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Auditioning Marthas
by Dan Ackman for, March 15, 2004

NEW YORK - With Martha Stewart herself preparing to leave the stage, corporate America is said to be looking for the next Martha. While many are said to be ready to audition, none is likely to do more than play Martha on TV. They can look like Martha and sound like Martha, but just as Nicole Kidman was not actually Virginia Woolf in The Hours, they will not be the real thing. It's not that they lack Martha's talents or even her range. It's that no one will get Martha's deal.


The Farmer Martha: Mary Jane Butters, though not nearly well-known enough to wear the crown, no less a source than Time magazine has dubbed her the "Pioneer Martha." The former carpenter, wilderness and organic farmer has a book deal with Random House, a unit of Bertelsmann, which published Stewart's books as well. She has her own farm.


Whatever the merits of the would-be Marthas in matters of taste, none is likely to reach her status in matters of finance. Stewart's genius was not just in her reach, but in her total control. The TV shows advertised the books and magazines, which fed the catalog. The key to her fortune was her buying back the magazine from Time Warner, a part of her history that Stewart describes in a single sentence in her annual report: "In late 1996 and early 1997 a series of transactions occurred resulting in [Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia] operating all Martha Stewart-related business."

A lot of people can whip a mousse. Like Cybill Shepherd playing Martha on TV, they may look like her or sound like her. But, with the exception of Oprah Winfrey — no one has made deals like Martha. In that sense, Martha broke the mold.