(Headline Left Blank in Memory of V.A. Musetto)
V.A. Musetto died last week. You probably never heard of him. But you may be familiar with his work.
He had a long, distinguished career in journalism, or at least as distinguished as it could be when you consider he worked for The New York Post (Motto: “What Rupert Murdoch reads when he’s in New York…and he’s in the bathroom…and there’s nothing else to read”).
While Musetto’s name is not widely known among the general public, he is a legend in journalistic circles for a single act he perpetrated over 32 years ago.
Musetto was an editor at The Post. He was also, it seemed to me, the third-tier film critic. It was always his byline on the two-paragraph reviews of foreign language and art house movies The Post assumed its readers weren’t interested in. These reviews would all be bunched together in a single column in Friday’s paper, far away from the criticism of that week’s blockbuster releases.
But that’s not what he’ll be remembered for.
He’ll be remembered for the front page of The Post on April 15, 1983…what The Post in its eulogy last week called “arguably the most famous headline in newspaper history.”
The Post is prone to hyperbole, but, in this case, it’s accurate. In fact, I would have put a big, red “dele” over “arguably.” Even The New York Times, uncharacteristically using superlatives, called Musetto’s work “the most anatomically evocative headline in the history of American journalism.”
Perhaps no one else has ever left behind a legacy that is literally just five words:
“Headless body in topless bar.” It was at once poetic and fully descriptive of the event it referred to (a lunatic had taken some exotic dancers hostage and forced one of them to cut off the head of the bar’s owner). It was funny and shocking at the same time. And, in my opinion, it predicted the current state of journalism in America in which the media has thrown up its collective hands and said, “We’re not gonna take this news stuff seriously anymore.”
In its obituary of Musetto, The Times described its coverage of the same event:
The corresponding headline in The New York Times that day proclaimed, genteelly, “Owner of a Bar Shot to Death; Suspect Is Held.” Headlessness was not mentioned until the third paragraph; toplessness not at all.
That was the old journalism. The Post’s coverage was the new journalism. You can almost see, in Musetto’s short, rhythmic headline, echoes of the kind of teaser you see on the web today:
“You won’t believe what cops found in this bar!” or
“Bar owner missing something very important.” or
“Exposed: Boobs and neurons.”
I had that Post front page on my office door for weeks after it appeared. I was a young copywriter back then, and I found inspiration in Musetto’s headline.
It showed me the immense power of a few perfectly-chosen words.
See you soon.
P.S. I have left the headline of this post blank as a tribute to Mr. Musetto. However, a year and a half ago, I produced a weak imitation of Musetto’s brilliance for one of my posts.