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Meeting Martha

COLETTE BANCROFT
Published September 5, 2004

So, Martha Stewart walks into a bar.

No, seriously, she did, and I was there.

During a recent vacation in New York City, my husband, John, and I were eating at Babbo. Celebrity chef Mario Batali's flagship in Greenwich Village is one of our favorite restaurants, and we love going early and dining at the bar, attended by some of the world's coolest bartenders.

The streets outside were still burnished in golden light, and we were savoring a swoony cheese course and glasses of silky Barolo when a young man and a middle-aged woman stepped into the only empty spot, at the end of the bar just past John's elbow.

I glanced at the woman, and then I looked again. The bartender had appeared in an instant and leaned over to take her order.

She asked if he was serving a special drink that evening. That voice. It really was Martha Stewart.

Now, I am not and have never been an acolyte of Martha. Raised by a working mother whose idea of "a good thing" was the invention of the microwave oven, I'm not much of a nester.

Between the ages of 21 and 30, I moved 10 times, mainly because my housekeeping strategy was to move when the place got to be really messy.

I'm a little better these days, but I'm still not crafting my own wrapping paper or raising my own chickens that lay eggs with pale blue shells.

My attitude toward the Martha Stewart phenomenon could have been summed up by the harried mother of two toddlers behind me in line at Publix a couple of years ago, who leaned over my shoulder as I paged through a Martha Stewart Living article about decoupaging furniture.

She shook her head angrily and snapped, "I don't even have time to read the f--- magazine."

But my mother-in-law, Marian Lambert, loves Martha Stewart. Loves her television show, loves her magazine, loves Martha herself.

Now 91, Marian grew up in a time when most women raised their own chickens, sewed their family's clothes and tended their own roses. She remembers that it was hard work, but she also remembers when keeping a beautiful home was an art, and Martha reminds her of that.

When Stewart ended up in briskly simmering water for insider trading, I was full of snarky cracks, but Marian didn't waver. She raised two sons entirely on her own after a divorce nearly 50 years ago, so she knows a little something about discrimination against women.

"They're making a scapegoat out of her because she's a successful woman," Marian said. "Look at all those men who stole millions, and they're still out there running around."

So when I realized Martha Stewart really was standing at the end of the bar at Babbo, telling the bartender that a papaya cosmopolitan sounded good and they would have two, I nudged John and said, "Look who's standing next to you. Your mother will be thrilled."

We tried to be cool and just eavesdrop. Stewart and her companion chatted as they waited for a table. That's right, Martha hung out at the bar and waited for a table. She didn't demand one, didn't fuss, just calmly sipped her drink and showed the young man a sheaf of photographs.

She wore a simple, elegant black and white knit outfit (I'm guessing Donna Karan), carried not the infamous Hermes Birkin bag but a small cocoa brown tote, and she looked younger and prettier than she does in photos.

I don't like to pounce on celebrities in public (unless I'm working and it's my assignment). But I couldn't help thinking how much Martha Stewart's autograph would mean to Marian, and I don't mean on eBay.

John was thinking the same thing. When the bartender brought our bill and a pen, John turned to her and said, "Pardon me, Ms. Stewart, I'm sorry to bother you, but . . ."

She was a peach. I had read all the stories about imperious Martha and feared she might order us tossed out. But John mentioned his mom, and how tickled she would be with an autograph, and Stewart said with a smile, "How lovely. My mother is 90. Of course, I'd be happy to."

She introduced us to the young man, her nephew home from college. (He was so handsome I thought at first I might have stumbled on a scoop: "Martha romps with boy toy!" But their conversation and relationship were unquestionably familial.)

She made small talk as she wrote on the back of our credit card receipt. She thanked my husband for his expression of support.

She handed him the receipt, saying, "Now, your mother will know from watching the show who "Big Martha' and "Little Martha' are."

We thanked her and headed out the door. We read the note, written in a hand both pretty and legible, in the twilight street: "For Marian, best wishes to you from me, "Little Martha,' & my 90 yr old mom "Big Martha.' " Big Martha is Stewart's mother, Martha Kostyra.

We called Florida with the news. John told his mother, "Mom, she was so nice, so sweet."

Marian said, "I knew she would be."

- Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com

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