Another Perspective

John Dillinger and Martha

Sometimes it pays to outfox the biggies.

By 3.6.05

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"Yuh gotta understand," says Uncle Pundit. "They aren't the same, and yet they are, in the public mind."

I don't know from apples about John Dillinger, America's Public Enemy Number One back in the pre-CEO days, but I know Uncle Pundit will explain.

"John was a killer, a bank robber, an unnice guy. And yet, in the time that he lived, the early '30s, he had a mystique. It was the banks that wouldn't let people have their money for a time, it was the banks that took the farm when the mortgage couldn't be paid. So, here's a guy runnin' fast cars around the Midwest, shootin' up banks, takin' their money. Secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, people kinda rooted for him, like they did other bad guys back in the six-shooter days earlier."

Okay, so what's that got to do with Martha Stewart? She certainly is not a bank robber.

"Naw. But she is in the same category, a gal who made it on her own, who outfoxed some of the biggies, the Time-Warners and the K-Marts. And finally, she did what every red-blooded American yearns to do: she beat the stock market."

How so?

"She sold in time. No American does that. At least most just go down with the ship, with the rest of the galley slaves. But not ol' Martha. She gets the info in time and she gets out. Not a big score-- 40 grand or so. Small enough for America to understand, but big enough for America to admire."

That makes her a heroine?

"That is just the beginning. It is the Feds that make her the hero. Like they did with Dillinger, they chase her down, tree her, and make her pay for beating the game."

But, inside trading....

"Inside my left foot. Inside info is what keeps Wall Street going. It's what your analyst pretends to have, it's what your broker hints he's got, it's what a thousand guys writing news letters about the market want you to think they've got. Besides, it wasn't inside trading that they made Martha with after all."

That's right. It was fibbing to the investigators about the subject.

"Exactamundo. How many Americans can imagine it? You're sitting under that bright light, they're firing questions, and what does the average guy do? He collapses like a cheap suitcase, tells all and more. Martha? With the guts of a Christmas turkey, she lies! And look, the subject is not atomic secrets. It's about how she happened to unload some stock before it tanked. Something all America yearns to do. To get out before that Wall Street bandit machine takes you down."

I think it begins to figure...

"Of course. And here is the image of big bad Uncle Sam, overweening power, being brought to bear on pretty Martha. Lemme take you back."

"It's a hot summer night in Chicago in 1934. A lot of people think they hear sheet lightening but it's comin' from down around State Street, the Biograph Theatre, a movie house. The Feds, with some borrowed Texas Rangers, are killing Dillinger as he leaves the movie house. He staggers up an adjacent alley, and dies. By dawn, you couldn't drive on that street for the traffic. Some early birds go up the alley and soak their hankies in a pile of blood. Hankies that today are worth fortunes. The movie guy made a fortune charging people to stand in line and sit in the seat where he decided Dillinger had last sat. A lot of newspapers blare the end of Dillinger as a triumph. But there's no TV to tell America what to think."

But you don't surely equate John Dillinger's acts with those of Martha?

"'Course not in terms of kind and depth. Only superficially. And since her misstep was so mild there is no shame in rooting her home from jail. Like they did Thursday night in West Virginia. Some people had driven all the way from Seattle to wish her well and see her off."

Interesting parallels, Uncle.

"There's more; then we eat. Dillinger had the Lady in Red, a woman who accompanied him and a new girlfriend to the movie. She informed the cops beforehand. Anna Sage thought she had a deal. In exchange for giving up Dillinger, the feds would forget an immigration rap pending against her."

She got to stay here?

"Nope. They deported her to her native Rumania anyway. Said the guy who made the deal wasn't authorized to do it."

There's no Lady in Red in Martha's case.

"No. But there's a guy in a suit, one of the broker's boys who helped make the case. When you get older watch for ladies in red; meantime, beware of talking guys in suits. Let's eat."

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.