The Mouth Behind the Eye

By DAVE O'BRIAN  |  August 24, 2009

Yet there, in Norma's very first effort, on that fateful April 25 of 1977, was an item about the TV news personality and the woman who "co-anchor a phone number in an Acorn Street apartment, Eye'm told." Those early columns also included continuous references to the unnamed wife of the Brahmin editor ("Not the one you think it is," Norma assures us) who "rings up new male writers for lunch and later to see what they've got under the covers"; Caroline Kennedy's rumored corpulence ("Too many Twinkies and high-cal Cokes, Caro?" asked the Eye, rhetorically); and some business about Mayor White having been "really PO'd at the kids who urinated - and worse- by his Mt. Vernon Street home" after a Hatch Shell concert. And on and on, including this tacky little revelation about a hair-salon proprietor: "BOTTOMS: Ralph Colentino and wife Madelyn both wear her bikini underpants, but neither wears her bras."

This last item inspired one anonymous wise guy to circulate about town an "underwear poll" containing all sorts of unmentionable questions, to be filled out and mailed to the Herald. (Many were.) Additionally, Globe columnist Diane White was moved to inaugurate her own parody of the genre, "The Nose." (One of White's columns reported Somerville state Rep. Marie Howe having been "stuck like hot sugar" to Rick Nelson at Paul's Mall, and Elma Lewis overheard singing "I Can't Get Started With You" with Dapper O'Neil. Both Howe and Lewis, interestingly, demanded retractions.) And reporters in the State House press room, out of which Norma was operating at the time, grew weary of jotting down endless phone messages for her and soon took to answering such calls with, "I'm sorry, Norma's not here, but if you'll leave your name, phone number, and the name of the person you're sleeping with, she'll get back to you."

Eventually wearying of this, some members of the State House Press Association began questioning Norma's right to be taking up space in their desperately overcrowded press room, arguing that what she was doing was really something other than serious political reporting. Under some pressure, she did decide at this point to remove herself to the Herald's city room, which may have been for the best. But it was an unfortunate near-confrontation, given that Norma had been that association's first woman officer and also that, as she now willingly concedes, "I was really just feeling my way with those early columns." In fairness, the toilet and underwear humor that caused so much consternation was never more than a tiny fraction of the Eye's content, and was quickly discarded. In the meantime, her interest in and knowledge of the ins and outs and machinations of Beacon Hill remain keen.

Indeed, whatever some of those so-called "serious" political reporters who began shunning Norma may think of the society tidbits and suchlike she produces, they are forced, however reluctantly, to continue reading her stuff because she's continually breaking political stories or items that lead to such stories. "What annoys me the most," she says, "is when other reporters use the column as an unattributed news source." She has a right to be upset; people who dismiss Norma's work as totally without substance underestimate her.

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  Topics: Flashbacks , Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, Nat Hentoff,  More more >
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