Martha is a Marvel

Martha Stewart is a marvel, don’t you agree? She’s a quintessential American success story, and Americans love success stories more than any other kind.

From her modest beginnings as the second of six children in a working-class Polish-Catholic family in Nutley, New Jersey, Martha has risen to great heights, succeeding on every rung of her personal ladder, and climbing back up when she’s fallen off. She’s been a fashion model, a Wall Street stockbroker, an entrepreneur par excellence known worldwide as “the empress of domesticity,” a prison inmate, and now, at age eight-one no less featured in a bathing suit on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s just-published swimsuit issue. It takes your breath away.

When I was a caterer in Manhattan from ’86 to ‘96, Martha was the caterer other caterers loved to hate. It was envy, no doubt. But I didn’t hate her at all. I used recipes from her many bestselling cookbooks proudly because they were so good – so beautiful and reliable. I knew that Martha had a battalion of recipe-testers behind her, so her recipes would be foolproof. They were.

Martha on the cover of her first bestselling cookbook, published in 1982

Then when I closed my catering business at the age of fifty to join the Peace Corps and serve as a health and nutrition volunteer in Gabon, Central Africa, for two years, I somehow gained the title of “the Martha Stewart of Gabon” among the younger volunteers. I thought it was funny at the time, and, like most jokes, partially true.

Who — besides me — in the middle of a hot, wet, dense-as-a-head-of-broccoli rainforest cared much about interior decorating while living in little mud-wattle huts, or made an effort to cook and eat well when good ingredients were basically nonexistent? Nobody, really.

However, my make-believe-big-sister-and-fellow-Jersey-girl Martha Stewart had a huge influence on me in Gabon. She whispered: You’ve got to strive to live well at all times, wherever you are in the world. So I tried to emulate her.

The label “Martha Stewart of Gabon” stuck for me there in Gabon when it went into print. As I wrote in my Peace Corps memoir, How to Cook a Crocodile:

“In a write-up for the December ’96 issue of the monthly newsletter, Peace Corps-Gabon Health Notes, Cindy, the volunteer posted in Koula Moutou, told of the Thanksgiving dinner eighteen of us new volunteers had had at her house. ‘…With Bonnie leading the way in the kitchen, we had a feast that was incredible. … Bonnie was the true Martha Stewart of Gabon. She made sure that everything came out perfect – right down to the flowers and napkins on the harvest table. It felt like a real Thanksgiving.’”

But I see now that the real Martha Stewart’s latest iteration – sporting a swimsuit on the cover of Sports Illustrated – seems to be causing quite a stir. “Tut-tut, how dare she,” say some. “You go, girl,” say others. I think I’m on the fence.

On the one hand, I know that dear Martha has a battalion of people behind her to make her look not only good but forty years younger. If not plastic surgeons, then surely the finest makeup artists and hairstylists in the business – to say nothing of the air-brushers and Photoshoppers at Sports Illustrated. Such help is not available to the rest of us aging female mortals. So a role model for aging with grace Martha Stewart is not.

But on the other hand, she’s certainly a sport, and this gig clearly illustrates it – putting herself out there like that. “Look at me,” she seems to be saying, “I’m still going strong!” Brava, I say! The old girl’s got gumption.

I’ve been imagining having Martha come to tea here at my new place in San Miguel de Allende – you know, one of my Tea-and-Tart-on-Tuesday-at-Three teas for special friends.  I’d make for her a pear frangipane tart – the glorious recipe from her Pies & Tarts cookbook, which I included in my own Sweet Tarts book (with attribution, of course). And, over herbal tea, I’d ask her – older woman to older woman, one on one – what she really thinks.

Really, Martha,” I’d say to her, “don’t you think that we older women have more meaningful things to do with our lives now than to pose in a swimsuit on the cover of a national magazine?”

A portion of the May 2023 Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue featuring Martha on the cover

I suspect that in a serious moment she would actually agree with me. I suspect that she’d tell me she only did that gig on a lark. Just because she’s Martha Stewart. And we’re not.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

  • “The Martha Stewart of Gabon” is a chapter in my Peace Corps memoir-with-recipes, How to Cook a Crocodile, available from
  • The pear frangipane tart recipe is in my Sweet Tarts essays-with-recipes book, also available from Amazon.

39 thoughts on “Martha is a Marvel”

  1. I think it’s brilliant that she did the cover! Why not? What better way to embrace age and the fact that she gives not a f***. I can see how you would be know as the Martha Stewart of Gabon with your creativity and attention to detail. Shall we be expecting a cover shot soon?? Brasos y Besitos.

  2. I’m not sure how I feel about the swimsuit issue either. I like to think it’s a strike for ageism, but she’s really not her age in that photo. The message sort of is no matter your age, You better be beautiful. Your article gave me a lot to think about. When I was a young mother and wife, I was called the local Martha Stewart. I did the same thing with China, flowers, napkins. And you should’ve seen my Christmas trees. Wow, that was a long time ago

    1. Thank you, dear Victoria. Yes, I agree with you that the message is: You’re okay (visible, admirable) as long as you’re beautiful. Alas, we can’t all be (and maybe don’t want to be) Martha Stewart.

  3. Well done, Bonnie! As a happy attendee of not one but two of your Tuesday Teas, my impression is that Martha would probably think she had a hand in your baking skills (has she ever mastered tart making at a high altitude) and your interior design skills (does she even know what a budget is?). No matter. I’ve never bought Sports illustrated in my life. Not starting now!

    1. Ha-ha, Suzanne! I’ve never bought S.I. in my life either. But I’m sure their sales are soaring now, thanks to M.S. (and despite you and me)! Ah, it’s all about dinero, isn’t it? 🙂

  4. Bonnie, I love your posts! I hope to run into you someday soon, for I also live in SMA. Thanks for always beginning my day with a smile. Best, Kath

  5. This morning I read a few lines of poetry from Gerard Manley Hopkins in “The Matter With Things,” by Iain McGilchrist:

    “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same…
    Crying ‘What I do is for me: for that I came.'”

    There’s something elemental to that, and Martha Stewart has seemed to honor her seed of being for as long as we have known her.

  6. Loved “dense as a head of broccoli! I’m with the “you go girl” crowd. Recently saw a 2020 movie with Kevin Costner and Diane Ladd in which the write-ups called them an “elderly ccuple.” Kevin?????

  7. Really interesting. Bonnie, love the way you combine history with modern day, non-fiction with fiction, point vs. counter point, makes you think and self-reflect, and humor.

  8. Oh, wow! Gary is much into Iain McGilchrist, Be! I think he has watched all his videos and ordered a big, encyclopedia-style book by him!

    1. The talks are wonderful, Teresa, but this morning as I was reading chapter 21, I thought, “You miss so much if you don’t read the book.” It’s dense but it’s not a thicket. I’m glad Gary went ahead and ordered the book.

  9. I agree with you Bonnie completely relating to MS. I think my biggest take away is, don’t be afraid to spread your wings, at our age time isn’t on our side. I got a small ankle tattoo at 65 which is the Celtic symbol for Earth Wind and Fire. I waited years to get one I believed in. I’m now 73 and have no regrets about it , although my grown daughters weren’t happy.
    If you do invite MS to San Miguel I hope I’m in residence at that time, I would like to meet her.
    I always enjoy your writings, thank you.

  10. Great article! I only wish she had the Chutzpa to grace the cover as her (as much as possible with all the plastic surgery) authentic self. What we see, complete with the artistry of photoshop, is marketing a brand not a “Wise Older Woman.” I fear that this will not help to turn the tide on female agism, just the opposite. Another unattainable ideal pushed on western females by white men in power. Hopefully we are “WOW” enough not to bite.

  11. Good post Bonnie. I’m ambivalent too. On the one hand, Stewart is evidence that a woman’s age doesn’t have to be defined by the stereotypes. On the other hand, Stewart trivializes how much we can be and do as we age when she poses like an 18 year old after spending a fortune on her face and body. I think she would have done more for the cause with one of many other strategies. Like those you deploy!

  12. It’s interesting – this need to be front and center – no matter what. I look at all those who constantly have their phones in front of their faces, taking selfies all the time, and now there are ‘enhancing’ apps to make one look better. What happened to reality? What happened to ‘this is who I am?’. Many of us use a bit of makeup to ‘enhance’ our appearance and that is purely cultural. Without the hair extensions, makeup, photo shop techniques, extraordinary clothing, perfect lighting, etc., we’d all look like Russian ladies (and no offense intended toward Russian ladies).

  13. It’s not too much of a generalisation, I believe, Bonnie, for me to say that immigrant families from war torn countries, appear unable to let go of their memories, or their pain. They teach their children to not take anything for granted, and to be self- reliant. If your world changed overnight, you could still rely on your skills and ability to work hard. My parents were always hungry as children, and they missed out on schooling, as finding work, to pay for food, took priority. Needless to say, growing up, food and education were a mantra in my home.
    From what I’ve read, Martha’s father was very ambitious for all of his children. Martha learnt her skills and mindset from her family, neighbours and a very tightly-knit Polish community. She used these skills and her looks, but she worked hard too, before she had the business engine that utilised marketing and promotion.
    She went from one business venture to another. She seems to have had a hunger that was never satiated and her egocentric splash on the front page of Sport’s Illustrated at the age of 81 makes a statement that she will not be pushed aside and forgotten.
    I feel sorry for Martha Stewart. Despite her wealth and fame, she is still driven to chase…dare I say…power? The power of being a household topic of discussion.
    I love the way you write Bonnie. The way you weave your own personal history into your story is fascinating. I’d label your warmth and humility as the higher form of success any day.

    1. Oh, Loula, YOU are truly a marvel! Thank you so much for all of your thoughts on this post. Yes, I find M.S. unenviable too. The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote a poem I memorized in high school, which has stuck with me all these years: “I’m nobody! Who are you? Are you Nobody too? Then there’s a pair of us! Don’t tell — they’ll advertise, you know. How dreary to be Somebody! How public, like a Frog, to tell one’s name the livelong June to an admiring Bog!”

  14. Well, Martha WAS in SMA several years ago! I walked within three feet of her and her entourage. I can say with absolute certainty that IF that is really Martha on that cover and not one of her “doubles”, she has made
    a miraculous recovery from what she looked like here in SMA. Needless to say, I agree with many of your commenters and see no reason to go through all of that to be “young” at this time in our lives. I am now
    81 and people are still surprised that they say I don’t look that age, ha. But, I certainly think I do and each wrinkle is a memory of something I treasure!

  15. I appreciate your musings and observations. I want more older role models who are still active in life’s enjoyments, but not doing everything to look younger. The USA is such a culture of youth and, if we are fortunate, many of us are going to age and it is good to appreciate that we have much to offer. I think Martha looks disturbing on the magazine cover. Sad really.

    1. I so agree with you, Karen. At this stage we need to find (and be!) role models, not swimsuit models. 🙂 But I suspect that M.S. sees things altogether differently.

  16. Dear Bon,
    I saw the picture and thought she looked remarkably youthful. Beyond that, I don’t have too much thought about it. It seems to be all about vanity, but at her age, I would say that she is entitled to it.
    I always thought you are far more beautiful than she is, in every possible way.

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