The Mouth Behind the Eye

By DAVE O'BRIAN  |  August 24, 2009

Oh, that irrepressible Norma. Even as her former Eagle-Tribune colleagues unanimously agree she was a superb reporter, the things that stick in their minds most are those zany office antics. "She was simply as aggressive as hell," said city editor Coburn. "She was in a tough spot because men had all the plum jobs when she came on the staff, so she had to do twice the job the men did. She worked at it 24 hours a day." Yet what Coburn remembers best about Norma is the day she enticed half the staff into wearing McGovern buttons to protest the conservative Republican paper's refusal to acknowledge the fact that somebody was running against Nixon. "They were told they'd be fired if they did it again," said Coburn. "so they did it again, the very next day - and nothing happened. Norma was the ringleader."

Nor was this the only time that the line between Norma's outspoken liberal activism and her political reporting became blurred. "She supported us, both editorially and philosophically," said former North Shore Congressman Michael Harrington of Norma's role in his first campaign. "She was helpful just in getting us access to the Lawrence paper." And she lent a similar helping hand to Paul Tsongas, now our freshman senator. "I like to take credit for finding Paul Tsongas," Norma said. "I wrote the first story when he was deciding to run (for Congress) against Paul Cronin."

But she did more than merely write about Tsongas. Joe Mahoney recalls her "introducing him around a New Year's Eve party back before anyone else had even heard of him." Significantly, Norma was the only press person permitted to attend a recent Tsongas birthday party.

While all this was going on, by the way, Norma, through threatening to quit, had won herself a full-time assignment as the Eagle-Tribune's State House reporter. "She was the den mother of the press room," recalled one of her journalistic colleagues. "She left behind two general impressions: her notebook and her cookies." Maybe so, but people also recall her whimsical accounts of the bizarre antics of the State Senator William X. Wall of Lawrence (she remains the world's foremost authority on the number of times the 75-year-old Wall has taken, and flunked, the bar exam - either 55 or 56, at last count); her tendency to interview State House janitors rather than the pols during those endless prorogation-night histrionics; and her outraged series on the first two female House pages and how Speaker David Bartley tried to keep them off the House floor.

"I noticed that all the male reporters would stand out in the hall and talk to each other, but that didn't bother me," Norma says. "I wasn't interested in the things they were talking about anyway." Perhaps not, but Norma was - and is - competitive enough, and nosy enough, to make rival newshounds in the press room feel it necessary to hide copies of the stories they were preparing from her sidewise glances. Even then, we're told, she would try to demand from wire-service reporters advance copies of stories that dealt with North Shore pols, arguing that her paper was paying for such services and she had an absolute right to them. Even now, we're also told, she has been known to berate press agents in blunt and occasionally vulgar terms for sharing social notes, supposedly fed exclusively to Norma, with other gossip columnists - even, and indeed especially, with other gossip columnists at her own newspaper, like "The" Paul Sullivan and Ken "The Night Mayer" Mayer, who share space with "The Eye" on "The Page."

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