Woolrich Noir

December 4: On this day in 1903 the crime writer Cornell Woolrich was born. Woolrich joined the pulp boom in the mid-1930s when his mainstream fiction, many of them Jazz Age tales with an F. Scott Fitzgerald ring, did not sell. Over his three-decade career he wrote two dozen novels and over two hundred stories, many of them recently back in print. Most of them are so dark that he has been called "the Poe of the 20th century," and many of the movies made from his work—perhaps most well-known are Hitchcock's Rear Window and Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black—have earned him fame as the "Father of Film Noir." To evoke the appropriate pulp-noir tone, Francis Nevins Jr. titles his recent biography of Woolrich, First You Dream, Then You Die—a story title that Woolrich once proposed to himself but never used, and that all too accurately captures his odd, obscure and sometimes creepy life.


If there is a Hitchcock connection to Woolrich's reclusive, maladjusted tendencies it is surely through Psycho. His early marriage lasted 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 most of his life—twenty-five years, except for the several weeks he broke free of their love-hate relationship to live in his own room in the same hotel. After she died he did try a series of different hotels, but only to move from lobby to bar to bed within them—not even going 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 to be amputated.


When he died in 1968 at the age of sixty-four (and weight of eighty-nine pounds), 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, whom he had never allowed to read a word of his books.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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