October 02, 1995 12:00 PM

Aug. 3, 1995: Martha Stewart’s birthday. Outside her $1.7 million shingled house on Lily Pond Lane in East Hampton, N. Y.—an impossibly posh enclave on Long Island—the chatelaine is bustling about, swiping at the side-door steps with a towel. An insomniac who rises long before dawn, she already has walked her two chows, worked out and baked an exemplary batch of blueberry muffins.

When a stranger’s car rolls past the 15-foot hedges at 9:30 a.m., America’s best-known hostess frowns. As much as she loves special occasions, she is not feeling particularly festive at the moment. A reporter has arrived, and Stewart—who is wearing a purple T-shirt, leggings and immense diamond studs—has the look of a prom chaperone who has spotted a gate-crasher. Warm and inviting though she is on TV, she is unable to summon much enthusiasm for this part of her job—allowing journalists to examine her in situ and delve into questions including: Is Martha as engaging in real life as she is on-camera? Who are all those jolly folks at the potluck dinners and beach picnics featured in the magazine bearing her name? And is there a spiritual side to the woman whose empire is built on the notion that God is in the details?

Ever the professional, however, Stewart, 54, has consulted her famously jammed calendar and agreed to allow a reporter to join her for breakfast. The meal is to begin at 9:15 a.m., end precisely at 10 and, it is hoped, offer a glimpse of the relaxed Martha seen only by close friends.

The public Stewart, of course, is an entrepreneur who has transformed herself from a talented striver into a tastemaker for the masses. Like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein (both products of a working-class neighborhood in The Bronx), the New Jersey-born Stewart has built an empire based on packaging a distinctive take on American style. Hers is a comforting, almost nostalgic aesthetic—one that seeks to recreate a world in which there were no cake mixes, no microwaves, no IKEA. A hypercompetent perfectionist who grew up “with a sewing needle in one hand and a hammer in the other,” as her sister Laura remembers it, Stewart is evangelical about the notion that there is a correct way to plant a tree or plaster a wall—and that anyone with gumption can learn. As The Washington Post put it recently, “Her vision is not of some impossible paradise where rich people sport among themselves, but a life that might be lived in any American suburb, right now, with the help of a few good recipes and decorating tips.”

In an era when nesting is hot, millions of Americans are tuning in to Stewart’s message: Launched in 1991, the magazine Martha Stewart Living has a circulation of 1.3 million; her syndicated TV show reaches over 5 million viewers a week; she makes regular appearances on NBC’s Today show; and her Home for the Holidays, an hour-long special, will air on CBS in December. To date, her products include 14 books, with a total of 5 million copies in print; six videos; signature sheets, towels and paints; a recipe collection, due in October; and a mailorder lineup that includes a $50 cake-decorating kit. And in January, she entered into a partnership with Time Publishing Ventures, Inc., which publishes Martha Stewart Living (and is a division of Time Inc., the publisher of PEOPLE). That deal (terms are still under negotiation) could put her at the helm of a company with its own publishing, TV, interactive-media and merchandising projects.

In short, Stewart has penetrated every cranny of the American market. (“I’m a brand,” she says proudly.) “She identifies with Madonna on a business level,” says Allen Grubman, the entertainment lawyer whose firm represents both. “She wants to build a business around her creativity, just as Madonna has.”

Like most moguls, though, Stewart seems to inspire either admiration or loathing—never indifference. Speak to her chums, and they will tell you that she is a trouper who will show up with a mop at 6 a.m. if she hears your basement is flooded. She has a 250-member fan club whose Long Island-based president, Alice Probst, treasures a lemon squeezer given to her by M.S. herself; would-be suitors give her handmade birdhouses, and letters from admirers are faxed to her almost daily.

Talk to certain colleagues, however, and you may hear Stewart described as a ruthless opportunist who poaches ideas, snaps at underlings and passes off other cooks’ recipes as her own. She has been the target of a wicked parody called, “Is Martha Stuart Living?” Produced by a pair of Connecticut neighbors, it offers instructions for strong-arming the competition at tag sales. And cynics may wonder why a woman who celebrates the lost art of “homekeeping” has a problematic private life. Her 29-year marriage to publisher Andy Stewart ended in an acrimonious divorce in 1990, and Martha’s own mother, Martha Kostyra, 81, concedes that her daughter was badly wounded. “I don’t think she’ll ever get over it,” she says.

On this day, at least, Stewart seems strangely distant. Opening a door bearing a sign instructing visitors to close it behind them, she leaves the reporter to trail behind her while she pads past a row of shoes. Abuzz with children and barefoot houseguests, her kitchen—with its copper pots and floors of Mexican tile—looks like a spread in Martha Stewart Living: At the stove, Stewart’s sister Laura Plimpton, 40—a cordial woman wearing cutoffs and diamonds that match Martha’s—is frying bacon. Edward Booth-Clibborn, a publisher visiting from London, is watching his wife, Julia (assisted by part-time housekeeper Marie Fernandez), turn out waffles; their son Augustin, 7, is with Laura’s oldest, Christopher, 16, cataloging Stewart’s CDs.

Stewart disappears to change into a meticulously ironed work shirt; when she returns, she announces, “We’re having heart-shaped waffles”—sounding for all the world like the easy, relaxed Martha who assures TV viewers that they too can make perfect rugelach. Ushering everyone into the sun-washed breakfast room, she is asked about her plans for the day. “I’m going bike-riding to Shelter Island,” she says to the reporter. And how far is that? “I don’t know,” she replies impatiently. “Miles. We’re taking off right after breakfast.”

During the meal, Stewart, Plimpton and the loyal Booth-Clibborns (friends for 20 years) chat about the horrors of bed-and-breakfast establishments—”polyester sheets!” says Stewart—and the joys of “old lady” bikes with fat tires. Stewart’s trainer Trish Rayna bounds in to say happy birthday, and the phone rings every few minutes. The entire tableful shrieks when Augustin—coached to answer the phone by saying mock-primly, “Martha Stewart residence. Who’s calling, please?”—fields a call. Amid the merriment, Martha takes the receiver and says throatily, “We’re training the new butler, and he is so difficult.”

But the vivaciousness quickly evaporates; when breakfast ends, Stewart busies herself clearing the table. With the air of a woman too busy for niceties, she rounds up her guests for a walk. Without a word of goodbye, she walks out the door and heads down Lily Pond Lane, her supporting cast in tow.

As readers addicted to her calendar in Martha Stewart Living can tell you, Stewart is a woman who never rests. At the moment she commutes between East Hampton, Manhattan and Westport, Conn., where (assisted by a housekeeper, a four-person office staff and several gardeners) she keeps a six-acre estate with a 19th-century farmhouse, two barns, an English border garden, a vegetable patch, an orchard and her famous chickens. She frequently dashes out of town for business, and she Concordes around the globe with high-profile pals. (In July it was to Saint-Tropez with Barbra Streisand.) She has just finished renovating a pied-à-terre on Fifth Avenue and is restoring a pond-front home in East Hampton. (“She was paddling by in her canoe and liked the way it reflected in the water,” says East Hampton realtor Frank Newbold.)

Loath to squander a single moment, Stewart wakes before dawn and whips through a stack of magazines or several chapters of a book. The phone is never far away; she calls chums as early as 5 a.m. and issues instructions to her staff while a chauffeur ferries her about in her GMC Suburban. (When Martha drives herself, it is in her steel-gray Jaguar XJ6. “All my girlfriends have Jaguars,” she says.) “I once asked her, ‘How do you do it all?’ ” says Newbold. “She said, ‘Oh, I do several things at once. I’m Windexing the phone as we speak.’ ” When she and daughter Alexis, 30, want to relax, says their close friend Manhattan immunologist Dr. Sam Waksal, “they wash every car in the driveway.”

Professionally, Stewart is a fierce and uncompromising competitor. “My niche [domestic life] is bigger than anyone’s,” she has said. Never mind that she sleeps only about 4 hours a night. Her chief frustration, she says, is that “there’s not enough time in the day.” When she wants to learn how to make chèvre or build a greenhouse, she devours books, commandeers experts and conducts at-home experiments; always plotting ways to make herself more efficient, she dreams of “working in the garden and dictating my ideas into [a computer].”

That sort of obsessiveness, it seems, has helped secure her reputation as a manic sort who spades right over the little people. Artisans with whom she has worked trade stories about her tough bargaining. “She plays the game better than anyone I ever met,” says a photographer who has worked for her. “On her TV show she did a segment on these guys who re-finish bathtubs. At the end, they refused to sign her release, because it gave her the rights to use the material on video and in books. They [held out] until Martha gave them more money.” Others who have witnessed her TV tapings describe her as a “Martha Dearest” who can erupt into a tantrum and then turn on the charm when the camera rolls.

What seems like prima-donna behavior to some, however, is admirable perfectionism to others. “We were all delighted with her,” says Julia Child, who recently invited her for a segment on her new PBS series, Baking at Julia’s. “I don’t know why people are so mean about her. Probably because she’s so successful.”

Stewart’s family has no trouble understanding her drive. The second of six children, Martha was raised in Nutley, N.J., a working-class community outside of New York City. Her father, Edward Kostyra, whose Polish-immigrant parents ran a tavern, failed to make a mark as a pharmaceutical salesman but passed along his ambition to Martha. “He wouldn’t plant six tomato plants—he’d plant 80,” remembers his widow (a retired teacher). “And he would compete with a neighbor to see who could grow the longest beans.”

A man who corrected misspellings in letters and returned them to correspondents, Kostyra expected his children to be self-sufficient. Martha and her siblings painted their own rooms, made their own clothes and, according to her brother George Christiansen (a 43-year-old contractor who uses the last name of his wife, Rita, head of Stewart’s Westport office), trapped muskrats and sent the skins to Sears Roebuck’s Raw Fur Marketing Service to be sold.

“Father instilled in all of us a sense that we could go farther than the ordinary person,” says sister Kathy Evans, 48, a teacher in Old Greenwich, Conn. Kostyra, she says, often coached Martha on school projects. For a Nutley High School prom, she says, “Martha got a hot-air balloon and inflated it in the gym.” But his ambition had a darker side, according to Martha’s brother Eric J. Scott, 57 (a Buffalo dentist who hunts bear with homemade arrows and uses a last name that is a modified anagram of Kostyra). “My father was supercritical,” he says. “And Martha is very demanding. It’s a family curse.”

Stewart’s early career, of course, has passed into legend. At 10, she began organizing children’s parties; at 13, she branched into modeling. As a student at Barnard College in New York City, she perfected her skills as a pitchwoman—doing ads for Tareyton cigarettes and Breck shampoo when she wasn’t studying European history.

Named one of Glamour magazine’s Best-Dressed College Girls in 1961, Stewart had no shortage of suitors. As she remembered in a 1980 interview with PEOPLE, she was wooed by “the boys from South America and Europe [with] big allowances.” Andy Stewart, 23, a Yale law student who met Martha on a blind date, appealed to her because he was “extremely serious,” she said.

A year after they began dating, the two wed. The marriage worked well, in the beginning. Martha (who ventured onto Wall Street as a stock broker in 1967) picked up a certain polish from Andy, while the cerebral Stewart learned the joys of spackling. During the week, the two lived in a Manhattan apartment, where Martha raised orchids in the bathtub; weekends were spent restoring a school-house in the Berkshires. Martha’s brother George, who spent summers with the couple, remembers the two as “very generous people” who were doing the “back-to-the-land thing.” Adds Martha’s sister Kathy: “Andy was wonderful—like a brother. And Martha was a real mentor.”

In 1972 the Stewarts moved to West-port, where they restored a farmhouse, and Martha (by then mother of Alexis) “decided that the home was really my place” and gave up her job. Resourceful as ever, Stewart—who trained herself by preparing every dish from Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking—placed a newspaper ad offering her services as a caterer; soon, as she put it in 1982, “I found myself preparing blindly for a wedding for 300.”

Norma Collier was Stewart’s partner in her first business, which they called the Uncatered Affair. Now a financial analyst, she met Stewart in college. “She was a compassionate, good friend,” says Collier, who says she still misses Martha even though “something happened—she gradually lost any consciousness of people as people.” By Collier’s account, Stewart began claiming more than her share of the credit while doing less of the labor. One day, Collier says, she walked into the Stewarts’ house bearing salmon and puff pastry for 300 and overheard Martha telling Andy, “I’m more talented, and I deserve to take more money out of the business.” Collier soon severed their partnership, but Martha, of course, soared.

As Martha became more successful, conflicts with Andy, by then president of the publishing house Harry N. Abrams Inc., became more evident. “Andy loved Martha deeply,” says Collier, “but he was always being belittled or berated by her.” (Stewart hinted at the problem in 1980. “Martha is not tolerant of my negligence or my foolishness or my eccentricities,” he said.)

Still, friends were stunned when, in 1987, Andy moved out and reportedly obtained a court order forbidding Martha to speak to him. Their divorce became final three years later. “Martha,” says her brother George, “took it very hard.” By all accounts, Stewart was particularly piqued that Andy later became involved with her former assistant Robyn Fairclough, 21 years his junior. (In 1993, the two were married.)

Martha will say little about the divorce. “The life that I had is over,” she says tersely. “And what has taken its place is better.”

Now publisher of Chanticleer Press in New York City, Andy Stewart looks back on his marriage with regret. “I think we did a poor job as parents,” he says. “We were too involved in our professional lives and fixing up the house. We were always making the home into a mythological place. But it wasn’t a home—we didn’t spend enough time with Lexi.”

A Barnard graduate who owns both the Bridgehampton Motel on Long Island and an East Hampton shop called Yard Sale, Alexis (who declined to be interviewed for this article) has not communicated with her father since 1988. “It’s a source of tremendous pain for me,” Stewart says. “I think of her every single day, many times.”

If he had it to do over, says Stewart, he would “discuss the separation with Alexis—I never had a chance to do that,” he adds. “She saw her mother hurt, and she thought I was uncaring. One way or another, she got the facts wrong as well as the interpretation.”

Martha’s friends describe Alexis’s rejection in different terms: “She looks at the world in black and white,” says Dr. Waksal, 45, the immunologist who dated her during the late 1980s. “She felt [her father’s leaving] was beyond betrayal.”

By Waksal’s account, the relationship between Martha and Alexis (who also lives in East Hampton) is cordial, if not effusive. “It’s tough being Martha Stewart’s daughter, and Alexis is very private,” he says. “If one doesn’t know her, one thinks she’s arrogant or petulant. But they’re truly close, and Alexis hates it when people criticize Martha.”

Stewart, who admits that she is “not a loner,” has befriended a large cast of people since her divorce, and most of them—Charlie Rose, the Ross Perots, socialite Blaine Trump—are movers. As chums tell it, she is a wonderful companion. “She’s no whiner,” says socialite Sandy Hill Pittman, who went climbing in Sikkim with her in March. “If you say, ‘Let’s go see the sunrise over the Himalayas at 4 a.m., and it means walking five vertical miles,’ she’s there.”

“She’s very sensitive,” says journalist Richard Chesnoff, who, with his wife, Susan, has known Stewart for 20 years. “When we went to Poland with Martha last year, I found the graves of my great-great-grandparents. Martha pressed a fern for me, and it’s one of the most precious things I own.”

Although Stewart has had suitors, including U.S. News & World Report chairman Mort Zuckerman, the man of her dreams has yet to wipe his feet and waltz in the door. She dates often and confesses, “I’m still extremely envious of my friends who have a lovely married life.” Says a close friend, marble importer Sabina Way: “I think she’s lonely. She needs support. But she has a public persona that is impenetrable.” Friends allow that it’s not easy for men to approach Stewart. “She’s a very strong person, and they have to be incredibly self-confident [to ask her out],” says ad executive Jerry Delia Femina.

For the nonce, Stewart is throwing her energy into teaching Americans how to make their lives a bit cozier—and learning as much as she can. Says Chesnoff: “She’s constantly curious, which is one of the fun things about being around her.”

Just the other day, in fact, Stewart went to Barbra Streisand’s for lunch in East Hampton. With her were Skip Bronson, a member of the board of directors for the Mirage Resorts Hotel in Las Vegas, and wife Edie. “Barbra served us her favorite dessert, which was angel food cake with Cool Whip,” remembers Skip. “And Martha loved it. ‘I’ve never had Cool Whip before,’ she told Barbra. ‘It’s not bad.’ ”