The Life of Cornell Woolrich

For all intents and purposes, Cornell Woolrich was a writer first, and everything else second. His posthumously-published autobiography, Blues of a Lifetime, begins with a love letter to his typewriter, his one true love. He even dedicated his first hardboiled novel, The Bride Wore Black, to it (Corliss). However, his writing career was largely the product of chance.

Woolrich began writing while battling sickness at Columbia University. Bored and recovering at his grandfather’s house, Woolrich was disgusted by the quality of the household library (Bassett 8). He was certain that he could write a better book and set out to do so. He wrote the novel using a system of shorthand and then typed it on a friend’s typewriter. That friend knew a girl who worked at a publisher and handed the book to her without Woolrich’s consent. She showed it to her bosses, and they bought it (Bassett 30).

Up until that point, Woolrich had never thought of being a writer. After that point, he would never be much of anything else. Woolrich was secretly a sexually-active gay man (Corliss), but was married for a short time to Violet Virginia Blackton, a film producers daughter. They separated after three months, and Woolrich lived with his mother for the rest of her life. He didn’t have many friends, drank heavily, and suffered the ill-effects of alcoholism and chain smoking in later years.

Woolrich’s writing legacy included twenty-seven novels and eighteen short story collections. His stories were used numerous times in television and film over the course of his life. Still, Woolrich seemed to struggle with everything other than writing and largely kept to himself. Renzi writes that “Whatever documented facts we have about the author hardly do more than plot out a crude timeline of his life” (4). That timeline has mostly been pieced together by his publication history and papers discovered after his death.

In 1967, Woolrich had to have a leg amputated due to a poorly-fitting shoe. Instead of seeking medical attention, he self-medicated with alcohol until the foot was gangrenous (Corliss). No doubt, Woolrich’s emotional state at the time was a contributing factor. According to his friend, science fiction author Barry Malzberg, he “would stay in his room and drink almost all the time and stare at television looking for a film from one of his novels or short stories” (Nevins 416).

Woolrich’s failure to take care of his leg contributed directly to his death on September 25, 1968. Only five people came to see his body in the funeral home. The priest who spoke that day had never met Woolrich (Nevins 434). Based upon items mentioned in various biographies about his life, Woolrich may have left more unfinished projects behind than he did friends.

Fittingly, for a man who staked so much of his life on writing and that early chance encounter with the craft, Woolrich left almost his entire estate to Columbia University in order to set up scholarships for writing students. The Claire Woolrich Memorial Scholarship Fund (named after his mother) still exists to this day.

Somewhat ironically, issues with the estate led to many of Woolrich’s books going out of print. I am happy to report that even as I worked on this project, new digital editions were being released for public consumption.

Woolrich is the forgotten legend of hardboiled fiction. Fortunately, if his stories continue to find an audience, he doesn’t have to be. Woolrich can live on in print and film. Given Woolrich’s passion for writing, I doubt he would ask for anything more.