HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR is the most famous headline in New York City tabloid history. It appeared on the front page of the New York Post in the spring of 1983 after a holdup man killed the owner of a strip club in Queens and then inexplicably forced one of the patrons to cut off the victim’s head. I didn’t write that legendary headline, but I played a part in its creation.
All the memories of that day in the Post newsroom came flooding back this week when the man convicted for the bizarre murder was back in the news as he applied for parole after nearly 30 years behind bars.
The crime itself was the kind of senseless New York City mayhem that usually wound up as a police blotter item on the back pages.
But when a police slip on the incident moved the next morning at the Post -- where I was then the city editor -- inspiration struck for managing editor Vincent Musetto. “It just came to me,” Musetto would tell me afterward as we marveled over all the attention the headline had caused. “I loved it.”
Musetto -- a larger-than-life character who often got his inspiration for the outrageous by dancing on desk tops and blowing a bugle in the newsroom -- was responsible for many of the Post’s sensational Page One headlines in those days. There was KHADAFY GOES DAFFY, GRANNY EXECUTED IN HER PINK PAJAMAS, 500-POUND SEX MANIAC GOES FREE, I SLEPT WITH A TRUMPET and MAYHEM IN THE STREET, which wound up being shown as part of the opening credits on "Saturday Night Live" every week.
But Musetto and I had a problem that afternoon. No one was really sure at that point if it was a topless bar or not. It obviously needed to be a topless place for the headline to work. We needed to confirm that, and we needed to do it in a hurry to get it in the paper. Everything was riding on that one missing fact.
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.
“Hey, we could have said ‘Decapitated cerebellum in tavern of ill repute,” one Post editor explained afterward to a critic who complained the headline was way over the top sensational, “but we did it this way instead.”
Of all the famous -- or infamous -- New York City tabloid headlines over the years, this is the one people still talk about the most. It wound up being memorialized on T-shirts and buttons,on late night talk shows, and it even became the title of a movie loosely based on the incident. Over the year, it has truly become a cult classic -- the “Night of the Living Dead” of headlines.
Oh, and just in case you wondered, the man convicted of the gruesome murder was turned down in his bid for parole this week.
A former City Editor at the New York Post and Managing Editor at the New York Daily News, Dick Belsky is the Vice President for News at NBC Local Integrated Media and the author of six novels.