Norma Nathan was a veteran newspaper reporter who became the gossip columnist of the Boston Herald. Norma brought the gossip column to a new level. She was different than the other gossip columnists I’d read. She approached the column like a “hard news” reporter would and she had sources Everywhere. Everybody read her column. Some people read it just to make sure their name wasn’t in it! The column was called “The Eye” a title I assume was lifted from “The Ear” in the old Washington Star. Norma was very tough, smart, and funny, but mostly tough. And “punny” too. A typical paragraph might begin: “Eye say, who was that handsome young Democrat seen leaving the home of a well-connected Republican lady Sunday morning?…” She loved to dig up any dirt on the rival paper, The Boston Globe, but she’d always pretend not to recall that paper’s title. “Eye’ll think of the name…” she’d write.
I didn’t know Norma well but I met or talked with her several times over the years. Here are two stories…
In 1977 when I was working in my first radio job at WEEI as Norm Nathan’s producer, his wife Norma called the station one day to talk with him. Norm was in the studio nearing the end of an interview. The editor who had answered the phone said, “Steve can you pick up line three and talk to Norma Nathan for a couple minutes until Norm comes out.” I picked up the phone and chatted with her about this and that. It was the first time I’d spoken with her and she told me how highly Norm thought of me. “What are you working on now?” she asked. Well, there were two interviews that I had been trying to arrange for Norm that were going nowhere. ABC News anchorwoman Barbara Walters and CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite were both in the news at that time, I don’t recall why. (With Walters this may have been the period when she was a sort of unofficial go-between in the Middle East peace process. Cronkite was involved in some special broadcast then – it may have been the call-in show he hosted with President Carter. Anyway, they were both hot news at the moment and we wanted them for telephone interviews.) I told Norma about the people I had booked that day and then talked about the run-around I was getting from the people at CBS and ABC in trying to book Cronkite and Walters. “The newscasters are harder to get than the newsmakers,” I said. She laughed at my little joke. Apparently she wrote it down too because the next morning that quote appeared in the Boston Herald.
In those days I was making $55 a week so I didn’t buy the newspapers since I could read them at work for free. When I came in to the station the next morning Sally Alcorn, the assistant to News & Programming Director Mike Ludlum, pulled me aside. “Have you read the Herald yet?” she asked quietly. I hadn’t. “Your name’s in it,” she said. “What?” She told me about the quote. At that time WEEI was owned by CBS, so appearing to criticize Walter Cronkite in the press was not a smart thing for a lowly CBS employee like me to be doing. “Has Mike seen it yet?” I asked nervously. “No, but he will,” she said. Now Mike was a reasonable guy but his boss was not. Immediately thoughts of the big guy calling Mike into his office and saying, “Who is this LeVeille or whatever his name is and what the hell does he think he’s doing?” were going through my head. I told Sally about my conversation with Norma and that I just thought of it as talking with Norm’s wife, I had no idea…etc. Sally gave me the obvious advice about talking to any journalist from any news organization no matter who they’re married to, and said she’d talk to Mike before he read it in the paper. I sweated it out for a couple of days but I never heard another thing about it. But I learned my lesson. I also learned what a good reporter Norma Nathan was.
In 1988 I was covering the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta at which Michael Dukakis was nominated for president. I was the news director of WFTQ in Worcester and I was part of a huge Massachusetts media contingent. One day there was a Ladies’ Luncheon in honor of Kitty Dukakis, I think it was her birthday. Hundreds of reporters, producers and technicians were there because the word was that Governor Dukakis was going to “surprise” his wife and the audience by making an appearance.
The event was held in a beautiful, historic Georgia mansion that was no longer a private home but a museum or historical society building or some such thing. We media types passed through the metal detectors and went through the usual Secret Service security routine (“Please open the bag. Please turn the tape recorder on….”) and were herded off to our corral at the back of the ballroom. We had to be there two or three hours before the event began or we couldn’t get in. All reporters hate this kind of thing because you’re stuck there, these things always start late so you have no idea how long you’ll be there, and you’re worried about what else might be going on that you’re missing. And because it’s very boring.
As the luncheon guests began to arrive the DNC officials who were running the show came by the media area and told us we had to leave. All of our equipment could stay in place but we had to leave the room so “the ladies can have lunch in peace.” (Who can blame them!) There was no choice, you could leave the building and not come back and miss the governor and miss your story or you could follow orders. We would be summoned after lunch when the actual program began and before the governor arrived. Most of us, if any, had not known we were going to be thrown out for the duration of the luncheon so there was more than the usual grumbling. We were rounded up and herded into another room, a much smaller room which we now filled to capacity. The room was bare. The only piece of furntiture was a small table off to one side. In other words, there was no place to sit. And this was Atlanta, in mid-summer – hot and humid and sticky. Add to that the body temperature of a few hundred reporters…and the fact that the windows were closed – bolted shut for security reasons. Did I mention there was no air conditioning?
Down the hall several hundred ladies were having lunch. Yes, it was lunch time, and how long had it been since we’d first arrived at this place, four hours? The only items on that little table were a few copies of the luncheon menu which somebody in our hot, hungry, tired, bored, angry throng was now reading out loud to the groans of those around him. In another corner a couple of tech types who were carrying a few tools decided to try and make a break for it. They were trying to pry open the emergency door that led to the fire escape. After a while they gave up, the tools they needed were back in the ballroom. At one point the door to the hallway opened and someone shouted, “We’re free!” No, it was a waiter, maybe two, I couldn’t really see, who’d been sent in with some food – enough to feed about forty people. I knew better than to try but I was so hungry I attempted to push my way through to the table. But nearly everyone else was doing the same, pushing and shoving and shouting and grunting and sweating. It was loud and rough and hot and surreal. Others took advantage of the moment to find a little space at the opposite corner of the room. As I pushed on I passed ABC’s Sam Donaldson – always known for his pleasant personality (not!). Sam was headed for that opposite corner. He was shouting back toward the food table, mocking us,”You fools! You’re wolves! You’re crazy! Count your fingers everyone!” The food was gone within seconds. By the time I reached the table all I could get was a pickle. Others were still pushing toward the table so I tried to push away from it as I began wolfing down that pickle.
It was then that I ran into Norma Nathan. Actually I was pushed into her. We collided and looked at each other. (Eye think she was Eye-ing that pickle if you know what Eye mean!) I hadn’t seen her in several years so I re-introduced myself, shouting over the noise, “Norma! Steve LeVeille.” “Steve! How are you? How do you like Worcester?” We spoke – or shouted – at each other for a minute or two as we tried to maintain our balance in the continued jostling. “Have you seen Sam Donaldson?” she hollered. “Yes,” I screamed back, “he was headed over that way.” “Did you know him at ABC?” she inquired, obviously looking for an ‘in.’ “Not really. He was in Washington, I was in New York. I talked to him on the phone a few times but I never met him.” “I’m going to get an interview with him,” she said. “Good luck,” said I. Norma pushed on through the hordes.
I worked my way over to a relatively quieter spot where I could stand up straight. After a few minutes I could see Sam Donaldson across the room pushing his way through the crowd again. He was yelling but in the pandemonium I couldn’t make out what he was saying. In a moment Donaldson came pushing past me shouting over his shoulder, “No, lady! No. I said no! Leave me alone!” Hot in pursuit was Norma Nathan. She smiled at me as she pushed by.
Eye wish you could have been there!