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Gary Borders: Headline writing is an art; Vincent Musetto was a natural

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Let us pause a moment to acknowledge the death of America’s most famous headline writer. Vincent Musetto died Tuesday from cancer at 74 at his home in the Bronx. He was retired from the New York Post, famed for its screaming and often outlandish headlines.

Musetto entered into the land of giants of tabloid journalism on April 15, 1983. According to the New York Times story about his death, a lurid crime scene had been discovered at a Queens tavern, A patron got into an argument with the owner, shot him to death, and then forced one of the women he subsequently held hostage to cut the bar owner’s head off. The killer was caught the next day and died in prison.

The headline instantly became famous:

HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR

The Post, which I occasionally read online because it never fails to entertain, has produced some of the most memorable headlines in recent history. When the Gerald Ford administration declined, wisely, to bail out New York City from its financial morass, the Post headline was:

FORD TO CITY:

DROP DEAD

There is an art to writing headlines. I am competent but not nearly as creative as Musetto and his colleagues. Musetto’s personal favorite concerned the 1984 execution of Margie Velma Barfield in 1984, who confessed to killing six people but was convicted of a single murder. She chose a bag of Cheez Doodles and a can of Coke as her last meal, and received a lethal injection wearing sleepwear. Musetto’s headline:

GRANNY EXECUTED

IN PINK PAJAMAS

Another of my favorites, though I have not been able to confirm its actual existence, is said to have come from one of the San Antonio papers. It concerned a shootout in a Mexican restaurant that left a half-dozen dead.  The purported headline:

SIX DIE IN BLOODY ENCHILADA BATTLE

If that headline was not printed, it should have been.

Editors live in fear of messing up a headline. I have made my share of cringe-inducing mistakes. I once left the “s” out of “horse” in a headline about an upcoming show. Attendance was said to be quite heavy that weekend.

Sometimes we just flat get it wrong. The most-famous mistaken headline was DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1948.

On Election Night 2000, as we kept pushing back our deadline in hopes of telling readers who won the presidential election, the time came to finally make a call. After television networks called the Florida results in favor of George W. Bush, giving him the presidency, I made the decision to go with the story and wrote the headline myself for the Nacogdoches paper:

BUSH ELECTED PRESIDENT

I went home as the presses rolled in Lufkin, flipped on the television and began watching the Florida results completely fall apart. By 3 a.m. I was convinced I had written my own version of “Dewey Defeats Truman,” and that Al Gore was going to take Florida and thus the election. I felt sick.

A month or so later, with hanging chads now part of the popular lexicon, and a narrow and controversial Supreme Court decision rejecting Gore’s challenge, it turned out my headline was accurate — if a bit premature.

Thus, I have empathy for the managing editor of the East Oregonian newspaper. Recently, at my beloved Fenway Park, Oakland A’s pitcher Pat Venditte made history by delivering pitches with both his left and right arm to different Red Sox batters. This was a great feat of ambidextrousness. He pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings and allowed only one hit.

The headline, which will live on for many years, read:

AMPHIBIOUS PITCHER MAKES DEBUT

Ouch. I feel your pain, buddy.

Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.