More about Cornell Woolrich (1903 – 1968)

Please, allow me to repeat here some excerpts taken from the Introduction by Francis M Nevins, Jr., to Nightwebs. I hope I’m not violating any intellectual property rights, if so, I would immediately delete this entry. By the way I only write this for its possible interest to readers of this blog, and in no way do I get an economic benefit from it.

Enokfjz1hm1ckDyXN7eaCCSLhH8uS0JRGw0VRX6K-1 (1)Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich was born in New York on December 4, 1903 to parents who divorced soon after his birth. He spent much of his childhood in Mexico and South America with his father, a civil engineer. He seems to have been shunted back and forth between parents, living with his socially prominent mother in New York during the school year and traveling with his father during vacation periods. In the early 1920s he entered Columbia University but he dropped out of college before graduating to devote himself entirely to literature when his first novel, Cover Charge, was published in 1926. His next novel, Children of the Ritz (1927), won the first prize of $10,000 in a contest conducted jointly by College Humor and First National Pictures, which filmed the book in 1929. Woolrich was invited to collaborate on the adaptation. While in Hollywood, Woolrich fell in love with and married a producer’s daughter, who left him within weeks and later had the marriage annulled. Woolrich returned to New York and his mother. He published four other novels. His early novels show a deep influence from Scott Fitzgerald (one of Woolrich’s favourite authors). In addition, between 1926 and 1932, Woolrich published a number of short stories, two articles, and a serial in magazines, but during 1933 not a single word appeared under his byline: the Depression had caught up to him. He did write another novel that year, but he couldn’t sell it, and eventually he threw it away. In any event, Woolrich grew to dislike all of his work up to the middle Thirties. “It would have been a lot better if everything I’d done until then had been written in invisible ink and the reagent had been thrown away,” he commented in his autobiography.

His second chance came to him about halfway through 1934, when he turned to a new market and a new kind of story. His first mystery story, “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair,” appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly on August 4, 1934. Woolrich’s two other mystery stories of 1934 are equally characteristic: “Walls that Hear You” and “Preview of Death”. The ten crime stories Woolrich published in 1935 were of uneven quality, but incredible variety; together they express almost all of the motives and beliefs and devices that form the nucleus of Woolrich’s fiction. Among these “The Corpse and the Kid” is the best known of Woolrich’s 1935 stories under its later title, “Boy with Body”.

By the end of 1935, Woolrich was a professional, and between 1936 and 1939 he published at least 105 stories (of every length, from short-short to the novella, but the majority of them long short stories), as well as two book-length magazine serials. By the end of 1939 his name had become a commonplace on all the top-quality mystery magazines—Argosy, Black Mask, Detective Fiction Weekly, Dime Detective—and had also appeared on the covers of low-grade cheapies like Black Book Detective and Thrilling Mystery, not to mention his tales in such a high-quality general fiction magazines as Whit Burnett’s Story. These hundred-odd stories are astonishing in their unity—hardly a single one lacks Woolrich’s unique mood, tone, and preoccupations – no less than in their variety. By the turn of the decade, Woolrich had made uniquely his own certain settings—the seedy hotel, the cheap dance hall, the precinct station back room, the inside of a rundown movie theatre—and certain motifs: the clock race, the corrosion of love and trust, the little guy trapped by powers beyond his control.

In 1940, Woolrich published his first mystery novel, The Bride Wore Black, which quickly became and today remains a classic in the literature of suspense. Bride was followed by five other novels over the next eight years, each including the word “black” in its title: The Black Curtain (1941), Black Alibi (1942), The Black Angel (1943), The Black Path of Fear (1944) and Rendezvous in Black (1948). Woolrich’s short stories and novellas were somewhat reduced in number in the early forties, but these included such classics as “All at Once, No Alice”, “Finger of Doom”, “One Last Night”, “Three Kills for One” and “Marihuana”. Part of the energy that he had devoted during the 1930s to stories for cheap publications he then channelled into a new genre: that of radio scripts. Many of Woolrich’s stories were “naturals” for adaptation and broadcasting on such series as Suspense, and at times Woolrich wrote the radio versions himself. As if all this were not enough, Woolrich continued to write other novels – too many for publication under a single byline.

Woolrich showed the manuscript of these novels to Whit Burnett, who had published some of his shorter fiction in Story, and Burnett showed it to the editors at J.B. Lippincott, who agreed to publish it. Since Simon & Schuster, then publishing the Black books, had exclusive right to use the name Cornell Woolrich, a pseudonym was needed; and together Woolrich and Burnett came up with the name of William Irish. The novel that Lippincott published under the Irish byline was, of course, the classic Phantom Lady (1942). The next Irish novels were: Deadline at Dawn (1944), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945), published under Woolrich’s last pseudonym, George Hopley, Waltz into Darkness (1947), and I Married a Dead Man (1948).

The public and critical success of the novels led to publication of several collections of Woolrich’s shorter work in a series of hard-cover volumes from Lippincott and in a number of paperback originals which today are  collector’s items. In addition to the many radio plays adapted from his work by himself and others, fifteen movies were made from Woolrich material between 1942 and 1950 alone, including Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944), Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman , 1946, with screenplay by Clifford Odets) and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (John Farrow, 1948); but almost all of them badly mauled their sources, and one can find little in them of the authentic Woolrich.

After 1948 Woolrich published little: a novel apiece under each of his three bylines in 1950–51, and one novella late in 1952. That he was remembered at all during the early Fifties is due largely to Ellery Queen, who reprinted in his magazine a host of Woolrich’s early pulp stories, and to Alfred Hitchcock, whose Rear Window (1954) gave some idea of Woolrich’s cinematic potential even though little distinctively Woolrichian is left in the finished film.

Woolrich’s silence in the 1950s is probably related to his mother’s prolonged illness: having spent most of his life in an intense, almost pathological, love-hate relationship with her, he was unable to produce anything during the last years of his mother’s life. On several occasions he passed off slightly updated narratives for new ones, misleading both book and magazine publishers and the public. Woolrich’s mother died in 1957, and not long after her death came her son’s first new book in seven years.

Hotel Room (1958) is a collection of largely noncriminous stories set in a New York City hotel at different periods in its history from its early years of sumptuous fashionableness to the last days before its demolition. The Hotel St. Anselm was apparently an amalgam of all the desiccated Victorian residential hotels in which Woolrich and his mother had lived, and the set in the hotel mark the beginning of Woolrich’s last period, which consists of a mere handful of stories, most of them near-shapeless, hyperemotional “tales of love and despair”.  Woolrich’s best story of the Fifties, though originally conceived as a chapter in Hotel Room, was excised at the last minute and appeared independently in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine as “The Penny-a-Worder”.

The year 1959 saw the publication of Woolrich’s last new novel and his worst, Death Is My Dancing Partner, in which he returns to themes already used. Effectively, Woolrich in his latest novel came around full circle to the sentimental novels he wrote during and just after his college days. And so, the last years wore on, Woolrich had become a diabetic and an alcoholic, he was obsessed with the fear that he was homosexual, he had lost touch  with most of the few acquaintances he had ever had. A tiny rivulet of new stories appeared every so often in EQMM or Saint Mystery Magazine, each eagerly awaited and discussed by those who loved his work, none equal in power to those great novels and stories of the Thirties and Forties.

In 1965 two more collections of his short fiction were published. The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich, edited by Ellery Queen, was of high quality, but seven of its ten stories included come straight out of earlier collections. The Dark Side of Love brought together eight stories from the author’s last period, including three, unsaleable to magazines, that appeared for the first time in the collection itself. There were no more books published in his lifetime and less than half-a-dozen further stories, and his condition continued to deteriorate. He developed gangrene in his leg and did nothing about it; when the doctors reached it, it was too far gone to do anything but amputate. He remained in lonely isolation, confined in a wheelchair, unable to learn how to walk on an artificial leg, probably unable to write anything. He died of a stroke a few month later, on September 25, 1968, leaving no survivors.  His state of close to a million dollars he left in a trust fund to Columbia University, for scholarships to go to students of creative writing. The fund is named after his mother.

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