By Vincent Musetto
June 01, 1987 12:00 PM

There are New Yorkers who loathe the screaming headlines that leap daily from page one of the tabloid New York Post (EX-ALTAR BOY DIES IN CHAIR, MODEL KILLED BY CROCODILE) and there are New Yorkers who love them (KHADAFY GOES DAFFY, I SLEPT WITH A TRUMPET). But on one point Gothamites agree: Ever since Australian-born press baron Rupert Murdoch purchased the afternoon tabloid in 1976, the Post’s headlines—up to three inches high and sometimes printed in red—have been difficult to ignore (HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR).

Much of the credit, or blame, belongs to Vincent Musetto, 45, a Post Assistant Managing Editor who estimates that he has written or helped write 1,500 headlines during the past five years. Musetto talked to Senior Writer David Van Biema about truth, fairness, coeds, drug-crazed transvestites and the business of selling newspapers.

Zap, zip, zonk, nix, those are good verbs. Short. Short and powerful. They’ve got to convey a sense of urgency. Nouns? Tots, kids, fire, you know—SIX-ALARM FIRE. Blaze is good, but fire’s shorter. Siege. Siege is good. Madman, maniac, fear. My favorite word is “coed.” When you see coed, people want to buy the paper. I don’t know why—just some young, innocent girl getting into a lot of trouble. It’s the dirty old man in people. It’s a very sexy word…. Without the hyphen. Some people spell it with a hyphen, we spell it without the hyphen.

Writing headlines is being able to say a complex story in three or four words that will attract a reader. It’s like advertising on TV. You say something in a couple of words, and you have to get some poor slob to go out and buy one brand of gasoline instead of another. Now that doesn’t apply to the New York Times. People buy the New York Times because they buy the New York Times, not because of the headline. But there are a lot of people who buy the Post because they see a great front page. Anybody can put a newspaper out when it’s all happening—if they shoot the President of the United States. It’s when nothing’s happening—you have no stories, you have no photos—that’s the pits. That’s when you really earn your money.

I wrote HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR, the most infamous headline in journalism. They have T-shirts with it on, and buttons. It’s all right. It’s not one of my favorite headlines. Nobody expected it to become a classic, the Night of the Living Dead of headlines. One afternoon I got a report that there had been a murder in a bar, and that one of the victims had had his or her head cut off. Someone said it might be a topless bar, but we weren’t sure, and then the idea of the headline came around, so we were really questioning to make sure it was a topless bar. We sent the reporter, this girl, and she so determined that it was a topless bar. I just wrote it, and everyone said “ha ha,” but I didn’t think it would live in infamy.

KHADAFY GOES DAFFY—yeah, I wrote that one, too. I got into a lot of trouble. That was the issue when we took a picture of Khadafy and dressed him up like a woman. We had a story from our Washington bureau that he was starting to go loony and taking drugs, a drug-crazed transvestite. I thought it was a great headline. And everybody loved it. It’s a classic too. But…you could say there was adverse reaction. My bosses didn’t like it. They went through the roof. They dropped it from the later editions.

My own favorite was GRANNY EXECUTED IN HER PINK PAJAMAS. It was about a woman who went to the electric chair, and she wanted to wear her pajamas rather than prison garb, so they let her. I don’t think you could pass that headline without reading the story. You see that headline and you immediately want to know what it’s about. It’s just the picture of this woman, this poor woman, you feel sorry for her, she killed somebody but you still feel sorry for her. And I think she also wore slippers of some sort.

For some reason I was always good at writing headlines. I think it had to do with my childhood, reading newspapers. I wasn’t very athletic, I was kind of a nerd, and the kids made fun of me. I used to sit at home and watch old movies, ’30s and ’40s movies, Preston Sturges, Eddie Bracken, Busby Berkeley, and read newspapers. I read the Post, the Herald Tribune, the Daily Mirror, the Daily News, the Journal-American and the World-Telegram. There were seven papers in New York City then; it was great. I used to dream about writing front-page headlines.

My first newspaper job was at the Daily Mirror in 1961, as a copy boy. Later I was at the Newark Star Ledger. They cover municipal meetings and you write headlines like BOARD OF EDUCATION VOTES THIRTY THOUSAND DOLLARS FOR GYMNASIUM REPAIRS—not that interesting. I came to the Post in 1975. My first front page headline was a plane crash, THE LAST HOURS OF FLIGHT such-and-such. That’s sort of a basic head, but I was really excited.

The Post was dying before Murdoch bought it. It probably would have gone out of business. The woods—we call headlines “woods” because big type used to be made of wood—were always, you know, basic woods. Murdoch brought in a lot of guys who used Fleet Street-type headlines. Maybe just one word, like KAZOOM! Kazoom might tell you nothing, so you read the paper to find out. Or they’d use a quote: “I WANT MY ROSARY BEADS.” We ran that a little while ago. Previously the headline would have read PRISONER SAYS HE ASKED POLICE FOR HIS ROSARY BEADS. And the headlines became physically bigger. I thought it was great. Murdoch sort of made headlines pop art.

Of course, we have to worry about things like truth and good taste. Good taste is basic. You don’t make fun of religion, you don’t make fun of people’s disabilities. There are certain boundaries that nobody would go over. You could use “damn” in the proper context, but most likely I don’t think we could use “ass” in a head. You always tell the truth. We don’t slant or shade to the best of our ability. People have accused us of slanting. But when you’re the subject of a story, it’s easy to make a subjective judgment. You could criticize us for not reflecting your views, but that’s a subjective opinion. Roxanne Pulitzer sued once, I think, over a headline, I SLEPT WITH A TRUMPET. But subsequently she posed naked in Playboy holding a copy of that front page over her body, so obviously she wasn’t that upset by it.

Jennifer Levin, the girl who was killed in Central Park, was a story we took a lot of criticism on. Her accused killer’s lawyer was trying to prove his innocence by making her seem guilty, implying she deserved to die because she took him into the park. And we were accused of taking his side and taking what his lawyer said as gospel truth. One of our heads—I didn’t write it—was WILD SEX KILLED JENNY. There was an overline that attributed it to somebody, “COPS SAY:” or something like that. Maybe in retrospect we don’t feel so comfortable about that, but it’s easy to second guess. During deadlines, under pressure, maybe you do things you might not have done.

Writing headlines is a good way to impress a woman. When you first meet her you tell her what you do. And then when she’s walking down the street, she sees this headline, and she says, “Oh, he wrote that. That guy I went out with last night wrote that.” And when you break up, they can’t ignore you. You’re on every newsstand. There’s no escape.

There is another side to the job. Every day you’re faced with tragedy. O.K., you can’t really let it get to you, because you just couldn’t do your work. But some things, certain things really upset me. I’m divorced and I have a daughter who’s 13 years old, and anything about kids upsets me.

But on the whole it’s been a lot of fun. If the New York Post said to me, “You’ve got to spend the next five years of your life doing what you’re doing,” I wouldn’t jump out the window. But if they offered me a new challenge—like more of the film reviews that I do—I wouldn’t mind. Do you know how many hostage sieges I’ve seen? They get pretty much the same. Maybe there’s more to life than writing headlines. But somebody’ll always be here. Without them, you don’t have a paper.