Those of us who write headlines for a living share a special reverence for one that topped the New York Post of April 15, 1983:
“HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR”
A headline so good you don’t need to read the story, but will because you can’t help yourself. Among the coolest five words ever to appear in large black type on cheap newsprint.
A little-known runner-up for coolest-words-in-black honors appeared in the Peoria Journal Star when I worked there in the late 1990s. It was written in small type atop a crime brief tucked somewhere deep in the local news section on a Sunday morning following a slow Saturday. One of the young wags on the Saturday night crew successfully sneaked this treasure into the paper:
Police find crack
in man’s underpants
I almost coughed up a lung laughing when I saw it in the paper that morning.
The Columbia Journalism Review has a back-page feature called The Lower Case, samplings of heads gone wrong that were best summarized in a small paperback book called “Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge” (another shining example: “Here’s how to lick your doberman’s leg sores!”). News of this feature’s humor potential apparently made its way to the writing staff of Jay Leno, whose headline hightlights became a comic staple.
One of our goals in life as Serious Purveyors of Important News is to keep our headlines out of The Lower Case and off the Leno highlights reel. But I remember the guy who wrote the “crack” headline: couple years out of college, known to read his poetry in public, given to dark thoughts and evil impulses. In retrospect it occurs to me he probably wrote it deliberately to see if he could get it on the Leno show. I seem to recall that he succeeded. An irony pioneer if there ever was one. Back then I thought he was foolish, reckless and devoid of standards of propriety. Today I wish I could say I’d written that headline.
I had one that came close, again at the Journal Star, where pretty much everything had a fighting chance of showing up in print if it didn’t have the F-word in it. I was doing Page One for Sunday’s paper, and my story for the top of the page was a lamentation on the seedy, lurid scandal that got Bill Clinton impeached. My headline:
“Impeachment left fabric of Washington indelibly stained”
I just thought it sounded good and nothing more, till a colleague reminded me about Monica’s dress and its famous DNA evidence of presidential shenanigans. My first instinct was to rewrite it — it’s bad form to make cute, clever allusions on Serious Page One News (particularly when alluding to the messy consequences of oral sex) — but everybody else liked the head and talked me into going with it. My Mercury News colleagues were appalled to learn I’d gotten away with such a transgression, but I assured them I had learned the error of my ways and vowed to never sin again. (Today I’m kind of proud of that headline).
Lately I’ve been thinking that if I ever wanted to write a memoir about my life in the news biz, “Police Find Crack in Man’s Underpants” would be the title. Whether I get around to the memoir is anybody’s guess. But the memory of that headline always makes me smile, so that’s reason enough to memorialize it here.