The Mouth Behind the Eye

By DAVE O'BRIAN  |  August 24, 2009

In any event, a weekly paper called North Shore: Sunday gave Norma one of its dubious "North Shore Turkey" awards one Thanksgiving, along with this bitchy comment: "Eye say! Is snooping through people's drawers any way to make a living?"

Norma was not amused. Even though it might be said that she'd made herself an absurdly obvious target for this sort of thing. And even though, when she began to threaten libel suits against those who were ridiculing her, it might be - and indeed was - said that, you know, Norma Nathan can dish it out but she sure can't take it.

"It was a very difficult first eight months," says Norma. "I was buying what other people were saying about the column, that it was not real journalism and so forth. I became very self-conscious about it and started breaking out in hives. One thing I wasn't prepared for was that, unlike the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune (where she'd been previously employed as a political reporter), when you put something in the Herald, people read it and react. I can remember the exact moment when my attitude changed. It was the day that Paul Szep (the Globe's editorial cartoonist) said, 'Why don't you relax and enjoy it? Everybody else does.' So I stopped paying so much attention to myself. That was the big thing."

Norma Nathan does inspire contrary reactions. "She's like lima beans; you either love her or hate her," suggested Charlie Stuart, who was master of ceremonies for Channel 2's now-canceled variety series, The Club, on which Norma made bizarre cameo appearances as "the Mouth," a disguised and intentionally silly restaurant critic.

"Norma invites hostility; Norma is vicious," said one of her long-time North Shore associates. "I would never take a job like that because you end up with people hating you," countered Cambridge author Anne Bernays, a frequent subject of the column's gossipy "Eye-tems." "But Norma is not a bitch at all. She's a nice woman, a lovely mother."

"She's filled with venom, always looking for the vicious part of a story," contended a press agent who says he refuses to return Norma's phone calls. "You hear the word 'bitch' from guys who don't expect her level of honesty," responds Andrew Coburn, who was her city editor for a decade in Lawrence.

Can all of this really apply to the same woman? Yes - and more. "She's a chameleon," offered a woman who's been active with Norma in liberal Democratic Party politics. "She presents a different face to you at different times. If she's feeling light and gay and comfortable, she'll reflect that. But if she's after a story, she cares so deeply about getting it that she can't see beyond it. I'm afraid to talk to her now. I cannot trust her to keep the quotes confidential, because she feels that the public's right to know is more important."

"Norma is an extraordinarily bright and capable woman," summed up another North Shore person who's close. "It's a pleasure and a delight to be with her. But she's also a complete loon."

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