He’s the man who came up with “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR” on deadline at the New York Post, back in the days when there were deadlines and newspapers carried actual news on actual paper. Musetto succumbed to pancreatic cancer on Tuesday in the Bronx, where he was in hospice care.
When the story first hit the newsroom on April 14,1983, they weren’t quite sure the bar where the grisly crime took place really was a jiggle joint, so they sent a Brenda Starr — in truth, reporter Maralyn Matlick — to check it out. Just as they were about to pull the headline from the wood (as the type for the front pages of tabloids was called then), Matlick called to say she’d spotted a sign in the place that promised “Topless Dancing Tonight.” And so was born what is arguably the most famous headline in the history of newspapering. And an anonymous editor became a hero to anonymous newsmen and newswomen everywhere.
“Headless Body In Topless Bar” — it’s right up there in the Headline Hall Of Fame with Variety‘s “Wall Street Lays An Egg” and “Stix Nix Hick Pics” and the Chicago Daily Tribune‘s “Dewey Defeats Truman” and the New York Daily News‘ “Ford To City: Drop Dead.” They are the essence of tabloid journalism, embodying the qualities of accuracy (well, most of the time), concision and wit.
Musetto knew he had a winner but it wasn’t his favorite. That was “Granny Executed In Her Pink Pajamas,” which led the Post‘s coverage of serial killer Margie Velma Barfield’s 1984 execution in North Carolina. Among Musetto’s other favorites, according to the Post, where he began working in 1973, were “Koch Kicks Butt,” about the late mayor’s crusade (later pursued by Michael Bloomberg) to ban smoking in NYC public spaces; “Curse Of The Capewoman,” about the wife of Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy who, while wearing a cape, vowed to kill the pilot who bombed her home; “Power Losses Hobble Gobble,” about a blackout on Thanksgiving Day; and “Big Flap Over Foul Turkeys,” about contaminated turkeys on the market.
None equalled the Queens bar headline, however — in part because the story itself was so irresistibly sensational. Charles Dingle fatally shot Queens bar owner Herbert Cummings and then took four women hostage, raped one and had another cut off Cummings’ head. The New York Times‘ headline on the story was “Owner of a Bar Shot to Death; Suspect Is Held.” Cummings’ absence of head isn’t noted until late in the story, uninhibited breasts not at all.
Post Editor-in-Chief Col Allan lauded Musetto for his warmth and razor-sharp wit. “VA Musetto was one of the legends of our business, and he became famous for a truly classic headline. But for those who worked with him and mourn him today, VA offered so much more. Humor. A sharp critical eye. A personal warmth with his colleagues, and deep love for The Post and its readers. All will miss him.”
Unlike most newspaper desk editors, Musetto wasn’t entirely anonymous. He moonlighted for the Post as a film reviewer, with a taste for offbeat, indie titles the better-known critics tended to ignore. “If the end of the world was just hours away, would New Yorkers still be able to get takeout? Yes, if Abel Ferrara’s mind-bending 4:44 Last Day On Earth” is any indication,” he wrote in 2012.
Musetto had retired in 2011 but continued reviewing on a freelance basis — until he got the ax. The newspaper’s film editor emailed him, saying:
“Dear Vincent, I’m sorry, but because of budget cutbacks we cannot give you any further reviewing assignments. Your review of THE GRANDMASTER next week is your final assignment.”
Musetto sent that email to everyone on the Post‘s editorial staff, along with this comment:
“after 40 years at post, during which I wrote ‘Headless Body in Topless Bar,’ it has come to this.”
No, Vinnie, it came to this: We who no longer labor in ink salute you for reminding us that no one, not even bean counters, can kill words.