DATE October 13, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Joan Didion on her new memoir, "The Year of Magical
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
`Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and
life as you know it ends.' Those are the first words of Joan Didion's new
memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking." It's about the year following the
death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. He died as they were
sitting down to dinner on the night of December 30th, 2003. It was a heart
attack. He was 71. Didion and Dunne had just come back from the hospital
where their daughter was in a coma, suffering from pneumonia and septic shock.
While Didion's memoir chronicles her grief for her husband, it also describes
her daughter's medical progress and setbacks. By the close of her book,
Didion thought her daughter was recovering, but just a few weeks ago in late
August, she died from an abdominal infection. She was 39. Devastating is the
way New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani describes Didion's memoir.
Didion's best-known books include "Slouching Toward Bethlehem," "Play it as it
Lays" and a book of common prayer. Let's start with a reading from "The Year
of Magical Thinking." It begins as Didion and her husband were beginning
dinner and what turned out to be his final moments.
Ms. JOAN DIDION (Author): `We sat down. My attention was on mixing the
salad. John was talking, then he wasn't. At one point in the seconds or
minute before he stopped talking, he had asked me if I had used single malt
scotch for his second drink. I had said no, I had used the same scotch I'd
used for his first drink. "Good," he'd said. "I don't why, but I don't think
you should mix them." Another point in those seconds or that minute, he had
been talking about why World War I was the critical event from which the
entire rest of the 20th century flows.'
`I have no idea which subject we were on, the scotch or World War I, at the
instant he stopped talking. I only remember looking up. His left hand was
raised, and he was slumped motionless. At first I thought he was making a
failed joke in attempt to make the difficulty of the day seem manageable. I
remember saying, "Don't do that." When he did not respond, my first thought
was that he had started to eat and choked. I remember trying to lift him far
enough from the back of the chair to give him the Heimlich. I remember the
sense of his weight as he fell forward, first against the table, then to
`In the kitchen by the phone, I had taped a card with the New York
Presbyterian ambulance numbers. I had not taped the numbers by the phone
because I anticipated a moment like this. I'd taped the numbers by the phone
in case someone in the building needed an ambulance, someone else. I called
one of the numbers. A dispatcher asked if he was breathing. I said, "Just
GROSS: That's Joan Didion reading from her new memoir, "The Year of Magical
Joan Didion, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I just want to say at the top...
Ms. DIDION: Thank you.
GROSS: ...I'm very sorry about the loss of your husband and your daughter.
This is a really beautifully written book, and I loved reading it, but I also
hated reading it, only in the sense that, you know, it makes me think not only
of your losses; it makes me think of, you know, losses I may experience and
losses--do you know what--it's...
Ms. DIDION: You know, I had the sense when I was writing it...
Ms. DIDION: ...that I wasn't writing it at all. It was like automatic
writing. It's a very different kind of process. It was simply
very--everything that I--was on my mind just came out and got on the page, and
that was kind of my intention, to keep it kind of raw, because I thought
that--it occurred to me, when I was doing a lot of reading about death and
grief, that nobody told you the raw part. And every one of us is going to
face it sooner or later.
GROSS: How do you think it affected your grieving, to be chronicling it as it
Ms. DIDION: Well, it's the way I process everything, by writing it down. I
don't actually process anything until I write it down, I mean, in terms of
thinking, in terms of coming to terms with it. So it was kind of a necessary
thing for me. I don't know that it would be for everybody. You have to
actually probably be a writer to process that way.
GROSS: After you called, you know, 911, it took about five minutes for them
to come. What did you...
Ms. DIDION: I didn't know--what did I do?
GROSS: Yeah. What'd you do in that five minutes?
Ms. DIDION: I kept trying to wake him up, and I kept trying to lift him. I
kept trying to--I don't remember. I mean, I kept--I don't remember what I
did. I didn't do anything. I mean, it was nothing--I remember calling
downstairs and asking the doorman to come up, but actually the ambulance
was there almost immediately.
GROSS: You had an autopsy done because you wanted to know, like, did he die,
that moment he stopped talking, or...
Ms. DIDION: Yes, I wanted to know when he died, if I could have kept him
GROSS: Were you feeling guilty that there was something you should have been
able to do?
Ms. DIDION: I think everybody who has somebody die in their family feels
guilty, because most of us think we should be omnipotent, that we should be
able to control almost everything, you know. I mean, it's a delusion, but we
do think that we should be able to keep those we love alive.
GROSS: Did the autopsy put your mind at ease on that count?
Ms. DIDION: It did. It was--the autopsy was surprising to me, because once
I knew he'd had a heart attack, I assumed it was an arrhythmia of some kind,
that he'd gone into ventricular fibrillation spontaneously or just because of
an electrical malfunction. That wasn't the case. He died of coronary artery
disease, which nobody--everybody had discounted, because he'd had it in 1987,
had been treated for it. Everything looked fine. He would have annual tests,
including an angiogram, and nothing ever showed. It was totally silent.
GROSS: Your book is called "The Year of Magical Thinking," and you realized
at some point that you had been engaging in magical thinking that had to do
with this genuine thought that maybe he'd come back, so you shouldn't throw
out his shoes in case he needs them when he comes back, and...
Ms. DIDION: Right. Maybe if I did the right things, he would come back. You
know, it's a form--it's the way children think. A lot of people have told me,
who have lost a husband or child that they engaged in it, too.
GROSS: Is there a point where you realized you stopped?
Ms. DIDION: There was a point where I realized that I had been doing it, and
yes, then I realized that, and I gradually stopped. I don't think I'm doing
GROSS: You talk about how you didn't want to give away his shoes, for
example, because if he came back, he'd needed them.
Ms. DIDION: Right.
GROSS: Giving away clothes after someone dies is so hard. I mean, you have
to decide with all their possessions, what are you going to keep? What are
you going to give away to friends? What are you going to give to charity?
What are you going to throw out? Was that a really horrible process?
Ms. DIDION: I haven't done it. I just left everything. After I discovered
that I couldn't give away his shoes, I just closed that door. Now I haven't
had to move or repaint the apartment or do anything that required me to do it.
I think I presume that it would be somewhat less painful now than it was in
the first few months, you know, when I initially tried it, because now I know
he's dead in a way that I viscerally didn't know then. But I would just as
soon let that door stay closed for a while until I need to open it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joan Didion, and she's written
a memoir about the year after her husband's death. It's called "The Year of
Magical Thinking." And her husband was the writer John Gregory Dunne.
How much had you talked about death with your husband, and did you have those
conversations about what to do if the other dies, and what you'd want...
Ms. DIDION: Well, he was always trying...
GROSS: ...for the survivor?
Ms. DIDION: He was always trying to have that conversation with me, and I
would in many ways not have it because I thought it was--because I see now it
was threatening to me, and I was afraid of it. But what I thought then was
that it was just dwelling on things that weren't going to happen or dwelling
on things that we couldn't help or--you know. And so--I mean, he gave me any
number of--he was always giving me also--because he did have this streak of
Irish morbidity. He was always talking about his funeral and giving me new
lists of people who could or could not speak, as he was kind of volatile in
his likes and dislikes. And of course, I--at the key moment, I couldn't find
any of those lists. I mean, they'd been changed so often anyway that it made
no--that it would have made no difference.
GROSS: I want to quote something you write in your memoir, "The Year of
Magical Thinking." You write, "Marriage is a memory. Marriage is time.
Marriage is not only time. It is also paradoxically the denial of time. For
40 years I saw myself through John's eyes. I did not age. This year, for the
first time since I was 29, I saw myself through the eyes of others. This year
for the first time since I was 29, I realized that my image of myself was of
someone significantly younger."
Ms. DIDION: Right.
GROSS: As writers, you both worked at home, and you were with each other just
about all the time. Did you have a sense of who you were outside of the
marriage, who you were as a single Joan Didion as opposed to a Joan Didion and
John Gregory Dunne as a unit?
Ms. DIDION: Not really, no. The family was my unit, was kind of the way
I--that was actually the way I wanted it. So no, I--so it was kind of
necessary to find my--you know, to re-find myself. I hadn't particularly
liked being single.
GROSS: When you were younger you mean?
Ms. DIDION: When I was younger.
GROSS: Were there parts of yourself that you kind of relied on him to do? I
mean--you know what I mean?
Ms. DIDION: All parts. I mean, people often say that he'd finish sentences
for me. Well, he did, which meant that I--I mean, I just relied on him. He
was between me and the world. He not only answered the telephone; he finished
my sentences. He was the baffle between me and the world at large.
GROSS: So how are you negotiating the world now, now that there isn't that
Ms. DIDION: Well, it's like everything else; you learn to do it. I mean, I
remember when I stopped smoking, it was very hard to know how to arrange me,
to walk around as an adult person, because I had been smoking at that point
since I was 15, and this is kind of like relearning all--I mean, you kind of
just learn new--it's not difficult. It's just sort of lonely to--I mean, it's
sort of a bleak thing to do.
GROSS: Are you comfortable being alone?
Ms. DIDION: Yeah. I've always been comfortable being alone. So that is not
the problem. Basically one thing that everybody who has been in a close
marriage and who is--what everyone thinks when his or her spouse dies is it's
the way in which you are struck at every moment with something you need to
GROSS: Right. In that passage that I just quoted, you say that this was the
first time--after his death was the first time that you realized your image of
yourself was of someone significantly younger.
Ms. DIDION: Right.
GROSS: I think I know exactly what you mean, but I'm going to ask you to
elaborate on that anyway.
Ms. DIDION: Well, you know, I mean, I just--John saw me as, in a sense--I
mean, he didn't really, but he gave the impression of seeing me as I'd been
when he met me or when he married me. And basically it seemed to me that we
were always--we were still grappling with the same questions and problems that
we had been dealing with as very--you know, when we were 29, 30, 31. We were
still doing the same things. We were still worried about the same things. We
were the same people. So I didn't really think of myself as getting older.
GROSS: My guest is Joan Didion. Her new memoir about grieving for her late
husband, John Gregory Dunne, is called "The Year of Magical Thinking." More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joan Didion and her new book is
a memoir called "The Year of Magical Thinking." It's a memoir about the year
following the sudden death from a heart attack of her husband, the writer John
Your husband died five days after your daughter had been hospitalized for
pneumonia. By the time he died, she had also gone into septic shock...
Ms. DIDION: Right.
GROSS: ...basically a blood infection.
Ms. DIDION: Yeah.
GROSS: So you're dealing--you had just gotten back from the hospital,
visiting her, when he died.
Ms. DIDION: Well, we had been seeing her in the hospital, yeah. It could
not be described as a visit, really, because she was unconscious.
GROSS: She was in a coma.
Ms. DIDION: She was in an induced coma because she was on a ventilator, and
they kept her under heavy sedation so that she wouldn't tear out the
ventilator, which people tend to do when they find something going down their
GROSS: So you had to figure out how to tell her when she came out of the
Ms. DIDION: Right.
GROSS: You had to figure out how to tell her that her father had died. Why
did you want to even bring that up while she was...
Ms. DIDION: Well, she was going to...
GROSS: ...so fragile? Yeah.
Ms. DIDION: Well, I didn't want to bring it up. It was the last thing I
wanted to bring up, but the minute she saw me, I knew she would ask where her
father was. And so I wasn't planning to see her. I thought that it would be
good if--at the time when they lifted the sedation, if her husband were there
and she would be kind of in and out for a few days, the doctors said. And so
she would absorb that her husband was there, and then she would probably go
back to sleep, and she would be focused on--they'd only been married five
months, and so she would kind of focus on him and on their life together. And
it wouldn't in the natural course of things, maybe, occur to her to ask how
her father was. But if she saw me, that's the first question she would ask,
`Where is Daddy?'
So I hadn't planned to be there. I'd planned to stay away for the--I was in
the hospital. I was out in the corridor when they lifted the sedation. And,
unfortunately, the nurse told her that I was out there, so then she wanted me
to come in. So I did, and I told her because of the first thing she asked
me: `Where's Daddy?' So I told her, but because she was so sedated still--I
mean, it took several days for the sedation really to lift--she didn't
remember it that night when I came back.
GROSS: And you had to tell her again.
Ms. DIDION: I had to tell her again, 'cause she asked how he was, and I
said--and so I explained that--I said, `You remember today I told you etc.?'
And I'd kind of emphasized his long history of cardiac, and she had what she
said to me was--when I said, `You remember this morning I told you he'd had a
heart attack?' and she said, `Yes, but how is he now?' She had absorbed the
problem, but she hadn't absorbed what happened--the outcome.
GROSS: Your daughter got out of the hospital. She had several major
setbacks, but at the end of your memoir you think that she's on the verge of
really resuming her life. In August, after you'd finished your memoir, your
daughter died, and this was about a year and a half after your husband's
death. She was 39.
Ms. DIDION: Right. Right.
GROSS: You had just examined your grief over your husband so thoroughly in
writing about it, and then it was time to grieve again. Now with your
husband, you understood the magical thinking that you were going through, this
impossible belief that somehow he was going to come back, so you shouldn't
even, like, throw out his clothes because he'd need them if he came back.
Having examined your grief so carefully, were there little tricks that one
plays oneself when one's grieving that you couldn't even do anymore because
you'd seen through it by writing your memoir?
Ms. DIDION: Well, you see, I haven't really started grieving yet.
GROSS: For your daughter?
Ms. DIDION: Right. I think I'm still in the shock phase. And right after
John died, I had--there was a long period before I was able to grieve because
I was focused entirely on getting Quintana well. And I think that was--in a
way it was very good because by the time I was able to deal with it, I was
dealing with it not quite as a crazy person, which I certainly would have been
at the beginning.
GROSS: You had to deal with one thing that is a very, I think, peculiar thing
to have to deal with when you're grieving for the loss of a child. You had to
figure out--well, did you have to rewrite or update your book? You know, your
memoir had just been sent in. Your daughter...
Ms. DIDION: It never crossed my mind.
GROSS: It never crossed your mind to rewrite it?
Ms. DIDION: It never crossed my mind. No. It was finished.
GROSS: Why not?
Ms. DIDION: Well, it was about a certain period of time after John died, and
that period was over. I mean, if I were to do something about Quintana, which
I have no thought of doing, it would be a different book. It would be a
different--it would be a thing of its own. It wouldn't be about a marriage.
This book is about a marriage.
GROSS: Joan Didion's new memoir is called "The Year of Magical Thinking."
She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we'll talk more about grief with Joan Didion. And Martha
Stewart tells us about her five months in prison, which she asked to serve
immediately before her appeal to protect her brand. And we'll talk about what
it's like to be a brand. Stewart has a new book called "The Martha Rules."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with writer Joan Didion.
Her new memoir is about grieving for her husband, the writer John Gregory
Dunne. He died of a heart attack at the end of 2003, just after they had
visited their daughter in the hospital, where she lay in a coma, suffering
from pneumonia and septic shock. Didion's daughter died of an infection just
a few weeks ago, in late August.
Things like death and other tragedies tend to test people's faith if they have
it, or get them to immerse themselves deeper into faith, or affirm their lack
of faith, or have them change from one point of view to another. I don't know
if you've ever had any faith, and if at all the deaths of your daughter and
husband affected that.
Ms. DIDION: No, the deaths of my daughter and husband did not affect it.
Whether I've had any faith is--I have a kind of faith, but it's not a
conventional kind of faith. And as I said someplace in the book, that
basically I believe in geology and in the Episcopal litany, but as a--I
believe in certain symbols, but I don't believe in them as literal truth. I
believe in a poetic truth.
GROSS: Do you have any--what is death to you? I mean, when you think about
death, do you think of there being some kind of afterlife, or just, you know,
like a void or a soul or...
Ms. DIDION: No, I don't believe in afterlife. Well, you know, what is death
to me? Death is ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yeah. There's a continuum
which--there's a continuum of things but it's not--I don't believe in a--I
remember somebody once saying to me, the manager of a motel where I was
staying--I was doing a piece in Oregon--and this motel manager had just come
back from a funeral, and he said it was the most depressing thing he'd ever
been to. He said, `It was the coldest funeral I've ever been to. It was a
Episcopalian funeral. Have you ever been to one?' I said, `Yes, I have.'
And he said, `They are so cold.' And I said, `How to you mean?' And he said,
`If you can't believe you're going to heaven in your own body, and on a
first-name basis with everybody in your family, what's the point of dying?'
And I loved this. I mean, it just--it was so far from any kind of church I
knew, you know? I mean, the whole question, what's the point of dying? Well,
yes, what is the point? It was--there was a kind of madness about it. I
mean, that's the faith I don't have.
GROSS: Do you ever wish you did? Do you ever envy, like that man, for
instance, who has that kind of faith, that, you know, he's going to die and be
reunited in heaven...
Ms. DIDION: And that the ...(unintelligible).
GROSS: ...in his clothes and his body--yeah.
Ms. DIDION: Yeah. Sure. That would be, I suppose, very comforting, but
I--there's no possible way I could have it.
GROSS: Are you feeling overwhelmed now by the fragility of life, having lost
your daughter and husband?
Ms. DIDION: Well, I certainly felt it after John died. Yes, I am a little on
the wary side. A friend was having sort of a minor procedure today, and I was
very anxious. I found myself being far more anxious about it than I might
normally have been.
GROSS: Are you any more or less worried about your own death now?
Ms. DIDION: No, I'm not worried about my own death. I think I'm less
Ms. DIDION: One of the things that worries us about dying always is we're
afraid we're leaving people behind, and they won't be able to take care of
themselves; we have to take care of them. But in fact, you see, I'm not
leaving anybody behind. This is an area we shouldn't get into, I think.
GROSS: That's fine. That's fine. Do you want another minute before we talk
Ms. DIDION: Yes.
We're listening to the conversation I recorded yesterday with Joan Didion.
While we paused for a moment, my producer told me that this year's National
Book Award nominees had just been announced. Then we continued the interview.
While you were just collecting your thoughts for a second, my producer just
came in and said--and I don't know if you know this or not, but it just came
across the wire that your memoir was nominated for a National Book Award.
Ms. DIDION: Really?
Ms. DIDION: Oh, well, great.
GROSS: So I guess let me be the first to congratulate you.
Ms. DIDION: Well, thank you. Thank you.
GROSS: What a weird time for you to...
Ms. DIDION: Yeah.
GROSS: I mean, the book, I understand, is like flying off the shelves. It's
nominated for a National Book Award, and it's about the worst thing that's
ever happened to you in your life.
Ms. DIDION: Yeah. It's sort of--there is a mixed feeling about it, I mean,
in my mind. On the other hand, it would make John happy.
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
Ms. DIDION: I think he'd be very gratified.
GROSS: I know that among other things, your book will be read by a lot of
people who have, you know, gone through their own grief. What were some of
the things that you've read that you found helpful? You know, one of the
things that really surprised me actually in your book is that you see a lot of
Ms. DIDION: Emily...
GROSS: You went back to those--yeah.
Ms. DIDION: Emily Post was fantastic on the whole subject of death and how to
handle people who are grieving. And she's so practical. She simply dealt
with what happens to them physiologically. They're cold--they're going to be
cold. They're going to need--their digestion is going to stop. Everything
stops. Everything in your body just stops when you're going through something
like that. And so she suggested ways to get them back to life. Have them sit
by the fire. The room should be sunny. They can be served small amounts of
toast and--or something they like, but not much because they will reject it,
even sort of--if you just hand them something when they come home from the
funeral, you will find that they eat it, but if you ask them, they will say,
Actually, I got a--well, Knopf got a letter from one of her descendants who
now edits the cookbook or the etiquette book, and she pointed out that this,
the 1922 edition, which is the edition that I was reading, had been written
not long after the death of Emily Post's son. Almost everybody in that period
had somebody die close to them. I mean, we were dealing with the aftermath of
the 1918 flu epidemic. People died of infections. I mean, death was really
in every household. It was a much more commonly acknowledged thing than it is
now. I mean, now when it happens in hospitals, we tend to think of it as the
province of doctors, where at that time, anybody--everybody knew somebody who
was in mourning.
GROSS: Before we say goodbye, I'm just wondering. I felt a little
uncomfortable during this interview only because, you know, the memoir is such
a fine book, and I think your losses are still so recent, I feel awkward
talking with you about them. I mean, I imagine it must be awkward for you to
be talking about it to people you don't know, like me, and to our listeners.
At the same time, I understand that there might be some comfort in that
because one of the things you've always been as a writer is a reporter, not a
reporter in the conventional sense but as a more poetic form of reporter who
observes the things around you in the world and reports on that for the rest
of us. Do you feel like that's what you're doing now?
Ms. DIDION: Well, I think--I mean, I had a very definite sense of reporting
when I was doing this book, and I don't mean reporting, doing the research,
and there was a certain amount of research I did--I mean, I did some reading
about grief and I read all the psychiatrists--but I mean a sense of reporting
from a different--from a state that not everybody had yet entered; I mean,
that some people had but hadn't reported back. I thought there might be some
use in reporting back, in sending a dispatch, in filing.
GROSS: Well, Joan Didion, I'm glad that you decided to actually write this
book, and I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. DIDION: Thank you.
GROSS: Joan Didion's new memoir is called "The Year of Magical Thinking."
You can read an excerpt on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, a conversation with Martha Stewart. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Martha Stewart discusses her life and career and her
new book "The Martha Rules"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Since her release from Alderson Federal Prison on March 4th, Martha Stewart's
lifestyle empire has continued to grow. She has two new TV shows, is
launching a satellite radio channel and has a new licensing deal that will put
her brand on a subdivision of homes in North Carolina to be called KB Home
Twin Lakes: Homes Created with Martha Stewart. The occasion for our
interview was her new book, called "The Martha Stewart Rules: 10 Essentials
for Achieving Success as You Start, Build, or Manage a Business."
Martha Stewart, welcome to FRESH AIR. This will sound like a really silly
question, but with all the projects that you have to deal with and all of the
decisions you have to make, does prison seem relatively relaxing by
comparison, looking back?
Ms. MARTHA STEWART (Lifestyle Expert): I'm really over prison. I can think
about it privately, but to talk about it day in and day out is more tiresome
than I wish. I am on with my life. I'm free, I am working, I am thriving. I
am helping revitalize our company. I am writing books again, writing my
columns again. And I feel really, really good. I'm glad to be home, and I am
glad to be free.
GROSS: I know you're over prison, but I'd still like to ask you a couple of
questions about it. Would you describe a little bit about what the facility
was like, what your surroundings were like?
Ms. STEWART: I was in what probably can be described as as pleasant as
possible for a federal detention facility. And it was not as bad as anyone
could imagine; it was not unsafe. I did not feel in danger.
GROSS: You know, there were so many jokes that were made about how Martha
Stewart's going to, you know, redecorate her jail cell and everything. Did
you do anything to make your surroundings more pleasant?
Ms. STEWART: Terry, there are no materials to work with in a place like
Alderson. You are not allowed to receive paper--decorative paper. You're not
allowed to receive anything made out of fabric. You are not really allowed to
receive anything other than letters and a certain number of photographs on a
daily basis, and a certain number of books. So if one could decorate one's
room with five books and some writing paper and some colored pens that you
could buy at the commissary, then you could do some decorating. But it was
very impossible to do anything like that, and I didn't want to spend my time
doing that. I read a lot. I had a fantastic opportunity to do a lot of
reading, a lot of thinking, a lot of...
GROSS: What'd you read?
Ms. STEWART: Oh, I read many books. I read Dirr's encyclopedia of trees
because I was really interested in learning a lot about deciduous and
evergreen trees. So I had the encyclopedia sent down to me, D-I-R-R, and it
was fantastic. I mean, when do you get a chance to read an encyclopedia of
trees? I'd use it as a reference work. But I actually got to know the
shapes of trees. I can--I'm now very much better at identifying all kinds of
trees. I also did that for shrubs. Let me see. I read Bob Dylan's
autobiography, which was wonderful. I read many novels that I wouldn't have
had the time to read. And, you know, I read and read and read and read.
GROSS: And was it clean inside?
Ms. STEWART: Oh, cleanliness is one of the chores, one of the requirements.
GROSS: So you mean you had to clean? (Laughs) Is that what you're saying?
Ms. STEWART: We had no housekeeper. (Laughs) We are the housekeepers, Terry.
GROSS: Is it--in spite of all of your, like, domestic understanding, is this
a kind of cleaning you were not used to?
Ms. STEWART: See, you don't know me very well. I am an inveterate cleaner.
One of my favorite things to do is vacuum, dust, wash, polish, scrub, clean.
So I was really good at it.
GROSS: Now your new book is tips for starting a business, which leads me to
the basic paradox that some people think your success represents. You're an
incredibly powerful and wealthy businesswoman and, in that sense, you
represent the achievements women have been able to make since the women's
movement. But your success is built on speaking to women's traditional
domestic roles--cooking, decorating, arts and crafts--and it's exactly the
type of stuff that a lot of powerful women who have succeeded in business
don't even have time for. Have you thought a lot about that contradiction?
Ms. STEWART: Yeah, and it is a paradox, and it is worrisome to some people.
What I've tried to do and what our company tries to do--and I think our
readers and our viewers and our customers really do understand that the
domestic arts are just that. They are not drudgery; they are not something to
be maligned; they are not something to look down upon. The domestic arts
should be celebrated. And I discovered this a long time ago.
My mother celebrated the domestic arts. She treated sewing our clothes as an
art form and something--as an achievement. She was a teacher. She taught
sixth grade her entire life. After she retired from the Nutley Public School,
she then went on to substitute-teach up in Weston, Connecticut, and she still
is teaching children at 91 years of age. She still sews for my friends. She
has kept her hobbies--and she treated sewing--she treated that as a hobby, not
as a chore. And if you have six kids to sew clothes for, it could be
considered a chore, a drudgery, but not for my mother. And I think that that
really--her attitude toward home-keeping really caused me to think a lot about
why I grew up liking what other people considered chores.
GROSS: Early in your career, you were doing some modeling for products like
Breck, Tareyton cigarettes, Lifebuoy soap, Clairol shampoo. What kind of ads
were they? Were they print ads, TV ads?
Ms. STEWART: Both. I did--during high school--I started in high school, I
think when I was about 13 years old, traveling to New York on Saturdays and
doing live modeling at a store called Lawnley-Tiller(ph). And then I joined a
formal agency and I was in Mademoiselle magazine and Glamour magazine, and I
did a lot of TV commercials. Those were very lucrative, and they did pay for
GROSS: Would I remember any of those commercials?
Ms. STEWART: Well, we've shown the Lifebuoy soap commercial recently on my
show, and it's hysterical, 'cause there I am; I think I was 15 years old. I'm
playing a married woman jumping off a ladder. I was--and it was about
antiperspirant soap. And the Tareyton was `I'd rather fight than switch';
GROSS: Sure do. Yeah, with the black eye.
Ms. STEWART: And I had a black--oh, yeah, I had a black eye. It was very
elegant. And I practiced smoking. I never smoked a day in my life, and I had
practiced for two weeks. My agent said, `You better just learn how to
inhale.' At that time, I think I was 19 and married, so I practiced, and then
they just made me hold the cigarette; I never even had to smoke on air--on
GROSS: So that modeling must be good experience for what you had to do when
Ms. STEWART: Oh, it was fantastic.
GROSS: ...the Martha Stewart company.
Ms. STEWART: Who knew?
GROSS: Right, 'cause you ended up on the cover of so many of your own
Ms. STEWART: Oh, my magazines and others.
Ms. STEWART: And who ever would have guessed?
Ms. STEWART: But it gave me a certain self-confidence that a lot of young
women lack. It made me certainly know to stand in front of a camera and
change my pose every three seconds as they, you know, click the shutter. And
it was very, very good experience.
GROSS: In your book, you recommend that people starting their business might
consider becoming the face of their brand. And as you pointed out, it worked
for Ralph Lauren, for Donna Karan, for Sean Combs, for Oprah and, of course,
for you. At what point in your business life did you realize that you wanted
your brand to be you, you wanted to be the face and the name of it?
Ms. STEWART: Well, I think that that was made very clear to me when I
presented a prototype to Sy Newhouse of Conde Nast magazines. Sy is the owner
of Conde Nast; he's a wonderful, wonderful entrepreneurial genius in the media
world. And he looked at my magazine, the prototype that I had created, and it
was called Martha Stewart Living, and he said, `Martha, I love the
prototype'--he actually had funded it--`I love what's inside, but if you look
at our magazine, it's Conde Nast Vogue; it's Conde Nast Traveler. I can't put
Martha Stewart Living; it has to be Conde Nast Living.'
And I thought at that moment, `Well, if Sy Newhouse had Conde Nast and that is
his, then why can't I have Martha Stewart Living?' And I think that that's
when it happened to me, that I realized that ownership might actually be
wonderful. ownership, having my name on a cover of a magazine, might show my
readers that I am really involved.
GROSS: What's the downside of having the brand be you?
Ms. STEWART: Well, there wasn't any apparent downside until I had a legal
GROSS: Right, and the brand was in prison for a while.
Ms. STEWART: Yeah, and the brand, which should not in any--I mean, the brand
and the company had nothing to do with my problem, but I had something to do
with my problem, and the person who was having a problem had the same name as
the brand and the same face, and that's when the oddity happened. I mean, you
know, you can't really even anticipate that it would happen to anybody else,
but you know, not to mention any names, there are other people who are the
faces and the names of their brands, and it could happen conceivably to them.
And I hope it never does, 'cause it's horrible.
GROSS: My guest is Martha Stewart. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Martha Stewart, and her new
book is called "The Martha Rules: 10 Essentials for Achieving Success as You
Start, Build, or Manage a Business."
Because you're such a successful, powerful and wealthy business and media
figure, you're both an icon and a figure of mockery. By `figure of mockery,'
I mean you're caricatured on "Saturday Night Live"; there's all kinds of,
like, Internet Martha Stewart parodies; there's Martha Stewart book parodies.
The late-night talk show hosts make jokes about Martha Stewart. What does it
do to your ego to be both, you know, to be the icon and the figure of fun?
Ms. STEWART: Well, lately I've been spending a lot of time sort of scratching
my head wondering, `What the heck is really going on here?' And I think that
the last five months has really helped me sort of focus on some of the
problems inherent in being both parodied and admired. What we do at our
company--and I hope that people are listening and understand now--what we do
is teach. What we do is provide really good information. The people who work
with me and I are really proud of what we do. I mean, I don't make fun of my
teachers. I was brought up to respect my teachers and to like my teachers.
And if the teacher said, `Martha, you're doing that wrong,' and I would go
home and complain, my parents would say, `Martha, the teacher's right.' And I
would go back and say, `OK, teacher, you're right, I'm wrong. Let's go on
with the project. Really, that's how I was brought up. And so--and when my
daughter complained about her teachers, I said the same thing to her. And she
got mad at me; I mean, she would get mad at me. But I would support what the
teacher was doing. So to constantly parody and make fun of teaching is kind
of strange to me.
GROSS: I want to read you something that our critic at large, John Powers,
wrote in his book, "Sore Winners." He has a short chapter about you, and some
of it focuses on some of the paradoxes in your life and career. He also
writes, `Her landmark deal with Kmart was a turning point in popularizing
modern American design culture. She helped liberate millions from the tyranny
of truly ill-conceived goods--low-thread-count towels, Day-Glo-colored
ceramics--that had been one of the most depressing features of not having much
money. Her way of changing mass taste made her a far more culturally
significant figure than, say, Eminem, Martin Scorsese, any dozen novelists you
might choose to name.' What do you think?
Ms. STEWART: I think he understands what I'm trying to do, and I thank him
very much. I think that I was the first--if you call me a designer or a
lifestyle expert--to take the mass market and improve it.
GROSS: What's your legal status now? You're appealing, yes?
Ms. STEWART: We are appealing. We have not heard from the court. And, you
know, I'm just waiting. It's a very, very difficult thing to think about, and
I think that I had an unfair trial and I certainly would like to win my
appeal. It would solve a lot of problems. But we have to wait and see.
GROSS: But you've already served your time, right?
Ms. STEWART: Oh, well, I did. I made the decision to get over the really big
obstacle, because without gone to prison, I would be appealing and still
waiting. That would have been an untenable situation to be in as a
businessperson. Martha Stewart Living would not have two television shows on
the air. We would not probably have the advertiser growth that we've had in
the last seven or eight months. We would probably be suffering and suffering
and suffering as a re...
GROSS: Do you know anybody else who's gone to prison before an appeal, who's
voluntarily served the sentence before an appeal?
Ms. STEWART: You know, I do not know, but I'm not an expert in that. It was
a decision that I made knowing that it would solve a problem. It was a
business decision. It was one of those calculated risks that I talk about in
one of my chapters in my new book. And taking a calculated risk like that
actually has solved a major problem, several major problems.
GROSS: Well, Martha Stewart, I want to thank you very much for talking with
Ms. STEWART: Thanks.
GROSS: Martha Stewart's new book is called "The Martha Stewart Rules."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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