Martha On the Inside

Jailhouse advice for the domestic diva


Dear Martha,

You don't know me by name. I'd be shocked if you recalled my face—the few glances we exchanged during your spring trial were fleeting at most. I know your time is precious, so I'll cut the introduction and jump straight to my mission. I'd like to help. If you'd be so patient, Ms. Stewart, as to let me walk in your shoes awhile. I have a thought or two to share.

Tomorrow, October 8, 2004, is your big day. At precisely 9 a.m. your doorbell will ring. Your driver will greet you warmly (you'll remind him of an orchid, bundled in your cashmere throw, your hair blown silky, and your skin just as smooth). He'll escort you to the car (right side, he knows you get carsick lodged behind the driver seat) and drop your Louis Vuitton duffle in the trunk (you won't need much, he hears, where you're going). You won't look back at your ivy-shimmered farmhouse, or glimpse out the passenger windows as Westford, Connecticut whizzes by. When your company jet lifts off from Teterborough's private runway, your stomach will do its usual flips, and you'll curse the second breakfast latte you failed to resist. But these aren't your regular jitters, for the Alderson Federal Prison Camp ain't a beach in Saint-Tropez.

Jail tips float through cyberspace like dander you'd be wise to swat from your face. While mowing down your kitchen mates with the spaghetti cart isn't advisable (these are not your employees, dear Martha), my counsel isn't so specific. Let's span back, reflect a bit—not on Omnimedia, or the speed of your journey from homespun cookie caterer to billionaire arbiter of life's Good Things, or your beloved puppies, cockatoos, and chickens. But on the people. On the types you repel and attract. Wincing yet? Just wait.

The characters in your trial (who rather acted as character witnesses) may seem uniquely rotten, as if Lady Luck heaped all the putrid apples in your aproned lap. Not true. Open any psychology textbook; you'll find profiles of each and every one, which means you'll meet them all again. Repeatedly. As long, that is, as you're You (a Forbes-listed, high-society kitchen Picasso) and people are People (parasitic ass-kissers hoping your ilk will choke to death on a drumstick). Forgive me—my cynicism is indelicate. But judging from your megalomaniac fibbing (yes, yes, I know, the investigation was petty in light of the mighty Martha brand name), and genuine horror at the Lilliputians who dared rat you out (the only one-woman conglomerate in human history!)…well, your judgment seems a little off.

In prison, you'll need that intuition—even more than Sisley eye créme. Somewhere between buttoning your registration khakis and tying your work boots, expect to be flanked by listless prisoners anxious to sympathize with your cavity-search—not to mention sniff a little green. Notice that one woman hangs back, patiently granting her ward mates the first fill. Something about her hennaed hair and bruisey face-lift will seem mnemonic, simultaneously comforting and perturbing, like a nostalgic itch. She'll study your face, the wince beneath your botoxed brow, and finally skulk in your direction.

"Looks like Morty Zuckerman's hit a few Daily News snags, huh?" she'll say rapidfire, fooling you into thinking she lived the gossip instead of lifting it from Gawker. "Tressa," she'll add, offering a clammy hand and Cheshire smile. You're hooked.

She'll teach you things, at first. Sun salutations and guided meditations ("Think of saffron sunsets on Peruvian beaches; of 1000-thread, air-dried Frette sheets. Ooooom."). She'll massage your aching, gravy-ladling shoulders, give you pedicures with smuggled gardening sheers. She'll copy your work-boots' toothpick-stenciled daisies, the way you knot bandanas into hats. You'll assume she admires your good, wholesome obsession with self-improvement.

Oh Martha. Get your head out of your wilting backyard bouquet and pay attention to intuition. This Tressa woman's scent, it's reminiscent for a reason. Have you forgotten Mariana Pasternak, monikered "Best Friend" in court transcripts? You truly never saw it coming—her hideous trial hiccup, the unseemly string of words she shook from a Xanax memory—isn't it nice to have brokers who tell you such things? This time, look harder.

What do you imagine Tressa wants from you? What makes this lady tick? Your answer is obvious; it's tracked across her forearm. No, those scabs aren't from mattress chiggers. Where there's a user, there's a supplier, and considering the limited traffic through Alderson Correction Facility, I'd blame a guard. Starting with the Chappell Hartridge look-alike.

By now the rumors will have reached you. The baton-wielding bulldog likes to spring without warning. His history, let's say, resembles that of your jury's angry, pot-bellied spokesman—a wife-beating, Tonka-flinging petty thief of Little League funds and his momma's antique mink—but on the cellblock he's lord of a thousand broken ladies, many born under brighter stars than he. Sure, messing with you would be running a risk, but he likes the odds on his return.

Put the two together, Martha. Translation: don't follow Tressa behind dumpsters—especially if her neck's jerking like she's suddenly developed Tourettes. Back away, make a bee-line for the basketball bench. Better to risk getting trampled underfoot than suffer a self-hating man's cruel baton tricks.

Yeah, I know. People are often hard to predict. As you discovered last spring, even the meekest, most Biblical do-gooders are known to ditch loyalty in favor of…excuse me for saying it…the truth. What better proof than Ann Armstrong, your reflexively meticulous assistant for half a decade? After all, her courtroom description of your plum pudding bonus incited a show-stopping torrent of tears. Assuming her hysterics were an empathetic reflex (rather than fear of your eye-plucking talons), its clear her identity hinges on yours. Why in heavens would a shivering, pasty-cheeked, thirty-something dowager betray Martha Kostyra Stewart?

Perhaps, Martha, you're just too much to handle. Perhaps your intolerance for improperly stapled faxes and unfolded toilet paper tails induced dementia in your helpmates. Problems in the real world mean problems in the slammer, whether or not you're backed by Peter Bacanovic's doppleganger.

Let's say you find a new Bacanovic. Pluck a She-Peter from you cellblock and put her to good use. As a loyal servant, she'll happily receive your weekly UPS delivery—Vicodin-sprinkled lemon bars, meant to shrink your throbbing temples—in her name.

The thing you must remember, Martha, is celebrity minions get cravings of their own. Especially glamour girls with prima donna ballerina aspirations, which is a fair description of She-Peter—nevermind her thick, hairy ankles. She's angling to dance in Alderson's Thanksgiving talent show, and needs to practice her pli?s before flag football monopolizes the gym. So she does what any real artist would—dumps her duties on her own anemic sidekick. Which is how Fannie—we'll call her Fannie—becomes your gofer.

From day one, Fannie will rub you the wrong way. During landscaping duty, something about her sycophantic "Yes, ma'am, no ma'ams" is intolerable. You're apt to stab your weed-whacker in the dirt and scream, "Shut up, shut up, you stupid shit! Get out of my way!" You'll be damned if some scrawny Tinkerbell ruins your single peaceful chore. What's more, she's continuously tripping on your lunch chair, no doubt merely to enrage you. Doesn't she know her manners? Precisely two inches must be kept between the cafeteria table and yourself. Which means it's her fault when grape juice splashes on your hunk of chocolate cake. Why not swipe hers?

I'd warn against that. But you're such an indignant diva—what's the use?

Fannie, of course, wants to be caught. Fair is fair, Ms. Martha, and you've humiliated her enough. While you're busy knitting in the craft room, Fannie will grow a set of nuts. She'll wear your package like a nomad carrying grain, and slide, spread eagle, down the stairwell railing. Ann II will gasp, practically weeping, as Fannie crashes at a bend and your pastry box goes sailing. Plunk. Clean-up duty is a race between Ann and the warden's drug-sniffing Doberman.

When will the obvious become obvious to you? Pawning off dirty work will only land you in the cooler—and guess which guard's on tank duty?

Keep ignoring trial wisdom, Ms. Martha, and expect to keep on getting screwed. My advice is simple. While in prison, forget about perfection. Try being human. Listen to your criminal sisters, empathize with their unpaid mortgages, their gruesome homeless years, their asthmatic children now living with chain-smoking ex-husbands. We already know that you're an icon, a one-woman media conglomerate, and that $48,000 is a mere .0006 of your net wealth. Likening yourself to "the poor old tortoise who quietly plods along, building something of great value" seems a little silly, in light of your recent Page Six photo op with P. Diddy. Humility, Martha. Don't forget your New Jersey, working class roots, when obsessing over potted plant dirt wasn't a luxury your family could afford.

Aren't you kinda lonely perched at the top, sitting at the farthest reach from failure you could find? What would happen if your soufflé actually fell? Would your friends stop loving you? Have you dropped the goddess act long enough to know?

Next time you're melancholy, or remorseful, or moved, try shedding a tear or two. Let your friends support you like they're supposed to. Your homemaking empire is a good thing, but as your brother Eddie thoughtfully pointed out, prison might be even better. You've got 60-odd years of bitchdom to undo.

Five months probably won't cut it.