By Grace Cooper
To listen to while reading: “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell
APOLOGIES for being unable to sit through another episode of “The Golden Bachelor,” ABC’s newest reality “how-to-find-love-in-all-the-most-public-of-forums” show. Like our over-emoting, golden bachelor Gerry, this one was just too gosh darn cute and unrealistic to hold my attention for long. Besides, those women…such denial, such sexist drivel, so embarrassing to have mature, accomplished women still being portrayed in such a manner.
After all, I did come of age in the ’60s and ’70s. Back then Joan Baez and Bob Dylan set the tone for my romantic-activist relationship goals, while Joni Mitchell’s wistful and starkly personal lyrics echoed the angst of knowing we’d have to someday choose between family life and freedom to follow our true passions. Ultimately, I drank the Kool-Aid of my mother’s generation and played the role of accomplished medical professional, but my alter ego was a codependent, validation-seeking housewife to one narcissistic, controlling man. How exhausting it felt to play that role for 57 years, yet how terrifying it felt to leave without a replacement identity. What to do and how to be, in this next and final phase of life?
Maybe it’s because I’d enjoyed too many episodes of “The Golden Girls” back in the day that I anticipated my golden years being ones in which I could finally hang up the hang-ups. Somehow, I’d hoped there’d be a more interesting way to live my life that lay beyond age 45’ish, the expiration date society places on what is considered desirable and interesting for women. Remember those outspoken Golden Girl queens with their own award winning, seven-season sitcom? Nobody messed with sarcastic, short-tempered Dorothy, aside from her quick-witted, straight-talking Sicilian mama, Sophia. Sweetly dim-witted Rose with the pointless, yet hilarious stories of growing up on a farm in St. Olaf, Minnesota, was the perfect counterpoint to Southern Belle, man-hungry, unapologetically promiscuous Blanche. Now those gals made growing older seem somehow safer, saucier and rich with true friendship, if not possibility.
Yet, there I was approaching 60, a golden girl in my own right and itching for yet another shot at romantic adventure. What a wild ride that was at times to jump into the shallow end of the geriatric dating pool à la Match.com. All first impressions and starry-eyed expectations were soon dashed as one by one disappointing date after another, I lost my naiveté and found my true muse in—of all people—Martha F#@%ing Stewart .
Ok, I know Martha evokes all sorts of unpleasant emotions for many Boomer women and most Boomer men, with the improbable exception of her BFF rapper Snoop Dog. In fact, in the past I found Martha to be just one more condescending, perfectionistic snob. But bear with me here for a moment. Martha is one of the most interesting contrasts in what it means to be a contemporary woman. She began her career as a stockbroker and simultaneously posed as a fashion model. Later, she became the undisputed duchess of domesticity who singlehandedly built her brand into a billion-dollar nest (Arauchana) egg. She practically screams: Just try to fit me into one of your polarized, patriarchal perceptions of femininity. Martha was the badass mistress of all the above and I grew to love her for it.
Who can forget that back in the day of truly egregious white-collar crime, the SEC was hungry to prosecute anyone that it plucked Martha’s low-hanging fruit and accused her of insider trading. Although the charges of securities fraud were thrown out, Ms. Stewart was found guilty of four counts of obstruction of justice and lying to investigators. She was sentenced to a federal penitentiary for five months plus another five of home arrest. Despite the untrue rumors that Martha led how-to classes for her fellow inmates, she was assigned the lowly task of scrubbing floors. Still, upon her release, she spoke with great humility about the true friends she made among fellow inmates and of the old friends and family who publicly supported her in her hour of need. Martha was far from finished, however.
In a 2000 New Yorker article, “The Promises Martha Stewart Made- and Why We Wanted to Believe Them,” Joan Didion—always the smartest individualist in any situation—rose to the defense of Martha Stewart. In a feminist manifesto, she calls out those who gloatingly deconstruct successful women who dare to infiltrate the old boys club of corporate power brokers.“Misogynistic in a cartoon way,” she says. “Oddly uncomfortable, a little too intent on marginalizing a rather considerable number of women by making light of their situations and their aspirations.”
Didion explains that Martha prevails, despite her much-dissected personal travails—divorce after 26 years from Andy who married Martha’s much younger personal assistant, one-time estrangement from only daughter, Alexis, and later, of course, her prison sentence. And then there was that 1997 New York Times bestseller, Just Desserts, an unauthorized biography of Martha Stewart by Jerry Oppenheimer, in which the author set out to shatter the myth of Martha. One Amazon reviewer had this to say: “You’ll want to wear old clothes: Jerry Oppenheimer’s biography of Style Doyenne Martha Stewart is a frenzy of mud slinging.” With chapter titles like “A Dysfunctional Family,” you know exactly what to expect—but Stewart is such a big, fat target that the book is entertaining anyway.
Recently, Martha made history again when at age 81, she posed for the cover of Sports Illustrated—the magazine’s oldest female cover star. Accused of everything from plastic surgery to heavy airbrushing, the nonplussed Martha denied all the above, but admitted to thrice-weekly Pilates classes, a healthy diet, no alcohol, a spray tan, full-body waxing and more frequent facials. I tend to believe her…Martha has been promoting a healthy, balanced lifestyle forever, but even if she has nipped and tucked, so what? Once again, Martha dismisses all critics with an outrageously wicked sense of humor. Case in point…Roast Revenge – Martha Stewart’s Best Comebacks.
Despite all the controversy that has always surrounded Martha, the Martha Stewart brand is the woman herself, and Martha the brand remains unreproachable, and in many ways thoroughly approachable.
Wrote Joan Didion, “On October 19th, the evening of her triumphant I.P.O., she explained, on “The Charlie Rose Show,” the genesis of the enterprise. “I was serving a desire—not only mine, but every homemaker’s desire, to elevate that job of homemaker,” she said. “It was floundering, I think. And we all wanted to escape it, to get out of the house, get that high-paying job and pay somebody else to do everything that we didn’t think was really worthy of our attention. And all of a sudden, I realized: it was terribly worthy of our attention.”
12 years post-divorce and unapologetically following my own late-life second act, I tip my hat to the good-enough gals, to the somewhat tarnished trailblazers, and all the resilient women in between who embody that oft-quoted phrase, “to thine own self be true.” Amen, sister!
Grace Cooper (a nom de plume) left her long marriage a decade ago, and with it went all sense of her identity—but not for long. Now 67, she has begun chronicling her tales of looking for love in all the wrong places, and unexpectedly finding herself.