American entrepreneur and domestic lifestyle innovator who built a catering business into an international media and home-furnishing corporation, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc.
Raised in Nutley, New Jersey, Stewart grew up in a Polish American household where the traditional arts of cooking, sewing, canning and preserving, housekeeping, and gardening were practiced. She started planning birthday parties for neighbour children while she was in grammar school, and she paid her college tuition by taking modeling jobs in New York City. She married law student Andrew Stewart (1961; they divorced in 1990) while studying at Barnard College (B.A., European history and architectural history, 1963); their daughter, Alexis, was born in 1965. Stewart worked as a stockbroker at a small Wall Street firm (196572) until she and her family moved to Westport, Connecticut, and turned their ambitions toward restoring Turkey Hill, a Federal-style farmhouse. With yeoman labour they gardened, restored, and decorated, acquiring the skills and the setting for books and TV shows.
After launching a catering business (1976) with a partner, Norma Collier, Stewart's talent for innovation and presentation attracted a string of prestigious clients. Her first book, Entertaining (1982; with Elizabeth Hawes), set the tone for subsequent publications: superb art direction, gorgeous settings, labour-intensive recipes and decorating projects. In addition, she oversaw the CBS Masterworks Dinner Classics, a series of music compilations that could provide the appropriate background music for a picnic, cocktail party, Sunday brunch, or exotic meal. Following continued success with such books as Martha Stewart's Hors d'Oeuvres (1984) and Weddings (1987), Time Publishing Ventures, Inc., teamed with Stewart (1990) to publish a monthly magazine, Martha Stewart Living, with Stewart not only as editor in chief but as the featured personality within its pages. She began a syndicated television show of the same name (19932004) and eventually bought the magazine from Time Warner Inc. (1997), funding the purchase with proceeds from her merchandising arrangement with Kmart, which debuted as the Martha Stewart Everyday line of household furnishings. Each of these business moves took her closer to her ultimate goal of creating a multichannel media and marketing firm. That goal was fully realized when Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia was listed on the New York Stock Exchange (1999), with Stewart as chairman and chief executive officer (CEO). She became a billionaire, however briefly, with the public launch of her company, although the company struggled to turn a profit during the following decade.
In December 2001 Stewart ordered the sale of 4,000 shares of ImClone Systems, a biomedical firm owned by family friend Samuel Waksal. The sale of her shares, occurring one day before public information about ImClone caused the stock price to drop, sparked accusations of insider trading. Stewart stepped down as chairman and CEO of her firm in 2003, assuming the title of chief creative officer and appearing to distance herself from daily operations as she focused on defending herself against charges of lying and obstructing justice. After being convicted in 2004, she retained only an editorial role with the company. Stewart served five months in prison followed by five months of home detention, during which she urged her fans to continue supporting her business. She returned to daytime television with Martha (200512), and in 2010 she was appointed chief editorial, media, and content officer of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. The following year, upon the expiration of a ban imposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission as part of a 2006 settlement, she rejoined the company's board, and in 2012 she resumed her duties as chairman.
As she built her business, Stewart's perfectionism, comprehensive knowledge, and bottomless capacity for work were not universally admired. She was censured for setting an impossible model for harried working mothers, and her glorification of a home-centred existence seemed to some a step backward for women. But her fans were legion, and many criticisms were swept away by the personal appeal that made her company a commercial success.