Moreover she seems to find the question slightly offensive. “Why? Why!? Why!” is her response.

“No, it is not the time to slow down,” she tells me. “Not for me. I’m not the retiring type of person. I enjoy all the things I do. The only challenge I have is finding time to do as much as I want to do.”

Now in charge of the creative direction of some 15 brands, Stewart says that she has more work than ever giving each company — from the Emeril Lagasse brand and William Rast denim to Avia activewear — the Martha Stewart touch.

“I’m the chief creative officer and I am certainly trying,” she says. Stewart adds she is particularly interested in the sunglasses brand Revo. “I have always liked Revos and worn them for a long time because of the clarity of the glass. I don’t think people realize. I think the brand somehow lost track of the fact that they have really good vision.”

“No, It is not the time to slow down.
I’m not the retiring type.”
—Martha Stewart

Heelys, the wheeled-shoe fad that swept middle schools in the early 2000s, is another of the sporty brands she is overseeing.

“I actually like to do all kinds of sports,” she says. “I like roller blading. I’m not good on a skateboard, but I’m also not good on a snowboard. I’m very good on a hoverboard.”

A picture of a barefoot and slightly tipsy Stewart riding a hover board through the home of Qatari diplomat Aziz al Nasser went viral in March when she tweeted: “Aziz let me use his hover board before dinner but after champagne. Really easy but be careful of antiques!”

It was one of several youth-oriented stunts of late that has helped Stewart introduce herself to a new and notoriously capricious generation of consumers. And it seems to be working.

Practicing hover board craft in my friends apartment in Doha watch out for walls and furniture!!

A photo posted by Martha Stewart (@marthastewart48) on

In June, Stewart landed an original series on Amazon based on her online craft shop, American Made — a deal reportedly worth $200,000 an episode. She’s adapting decades’ worth of content for online audiences, often live-streaming classes from her own homes. She has made a push into the hip and ultra-competitive meal-kit delivery-service business, with a “Martha & Marley Spoon” line, which targets young urban professionals who struggle to find time to shop and prep for meals at home.

At 74, Stewart seems fresher than ever.

“I think every business is trying to target millennials. But who are millennials? Now we are finding out that they are living with their parents. They don’t have the initiative to go out and find a little apartment and grow a tomato plant on the terrace,” she says. “I understand the plight of younger people …. The economic circumstances out there are very grim. But you have to work for it. You have to strive for it. You have to go after it…

“I got married at 19 and I immediately got an apartment and I fixed it up. I was very proud of everything I did. I got the furniture at auctions for pennies. Beautiful furniture. My apartments were lovely and homey and comfortable.”

She says that she was most recently encouraged by Momofuku’s David Chang to focus on educating young people during a dinner at her Bedford farm.

Martha-Stewart-tomatos“David Chang kept saying, ‘Martha, you know so much and the millennials have to know this stuff! They don’t know anything and they have to learn. They want to learn but they have grown up without teachers. They know how to make money and how to develop software, but they don’t know how to plant a tree. They don’t know how to grow spinach,’” she recounted, noting that a recent Facebook livestream on seed-starting attracted 500,000 viewers.

Of course this isn’t the first time Stewart has successfully adapted. The model-turned-stockbroker-turned-caterer-turned guardian of good taste has an uncanny talent for reinvention on a large scale. And this time the changes aren’t merely good business — they’re personal.

***

The first time most people noticed that there was something different about Martha Stewart she was baking brownies with Snoop Dogg on television.

“I have to say he is off the chizzle fo shnizzle and today he’s in the hizzel. Representing gangstas everywhere, welcome Snoop Dizzel,” Stewart said, holding back laughs, at the start of a 2009 episode of “Martha.”

Snoop: “When do we add the, uh…”

Stewart: “When do we add the eggs?”

Snoop: “No, when do we add the, uhm…”

Stewart: “The good stuff?”

Snoop: “Yeah!”

Stewart: “Oh later, later. And that’s secret.”

Typical Monday. Regram @snoopdogg

A photo posted by Martha Stewart (@marthastewart) on

The Snoop Dogg appearance quickly became one of the most memorable moments in Stewart’s career, with multiple versions of the video on YouTube attracting millions of views. She had actually hosted Snoop on the show one year earlier to make mashed potatoes, but the potency of the brownie episode, where Snoop insisted on making “green” brownies, turning the episode into an extended marijuana joke, seems to be what people remember.

“I think my television career started a little before reality TV set in. And when reality [TV] set in I wasn’t so comfortable being the real funny me — I am funny,” Stewart says. “I do have a good sense of humor and I have a lot to say. But then I am the founding editor of a major magazine and you can’t be as outrageous as reality TV stars. I don’t believe you can. But look — we have a reality TV star becoming president of the United States possibly.”

Yet another example of “the new Martha” is her increasing willingness to speak about politics in public.

“I have vowed to not talk about Donald Trump,” she said when asked about her relationship with Trump on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live” last fall. Stewart, of course, appeared as the boss on her own version of “The Apprentice.” She says the original plan was for her to fire the Donald on air, a stunt that Trump never allowed to occur.

At a photo shoot at her Bedford farm, Stewart cooked a French tomato tart for her new friend, photographer Terry Richardson.
At a photo shoot at her Bedford farm, Stewart cooked a French tomato tart for her new friend,
photographer Terry Richardson.

But the subject of Trump’s worrying presidential run has increasingly become an unavoidable topic. And during both of my recent conversations with Stewart, Trump’s chances of becoming the leader of the free world were on the menu, with Stewart seeming to criticize Trump without directly weighing in on the race.

“Look at him, [‘The Apprentice’] has been fantastic for him — it’s built him a platform. So now he thinks he can be president,” she said on Bravo. “He doesn’t have ‘The Apprentice’ anymore — he lost all his contracts because of the Mexico fiasco, so he has a lot of time on his hands.”

“So it is kind of weird,” Stewart tells me. “I have had to be balanced because of propriety, really. I want my readers to consider me to be a good, serious and thorough teacher. I don’t want them to think I am flighty or just a comedienne or something. I also don’t want them to think I am on one side or the other because editors really can’t do that. You can’t say ‘I’m a staunch Democrat’ or ‘I’m a right-wing conservative’ because 50 percent of your readers aren’t that.”

Propriety was nowhere to be found during Stewart’s appearance on Comedy Central for the network’s “roast” of Justin Bieber — and the Internet ate it up faster than one of Stewart’s old-fashioned lemon sugar cookies.

“As we all know Kevin [Hart] is one of the biggest movie stars in the business right now, and he deserves it. He struggled for years. When he finally got his first big paycheck, he spent $150,000 on a watch. I forget the term for that. It’s not ‘African-American rich’ … It’ll come to me,” Stewart cracked at the roast.

In a particularly raunchy bit, Stewart continued, “I believe the bedroom is the most important room in the house. But I don’t have to tell you that, Ludacris. You have three kids with three different women. May I suggest pulling out sometime and finishing on some fine, highly absorbent Martha Stewart bed linens?”   

“Everybody in my office thought I was nuts to do that,” Stewart tells me. “And a billion and a half impressions later, guess what? I wasn’t so nuts. It was fun to do. It was a little nerve-racking, sitting with all those strange characters,” she says referring to Justin Bieber, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Jeff Ross, Shaquille O’Neal, Hannibal Buress and Natasha Leggero. “But I had fun and it certainly showed another side of me that enabled me to go to other places.”

“But why now?” I ask. “Is there a reason you are showing a new side of yourself?”

“Not really,” she says. “It’s just evolution.”

***

Stewart races the sun out of bed each morning at her 153-acre farm in Bedford, N.Y., where her peony garden is in full bloom. “It is a farmette,” she says. “The garden is a work in progress.

“I am a big proponent of no-waste,
organic-is-good, all of that.”
—Martha Stewart

She purchased her 1925 farmhouse (the property’s original house, a 1770 Colonial house known as the Summer House, remains adjacent) in the tony suburb back in 2000 shortly after Omnimedia’s triumphant IPO. Surrounded by famous neighbors like Ralph Lauren, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Steinhart, Carl Icahn, Blake Lively, Nelson Peltz and even Donald Trump (who leased his estate to the late Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi in 2009), Stewart has built her Shangri-La.

“I have five dogs, two cats, five horses, three donkeys, five peafowl, 200 chickens, geese and turkeys. Oh! And a black bear!” she says, showing me a video of a black bear she recently filmed on the property. “Oh, and canaries. I have amazing canaries.” 

But animals aren’t the only wild things Stewart keeps at her farm. Stewart hosts regular parties and private dinners for her sometimes surprisingly incongruous friends — take for instance bad-boy photographer par excellence Terry Richardson.

“Terry Richardson has become a friend of mine,” she says. “I invited him and his girlfriend to come [to Bedford] for Easter … I guess it was such an odd match but he came up. He had so much fun and we started emailing each other … I went to the baby shower [for Terry’s assistant-turned-girlfriend Alexandra Bolotow]. She was pregnant with twins and we all had a great time at the shower.”

That rather Dionysian baby shower — the cake graphically celebrated fertility and phalluses abounded — took place back in January. Stewart and Richardson have worked on two photo shoots together for Porter and Apartamento magazines since then, one of which included a set of very large and suggestively placed lemons. 

“I think I am the only person who ever cooked for him on a shoot,” she says. “He was so taken aback that I would make him something really delicious [during a shoot]. On the first shoot it was tomato tart. It was just so delicious and he was so happy. He took beautiful photographs.”

Richardson tells LLNYC that he was nervous about meeting Stewart “because she is such a strong cultural force and I was not sure what to expect.”

Martha-Stewart-2It wasn’t just the beautiful home and incredible food that won him over, he says: “She is warm, generous and has a great sense of humor. I’ve really enjoyed photographing her because she has so much confidence and she’s willing to really go for it.”

But Stewart’s reputation as a celebrity hostess, domestic diva and dogged businesswomen has obscured another relatively recent change in her life: becoming a grandmother.

These days, the lush gardens, rolling farmland and picturesque stables of her Bedford estate are as frequently used as playgrounds for her grandchildren, Jude, 5, and Truman, 4, as for high-profile guests. 

“I can’t see my grandchildren enough,” Stewart says. “I had a fantastic party for my granddaughter. She brought her whole class and their parents and their siblings up to the farm … They did potato-sack races and egg and spoon and tug of war. I made sure all those games were ready for them. They had delicious food. They got to eat rhubarb crisp. I made all of these fresh fruit sorbets and all of the fruit was from my garden.

“It was an old-fashioned day in the country, very similar to a day I remember from when I was a child,” she says. “We had a relative who had a farm in southern New Jersey, a dairy farm, and I liked going there more than I liked going anywhere. And my grandchildren love coming to my farm.”

But it’s not all nostalgia and baskets of homemade cookies. With characteristic determination, she is channeling her love into something productive, working tirelessly to educate and improve the environment for her grandchildren.

“I’m very involved in making Hudson River Park more and more beautiful. The Hudson River has been one of my favorite rivers in the world for a very long time. It has improved so much. I first began to pay attention to it when I went to Barnard College,” she says. “Bobby Kennedy did a lot with Riverkeeper to clean it up, and I support those efforts too in the Upper Hudson. They are growing oysters and raising fish in the river again. The shad are now running in Poughkeepsie. And down here they are actually seeding oyster beds. Pretty soon it will be pretty good. It is almost good now. I don’t think I would want to swim in it, but I certainly do boat on it.”

In early July, she is taking her daughter Alexis and her grandchildren to the Galápagos, another area of environmental concern.

“A lot of un-indigenous species have been introduced there,” she says, adding that she is impressed with the Ecuadorian government’s appointment of Africa Berdonces as the new director of Galápagos National Park. “The kids should see all of those species before anything happens.”

Stewart is also an active proponent of sustainable farming and of eating well-grown and well-cared-for meats and fishes. “I am very concerned about the future and the food supply,” she says. “I am a big proponent of no-waste, organic-is-good, all of that… [But] I think we have a tremendous amount of work to do.”

***

Stewart’s day begins with some outdoor time with Francesca, her 11-year-old French bulldog, and Ghenghis Khan, her Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show best-of-breed winning Chow Chow. Then it’s the New York Times, the gym, the green juice made from vegetables grown on her farm year-round. Unless she is filming on the farm, she commutes to Manhattan every morning — a former employee tells me she is always walking the block-length floors, even post-merger.

The “green room” at Stewart’s Bedford home features brass accents and an early-19th-century mirror, which reflects an Austrian giltwood chandelier.
The “green room” at Stewart’s Bedford home features brass accents and an early-19th-century mirror, which reflects an Austrian giltwood chandelier.

“I don’t have time to go lunch Uptown very often.” she says, referring to our original plan to meet at the Four Seasons restaurant, one of her famous haunts. I ask if she is disappointed the restaurant is moving out of the iconic Philip Johnson-designed Pool and Grill rooms in the Seagram Building.

“We’re not happy but change is good,” she says. “I’ve been going there since the days of the original people, Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai. It was so beautiful and the menus were so beautiful because they really were seasonal. But I am fond of the owners and I wish them well on their new venture. They just have to ease up a little bit and know that they can be successful in another place, too.”

Stewart says she tries to visit every new restaurant that piques her interest. “It is my business. I’m friends with all the chefs,” she says. But Japanese food has become a particular passion and she is encyclopedic about the cuisine. In fact, I first met Stewart at a small dinner at Sushi Nakazawa in the West Village, where she was able to name the fish of each omakase course upon sight.

“I can distinguish the uni from Maine from the uni from Japan and Santa Barbara. We just had a test and they were very impressed that I knew each one,” she says. “I fish for uni in Maine. I have an uni opener … It’s a little esoteric. You can only buy this tool in Japan and it cracks open the shell of the sea urchin without destroying the eggs inside it.”

All her life, Stewart, the daughter of two teachers, says she has tried to live by the motto “learn something new everyday.” She says that she’s still looking for the time to grow a tropical garden and to explore Tasmania, Western China and Siberia. “I haven’t been to Antarctica,” she says with disappointment. 

“It seems very simple and almost trite but it’s not,” she says. “‘Learn something new’ is essential for everybody … Learning and learning and learning is important to me because you cannot be a good teacher without learning all the time.”

Notably, Stewart’s 87th book, “Vegetables,” is being published this fall. But she says her legacy is not solely that of a lifestyle mogul, but rather as an educator whose library of content will live on for generations.

“I have taught a lot of people a lot of things,” she says. “These are not fly-by-night books. These are seriously tested recipes and tested how-tos. I think that we [the company] will live on and be valuable and be remembered as a good teachers.”

But Stewart has a second motto, one equally practiced, she assures me. “When you are through changing, you are through. Change is good,” she says. “Change is good for anybody.”