Topeka Capital Journal
June 27, 1986.
The other day here, writing about gobbledygook, I quoted an Illinois statute, in which the first sentence was more than 260 words long. A friend remarked that it must not have been written by a newspaper man – or newspaper person, as we are supposed to say now – because they are trained to write short “leads,” or opening sentences.
It doesn’t always work out that way, as the sentence above proves. But it is true that editors like short and simple beginnings, and some of them get nasty about it.
James Thurber had an editor who demanded short leads, and made such an issue of it that one day, covering a news story, Thurber wrote:
“That’s the way they found John Doe today.”
And that brings us to the subject of memorable newspaper leads and headlines, and one of the best leads ever came from Jim Raglin, who once labored for the Lincoln, Neb., Journal. He was writing about a man who had built a fancy new bomb shelter in his backyard, complete with toilet. His lead: “Chris Kooner has a head in his hole.”
A sportswriter pressed into emergency service to cover a band concert, wrote:
“The school band played Beethoven last night. Beethoven lost.”
And a New York critic wrote of an opening night: “Cleopatra floated down the Nile last night and sank.”
Damon Runyon, writing about a man just released from a mental institution: “He returned, Brown as a nut.”
In her book, Lady sings the Blues, Billie Holiday wrote: “Mom and Dad were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18, She was 16, and I was 3.”
In Elmsford, N.Y., a correspondent for a New York City paper, weary of having nothing to write about, one night wrote in disgust, “Tranquility ran rampant in Elmsdorf last night.”
An Associated Press story began: “The moon still shines on the moonshine stills in the hills of Pennsylvania.”
Ring Lardner wrote of Irving S. Cobb: “Irv Cobb loves to spend an evening at home with his books – of which he has a complete set.”
A gag writer named Al Boasberg wrote countless jokes about death. When he died, Douglas Gilbert, wrote: “The joke’s on Al Boasberg. He’s dead.”
When it was reported that Loeb, of the renowned Loeb-Leopold murder case, was knifed and killed in prison after making improper advances to another inmate, Ed Leahy wrote: “Loeb today ended his sentence with a proposition.”
Harry Ferguson of the United Press, wrote: “The state of New Jersey, which spent $1,000,000 finding, trying and convicting Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the kidnap-murder of the Lindbergh baby, tonight snuffed out his life with a nickel’s worth of electricity.”
This story may or may not be true, since it is told about both the Monongahela mine disaster and the Johnstown flood. A reporter supposedly wrote: “God sits with bowed head upon the hills surrounding Monongahela (Johnstown) tonight.” His editor wired him back: “Never mind disaster. Interview God.”
Back when Los Angeles was in the Pacific Coast League, one of its pitchers tossed a one-hitter and lost. A writer whose name also is lost reported: “Alfred Sidney Smith, a left-hander for the Los Angeles Angels, pitched his initials off here Friday night.”
After Charles Coody won the Masters, Maury White of Des Moines, wrote a prize-winning column that began: “One of life’s ironies is that on the same Sunday the world got the answer to the oft-asked question, ‘Who is Charles Coody?’ It turns out he really isn’t Charles at all.
“‘I’m really Billy Charles,’ revealed the good-looking Texan who has been the butt of many jokes concerning his low-key image. ‘But I grew up with so many Billy Bobs and Billy Joes, they always called me Charles.’”
Jack Lait of INS, wrote: “John Dillinger, ace bad man of the world, got his last night – two slugs through the heart and one through the head. He was tough and shrewd, but he wasn’t as tough and shrewd as the Federals. It took 27 of them to end Dillinger’s career, and their strength came out of his weakness – a woman.”
Jack Murphy, in The New Yorker: “Archibald Lee Moore the light heavyweight champion of the world, is 44 years of age by his own account and 47 by his mothers. She says he was born December 13, 1913, in Benoit, Miss., but he insists it was 1916 and that the place was somewhere in Missouri or perhaps Illinois.
“’My mother should know. She was there,’ he has conceded. ‘But so was I. I have given this a lot of thought and have decided I must have been three when I was born.’”
A group of editors, during a lull in meeting decided to come up with the best headline the public never will see. “World ends” lost out to “Pope elopes.”