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THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - It is just one of the thousands of soft-focus, idealized images that over the years have presented the world of Martha Stewart as Martha Stewart would have you see it: the weedless Giverny-esque gardens, the sun-lighted kitchen of polished pots and nary a stray crumb, the lavish parties with gemlike canapes and sparkling crystal.

This particular picture, bathed in a warm glow suggesting candles or a crackling log fire just out of camera range, shows a young blond woman enveloped by the arms of a dark-haired man. It appears in Martha Stewart's Christmas, a 1989 book in which the author lays her claim to the holiday, along with this caption:

"In the library, beneath a collection of Copeland's china by Spode, my daughter, Alexis, and her boyfriend, Sam Waksal, embrace in what they thought was a private moment."

It's classic Martha, of course, from the competitive, name-dropping description of the decor (subtext: These aren't some Hummel plates like the ones hanging on your wall, hon!) to the discomfiting sense that everything, even a daughter's stolen kiss, is fodder for a life not so much simply lived as stage-crafted for public consumption.

Today, though, the images from the House of Stewart emerge in a distinctly unvarnished state.

Alexis Stewart - now a brunette - sits directly behind her mother in the New York City courtroom where the gracious-living guru is on trial for her role in a stock-dumping scandal surrounding a company owned by Sam Waksal - now in prison.

In comparison to her ubiquitous mother - star of a self-named empire of TV and radio shows, books, magazines and product lines - Alexis Stewart, a one-time hotelier and gym owner in the Hamptons, has lived a decidedly lower-profile life.

But with Martha on trial for obstruction of justice and securities fraud, the daughter is emerging from the long shadow of the mother as she stands by her side through the intensely watched trial.

Although they are said to have had strained relations over the years - one book describes Martha's parenting of her only child under the chapter title "Mommie Dearest" - Alexis turns out to have been the link between Martha and her co-players in the ImClone scandal. She introduced her mother to college pal Peter Bacanovic, the handsome stockbroker who subsequently drew Martha into his stable of top-drawer clients at Merrill Lynch and now is standing trial at her side. And, of course, Martha and Waksal became friendly through Alexis, growing even closer after Waksal and Alexis broke up and he began squiring Martha around town.

This small, incestuous universe of intersecting orbits - Bacanovic once worked at ImClone and by one account had a hand in introducing Alexis to Waksal - has added a certain frisson to what instead would be just another trial of corporate misdeeds. While Alexis is not charged with anything, she hovers around the edges of this unfolding story, an intriguing figure whose lanky, streamlined style - long, straight hair, simple trouser-and-sweater courtroom attire - contrasts with her more solidly built and imposing mother with her rumpled blond bob and unstructured pants suits.

In addition to her daily public show of support in the courtroom, the 38-year-old Alexis appears involved behind the scenes as well in her mother's defense. Her husband, John Cuti, is part of Martha's team of lawyers, and Alexis herself proved key to a victory her mother won during pre-trial wranglings: Martha successfully convinced the court that an e-mail she sent to one of her attorneys was privileged lawyer-client communication despite the fact that she had shared it with another person - her daughter.

"Alexis is the closest person in the world to me. She is a valued confidante and counselor to me," Martha said in an affidavit regarding the forwarded e-mail. "In sharing the e-mail with her, I knew that she would keep its content strictly confidential."

It's a surprising statement, in some ways, given the way the mother-daughter relationship has been characterized, correctly or not, in the past: Two unauthorized biographies of Stewart and a number of media accounts have portrayed the two as occasionally estranged. In this telling, the career-obsessed Martha alternately ne- glected Alexis - who once was quoted in a magazine article as saying she couldn't "remember 10 seconds where Mom wasn't immersed in the business" - and pressured her to live up to exacting standards. Not unexpectedly, this version of their relationship goes, Alexis grew up to be a sullen teen-ager and then an angry young woman, often adrift as she searched for her own identity apart from her domineering mother.

But with Martha in the fight of her life - the scandal has tarnished her once hugely successful empire, built as it is around her own image, and cost her hundreds of millions of dollars - she and her daughter appear to have united for battle. They whisper in each other's ears during breaks, and Alexis was seen protectively brushing a strand of her mother's hair out of her face after a particularly brutal day of testimony in the courtroom.

"At a certain point, the roles start to reverse - you become the parent," says J.C. Suares, a magazine consultant and author in Manhattan who was a Stewart family friend as Alexis was growing up. "They're probably closer than ever. This is the first time Martha's ever been vulnerable.

"I think a lot of their difficulties have been resolved, but of course you can't change the past," he says. "Alexis had a miserable childhood. I don't think I ever saw her smile."

Suares, who has worked as an art and creative director at publishing venues from Simon & Schuster to New York magazine, believes Martha tried to shape Alexis into an idealized version of herself - sending Alexis to her own alma mater, Barnard, for college and encouraging her to pursue modeling as she once did. She also supported Alexis' Martha-esque business ventures, such as buying a run-down motel in Bridgehampton and turning it into a chic, Frette-sheeted boutique hotel.

"Martha lived the life she wished for herself through Lexi," Suares said, using Alexis' childhood nickname.

Much of the speculation about the relationship between Martha and Alexis seems no different from the usual push-me-pull-you tensions that many mothers and daughters go through over the years - with the added pressure of the spotlight that Martha lived under, and in fact, embraced. Still, the level of anger Alexis felt toward her mother could be chilling, Suares says.

He recalls an incident, one he also described to Christopher Byron, for his 2002 book Martha Inc., in which he ran into Alexis at an Upper East Side gym and, in the midst of casual chit-chat, she blurted out, "Everything would be OK ... if I could only get rid of my mother."

What little is known publicly about Alexis - who could not be reached for comment for this story - comes from occasional gleanings in the press and in Martha Stewart's own publications. Alexis and her husband live in a Tribeca loft that was the subject of a much clucked-over spread in the September 2000 issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine, which showed it to be either a brilliant work of minimalism or an obsessive-compulsive's idea of a perfectly ordered world: Walls and floors fairly shimmered in their bareness, the bathroom was measured down to the millimeter so that no tile had to be cut to fit any space, and the color palette appeared to range from gray to gray. A surprising, or maybe understandable, abode for someone who grew up amid the chintz stylings of Martha Stewart.

Alexis has provided armchair psychologists with any number of reasons over the years to wonder if her starkly different style is a sign of hostility or rejection of her mother. When she married Cuti in 1997, for example, the event was hardly the extravaganza depicted in Martha Stewart's books and magazines. The couple married in a Manhattan courthouse - the bride wore gray flannel - and Martha, as she ruefully wrote in an essay for her magazine, was only allowed to plan a wedding luncheon at a restaurant for five guests.

Alexis herself has been surprisingly frank over the years when discussing her mother - and her father, Andy Stewart, from whom she reportedly has been estranged since her parents divorced, acrimoniously, in 1990.

"It's a constant battle," Alexis said of her relationship with her mother in a 1993 article that appeared in Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, "but we're all we have for each other. We're like good friends."

Leave it to Sam Waksal, the constant thread that weaves in and out of the lives of both the mother and the daughter, to have a take on their relationship. Here is what he told People magazine in 1995:

"It's tough being Martha Stewart's daughter, and Alexis is very private. 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."

Waksal, of course, is the reason Alexis now has been drawn out of the zone of privacy that she normally maintains.

Inever see [Alexis]," says David Patrick Columbia, who as editor-in-chief of the photo-and-gossip Web site NewYorkSocial Diary.com has become something of a modern-day Margaret Mead of the Manolo Blahnik set. "She is not a publicity-seeking person. She leads a life that is the dramatic opposite of her mother.

"Martha Stewart," he says, "will go to the opening of an envelope."

Which made it inevitable that, with or without Alexis, Martha would have found her way to Sam Waksal, a man-about-town who similarly relished the good life and the celebrity party scene. And, in fact, by one account, Martha met Waksal before her daughter did. She apparently catered a charity event of which he was the host. Whether Martha and Waksal were ever romantically involved is one of those unresolved bits of gossip. At 56, he is certainly closer in age to Martha, 62, than her 38-year-old daughter.

Waksal is serving a seven-year, three-month sentence for insider trading. He admitted to dumping his stock in his company a day before the Food and Drug Administration was to announce that it would not approve ImClone's highly touted cancer-treatment drug, Erbitux, which surely would make the price of company stock plummet.

Martha Stewart sold her ImClone stock at the same time, allegedly after being tipped off by Bacanovic's office that Waksal, who was also Bacanovic's client, had dumped his shares. Stewart is not charged with insider trading; rather, she is accused of obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to federal investigators about why she sold the stock, as well as securities fraud for allegedly misleading investors in her own company about her actions regarding ImClone.

The specter of this woman who has devoted her life to an image of perfection in everything she does now at the mercy of government prosecutors has caused no end of Schadenfreude among her many detractors.

But, for whatever reasons, Alexis is surely not one of them, says even Jerry Oppenheimer, author of the Martha bio Just Desserts, which offers a devastating view of Martha as a foul-mouth harridan who badly mistreats underlings and intimates alike.

His first reaction to Alexis' protective embrace of her mother during this time of need is a cynical one.

"I think Lexi is part of Martha's public-relations campaign, showing that she's a good mother, with her daughter standing behind her," he says.

But times change - Oppenheimer's book was published in 1997, before the ImClone scandal developed - and so do people. Even Oppenheimer is open to seeing the current drama playing out in New York's federal courthouse as something that isn't just another carefully staged image from the air-brushed life that Martha Stewart has previously presented to the world.

"Apparently there's been some rapprochement between mother and daughter," he says. "Certainly whatever went on between Lexi and Martha over all those years, I'm sure she loves her mother.

"And I'm sure she's frightened by the prospect," Oppenheimer adds, "of her mother becoming the diva of domesticity at some women's prison."

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