In the ranks of friends to the famous, Mariana Pasternak falls somewhere between Kato Kaelin and Brutus. Pasternak, you might recall, was the Martha Stewart intimate who provided bombshell testimony at her former BFF’s 2004 trial. The elegant, Romanian-born real estate agent sent a shock wave through the U.S. federal courtroom with a revelation that nailed Stewart for insider trading of ImClone, stock of a company owned by her friend Sam Waksal. Pasternak recalled Stewart saying, “Isn’t it nice to have brokers who tell you those things?” during a holiday in early 2002. Under cross-examination, she wavered: “I do not know if Martha said that or it’s me who thought those words,” she admitted, before deciding Stewart did make the damning statement. Stewart’s sentence included five months in prison.
Six years later, Pasternak’s memory has improved sufficiently to record a detailed account of their relationship in The Best of Friends: Martha and Me, published this week. The book forges a new sub-genre: the friendship breakup memoir, alternately filled with joyful reminiscences and passive-aggressive jabs. There are no explosive revelations, just plenty of hand grenades that only women who’ve been confidantes for decades can lob.
The book began as notes jotted down after Stewart went to prison, Pasternak reveals on the phone from her home in Westport, Conn. Their friendship ended before the trial and they haven’t seen one another since, she says, yet the thought of Stewart being in prison filled her with sadness: “A part of me was gone.” Writing down her memories, she says, was a way to relive happier times.
Pasternak’s sense of loss isn’t surprising given the symbiotic friendship depicted in Martha and Me, one described as “a mutual dependence you see in the animal world.” The two met in 1981 in Westport where Stewart lived with her then-husband Andy Stewart and was making a name as a caterer. Pasternak, who’d arrived in the U.S. two years earlier as a political refugee, had proven as adept a social climber as the Polish-American Stewart; after only one year in community college, she landed a job as a biomedical engineer in the hospital where she met her future husband, a doctor, and moved with him to the affluent WASP enclave. There, the two couples became close friends. Pasternak adored Andy Stewart, “a love of a man” who played an unsung role in building the Martha Stewart brand. Of Stewart, who constantly harangued her supportive husband, Pasternak was initially leery, she writes, so much so that she refused to make her the godmother to her two daughters after Stewart asked. The two women bonded after Andy left for his wife’s assistant. A devastated Stewart leaned on Pasternak for her “post-Andy demands,” which put more strain on the author’s failing marriage; in turn, Stewart’s support gave her the strength to leave.
In time, Pasternak and her two daughters became part of Stewart’s domestic backdrop, both on her TV specials and in real life. They travelled to exotic locales—the Galapagos, Peru, Egypt, the French Riviera—seeking out content and ideas for Stewart’s expanding media empire.
Stewart cannot abide to be alone, Pasternak confides: “She gets very edgy and can get very unpleasant. Yet the company must always be engaging.” The cultivated and chic Pasternak fit the bill. The two shared an intellectual curiosity, a wicked sense of humour, and the fact they both had grown up outside the rarified WASP universe Stewart came to embody. The friendship exposed Pasternak to a society she would never have inhabited otherwise—touring David Rockefeller’s garden, partying with Mick Jagger, dinners with Noble Peace Prize winners, and private concerts with Yo-Yo Ma.
Her friendship with Stewart, which included daily 7 a.m. phone calls from the early-bird Stewart, bestowed “protection and power on me,” writes Pasternak, who says she was never subject to Stewart’s famous “Martha moments.” The Stewart Pasternak depicts in Martha and Me is a complex, intriguing and likeable character, driven by far more than material niceties. She was a “female Indiana Jones,” Pasternak writes, whose fearlessness inspired her to take risks. But Stewart could also be reckless, often taking them into dangerous territory and exposing Pasternak’s children to risk. She was furious, she writes, when Stewart used paint that wasn’t hypoallergenic on her daughters for a Halloween special. “After that, I always did my best to be in the room.” Yet she then praises Stewart as a “surrogate mother” who enriched her daughters’ lives.
Pasternak’s see-sawing between fondness and criticism animates the book—frustratingly so. There are also far too many allusions to Faustian bargains and ominous foreshadowing. Early on, Pasternak mentions that Stewart borrows her gun to go hunting, with this non sequitur: “By then we were good friends and I trusted Martha would never involve me in a crime.” The reader can almost hear the implied “dum-de-dum-dum” in the background.
At times, it seems Pasternak doesn’t really know or like Stewart. At one point she calls her someone “whom I couldn’t really read and whose competitiveness I sometimes found tiresome.” Yet her own competitive streak is formidable. Of Stewart, she writes: “Personal style proved to be somehow out of reach to her.” She was the stylish one, Pasternak implies: “What I tried on, she tried on.” Again and again, she makes clear she had the actual loving family for whom she baked cakes from mix (to Stewart’s horror) and staged elaborate Halloweens—unlike her friend, whose “life looked wonderful on the surface” but “had very little human love.”
Here, in a betrayal of the girlfriend covenant, she provides detail about Stewart’s fallow romantic life. Where Pasternak had suitors lining up, she writes “something was not working in the men department” for Stewart, who tended to jump into sexual dalliances, and drive men away with her desperation. Fatal Attraction-style stalking was a Stewart signature, Pasternak reveals—from her ex-husband to an amorous target known only as “the Mogul.” For a time, she even set the actor Anthony Hopkins in her sights. Stewart’s known long-time companion, the billionaire Charles Simonyi, Pasternak reveals, humiliated her during a party on the French Riviera when he replaced her with a much younger woman. If the intent of these revelations is to shame Stewart, the effect is the opposite: it humanizes her. So does a snipe about how Stewart changed after her breakout book, Entertaining: “Her waist thickened and her hands seemed permanently clutched as if grasping for something.” But nothing thaws Stewart’s ice-queen facade more than Pasternak’s revelation that her friend groped the private parts of an unnamed man said to have erectile dysfunction, in a fancy restaurant.
The doomed relationship was strained by growing financial disparity, Pasternak writes: “Martha’s massage bill in one month exceeded the amount of my child support.” Stewart was generous and tight by turns. She paid when they travelled for business (to save money they often shared a room), loaned out her houses when she was away and was a generous hostess. But she expected Pasternak to pay for their holidays, which she enabled by extending loans (with interest). Pasternak never benefited financially from the relationship, she insists. Nor did she ever ask Stewart for legal or financial advice (though Stewart once advised her to invest in Kmart). She also bought more than 100,000 shares in Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia when it went public in 2000, and complains she didn’t make as large a profit as Stewart’s other friends who cashed out the day it went public.
In conversation, Pasternak faults Stewart’s ImClone insider trading scandal for the relationship’s end: “I’m not sure any friendship can survive one friend testifying against another,” she says. The book suggests she was fed up long before. “I had grown tired of being a participant in Martha’s life,” she writes. “The rewards were less and less satisfying.” She was also starting to see the friendship as standing in the way of her ever meeting a life partner. Its death knell, she writes, occurred on their last holiday, during a helicopter ride with Sam Waksal. The door opened mid-flight; Waksal bravely closed it while Pasternak held onto him so he didn’t fall out. Stewart, meanwhile, appeared concerned only for her own survival: “I saw the limits of our friendship,” she writes.
The end is swiftly told, taking only 30 pages of the 398-page book. By Pasternak’s account, Stewart’s stock scandal was as devastating to her. Clients fled. Stewart offered to pay her legal fees, but she declined, worried it would further implicate Stewart; she took out a third mortgage on her house, which she lost, along with most of her art and jewellery. Still, she writes, “the loss of such a close and long friendship was the most devastating loss of all.” Lines later, she perks up: “My loss was liberating. And perhaps one must go through loss to be free.”
Pasternak still feels “wronged” by Stewart, she says: “Had Martha not told me things about her [stock] sale I would never have found myself subpoenaed.” She’s also hurt Stewart never called to express remorse for what she put her through, including the “vulgar Brutus label painted on me”—one this book will do little to erase. Though she doesn’t expect to hear from her, she believes Stewart should be “very, very pleased” by the book, an outcome about as likely as Stewart serving Chianti with fava beans: “It’s a very accurate portrait of our friendship,” she insists. “I wrote it with a lot of affection.”
Pasternak doesn’t talk about making a lot of money from her Martha story. Instead, she says she hopes the book will open a dialogue about the importance of women’s friendships: “I hope this inspires women to protect them from failure.” If Stewart is looking for clues as to how it all broke down, she can turn to page 335, when Pasternak writes about their sea kayaking during their last holiday. At one point in the voyage, Stewart began complaining about Pasternak’s paddling: “Without a word,” Pasternak writes, “I dropped my paddle, and resting it on my lap, I let her row alone.”