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The Unhappy Life of Cornell Woolrich

October 11, 2010

Cornell Woolrich’s dark crime novels sold well in the 1940s and 1950s, but have not had lasting success. He is now almost unknown outside specialist circles, but his books were nevertheless staples of Hollywood filmmaking in the 1940s and 1950s. Woolrich’s invisible influence on cinema is perhaps why many of the titles are so familiar: The Bride Wore Black (1940), Phantom Lady (1942), Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1945), I Married a Dead Man (1948). Woolrich, with his switchback plotting, and bleak outlook, combined the Gothic sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe, with the dark, urban setting of hard-boiled crime fiction to create what has been called “paranoid noir.” Woolrich’s own life, and in particular his relationship with his mother, was in many ways at least as strange as the plots of his stories.

The trailer for Phantom Lady (1944), directed by Robert Siodmak

Woolrich was born in New York City in 1903. His father was a civil engineer, and after his parents separated, Woolrich spent some time living with him in Mexico, where one of his hobbies was collecting spent bullet cartridges in the street. However, he idolised his mother, Claire Attalie Woolrich, and from the age of 12 he lived with her in New York City. In 1921 he went to Columbia University, where he studied journalism. But during a period of illness, which left him bedridden for six weeks, he wrote a romantic novel, Cover Charge (1926). Encouraged by the success of this he dropped out of college. His second novel, Children of the Ritz (1927), won a $10,000 prize, and was produced as a film by First National Pictures in 1929.

Having moved to Hollywood to work on the script for Children of the Ritz, in 1930 Woolrich married Gloria Blackton, the daughter of a movie producer. The marriage did not last long. Within a few months they separated, probably because Blackton discovered Woolrich’s secret homosexuality, and the marriage was annulled, apparently unconsummated, in 1933. Woolrich, who seems to have enjoyed patrolling the docks dressed in a sailor’s uniform, trying to pick up men, returned to New York, where he moved in with his mother. They lived together at the Hotel Marseilles until her death in 1957. After his own death, 11 years later, Woolrich was buried with her in the same vault.

Partly because publisher Simon and Schuster “owned” the Cornell Woolrich name, and Woolrich wanted to publish elsewhere, many of his novels were written under the names William Irish and George Hopley, and this is one reason why he is less well known than he might be. Woolrich, who was an alcoholic,  also became something of a recluse, doing much of his writing in the corner of the hotel room, while his mother sat watching. Following his return to New York, Woolrich began writing stories for the pulp publishers, including Black Mask and Story magazine, ultimately publishing over 250 short mystery stories, a contribution for which he won an Edgar Award in 1948. He won an Edgar Award in 1950 for his contribution to the RKO movie The Window.

It was in the 1940s, when he started writing thrillers, that Woolrich produced his best work, in particular the run of “Black” novels beginning with The Bride Wore Black (1940). In common with many of Woolrich’s plots, The Bride Wore Black involves a race against time during which a bride, whose husband is shot dead on their wedding day, pursues the gunmen, seeking vengeance. The first William Irish novel, Phantom Lady (1942) tells the story of a man convicted and sentenced to death for killing his wife, and the race to find a woman who can provide an alibi. In 1943, Raymond Chandler wrote to Alfred A. Knopf about having read Phantom Lady, and at first wondered who “William Irish” was. When he discovered it was Woolrich, he described him as “one of the oldest hands in the detective fiction business. He is known in the trade as an idea writer, liking the tour de force, and not much of a character man. I think his stuff is very readable, but leaves no warmth behind it.”

Woolrich was a difficult man, who was uncomfortable in company, and could be irascible, unpleasant, and bitter. His stories express a world view that is cynical and pessimistic about human nature. Although homosexuality is never explicitly mentioned in his work, Charles Krinsky notes in his entry for glbtq that in novels such as The Bride Wore Black, and I Married a Dead Man (1948), love, and family life, fail to provide security, safety, or fulfilling relationships. In a Woolrich novel, malice and revenge are the primary motivating forces, and lives are blighted by despair and paranoia. It is because of this that Woolrich has been described as an originator of “paranoid noir,” defined by Philip Simpson in the Blackwell Companion to Crime Fiction as stories of a “persecuted victim, caught up in a deterministic world in which the standard rules have suddenly changed for the worse.” Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945), written as George Hopley, is arguably the archetypal novel of this type.

Woolrich, whose diabetes and alcoholism worsened to leave him disabled, became increasingly embittered. He alienated most of his friends and acquaintances and spent the final decade of his life almost entirely alone. In early 1968 an untreated foot infection developed into gangrene, and led to the partial amputation of his leg. When he died in September that year, Woolrich left his entire estate of around $1 million dollars to Columbia University, where the Claire Woolrich fellowships, named after his mother, continue to support students in journalism and writing.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2010 6:42 am

    Yet another great post! I really like these pieces that you do, they have inspired me to investigate much of the history of this genre more closely. Keep ’em coming!

    • October 12, 2010 9:19 am

      Thanks for saying that; glad you’re enjoying the blog. Incidentally, for more on Woolrich, take a look at Francis M. Nevins’s “biography”, First You Dream, Then You Die (1988). Looking at the date of that, it might be nearly time for another bio of Woolrich.

  2. October 15, 2010 10:03 am

    I loved finding out that Woolrich’s mother watched him as he wrote! What a delicious, ghoulish detail.

    Very glad to have found your blog, looking forward to following it!

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