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The Cornell Woolrich Revival

February 22, 2019


Criminal masterminds. Demented killers. Vengeful brides. The fiction of Cornell Woolrich is rife with the kind of psychological tension audiences have always craved. He has been called the foremost suspense writer of the 20th century, the Edgar Allan Poe of his era. He was a prolific writer in the crime, horror, noir and mystery genres, publishing over two dozen novels and over two hundred short stories and novellas along with those that had been unpublished at the time of his death in 1968. But with so many works published by several different publishing entities over the decades, rights to his stories were granted left and right and transferred many times over, even after his death, creating a complicated web of rights issues that has taken his Estate’s representatives years to clear up.

Alan Nevins and his team at Renaissance Literary & Talent, who represent the various parties that control the Woolrich library, have worked tirelessly to track down and retrieve rights to stories and collections that have been out of print for decades due to these rights issues. They are now making a major push to reintroduce Woolrich’s revolutionary work to audiences new and old with fresh collections of his most well-known and obscure short fiction. They’ve broken ground with two electronic collections so far: a three-part series entitled Literary Noir: A Series of Suspense, which include some of Woolrich’s best suspense stories, and a two-part series published on the 50th anniversary his death, An Obsession with Death and Dying, a frequent subject for Woolrich, with more in the months to come.

Cornell Woolrich Author Image

Cornell Woolrich

Woolrich’s life was as complex as his rights. His parents separated when he was just a boy, and for most of his childhood he lived in various places in Mexico with his father, a travelling engineer. Francis Nevins’ biography on Woolrich tells us he did not have an easy relationship with his devout Catholic father. Even then, Nevins reports, Woolrich knew he wanted to be a writer and at one point was so captivated by the opera Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini that he would later write in his autobiography, Blues of a Lifetime, that the opera gave him “a sudden, sharp insight into color and drama that came back to the surface again years later when I became a writer.”

At the age of 12, Woolrich moved to New York to live with his mother and her family. He was particularly close with his mother’s father, who had taken him to see that fateful Madame Butterfly years earlier. Through his grandfather, teenage Woolrich was exposed to many aspects of American culture including a once weekly trip to the movies. According to Nevins, this was the only male bonding young Woolrich had, save for the unhappy years with his father in Mexico. Woolrich himself would later write at length about the impact his grandfather had on him, while barely mentioning his mother.

In 1921, Woolrich enrolled at Columbia University, the current benefactor of his Estate, taking many classes on literature, but he would never graduate. While there, he contracted a foot infection and was confined to bed for six weeks, at which point he started writing in earnest. His first novel, Cover Charge, a Jazz Age work inspired by the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, was published soon after in 1926 when Woolrich was just 22 years old. He would go on to write five more Jazz Age novels before 1932, but the era fizzled out with the onset of the Depression, so none of these works managed to launch a serious literary career. His second novel, Children of the Ritz, won him $10,000 in a novel contest put on by College Humor magazine and First National Pictures, a Hollywood film company, giving Woolrich the opportunity to work as a screenwriter adapting his novel in Los Angeles. The few years he spent in Hollywood undoubtedly allowed Woolrich to explore his sexuality. Nevins reports that a short-lived marriage to the daughter of a film pioneer was annulled upon her discovery of a diary in which Woolrich recorded his  promiscuous lifestyle as a gay man. Woolrich was incredibly secretive and ashamed of his sexuality, something that would haunt him for the rest of his life and even propel him into alcoholism.

Woolrich’s screenwriting career ultimately fell flat, and he moved back to New York in 1931 at the age of 27 to live with his mother in the shabby residential Hotel Marseilles. Just a few years after his return, Woolrich’s first crime fiction story, “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair,” appeared in the August 1934 edition of Detective Fiction Weekly, kicking off a prolific run of over two hundred short stories and novellas that would appear in dozens of different pulp magazines over the next several decades. His most famous story, “It Had to be Murder” (Dime Detective Magazine, 1942), was adapted into the classic 1954 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Rear Window starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly.

Woolrich’s first suspense novel, The Bride Wore Black, made a huge splash within the genre when Simon & Schuster published it in 1940, earning him rave reviews for the sheer terror that the cunning revenge spree of his titular character, a bride whose husband-to-be was murdered on their wedding day, instilled in readers. It was the first of six within the “Black Series” of novels published over the next eight years, all of which can be found in a digital two-part collection along with Renaissance’s short story collections. As with Bride, The Black Curtain (1941), Black Alibi (1942), The Black Angel (1943), The Black Path of Fear (1944) and Rendezvous in Black (1948) were the pinnacle of noir crime fiction writing. Woolrich was adept at crafting stories that evoked a deep and overwhelming sense of dread in both his characters and the reader. This was true for many of his other famous novels, including Phantom Lady (1942), Deadline at Dawn (1944), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945), Waltz into Darkness (1947), I Married a Dead Man (1948), and Savage Bride (1950), among others.

Woolrich was so prolific in the suspense and crime fiction genres that he published several of his novels and stories under the pseudonyms William Irish and George Hopley so they could appear in competing magazines. Many were adapted into major motion pictures by studios like Paramount, Universal and RKO. One of the most famous film adaptations aside from Rear Window was directed by François Truffaut, whose French new wave interpretation of The Bride Wore Black, entitled La Mariee Etait en Noir, premiered in 1968, the year Woolrich died. Dozens of his short stories were adapted for popular network radio and television show episodes including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Suspense and Molle Mystery Theatre.

The end of Woolrich’s life was just as unusual as his childhood. His mother died in 1957 and for the next several years he lived alone. The same foot infection that plagued him in his 20s returned and he let it rage untreated to the point of gangrene. Doctors were forced to amputate his leg and he died shortly thereafter in 1968 at the age of 64.

Many years after his death, Woolrich was the subject of a Supreme Court case over rights for “It Had to be Murder” and its adaptation, Rear Window, between Sheldon Abend, a literary agent, and James Stewart (Stewart v. Abend, 1990). Woolrich was contractually obligated to renew the story’s copyright when the 28-year copyright was up (a copyright law that has since been revised) and assign it to the film rights owner. But when Sheldon Abend acquired much of the Woolrich Estate in 1971, he refused to assign the copyright for “It Had to be Murder” to the owner of the film rights per Woolrich’s original contract. When Rear Window was shown on television, Abend sued Stewart for infringement of copyright.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court decided in Abend’s favor, ruling that the author’s heir is allowed to prevent continued distribution and publication of a derivative work (in this case, the film adaptation), as control of the original work reverts to the author or their successor when copyright renewal occurs. This decision, which ultimately protects the author or author’s heirs from being deprived of the value of the original work, had huge repercussions for the film industry. Because the decision only determined U.S. copyrights, it left an unclear path regarding international rights, as those had not been challenged overseas. Many studios found they suddenly no longer owned domestic rights to film adaptations they had made, while still owning the rights overseas, thus causing massive industry-wide complications and adding further complications to Woolrich’s Estate.

Half a century has passed since Woolrich’s death, and in those years, multi-layered rights issues have taken much of his work out of print. After years of painstaking efforts to track down rights and revert them back to Woolrich’s Estate, the Renaissance team, along with those publishers who appreciate the significance of his work, seek to bring his beloved stories and novels back into both the print and digital arena. In addition to Literary Noir, An Obsession with Death and Dying, and the two-part Black Series, Renaissance has made available on their digital publishing platforms many of Woolrich’s individual short stories and novels. It is well past time Woolrich’s groundbreaking writing be reintroduced back into the world. It can be found on the following platforms: Amazon (Kindle), Barnes & Noble (Nook), Kobo and iBooks.

Every story in these volumes is gripping, suspenseful, dark and funny. In short, everything noir fans have come to expect from Cornell Woolrich’s writing.

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