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It’s traditional to say of Martha Stewart that one either loves or hates her. But Martha (to those of us who admire her—avec grain of salt—she’s always “Martha”) is anything but traditional, and her influence is certainly misunderstood. Between the frustrated acolytes and dismissive jeerers there’s a large base of…not fans, but middle-class women who select only the useful offerings from Martha’s sizable smorgasbord of tips and talents, then never think of her again. If anything, her very cultural availability is what keeps the real gentry to which she aspires from emulating her with the fervor of those some socioeconomic rungs down—only the elite need to ask each other, “Who is she?”

People who don’t love her shake their heads at Martha’s popularity for the right reasons, succinctly explained by the authors of the parody Martha Stuart’s Better Than You at Entertaining: “Take basic household tasks women have been doing thanklessly for centuries, make them even more time- and labor-intensive, then romanticize them.” Somehow, Martha made all this stuff—the stencil kits, Shaker bread boards, even the aesthetically sublime pet—feel necessary. Advice from Betty Crocker or Bob Vila can be culled on a need-to-know basis, but Martha’s vision of the perfect life in the perfect environment is total—and approaching totalitarian. Marketing amalgam Crocker disappears like any tangible thing when you slide Big Red back onto the shelf, but Martha the human being has a vaguer, more fantastic presence in the lives of her insecure fans—her specter persists, sourly white-gloving your shelves.

Jerry Oppenheimer doesn’t care about teasing out Martha’s cultural place. An opportunist with a thing for rather awful women of power (he has done bios of Barbara Walters and Ethel Kennedy, as well as one on Rock Hudson), the biographer caught a wave just as deftly as his subject did—here’s a strong, successful woman of a certain age, whose reputation assures a dirty, juicy tale.

The daughter of Polish Catholic parents, raised in a poky little house in Nutley, N.J., Martha Kostyra always seemed to know what she wanted. Oppenheimer doesn’t need to structure his book for it to follow a smooth, camera-ready trajectory; her life zips from an overacheiving high-school career to exhausting college years (at Barnard) during which she modeled part-time for pin money, then to early marriage, two horrendous years as a mere housewife, to stockbrokering, catering, cookbook writing, and, finally, Martha Stewart Omnimedia Inc. Oppenheimer leaves her at the height of her powers, just before her latest and most audacious expansion: a white-hot web site and a new daily television program on top of her already crippling schedule.

Apparently, she got this far the way thousands of successful men have, but her level of icy amorality would be staggering in a person of either sex. Many sources, burned or ripped off or used by the subject, agreed to talk to Oppenheimer; the tone of mixed awe and resentment with which they discuss her and the ceaseless tales of horror they tell make up for his bad, boring writing.

There’s so much evidence that Martha Stewart is one of the most conscienceless, self-absorbed, and totally ruthless creatures ever spawned that it’s baffling to watch the author hammer negative casts onto anecdotes and info tidbits that could pass unjudged without sweetening his tale a bit. If she got A’s in school, it’s because she was calculating, always looking toward the day she’d need a sterling rep to sell herself. Her greatest pretense is in treating her work as obvious, quoditian; she recognizes the potential for accusations of pretentiousness and skirts them. But Oppenheimer gives no quarter. Yes, she has a chicken house on her famous Turkey Hill property, but her calling it a “palais du poulet” is as close as she comes to joking.

This book was being talked about even before it was published, but the stories quoted around are harmless. So she bitched when her daughter Alexis got sick during a busy week—when’s a convenient time to drop everything to look after someone? It isn’t so much the stories people tell (although the hair-ripping is pretty spectacular, as is l’affaire hit-and-run picnic basket) but the cumulative impact of the same kinds of stories and the same phrases repeated throughout the book by everyone who knows her. You will never read so many times between two covers someone quoted as saying, “Everyone told me I should go to court to get my [money/credit/job] back, but I just couldn’t sue a friend.” And Oppenheimer must type the word “intimidating” in his sleep. You’ll also see these three words, in this order: “Martha Stewart’s vagina,” in a chapter about Martha’s style of flirtation—grotesque and mechanical—so consider yourself warned.

Martha’s greed, rapaciousness, and lack of scruple are astonishing, and tale after miserable tale attests to her moral rottenness, not just toward friends and colleagues whom she has stiffed and scorned, but toward strangers whose recipes she lifted wholesale for her first book, Entertaining, and toward her fans—those who purchase her tasteful Kmart hand towels are dubbed “Kmartians.” But it’s Martha’s ambiguous relationship to her femininity—more suggested here than limned—that really takes the cake.

It’s easy to find Freud under every bed, but there is a load of unspoken sexual queerness burbling underneath the scathing anecdotes. Martha isn’t just another business bitch who would earn respect instead of jeers were she a man. According to Oppenheimer’s account, she has a man’s lack of interest in her own workings and motivation; she has never apologized in her life and never asked herself how she feels. She seems to have no notion that anyone has any such thing as feelings; she recognizes only opinions, results, and possibly brute satisfaction. Her robotic, inappropriate style of romantic come-on speaks of a person with no social sense and no desire to understand the purposes of romance. Blithely, she offers her husband’s sexual favors to depressed friends, threatens him with all the other men she could be with, admits to an “experimental” fling, and tells crude jokes amid near-strangers on the set of her TV show.

Even scarier is the picture built up in shadows and allusions of the relationship between Martha’s browbeaten ex-husband Andy and their neglected daughter Lexi. The Stewarts’ marriage seems to have followed the classic ’50s path: linchpin hanky-panky just before the wedding, after which Mrs. Stewart turned off the tap. By all accounts, Andy was a youthful skirt-chaser, and in his East Hampton incarnation still very randy and responsive. Called a “loving and devoted father,” Andy was at a loss when little Lexi became a sullen and resentful child. As her daughter grew, Martha threw Lexi and Andy together, assigning them chores away from the camera or microphone that would be trained on her. Incidents of sexual precociousness begin to pile up. The ninth-grader vigorously entertained boys in her room at home. She showed up for work at Andy’s publishing house wearing “sexy, revealing clothing”; later, she mooched around the house during the taping of her mother’s pilot program wearing only a pair of bib overalls.

Friends report that Andy spoke to his teenage daughter in baby talk, while Lexi and Martha’s conversation consisted of nasty, sophisticated bouts of sparring during which Lexi called her mother “Martha.” After the Stewarts’ divorce, Lexi chose to ally herself not with “loving and devoted” albeit weak-willed Andy but with controlling, neglectful, self-centered Martha. She didn’t speak to her father for years.

Whether Oppenheimer recognized these tidbits’ suggestiveness and chose, wisely, not to cobble them together into a libel suit, is unclear. Just Desserts is not well written, but it is neatly structured and fairly widely researched, considering that it’s mostly the burned and resentful who agreed to talk to him. There is some distressing padding—just as Martha prepares to publish her first cookbook, Oppenheimer gasses in with a history of cookbooks—but all the author’s page-wasting and negative spinning don’t change the portrait that emerges over the course of this biography. Love her or hate her for her stunning self-confidence, domestic smarts, and marketing genius, Martha Stewart isn’t much of a human being. She’s Dorian Gray, only her public face is the beautiful Turkey Hill Farm, with its endless procession of cunning little tarts and clever outdoors projects, and the picture—rotten, twisted, and cruel—is what she carries inside. CP