Cornell Woolrich—Blues of a Lifetime—An Autobiography

Posted: April 23, 2013 in Crime Fiction Books, Crime Writers
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Cornell Woolrich

Portrait of the writer as a young man—The youngCornell Woolrich

Let’s get this straight right from the get go Crimeziners, Blues of a Life Time, The autobiography of Cornell Woolrich is many things, what it most emphatically is not is an autobiography of the godfather of Noir Fiction.

What we do get is five posthumously published short stories, that throw a deeply sanitized glimpse into the bizarre and dysfunctional world of one of crime fiction’s most influential writers.

Remington Portable NC69411 is an episodic account of how Woolrich became a writer whilst still at Colombia University in the 1920’s. We hear about the writer’s nerdish innocence, his writing habits and his hollow craving for companionship. For a 21 year old man living in New York City, at the height of the roaring twenties, poor Corny’s life seems unbearably dull.

Next up, we get The Poor Girl, a story of Woolrich’s “first love” with a young woman, a story made all the more poignant, as Woolrich was a life long homosexual, who’s three month marriage to Violet Blackton—daughter of silent film producer J. Stuart Blackton—ended in disaster. Woolrich is reputed to have used their honeymoon cruise as an opportunity to pick up sailors. Of course none of this is mentioned in this coy autobiography, which is something of a missed opportunity, given its posthumous release.

Just as one thinks things cannot get any worse for poor old Corny, they inevitably do. In the story Even God Felt the Great Depression, we hear a shocking first hand account of how bad things could get in the early thirties.

It is here we realize for the first time how close Corny was to his mom—they were close—very close. He lived with her in a succession of seedy hotels, most notably the Hotel Marseilles on Broadway and West 102nd street. In President Eisenhower’s Speech, we find mom listening to the radio, whilst Corny paces the corridor as the Hotel is on fire—should he disturb his mom’s favorite show and evacuate the building—or present a face of stoicism despite the advancing danger? The results are farcical and anticlimactic and we never get to know the inside angle on his true relationship with mom, but by this time, the dedicated reader is peering closely between every single line. The relationship with his mom proved all consuming, Woolrich lived with her for 25 years after his failed marriage and specified that he share a double crypt with his her when he died in 1968.

In the last story in the book The Maid Who Played the Races, the entire premise for the story is a misunderstanding. While staying in a Seattle hotel, a maid asks  Woolrich about his profession. Corny replies he is a writer, which in his broad east coast accent is mistaken for Rider, and the maid assumes he is a Jockey. Oh, the hilarity.

The frustrating thing about this book, is it tells almost nothing about Woolrich the man. There is no talk of the Hitchcock movie Rear Window, which was based on the Woolrich story, “It had to be Murder” Although Corny whines at length about Hollywood—and the raw deal it gave him.

Nor is there any mention made of Film Noir, a term that was coined by the French after Woolrich’s “black” titled stories, such as The Bride Wore Black and Black Angel, and Black Alibi.

No mention either of Woolrich’s yellow alter ego the commie hating, dope bashing, William Irish. That’s right Crimeziners closet case Corny was bashing stoners, homo’s and reds wayyyyyy before the fashionable fifties. And yet he claims no credit here, nor does he make any mention at all of the very many excellent and genre defining stories he wrote under his own name, which for a writer who is often mentioned in the same breath as Chandler, Hammett, and Cain—is more than an oversight, it is unforgivable.

It is often mentioned that Woolrich died due to sepsis caused by wearing ill-fitting shoes. This is only partially true. Woolrich was a life long Alcoholic, an attribute that exacerbated his diabetes-which in turn led to the sepsis. He died alone in a New York City hotel room, weighing in at only 89 pounds, Woolrich was so ill at this point, that he failed to attend the 1968 premiere of Truffaut’s classic film, The Bride wore Black. He bequeathed his estate of almost a million dollars to Colombia University.

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