February 20, 2018

Woolrich Noir

On this day in 1903 the crime writer Cornell Woolrich was born. Woolrich (sometimes as "William Irish" or "George Hopley") wrote two dozen novels and over two hundred stories, most of them so dark that he has been called "the Poe of the 20th century." Looking at the many movies made from his work -- most famously, Hitchcock's Rear Window and Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black -- many have also dubbed him the "Father of Film Noir." After examining every book, story and movie (and cataloguing over 120 television and radio adaptations), Francis Nevins Jr. titles his biography of Woolrich, First You Dream, Then You Die -- a story title that Woolrich proposed to himself but never used, and that all too appropriately captures his odd, obscure and sometimes creepy life.

Woolrich joined the pulp boom in the mid-1930s when his mainstream fiction, many of them Jazz Age tales with a F. Scott Fitzgerald ring, did not sell. By this time, Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner and even late-comer Raymond Chandler -- the three which Nevins ranks ahead of Woolrich on his Top Ten Crime Writers list -- were well-known. Woolrich was softer-boiled than most of the penny-a-worders, and better at suspense -- so good in some stories, says Harlan Ellison, that "you hear your spine crack with tension." It is this, along with his visual sense, which makes Woolrich "the Hitchcock of the written word." (It also salvages prose that can get too purple or prolix or just bad: "His face was an unbaked cruller of rage" (The Black Curtain) tops Nevins's personal list of howlers.)

If there is a Hitchcock connection to Woolrich's personal life it is through Psycho. He was reclusive, and so sexually and socially maladjusted that many of the few people who knew him casually did not want to know any more. Early on he married, for three weeks; when he abruptly left the relationship, he left behind, perhaps by way of tortured explanation, a locked suitcase containing his sailor's uniform and a diary detailing his homosexual adventures. He lived with his mother in a squalid Harlem hotel for twenty-five years. For several weeks he broke free of their love-hate relationship to live in his own room in the same hotel, recording the event by way of this dedication notice in Phantom Lady:
    To Apartment 605, Hotel M____
    In unmitigated thankfulness
    (at not being in it any more)
The dedication in his first noir book, The Bride Wore Black, is as indicative:

and Remington Portable No. NC69411
in unequal parts

Nevins has not been able to discover who or what CHULA was, but there was little need for the typewriter to be portable: after his mother died in 1961 Woolrich made a trip to Canada, but otherwise he hadn't been outside of New York City for thirty-one years. He did try a series of different hotels over the last decade, but only to move from lobby to bar within them. There was little writing at this point, and the disinterest in living reached such proportions that he would not go down the street to meet Truffaut at the premiere of The Bride Wore Black. But by this point Woolrich was in a wheelchair: a foot chafed by a too-tight shoe, of all things, had been allowed to develop into gangrene, and the leg had been amputated. Three months later, at the age of sixty-four and a weight of eighty-nine pounds, Woolrich died; as reported by two of the handful of people who attended, the funeral was "chilling" and "hideous." He gave his estate of nearly a million dollars to Columbia University in order that a scholarship be set up for potential writers -- in the name of his mother, who he had never allowed to read a word of his books. This may suggest an explanation for both the dream and the dying: unable to be the writer that he had wanted and tried to be when he started, Woolrich finally chose the other option.

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