Mar 10, 2010

Fiction No Match For Reality

The protagonist of Daphne du Maurier’s Julius is a cliché of the self-made man. He pulls himself up from nothing. He has no family. They either die from natural causes or are murdered by the time Julius is ten. But he is a natural born salesman, ruthless and amoral, and decides to go to England because “The English are stupid,” he is told. They are easy marks and what ambitious people love are fools ready to part with their money. Julius is a work of literary fiction.

In stark juxtaposition is Martha Stewart, a living fire-breathing personification of ambition. The stories of how she did it are numerous. In her catering business, she reused food and wine, even wine from an unfinished glass. She was ruthless in her use of the late arriving catering contract where a fee had been doubled and the contract was too late for the host to find another caterer. She underpaid collaborators and very often stole content. But she was oblivious to the moral implications of her job because what she wanted was money and power.

She was cruel to her husband, arguably the person to get the closest to her of anyone. There is an anecdote in Jerry Oppenheimer’s Just Desserts where Martha gave Andy an hour off his Saturday chores to go play tennis with a guest. As soon as Andy left, Martha started complaining to her guest that Andy would take advantage of the situation and would play for several hours, thereby not getting back to finish the long list of assigned jobs (now disgustingly called a Honey-Do List).

Finally, a furious Martha jumped in the car - 15 minutes after Andy left - in hot pursuit of him. Her guest continues the narrative:

“Martha pulled into a driveway. I saw this gray-haired man mowing his lawn, and I thought he looked familiar. He turned around and it was Paul Newman. Martha rolled down the window and yelled, ‘Have you seen Andy?’ Because of the way Martha was acting, he must have thought there was an emergency. He looked concerned, and he said, ‘No, Martha, I haven’t seen him. What’s up? Is there something wrong?’ And Martha said, ‘Well, Andy and this woman’s husband have gone off to play tennis, and I’ve got to find them because I know they’re going to play all afternoon, and I have things for Andy to do.’ Paul gave Martha a look like he’d heard stories about her, and started backing away from the car, saying, ‘No. Sorry. Haven’t seen him.’” (p. 285)

Martha Stewart brings Paul Newman into a chase to find hubby so he can do his chores. If a novelist used a scene like this, there would be no suspension of disbelief. The scene would simply not be possible.

What is so insidious about Martha Stewart is that her ambition takes refuge in the Ideal Home. She shows the masses how to create the perfect home, ostensibly so that the warmth of the hearth can add to the Domestic Love which sits as some kind of ideal leftover from the 1950s. Ambition is terribly destructive and where ruthless ambition fights with love, ambition wins. Martha Stewart is extraordinary in transforming the domestic hopes of millions into her own private fortune or, as Depeche Mode put it, “See just how / The lies and deceit / Gained a little more power.”

How can art compete with the real story of Martha Stewart? She is a living archetype, beautifully in our face, smiling like the model she once was, and her story would be unbelievable if it was in a novel. It trumps Julius every time.