The Mouth Behind the Eye

By DAVE O'BRIAN  |  August 24, 2009

But since Norma has been the Herald's answer to such other newspaper gossips with alliterative names as, you know, Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell, the most common (and uncannily accurate) word used to describe her has been yenta. (Which is defined in The Joys of Yiddish as "a gossipy woman; a scandal-spreader; a rumormonger; one unable to keep a secret or respect a confidence.") One trusts (and fearfully hopes) Norma won't be offended by this. After all, she delightedly tells the tale of the time Playboy photographer David Chan, on his way to Harvard while making his calculatedly scandalous campus rounds searching out the semi-clad "girls of the Ivy league," was chatting on the phone with Norma and she started suggesting places to stay and dine while in Boston. He stopped her. "If there's one thing I don't need," said Chan, "it's a Jewish mother."

"Norma is yenta personified," said persistent partygoer Martin Slobodkin, who admits to having been angered by Eye snipes aimed his way. "But she has transcended it. Not content at merely being a Jewish mother, she has made a career of it for herself. There's a wolf-trap of a mind there. She pursues leads like a bloodhound. She never lets anything go."

Actually, Norma Nathan and the Herald's absurdly large allotment of space to rumor mongering may have been the near-perfect match, though it takes a while to tell the story.

Norma was once employed as a secretary in the fiction department of the now defunct Woman's Home Companion in New York, a position that put to rest her desire to edit. ("All the manuscripts that came in were the same," she says. "Woman has problem. Woman finds man. Woman solves problem.") And in the early '50s, after Norm was laid off from his announcing job at WMEX, the just-married couple invested their wedding-gift funds ($4000) in their own weekly newspaper, something called the North Shore Jewish Press, which survived for about a year and left them destitute. "We published a jazz column by Nat Hentoff," said Norm. "That's the only thing about that paper I'm proud of."

But Norma's journalism career did not begin in earnest until 1963, when she was president of the Topsfield-Boxford League of Women Voters. As a consequence, "A man came to my back door one day while I was peeling and coring apples and asked me if I would like to be Middleton correspondent for the Lawrence paper for 15 cents an inch." She said no, but changed her mind the following November. She was moved, she says, by the Kennedy assassination. "I decided I'd tell the world what it should know," says Norma, "and what it has the right to know."

One of the first things the world found out it should know, thanks to Norma's early snooping, was that one Middleton selectman had apparently gone and signed the other selectmen's names to a bill when they weren't around. "She transformed a nothing, backwater town into a vital, interesting place mostly through good reporting," remembers Joe Mahoney, her managing editor. "But," he was quick to add, "you had to watch her like a hawk. She would tack endless lists of town bills to be paid onto the end of her meeting stories (thus amassing, say, an added 50 cents per story), and she tended to stick things into those lists like 'and a partridge in a pear tree.' "

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Related: Is Murdoch’s WSJ being snubbed?, Ransom Notes, Fourth-estate follies, 2009 edition, More more >
  Topics: Flashbacks , Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, Nat Hentoff,  More more >
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