San Diego Larry Lawrence, the late owner of the Hotel del Coronado and Bill Clinton's one-time ambassador to Switzerland, achieved posthumous ignominy when it was revealed that his purported wartime service in the Merchant Marine was a hoax, and his body was exhumed from Arlington National Cemetery.
A major player in the "Gravegate" scandal was Lawrence's ex-aide, Norma Nicolls, who came forward to testify that Lawrence had asked her to conduct research on various Merchant Marine ships of the World War II-era, apparently in an effort to falsely place himself in the midst of a North Atlantic battle.
Nicolls also became a confidante to columnist Arianna Huffington, who has used Nicolls as a key source in her ongoing coverage of the Lawrence scandals. Huffington has been sued for libel by Lawrence's widow, Shelia, who denies allegations that she slept with Bill Clinton to get her husband his job as ambassador to Switzerland, as reported by Huffington. Nicolls was recently interviewed by writer Bill Manson about her role as a longtime Lawrence insider. Lawrence fired Nicolls in 1993, according to Nicolls, "because his fourth wife didn't want me there anymore."
Q: Why did Shelia have a problem if you had served him well for over 15 years?
A: Well, this is my opinion. I think there was a threat there maybe, possibly of my knowing so much, having gone through three wives. It's just my feeling that there was a threat there that I might . . . it's hard to put into words. I don't want to mention names. I think, and from what I said in my testimony [to Congress], I wasn't the first nor the last; there was a string of them.
Q: Of people who she had gotten rid of?
A: Yes, I think so. I had a tremendous loyalty to Larry Lawrence, and because of this, whatever had gone on with Mr. Lawrence, I kept confidential. I believe that his fourth wife knew that because I kept her relationship [with him] confidential until the third wife... You see what I mean?
Q: Yes. What a hell of a position to be in.
A: Yes, because my loyalty was to him, and she knew that.
Q: But surely that would be good news to her that she could trust you.
A: Of course she could trust me as far as Larry Lawrence was concerned, because I would never betray a confidence of his. I just have a feeling that she felt that I knew too much, and it was time to get a whole new setup.
Q: She wanted more control?
A: I think so. That's what I think. When I left there I signed an agreement that I would not discuss all that, and so this makes me nervous.
Q: But in a way, things have mushroomed.
A: Exactly. Well, every time something went on, I would get a call from someone telling me what was going on over there, so I was constantly involved in it still.
Q: And what was happening?
A: Anytime anything happened; anytime another person was let go, anytime the President came to visit, anything like that I knew, and because I live in the same town...and because of my association with the hotel for so long -- I don't know, it was like people had to tell me everything.
Q: I can understand it.
A: So it was like I couldn't move on, so to speak. After I left there, I did fundraising, and I was so involved in that particular community, and because of Larry Lawrence I was able to do that. He opened a lot of doors for me, and I established credibility in the community because of him. He really did a lot of good things, he really did. I think it's a shame right now that the people who are suffering the most are the people who were involved with him the most for a very long period of time, especially his family, his immediate family, his children, and grandchildren.
Q: Do you believe, as you said, that he didn't actually want to be buried in Arlington?
A: I don't think so. He was very family-oriented, and he had aunts and uncles here. I mean, I never heard him express a desire to have a military funeral. Never.
Q: And yet, there he was asking this of his staff [to help him establish a war record]. Why do you think he felt such a need for that?
A: I don't think he did that because he wanted to be buried at Arlington; I don't think that was ever even involved. I think he just wanted something of the military to be on his résumé, because that would kind of make him a well-rounded individual, so to speak. That's why I think.
Q: Somewhere here it quoted him as saying, "I've got three strikes against me -- I'm Jewish, I'm a liberal, and I'm a Democrat." In [Coronado], it's a three-strikes town.
A: Exactly. I believe he was very intimidated by the military. Every time a plane flew over the hotel we'd have to call the tower. There are a lot of retired military in this town. At times when he needed to get something done in this city, he found it difficult because he believed it was under the control of retired Navy admirals. That's a pretty well-known fact, I believe.
Q: When you were actually looking up the Merchant Marine stuff, did you know or sort of sniff that this was what it was all about?
A: I knew it was something, I knew he was up to something. He did talk about being in the Merchant Marine, prior to that he talked about "Well, you know, I was in the Merchant Marine." The fact that someone couldn't remember the name of the ship that he was on was strange to me, because as I mentioned at the hearing when I was questioned about that, I don't know too many military people who don't talk about their exploits, what ship they were on, what plane they flew. You can't shut them up most of the time. And they would remember.