Monday, December 04, 2017

Born Today in 1903: Mystery Novelist Cornell Woolrich

 Cornell Woolrich was born today, December 4, in 1903. He was an American crime and mystery novelist and short story. A check of film titles reveals that more film noir screenplays were adapted from works by Woolrich than any other crime novelist, including the classic Hitchcock film Rear Window. He wrote more than 40 books and at least 35 films were based on his works. Also many of his stories were adapted during the 1940s for suspense and other dramatic radio programs.

Woolrich was born in New York City. He lived for a time in Mexico with his father before returning to New York to live with his mother.

He attended Columbia University, but left in 1926 without graduating when his first novel, Cover Charge, was published. As Eddie Duggan observes, "Woolrich enrolled at New York's Columbia University in 1921 where he spent a relatively undistinguished year until he was taken ill and was laid up for some weeks. It was during this illness (a Rear-Window-like confinement involving a gangrenous foot, according to one version of the story) that Woolrich started writing, producing Cover Charge, which was published in 1926." 

Cover Charge was one of his Jazz Age novels inspired by the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. A second novel, Children of the Ritz, won Woolrich a college prize the following year and led to him working as screenwriter in Hollywood for First National Pictures. 

While in Hollywood, Woolrich explored his sexuality, apparently engaging in "promiscuous and clandestine homosexual activity," but also getting married. Failing in both his attempt at marriage and at establishing a career as a screenwriter (the unconsummated marriage was annulled in 1933; Woolrich garnered no screen credits), Woolrich sought to resume his life as a novelist:

When he turned to pulp and detective fiction, Woolrich's output was so prolific, his work was often published under one of his many pseudonyms. For example, "William Irish" was the byline in Dime Detective Magazine (February 1942) on his 1942 story "It Had to Be Murder," source of the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window and itself based on H.G. Wells' short story "Through a Window." 

François Truffaut filmed Woolrich's The Bride Wore Black and Waltz into Darkness in 1968 and 1969, respectively, the latter as Mississippi Mermaid.

He returned to New York where he and his mother moved into the Hotel Marseilles (Broadway and West 103rd Street). Eddie Duggan observes that "[a]lthough his writing made him wealthy, Woolrich and his mother lived in a series of seedy hotel rooms, including the squalid Hotel Marseilles apartment building in Harlem, among a group of thieves, prostitutes and lowlifes that would not be out of place in Woolrich's dark fictional world". 

Woolrich lived there until his mother's death on October 6, 1957, which prompted his move to the Hotel Franconia (20 West 72nd Street). In later years, he socialized on occasion in Manhattan bars with Mystery Writers of America colleagues and younger fans such as writer Ron Goulart, but alcoholism and an amputated leg (caused by an infection from a too-tight shoe which went untreated) left him a recluse.

After the amputation, and a conversion to Catholicism, Woolrich returned to the Sheraton-Russell, confined to a wheelchair. Some of the staff there would take Woolrich down to the lobby so he could look out on the passing traffic, thus making the wizened, wheelchair-bound Woolrich into a kind of darker, self-loathing version of the character played by James Stewart in Hitchcock's Rear Window.

Woolrich did not attend the premiere of Truffaut's film of his novel The Bride Wore Black in 1968, even though it was held in New York City. He died on September 28, 1968, weighing 89 pounds. 

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