Vincent Musetto, whose New York Post headline “Headless Body in Topless Bar” defined 1980s tabloid journalism and became one of the most memorable – if not infamous — headlines in newspaper history, died June 9 at a hospital in New York City. He was 74.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his daughter, Carly VanTassell.
The headline topped an article about a crime that was gruesome even for a city that had seen its share of shocks: In April 1983, a man named Charles Dingle shot to death Herbert Cummings, the owner of a topless bar in the borough of Queens. He then took several women hostage, raped one and forced another, a mortician, to cut off Cummings’s head.
Before Facebook, Twitter and search engine optimization, “Headless Body in Topless Bar” was the 20th-century version of clickbait. The April 15, 1983, headline appeared on T-shirts and buttons and on a Nicole Miller tie. It made “Saturday Night Live” and the David Letterman show; a literary scholar praised its “trochaic rhythm” in the National Review. It was the title of a 1995 movie loosely based on the crime and also is the name of a book, “Headless Body in Topless Bar: The Best Headlines From America’s Favorite Newspaper.”
Mr. Musetto’s approach to headline writing was to make his creations as eye-grabbing as possible. A perfect headline, he once said, “would sell a million and a half copies” of the Post at a time when the newspaper’s circulation was 804,000, with three morning editions and four afternoon editions.
Not for him were the well-mannered, occasionally stuffy prose of the New York Times; its headline on the Dingle article: “Owner of a Bar Shot to Death; Suspect Is Held”; he preferred to assault his readers with surprise uppercuts to the chin, such as “Khadafy Goes Daffy” (using its spelling of the Libyan ruler), or Mr. Musetto’s personal favorite, “Granny Executed in her Pink Pajamas,” over an article about a woman who wanted to wear her pajamas rather than prison garb in the electric chair.
Mr. Musetto told Letterman, in an interview on the show, that his favorite words were “coed,” “love,” “nightmare” and “tots.”
A mastermind of the sensational, Mr. Musetto had an affinity for the highbrow. An English literature major, he was a ballet aficionado and embraced art-house movies by German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
“The average guy probably thinks that whoever writes headlines for the Post probably never got past third grade,” Mr. Musetto told the Miami Herald in 1986. “I guess maybe they’d be shocked.”
He carried his love of theater and movies into his headlines, recasting Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” as “The Prisoner of Seventh Avenue.” Another time, a variation of Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” became “The Bitter Tears of Roxanne Pulitzer,” for the Post’s coverage of a lurid, high-society divorce trial.
Vincent Albert Musetto Jr. was born May 9, 1941, and grew up in Boonton, N.J. He said he became an expert at headline writing because he read so many newspapers in his childhood — at least six regularly, several of them tabloids.
After graduating from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, he worked for a newspaper in Dover, N.J., before joining the Post as a copy editor in the early 1970s.
Mr. Musetto was an assistant managing editor in charge of the afternoon editions when he wrote the “Headless Body” headline and had several editorial roles at the newspaper before he retired in 2011. The headline got attention again the following year when Dingle came up for parole — and was denied.
Besides his daughter of Woodstock, N.Y., Mr. Musetto is survived by his wife, Claire Molenski Musetto of Woodstock and Greenwich Village; and a brother.
“Headless Body in Topless Bar” almost didn’t make it into print. The editors were ready to go to press when the newspaper’s police reporter said he wasn’t sure the bar was a topless one. Mr. Musetto was agitated.
“It’s gotta be a topless bar!” he said, according to a former colleague who recounted the incident in the Huffington Post three years ago. A reporter was dispatched to the scene and said the bar, indeed, featured topless dancers. The headline stayed.
In assessing his legacy, Mr. Musetto said he was simply the right man at the right time in the right city. The same headline would not work in just any newspaper. Any flak directed at him — even among jaded New Yorkers — is essentially the same burden faced by any journalist, he said.
“People do get angry at what you do sometimes, but that’s only natural,” he told the Herald. “That happens wherever you are — at the Times, the Daily News and probably even at the New Yorker. But I don’t think we really ever go beyond good taste.”