When media tycoon Martha Stewart purchased an estate in Seal Harbor in 1997, few people suspected she would become one of the mo
By John Golden
Photographs reprinted with permissions from Martha's Entertaining: A Year of Celebrations. Copyright © 2011 by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. All Photographs © 2011 by Frédéric Lagrange; except photo of dog on boat © Christopher Baker. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, a division of Random House Inc; 432 pages; $75.
Martha Stewart could live anywhere.
Yet the world’s most famous homemaker has strong roots firmly planted in Maine in a sprawling stone summer cottage known as Skylands, the sixty-acre estate overlooking Seal Harbor that was originally built for the Edsel Ford family in 1925.
It’s hardly her only home, though. She commutes to her Manhattan office from her splendid 153-acre farm, Cantitoe Corners, in the tony enclave of Bedford, New York, where the fripperies of fashion are decidedly riding boots over Louboutin footwear. She also has the essential pied-à-terre on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and the requisite seaside Hamptons cottage in the village of East Hampton.
How then did Maine come into the picture for this professional house-proud media mogul who’s used to more rarefied haunts?
That can be answered in part by looking at her new book, Martha’s Entertaining: A Year of Celebrations. It’s heavily focused on her life at Skylands, which she purchased in 1997. The house is a fitting backdrop for her deliciously lavish spreads showcasing the bounty that Maine has to offer and Stewart’s penchant for outdoor pursuits.
I had the opportunity to visit Martha at Skylands this past August, right after her seventieth birthday weekend celebration. If you are expecting to hear about a bacchanalian gala fit for such a media titan as Stewart, you’re wrong. It was a weekend jaunt for friends and family where everyone accompanied Martha on her favorite Maine pastime of boarding her Hinckley for island hopping and lobster rolls for lunch.
It was a chilly day in early August as I waited for Martha on the great stone terrace that overlooks the harbor. The house is magnificent — a habitation of beautifully proportioned rooms, impeccable architectural elements of the period, and furnished in comfortable but luminous simplicity that has become her signature style.
She was dressed casually in beige slacks and cardigan, with her hair tied in a short ponytail. Wearing hardly any makeup, she looks years younger than seventy.
To start our chat we repaired to the great hall, an enormous entry room with double fireplaces and banks of french doors leading outside.
What brought you to Maine?
My husband at the time and I came here once a year to hike Acadia. We would stay at the Asticou Inn. And we started to toy with buying an island.
Which islands did you look at?
Oh, there was one called Black Island, and we looked around Deer Isle. There were small islands around there. There were lots of islands for sale at the time. But we got distracted and it never happened.
How did you come upon Skylands?
It was in August again, and I came up with friends to celebrate my birthday and was told about this house by a friend of a friend. I went to see it.
I bought it that week (laughs).
And my banker said, “Martha, people go to Maine, they go to L.L. Bean and buy a pair of hiking boots, you bought a house — a big house.” But I’m so lucky I did because it’s such an incredible place.
What has Maine come to mean to you?
I’m here to enjoy the beauty of Maine. I love the park, the trails, the natural beauty of the place, the water, the vistas, the bird life. . . . And I’ve also learned a lot about Maine — the entrepreneurial life here, the kinds of businesses that are in Maine.
We’ve done a lot of stories in the magazine about Maine: the blueberries, the lobstering, businesses like Swans Island Blankets. . . . And we’ve done a whole lot of serious stories on the crafters, the artists, the farmers.
Do you feel there’s a “Maine mystique”?
Oh, yes, definitely. The people, the ocean, the land. Definitely.
What really appeals to me about this place is the pure air, the topography, the beautiful ocean. And there’s so much to do, physically for me. I really like climbing and hiking, I like canoeing, kayaking, sailing.
Is it much different from Bedford?
The growing season is shorter, but it’s akin to the climate in Westport, Connecticut, where I used to be.
I like challenges, to see what I can grow, like the tropicals on my terrace now, which we put in Memorial Day and will take out by Columbus Day. It’s a challenge, but a very worthwhile challenge
Your property is mostly woodlands?
It’s woodlands and moss.
Do you miss not having the big growing beds that you have on your farm in Bedford?
We have all that I need here, and what we don’t I bring up from Bedford or buy locally. But we have a vegetable and cutting garden by the stable. You see, the property came so very nicely appointed, with a stable, a garage, a guesthouse, a playhouse. So there are a lot of buildings to take care of, keep clean, but I can have a weekend party with twenty-four guests or just a few guests.
How would you compare your lifestyle here with, let’s say, the Hamptons where you still have a house?
Oh, it’s very different. There it’s party after party after party. And there are the fabulous beaches. I take early morning beach walks with the dogs. I have three dogs, and since you can’t bring dogs to the beach after nine in the morning, we’re out there by 6:30 for an hour and a half. The rest of the time it’s swimming, biking, antiquing.
Do you spend much time antiquing in Maine?
Around here, no. Southern Maine has more choices, but when I would drive back I’d stop in Damariscotta, Wiscasset, Portland, those places.
Would you say that tastes have changed and collectors only want contemporary art and furniture?
(Laughing) It’s Warhol or not at all.
This house is a piece of the past. The architecture, the plumbing, the fixtures . . . it’s something that stopped in the 1920s. People don’t live like this anymore. I tried to keep the furnishings similar to what would have been correct at the time.
I’ve edited, but I keep the house very simple. Someone else would have probably come into this place and modernized it totally. I restored it where it was needed, but the rest is as it was.
You’ve said in your blog, “Whenever I’m here, it sends me to the moon.” What do you mean by that?
What I mean is it’s an emotional high for me. It’s really, really pleasant and everywhere you look there’s something to see. And it’s quiet. We walk in the woods, there’s so much to see. It’s very calming. I have a lot of hubbub in my life, but not here.
This is a remote and beautiful place. Yet you can go to Bar Harbor and there are lots of tourists and shops.
Do you go to many of the restaurants?
Havana is one of my favorites; Islesford Dock on Little Cranberry Island is another favorite. It’s fun to drive the boat there.
Which Maine town impresses you the most?
I think Portland is very exciting with all its new restaurants. Blue Hill is fun to go to and there are a few antiques shops that I always visit and the galleries.
It’s interesting that you think highly of Portland. Why is that?
Well, it’s such a tiny city with so much to offer. The food is excellent, really excellent. And I visit people there like Jill McGowan, the shirt maker, and I have many of her shirts.
Do you have a favorite island?
It’s fun to hike on Isle au Haut, or around here it’s fun to hike on Baker Island or Little Duck and Big Duck. And Swan’s Island, too. Just think that the business of Swans Island Blankets was started by two Harvard lawyers who left Boston to go to a remote island in Maine to make blankets. That says something about Maine.
Do you go to the area lobster pounds?
Oh, the ones right off the bridge, Trenton and Down East, Abel’s in Northeast, is great to go to for a simple lobster dinner. We did that the other night, in fact. When we had some guests here recently I took them for a boat ride and we stopped at Beal’s in Southwest Harbor. Or we go to Bass Harbor lobster pound.
What farms do you go to?
I love the Smith Family Farm. It’s my favorite dairy. There used to be forty dairies on Mount Desert, then there were none, and now there’s Smiths’. I love their buttermilk, which I put over potatoes.
How do you prepare them?
Just boil small new potatoes, put them in a bowl, cover with cold buttermilk, and season with coarse salt, pepper, and dill. It’s like a soup. There, that’s my recipe for Down East.
What’s your favorite Maine food?
Lobster definitely and fresh-picked peeky toe crabs. I love blueberries, too, which I grow here. But I grow the high bush berries. I use them in pies, muffins. The local ladies don’t like that, but I love the big berries.
Do you go to a lot of farmers’ markets?
I try to. Sunday morning is Bar Harbor’s. There’s another one in Town Hill on Thursdays. I always like to see what new things are being offered. There’s another one in Northeast Harbor on Thursday.
What do you do when you have guests here? Do you have favorite places that you take them to?
We always go into Northeast Harbor, which has lots of interesting shops. It’s quiet and civilized. . . . We go to the bookshop and there’s this fantastic toy store, J.W. Sheetz. My daughter, Alexis, and I went in there with the baby who went nuts over it. Lots of interesting toys — a mobile from Germany, Dutch toys. There’s also a very good consignment shop in Northeast. And the doughnut shop called the Colonel’s. A must-go-to place. Very good doughnuts, brownies, blondies. Then there’s Sam Shaw’s for jewelry, which I always stop into.
Do you go to any of the local fairs or events?
I never miss the Seal Harbor library fair. I always find treasures at these fairs. Another one I go to is the fair on Big Cranberry, which is terrific.
If there’s one thing you like to do most in Maine, what would that be?
I love going out on the boat. I drive the boat, but there’s a captain onboard always. Safety is very important to me. We have all the electronics. In fact, one time we were out in the middle of the ocean, and the Coast Guard stopped us and came aboard to check for violations. There were none, and they apologized for stopping us. And I said, “Oh, no, I’m glad you did, that you value all the rules and safety regulations.” Boat safety is terribly important.
You also like to ride horses on the carriage roads?
Very much. This time I also brought two horses with me. We’ve been riding every day. That’s been my thing this time, to go into the park on roads that I’ve never seen. There’s a lot of beautiful carriage roads that I haven’t been on, bridges that I haven’t seen before.
Do you spend the month of August here?
Oh, no, I have a farm to run and a few other things (she laughs).
In three words, describe what Maine means to you.
Beauty, freshness, clarity.
And in one word, describe Skylands.