The real story of ‘Headless Body in Topless Bar,’ as argued by veterans of the ‘Post’
This week's news that the State of New York denied parole to a 53-year-old criminal named Charles Dingle has brought back a flood of memories for veterans of the New York Post, some of whom took to an email chain to hash out their recollections.
Dingle is the man convicted of fatally shooting the owner of a topless bar and then forcing a hostage to decapitate him in April 1983. His grisly crime (which also involved a rape) inspired what may be the most celebrated Post wood of all time: "Headless body in topless bar."
This is actually the second time in six months that the "Headless body" headline has been back in the headlines.
The first was in July, when the man historically credited with writing the iconic display copy, Vinnie Musetto, retired from the Post following a 40-year career at the tabloid. (He was most recently a film critic.)
Then as news of Dingle's parole-denial spread this week, various memories (sometimes conflicting) began to surface recalling exactly how the headline magic was made.
Blogging on The Huffington Post, Charlie Carillo, who was in the newsroom that day, described an exuberant Musetto coming up with the headline after the news went over the transom. Carillo said Dick Belsky, then a city editor, subsequently called for a fact-check of the improbable scenario:
"Hang on, Vinnie, we're not a hundred per cent sure it's a topless bar!"
Vinnie jumped on top of his desk and waved his arms.
"It's gotta be a topless bar!" he cried. "This is the greatest f------ headline of my career!"
Vinnie got his wish. The topless-bar angle checked out, and within minutes the presses were rolling.
Belsky himself added a little more color to the anecdote in his own post at NBCNewYork.com, where he is now an executive:
I called the cops, but they didn’t know if the place was topless or not. I had someone try the bar, but there was no answer. We reached out for people who lived in the neighborhood, phone listings. Nothing. It was closing in on our deadline now. So I dispatched a young woman reporter named Maralyn Matlick to go to the bar and see first-hand if she could determine whether or not it was topless.
A few minutes before deadline, the reporter called in to say the bar was locked up tight. There were no signs, no advertisements about it being a topless place. I asked her if she could see inside. She said she’d try. She somehow was able to pull herself up and peek into a window of the bar. That’s when she saw it. A sign inside that said: “Topless Dancing.” Matlick was ecstatic. She called me to tell me the news, and just like that, New York City tabloid history was made.
On the email chain that was circulating Thursday afternoon, other current and former Post staffers started weighing in, according to people who were copied on the messages, two of which were shared with Capital.
Jim Norman, now an artist, provided the group with an account that jibes with Belsky's for the most part, but has even more color, and deviates on one crucial point: Confirmation that the bar was indeed of the topless variety came from Norman's cold-calling of people who lived nearby.
People have different recollections. Here's mine: Maralyn Matlick was the reporter. I was on night rewrite. Vinnie Musetto was the night managing editor. Dick Belsky was the night city editor. The police teletype had two separate items, one concerning the discovery of a cardboard box with a head in it in uptown Manhattan, and the other concerning the discovery of a headless torso in a bar in Queens. I called the officer on duty in the police press office to ask if there might be a connection. The response was, "We're workin' on it." All around the city room people were commenting how great it would be if the bar turned out to be a topless bar. Phone calls to the bar itself went unanswered. Dick Belsky suggested I use the Cole's Cross Directory to call residents around the bar's address to find out if it was a topless bar. After numerous "number no longer in service" and "number disconnected" recordings, I finally got a neighbor to confirm that it was a topless bar. I stood up and yelled, "Yo, Vinnie, we got it. It's a headless body in a topless bar!" Musetto yelled, "That's the wood!" Bottom line? Like almost everything else in the loony bin that was the New York Post in those days, it was a cooperative effort. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
James Lynch, a layout guy at the time of the incident, responded with yet another version of events, throwing a curveball by claiming that credit for the headline should actually go to Drew Mackenzie, brother of the famed British tabloid editor Kelvin Mackenzie, late of The Sun:
Not to be picky, but "Headless Body..." was actually written by Drew Mackenzie, though V.A. usually gets the credit. Drew was amazed at the reception that headline got ... to him it was no big deal.
If you worked at the Post back then and have a different story of how things went down (or one that echoes any of the above, for that matter), I'd love to hear from you.