The Poe of the Twentieth Century
By Fiona Kyle, Artistic Apprentice
Isaac Asimov called Cornell Woolrich “the master of suspense,” and his main editor and biographer Francis M. Nevins, Jr. called him the “Poe of the Twentieth Century.” While he’s now less recognized as a novelist and short story writer than his more famous contemporaries Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Woolrich had more novels and stories adapted into noir films than any other writer of his period. Filmmakers as diverse as Jacques Tourneur, Robert Siodmak, Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut and Rainer Werner Fassbinder all made films based on his stories. He made significant contributions to the noir literary genre and won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1948. With his gritty, smoke-filled prose, it is little wonder that his work translated so well into film noir.
Woolrich was born in New York City in 1903 but spent much of his youth with his father in Mexico after his parents’ separation in 1907. His grandfather took him to a production of the opera Madame Butterfly in Mexico City which had a major influence on his work as a writer, giving him what he called “a sudden, sharp insight into color and drama.” In 1918 he returned to New York to live with his mother, Claire. Woolrich enrolled at Columbia University to study journalism. He was a poor student in many subjects but exceled in his English courses. During the spring of 1925, his foot became infected and he stopped attending classes; it was then that he wrote his first novel. A small publishing house, Boni & Liveright, published Cover Charge and he left Columbia the following year.
When the film rights to his second novel, Children of the Ritz, were bought, Woolrich moved to Hollywood to work on the adaptation. While in California, he met Gloria Blackton, an actress and the daughter of the film pioneer J. Stuart Blackton. After a brief courtship, they married but within six months they had separated. After he left, Gloria found a diary in which he described dressing up in a sailor suit to pick up men. He also wrote “it might be a really good joke to marry this Gloria Blackton.” She agreed not to mention the diary in any proceedings.
Following the annulment of his marriage with Gloria, Woolrich lived with his mother in New York for the rest of her life. He began writing crime and detective stories for pulp magazines. A prolific period ensued and he wrote his most famous stories such as “Three O’Clock” and “It Had To Be Murder,” better known as “Rear Window.” By the late 1940s, Woolrich’s career was booming and he received a steady income from reprints, movies, radio, and television.
However, as the years wore on, Woolrich began to withdraw from society and write less. Despite their difficult relationship, he was devastated by his mother’s death in 1957. He started to drink more heavily and his writing deteriorated. He tried other genres such as horror and adventure but never achieved the same success as in his noir days. In 1968, Woolrich came down with gangrene, and didn’t seek treatment until it was too late. The infection grew in his right leg, which had to be amputated below the knee. On September 19, Woolrich was found unconscious in his hotel room. He had a stroke, fell into a coma, and died on September 25, 1968.
In his safe deposit box, there were two unfinished novels, a novelette, and his autobiography, Blues of a Lifetime, later published in 1991. Woolrich left his entire estate in trust to Columbia University to establish the Claire Woolrich Memorial Scholarship Fund for undergraduate or graduate students interested in writing. He was buried with his mother in the family crypt at the Ferncliff Mausoleum in Hartsdale, New York.