The Mouth Behind the Eye

By DAVE O'BRIAN  |  August 24, 2009

For the record, Norma admits she gets angry, and concedes that she will also get profane. "But I only use profanity when I get angry," she said. "It isn't that I'm screaming all the time. It's like I'll lose it. I think that some of the high-level energy that I burn all the time sometimes comes out as temper. I have to do that. I have too many reportorial instincts not to. I think it's that I care too much about stories."

She is, as they say, competitive to a fault. She wants to be noticed, and respected, as a journalist. She wants to be taken seriously.

Which is difficult, given the nature of her job, producing seven Eyes a week for a paper that, ex-editor Harry King recalled, intended the column only as "a high-wire act, a device - a provocative and interesting kind of thing that hopefully would draw readers into the paper. It was never meant to be a long-term thing. We all assumed it would not last forever." Ironically, Norma Nathan, "The Eye," and "The Page" remain at the Herald better than two years later, while King, publisher Robert Bergenheim (whose tentative title for the proposed new column had been "The Finger") and editor Bill McIlwain, who elected to go hog-wild with the thing, are long gone.

Many of Norma's long-time admirers are saddened at what she spends her time doing now. Michael Harrington, for one, dismisses the column as "trashy." "She's got an enormous talent," he said, "and probably is delivering readers to that paper. But she's so much more dimensional than that." "She used to be very sweet and a very good reporter," adds Rachelle Patterson of the Globe's Washington bureau, who worked alongside Norma at the State House. "Now she's kind of super-aggressive and pushy. That job brings out the worst in her."

But Norma has come to defend defiantly what she's doing, and eagerly draws an analogy between herself and the Washington Post's Maxine Cheshire, who started out as a police reporter. "More people knew what Maxine Cheshire was doing when she wrote that Nixon's tuxedo pants were too short, or that Pat Nixon was nipping behind her bedroom door at the White House, or that Joan was an alcoholic, than when she wrote about Koreagate.

"Besides, I break front-page stories in the column. I had the story that Ed Brooke was getting married. If that was an invasion of privacy, why did it turn into a front-page story everywhere else two weeks later?"

Mostly, though, Norma's column is filled with social notes culled from the never-ending series of opening nights and social functions that she attends as an observer, not a participant, usually garbed in her sister's hand-me-downs. She is faintly amused, indeed, at the thought of housewife and working mother Norma Nathan, daughter of a Russian Jewish immigrant, mixing with Boston's social elite. She knows she'd have never been invited to all these events were it not for her column, and thus would never have come to learn as much as she has about the levels of Boston society, such as it is. "I had never been asked to these events before, and even now I'm not invited as a guest," she said. "I'm not in the Social Register, though I do blow my nose."

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