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.
I'm surrounded by women whose husbands were either prisoners of war, missing in action, or dead, who got killed during the Vietnam War. They all certainly remember the name of the ship or the airplane and definitely everything about those times. You remember the day. I found it rather strange that he wanted me to look up names of ships in the Pacific. I thought that was bizarre.
Q: He gave no reason?
A: No, he didn't. He'd say if I had a problem doing it, he'd do it himself. It was a challenge. Whenever he said to me to do something, and you thought it was an impossible task, and whenever he said if I couldn't do it he'd do it himself, you decided you were going to do it and you were going to do it fast.
Q: How did you land on [the cargo ship] SS Horace Bushnell?
A: I gave him the names of some ships.
Q: Which you just picked out of a hat?
A: No, that I did research on. At first I called the library, and they said maybe I needed to call the Merchant Marine Academy or a maritime association. They sent the names of ships that were out there at that time, and I gave it to him. What he did from there was pick something out. I guess. I don't know. He started getting letters from different associations and sending them small contributions. They would invite him to reunions and things like that.
Q: But he never went?
A: He established a relationship with them is what he did.
Q: I never met him, but I keep coming across people who had, and they say he was either outgoing, ebullient or forceful; he could really hypnotize you with the force of his personality if he wanted something done.
A: He definitely ruled through intimidation. He had a lot of respect for me, and I knew that because of what people around me told me. I was sort of a buffer in that office. I softened what Larry said, and everyone knew that. They knew that I protected them. From the people in room service to the president of the hotel, I always -- how do I word it? If he told me to do something to tell these people to do it, if I told them the way he told me to tell them, people would have hated me, but I didn't do that. I kind of translated it into a more civilized thought. He knew that. The working relationship was such that it worked. I knew what he was going to say next. I trained myself in that office to be attuned with what he wanted and to go one step beyond, because he always said to go one step beyond. If he asked for something, take it a little bit further. I learned a lot from Larry Lawrence; I really did. He could depend on me; I was a dependable employee.
Q: Prior to this were there moral moments where you thought, "Gosh, can I stay and do this?"
A: There were a few dilemmas. A few dilemmas that had nothing to do with what I would do for him, but things that he was doing that I thought were not of integrity, were not moral.
Q: You want to be specific?
A: No, I don't want to be specific. That's where my loyalty came from!
Q: How did you resolve that?
A: I felt that I had two choices. I can either put up with it or leave. Like I said before, if it ever was a question of my integrity, I would not put up with it and he knew that.
Q: So you were very good for him.
A: I think so. I called him on a lot of things.
Q: You could do that sort of thing?
A: I could do that. People would say how do I do that, how do I talk to him the way you talk to him?
Q: That must have taken a lot of guts. Here was a person capable of bullying and...
A: I think that's why our relationship worked because I wouldn't put up with him; I told him like it was.
Q: He was never involved in any real skullduggery, real bad stuff?
A: No, I don't think so. [She chuckles.]
Q: How did your public involvement in the Gravegate scandal begin?
A: I had been reading in the paper about them trying to find out if favors were granted to certain people who had contributed, and then I read about the waivers for the burials at Arlington, but I didn't pay much attention to it. Then I heard something on the radio and TV that Washington had come out and totally denied it, because someone had picked out Larry Lawrence in particular out of that list. Washington and the White House and the powers that be came out and said not true, not true, not true. I guess that Arianna Huffington saw something there and continued to probe. She called me at the end of November and asked me some things and I told her I could only give her my opinion. I faxed her my opinion, as a matter of fact.
Q: What was your opinion?
A: I was appalled that he was going to be buried at Arlington because of my association with the Navy. Military wife for 24 years. Most of my friends were Navy wives who had really, really gone through horrible times. As a matter of fact, one of them who had her husband declared dead after so many years, and then about three or four years ago they found his remains so she had to go through it again. He was buried at Arlington and he damn well deserved to be buried at Arlington. That, to me, has always been sacred ground.
Q: He was a Navy pilot in Vietnam?
A: Yes. So when I heard this, I was very upset by it. So I gave Arianna my opinion. And then that week I got a call from the Subcommittee on Oversights and Investigations... When they called asking things, you don't lie. I had no reason to lie whatsoever, so I told them what I knew. They started investigating early and came up with all kinds of things. I also told them that when the gentleman came to investigate Mr. Lawrence for the ambassadorship that I told him then that he should check out the résumé.
Q: Tell me about that FBI interview. Do you remember his name?
A: I don't remember his name. He did not have my name on his list, which to me was bizarre. I was with Larry for a very long time and knew him very well.
Q: You were his closest person, probably including the wife.
A: Yes. I knew every minute of the day what he was doing because I planned all those things. I got a call from a friend of mine who said there's a gentleman here from the FBI who would like to interview you about him and gave my name because [my friend] thought I would be able to do this better than anybody. So I went and sat in my friend's office, right around the corner here, and the guy came and he was there for only 45 minutes.
Q: Forty-five minutes?
A: Forty-five minutes. I was just astounded that this was all the time he would take. And when he left, I thought to myself, that's bizarre. I don't think he took seriously anything that I said.
Q: Like he didn't want to, sort of, hear. How did he...
A: He just asked questions about why I left the hotel, if I thought Larry Lawrence would make a good ambassador. I said Larry Lawrence was not a diplomat, and everyone knew that. That was common knowledge.
Q: You would hope it was a neutral country.
A: A neutral country so they wouldn't go to war. I said things like that, and I also said he really should check out his curriculum vitae...
Q: So you initiated that?
A: Yes. If they had done that then and really checked it out and really investigated it, none of this would have happened, none of it.... I don't even remember him writing anything. All I know is that when he left I said to my friend that was bizarre. That guy acted like the Good Old Boys Club. I thought it was strange because when I had an interview with [an FBI] woman who was interviewing me about Shelia, she spent almost four hours with me.... Because I left shortly after Clinton was elected, [Lawrence] said, "You know, I don't know if I really want an ambassadorship; I would really like my wife to become Chief of Protocol."
Q: So what happened next? You had that brief interview...
A: I don't remember exactly when [Lawrence] was confirmed; I wasn't working there at the time. I believe in January of 1994 he went back to Washington, and that was when he received the medal from the Russian Embassy for his exploits during the war. [Laughter] You have to understand, you know, when I see this stuff and read it in print, I'm thinking to myself, "Oh, my!"
Q: When you read about that, you didn't think, "Oh God, I should ring the Russians or tell somebody"?
A: Never, it never occurred to me. I thought, you know, why? Why? I would have been crucified totally. People said I sold out. How could I have sold out? I'm suffering through this. It cost me money. If I had wanted to sell out, I could have sold out three or four years ago and really sold out. Big time. So when people say that I have an ax to grind or whatever, I don't. I really don't. I told the truth when I was asked by the appropriate authorities and there's nothing I could have done. Why would I lie? For what purpose?
Q: Unless you had built up such animosity against him...
A: Yes, and I hadn't, and like I said, he was very, very good to me. He really was. I had no reason to lie.
Q: How long after the Larry interview was the four-hour interview [regarding Shelia]?
A: That was probably within three or four weeks after....
Q: And what did [the FBI] spend four hours asking you?
A: Everything. From the day I started working there to the day I left. Everything. She was very fascinated by everything.
Q: So it was not just about her, it was about your work for him...
A: Everything. Everything. His family, his wife, everything. She wanted to know everything. So her interview was more thorough than the gentleman's interview, which I found odd because of [Shelia's] lesser position, unless [the FBI] was just curious.
Q: When [Lawrence] came to the hotel [del Coronado], was everybody uptight?
A: Yes, and when he left the hotel went [big sigh]. I was in there yesterday at a conference, and I was walking through the lobby and there were a million people in the lobby. I thought to myself if Larry were here this never would have happened. You couldn't move. You could not move there was such chaos. He wanted the place to run the right way. There were no excuses. If you didn't know an answer, then you should always say, "I'll find out." They miss him over there, they miss him tremendously because with Larry Lawrence you knew where you stood. You knew exactly where you stood.
Q: There's sort of anger there.
A: Yes, absolutely the anger. The hotel ran very well when he was gone, but he demanded perfection from everyone, and excellence. He really did.
Q: What's your overall feeling now, four or five years since you worked for him. What's your feeling about him and your time there?
A: I went there in 1979. Let's just say from 1990 until he died, his life was just, uh, what do I want to say? His life was a roller coaster during the last years of his life. I don't think there was a lot of peace.
He used to say, "Peace at all cost, Norma. Peace at all cost." He always said that.
I don't think the last five or six years of his life was a peaceful time for him. That's my opinion. I think it was very tumultuous for him; I think there was a lot of turmoil going on....
Q: Did you see him after?
A: I saw him one time after I left, and that was a couple of months after I left. He did not look well then.
Q: How was his reaction to you and you to him?
A: We were at a party and he walked in and he saw me. My kids were all there, and I said, "Hi, Boss." He said hello, and he was with [Shelia], and they walked over, and I could see the body language. They left immediately.
A: Yes, I think the last five years of his life took a tremendous toll on him. I really do.... I felt really strange. I mean, it was very, very difficult for me to go through that after being there for such a long period of time and then not being there, because the questions and the people calling and everybody wanting to know why. It was hard, really hard.
Q: Did you go to his funeral?
A: Yes, I did.
Q: Tell me about that.
A: I did. I was really upset the week before he died because, it was really strange, I kept thinking about him for some reason. As a matter of fact I saw an old news clip about him on TV and it was like, wow, I just kept thinking about him that week. I had a dream about him as a matter of fact. The next day I called a friend and said, "Larry's been on my mind a lot. Is anything going on?" She said, as a matter of fact, yes, the family just flew to Switzerland; he's dying. I went "Whoa!" I was really upset by it, and then of course a lot of people were calling to ask if I knew. When he died, I found out there was going to be a funeral, one at the Hotel del Coronado. There would be one in the Crown Room and there would be an overflow with a TV screen in the ballroom. I thought I need to go to this but I don't want to be where the TV screen is, because if I go up there, I know all those people and I would feel really strange not being part of, you know. So I sent a message to the widow and expressed my sympathy, and I got a call from her assistant inviting me to sit in the vip section and then back to the house after that. I did that and took my older son with me because he and Larry were really good friends.
Q: What was it like? Was it emotional?
A: It was very emotional. Very emotional. It was a very impressive ceremony, in the ballroom, in the Crown Room, with all the flags and dignitaries. It was packed. The whole hotel was packed.
Q: So what happened after that?
A: I had gotten a call that week -- I believe I mentioned this in my testimony -- from a friend who wanted to know where the Merchant Marine files were. I said that I didn't know and asked why. He said they were trying to get him buried at Arlington....They were trying to get him buried at Arlington, they were looking for the files, and then I got off the phone and it was like, "I don't believe this." When I hung up, I was sick to my stomach.
Q: Why were you sick to your stomach?
A: Because I thought this was crazy! That really bothered me, and I thought, what do you do? I'm certainly not going to go forward and say that he doesn't deserve to be buried there, and you need to really check this out. I don't understand. And then I thought, well, maybe there's something I don't know. Maybe there is. And that was it. I thought that was it, that it was over. And that we could get on with it.
Q: Did you ever consider calling the man and saying...
A: Never. Never even entered my mind, because I knew that if I did it would be construed as something other than what it was.
Q: That you were?...
A: Yes, that I was a disgruntled employee. If you look in the dictionary under the word "disgruntled," I don't look disgruntled, do I? [Laughter]
Q: So that was two years ago.
A: Right. January 1996.
Q: January 1996. And you thought that was that. What happened then?
A: That was when I got the call from Arianna.
Q: Who you knew before?
A: Never. Never. She heard that I had worked for him and she thought I might know something and called me out of the blue.
Q: What did she say?
A: She said, "Can you tell me about Larry Lawrence's military record?" Just asked me different questions about whether...um ...she asked me a lot of questions, but basically in that article...a lot of different things. But I told her all I could do was to give my opinion. That was all because I have a family. It all came out of that [after the Huffington column appeared]. I got a lot of phone calls. A lot of phone calls. A lot of phone calls where people were not very nice.
Q: Tell me about that.
A: I really can't say who.
Q: Was it someone at the hotel?
A: No, no one who worked at the hotel knew. None of the people I worked with did; it was just people in the community who did. I got a few letters.
Q: You don't have any of them on you, by any chance, do you?
A: No. I have one, but I...yes. "Why did you do what you did?" "You sound like a woman scorned." There was a lot of that. It took its toll. It really took its toll. My phone rang off the hook. It rang all the time.... There were more calls saying that I was very brave to tell the truth. And I think, isn't it amazing? You do what's right, and you're 'courageous'? I don't understand. Why do you have to be rewarded for doing what's right?
Q: You'd been getting all of these mixture of phone calls...
A: A lot more good phone calls; more of those than the other, because there are still people out there who still believe in morality and integrity, things that people think you should get rewarded for, instead of just living that way. It's funny because being in the situation I've been in since 1979, and being involved with all of the different things that I did at the hotel, in the fundraising and in different aspects of my life, I've seen so much abuse of money and power that it really bothers me. The people who come out there and tell the truth are persecuted.... And I think that there's something wrong with that. That little girl, Monica Lewinsky, I think it's horrible what's being done to her. What did she do?
Q: She will never be anonymous again.
A: She will never be anonymous again, and yet people look at her like she was an opportunist or someone going after something. Why would anybody want to do that? Why would anybody want such a high degree of visibility? That's what I don't understand. A lot of people won't come forward and tell the truth because they're being emotionally blackmailed. You know, if I do this I'm going to be hurt or somebody's going to be rude to me. I don't feel that way. I feel I am who I am, and if people out there want to associate it with me, that's fine, and if they don't that's fine, too. I have to live with myself. I think I always would have told the truth because that's a part of my being.
Q: Was your husband a Navy flyer?
A: He was a pilot.
Q: A pilot. In the Vietnam Era?
Q: And did he survive?
A: Yes, he did. He had his own squadron. We lost a lot of friends.... We're divorced. We got divorced 24 years ago. We were not together all the time and when he finally did retire, we didn't know each other.
Q: Was Lawrence politically savvy?
A: Very. Yes. Absolutely. He had been involved in politics for years. Supported a lot of people, a lot of people. Whenever somebody would run for something, Larry was the first person they called, especially in San 1. Typical Democrat; he really was. Everybody sought his advice when they were running for something. And he had money to give.
Q: Oh, yes. Could you tell about the nature of the relationship between Lawrence and Bill Clinton? Was it, "Hey, Larry," "Hey, Bill"? Or was it "Thank you very much for your contribution"?
A: No, they were close.
Q: How important was the relationship of Bill to Larry?
A: Very. Very important, yes.
Q: What's your opinion of Arianna Huffington?
A: She is the kind of person who researches everything. I just cannot believe she would put anything in the paper she did not research. She is a very kind, loving woman. She is a mother and that's a priority with her. An incredible lady. I was very, very impressed. There's not too many people like her walking around.
Q: So, might you write the book with her?
A: No. I don't know that I'm actually going to do that. You do know the Justice Department is still investigating us?
Q: "Us" being?
A: They're still investigating the thing with campaign contributions and things like that.
Q: Oh, yes, the reason [Lawrence] got the ambassadorship.
A: Yes, they're still investigating it. Very much so.
Q: Have they come to you, have you had more people talking to you about this?
A: Yes, but I can't talk about that.
Q: And they've been asking you about contributions?
A: Yes... I don't know, I don't know what's going to happen. I know they're really delving into it.
Q: How long ago were they talking to you?
A: When I was back there [in Washington in January]. I knew that they were going to be doing that. They're not going to let it die.