Woolrich, Cornell (1903 – 1968)

Several recent articles by Curtis Evans on his blog The Passing Tramp, here, have whetted my appetite to read some Cornell Woolrich novels. This entry was originally intended as a private note, but I later though that it could be of some interest to readers of this blog.

Enokfjz1hm1ckDyXN7eaCCSLhH8uS0JRGw0VRX6K-1Cornell George Hopley Woolrich was an American novelist and short story writer. He sometimes used the pseudonyms William Irish and George Hopley. His biographer, Francis Nevins Jr., rated Woolrich the fourth best crime writer of his day, behind Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner and Raymond Chandler. Woolrich was born in New York City; his parents separated when he was young. He lived for a time in Mexico with his father before returning to New York to live with his rich, domineering mother, Claire Attalie Woolrich. His first novel, Cover Charge published in 1926, was one of his Jazz Age novels inspired by the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He also wrote under the pen names George Hopley and William Irish. He wrote the story “It Had to Be Murder” in 1942 under the Irish name. It was renamed Rear Window in 1944 and Alfred Hitchcock made it into a movie. François Truffaut filmed Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black and Waltz into Darkness in 1968 and 1969, respectively, the latter as Mississippi Mermaid.

Woolrich lived the last thirty-five years of her mother’s life with her in a seedy hotel room in Harlem, New York. He never allowed his mother to read any of his work. He was married for three weeks to Violet Virginia Blackton, the daughter of a producer, but homosexual tendencies apparently convinced him that he could not remain married. After his mother’s death, Woolrich was in and out of several New York hotels. Alcoholism and an amputated leg (caused by an infection from a too-tight shoe that went untreated) left him in seclusion. He even refused to attend Truffaut’s premiere of his novel, even though it was held in New York City. 

Most of Woolrich’s books are out of print, and new editions were slow to come out because of estate issues. However, new collections of his short stories were issued in the early 1990s. As of February 3, 2020, the Faded Page has seven titles available as ebooks in the public domain in Canada; these may be still under copyright elsewhere. In 2020 and 2021, Otto Penzler’s “American Mystery Classics” series released new editions of Waltz into Darkness and The Bride Wore Black in both hardcover and paperback. (Source: Wikipedia)

Revered by mystery fans, students of film noir, and lovers of “hard-boiled” crime fiction and detective novels, Cornell Woolrich remains almost unknown to the general reading public. His obscurity persists even though his Hollywood pedigree rivals or exceeds that of Cain, Chandler, and Hammett. Try the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) and compare the filmographies of the four and you’ll find over twice as many films and television episodes based on the writings of Woolrich, with the breakdown as follows: Cornell Woolrich (58 entries), Hammett (25), Cain (24), and Chandler (22). Woolrich also has his fair share of film classics adapted from his works. He was the author of It Had To Be Murder, the source material for the Alfred Hitchcock suspense thriller, Rear Window, and Francois Truffault filmed The Bride Wore Black and Waltz Into Darkness, both based upon Woolrich novels. First rate actors in the forties and fifties played characters in movies made from Woolrich tales— Burgess Meredith (Street Of Chance, based on Woolrich’s Black Curtain), Edward G. Robinson (The Chase, Deadline At Dawn, Fall Guy, and Night Has A Thousand Eyes), Dan Duryea (The Chase), and of course Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly (Rear Window).

Woolrich’s titles alone are pure noir poetry: The Black Path of Fear, Night Has A Thousand Eyes, The Bride Wore Black, Waltz Into Darkness, and, of course, Rendezvous In Black. The words black, night, dark, and death recur with such regularity in Woolrich titles that his oeuvre is credited by some for suggesting the label “film noir.”

What Woolrich lacked in literary prestige he made up for in suspense. Nobody was better at it. He achieved financial success and even fame during his lifetime, but enjoyed neither, living alone or with his ailing mother in a series of decrepit New York City hotel rooms for most of his life.

Shortly after losing a leg to gangrene out of sheer self-neglect, he died miserable and alone of a stroke on September 25th, 1968. Five people attended his funeral. He left his money ($850,000) to Columbia University to fund a writers program.

In the fall of 1951, shortly after Woolrich had stopped writing and had begun a long slow descent into alcoholism, loneliness, and illness, he told a fan that, of the novels he’d written, his two personal favorites were The Black Angel (1943) and Rendezvous In Black (1948). (Excerpt from “Who Was Cornell Woolrich?” by Richard Dooling)

Bibliography: The Bride Wore Black (1940) (as by William Irish) aka Beware the Lady; The Black Curtain (1941); The Black Alibi (1942); Phantom Lady (1942) (as by William Irish); The Black Angel (1943); The Black Path of Fear (1944); Deadline at Dawn (1944) (as by William Irish); Night has a Thousand Eyes (1945) (as by George Hopley); Waltz into Darkness (1947) (as by William Irish); I Married a Dead Man (1948) (as by William Irish); Rendezvous in Black (1948); Fright (1950) (as by George Hopley); Savage Bride (1950); Marihuana (1951); Strangler’s Serenade (1951) (as by William Irish); You’ll Never See Me Again (1951) (as by William Irish); Hotel Room (1958); Death is my Dancing Partner (1959); The Doom Stone (1960); and Into the Night (1987) (Posthumous release, manuscript completed by Lawrence Block).

A complete short story bibliography can be found here.

1880

(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. J. B. Lippincott Company, US, 1947)

waltz-into-darknessFrom “the supreme master of suspense” comes the chilling chronicle of one man’s descent into madness. (New York Times)

When New Orleans coffee merchant Louis Durand first meets his bride-to-be after a months-long courtship by mail, he’s shocked that she doesn’t match the photographs sent with her correspondence. But Durand has told his own fibs, concealing from her the details of his wealth, and so he mostly feels fortunate to find her so much more beautiful than expected. Soon after they marry, however, he becomes increasingly convinced that the woman in his life is not the same woman with whom he exchanged letters, a fact that becomes unavoidable when she suddenly disappears with his fortune.

Alone, desperate, and inexplicably love-sick, Louis quickly descends into madness, obsessed with finding Julia and bringing her to justice ― and simply with seeing her again. He engages the services of a private detective to do so, embarking on a search that spans the southeast of the country. When he finally tracks her down, the nightmare truly begins…

A dark tale of the destructive power of love, Waltz into Darkness is a classic “femme fatale” narrative that shows “the father of the modern suspense story” (LA Times) at the top of his unsettling craft. It has been adapted for film twice, most notably serving as the basis for Francois Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid. (Source: Penzler Publishers)

Waltz into Darkness has been reviewed, among others, by Jim Noy at The Invisible Event, Laura at Dead Yesterday,

%d bloggers like this: