updated 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Birnbaum, 63, assistant managing editor at PEOPLE since 1983, loves the language. He plays it the way Horowitz plays the piano and Brooks Robinson played third base (or was that third bass?). Here's his headline for our recent story about an inn that provides room cats for its guests: "No Kitten, if You're Feline Low and Hanker for a Purrsonal Touch, John Hall's Hotel is the Cat's Meow." Okay, it's littered with kitty, but you've got to admire a guy who Cerfs up a headline with that many puns.
His reputation as a punster was such that Time Inc.'s Editor in Chief Henry A. Grunwald, in announcing Birnbaum's appointment to PEOPLE, said it was made "on condition that he commit no more than two puns in print per week." (At two puns per week, Birnbaum has used up his quota for well into the 21st century.)
Jesse was born in Passaic, N.J., one of eight children of a window-washer and a housewife. A graduate of Florida Southern College and veteran of the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II, he was hired in 1951 as a fill-in music critic at TIME. His career has since taken him to writing and reporting assignments in San Francisco, London and Paris, where he was editor of TIME'S European Edition. Through it all there have been the mots, each one mal-er than the last. In a music review, Birnbaum noted, "It takes an awful lot of brass to play the tuba." The two inevitable burdens of living in New York City, he wrote, are "debt and taxies." The current full-skirt styles for women "cover a multitude of shins." And he replied to a surgeon who wanted to sew up a wound, "Suture self."
But Birnbaum isn't all pun and games. As the late night editor he often works until 6 a.m., rewriting headlines and overseeing late-breaking stories. He also likes to help writers, both one-on-one and through LOGO-FILE, his in-house publication that gently tweaks the erring staffer. "My mission in life," he declares, "is to rid the language of clichés, and I am determined to achieve it, come hell or high water."