The news photographers first spotted Norma Brighton Millen inside the NYPD headquarters in lower Manhattan, ten minutes by squad car from the midtown hotel where her husband had just tried to kill a cop.
She was sitting with her legs crossed, clasping her purse and wrapped in a Persian lamb coat with a thick fur collar. Her eyebrows were plucked into thin, curved lines that magnified the blue eyes gazing back at the crowd of reporters. Her lips were painted a rich, dark red, and she had brushed back the hair from her face in the latest style. She sat erect, her chin up, and a faint smile flickered across her face despite the collapse of her life a few hours earlier. It was a fact she had not yet grasped.
The photographers slid slim, square film negatives in and out of their boxy Speed Graphic cameras and juggled hot flashbulbs. They knew this photo was going out front. On page 1. Above the fold. But the rewrite men on the city desk needed details the black-and-white photos could not provide. What shade of blue were her eyes? Exactly how crimson were those lips? For that the desk relied on the beat reporters, and on this Sunday afternoon in February 1934, the reporters could not agree on the color of Norma’s hair.
Later, some newspapers said it was blond, which was flat wrong. “Brown” was too bland for the striking young woman who nonchalantly nibbled on a chocolate bar as detectives grilled her husband, still bleeding from the truncheon that beat him to the hotel lobby floor. “Brunette” did not do justice to the luminescence that shimmered in the cigarette-fouled air. There was a tint of sunset in her hair. The tabloids could work with that. So the reporters decided they had themselves a redhead. A redheaded gun moll. Even better, she was a minister’s daughter. They had hit the trifecta.
When her father in Boston first tried to explain how his eighteen-year-old child had ended up with a hangdog-looking fellow wanted for murder—actually, the murders of two Massachusetts police officers—the hair color question was already outstanding. “She is not red-haired as reports have announced,” said Norman Brighton—the similarity of his first name to his daughter’s always confused reporters new to the story—”but has brunette hair, which has a copper glint when the light strikes it.” The front-page account, one of a thousand newspaper stories soon to thud into Norma’s life, did not say if that turn of phrase was the reporter’s or the father’s. But “brunette” was simply too ordinary and remained largely banished from the news pages. One reporter took to describing Norma as “titian-haired,” which was far more romantic, even if it sent readers to the dictionary.
Murt never said whether it was her hair or her cheekbones or maybe Norma’s walk that caught his eye (an ordinary shade of brown) on the evening in 1933 when she whisked herself off the Palm Garden dance floor in Nantasket Beach to powder her nose and comb her hair and then return to sit by herself. It was the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend, the last holiday night of the summer, and both were alone…