Cornell Woolrich to this day
remains a frustratingly elusive figure
Herewith the legend of Cornell Woolrich, dark as his darkest fiction:
Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich was born on December 14, 1903 in New York City to Genero and Claire (nee Attalie) Hopley-Woolrich. In 1907 the family moved to Mexico and Genero and Claire divorced soon after. Cornell stayed with his father in Mexico for the duration of his childhood. As a teenager, he returned to the United States and lived with his mother, his aunt, and his grandfather on West 113th street. Cornell attended DeWitt Clinton High School and went on to attend Columbia University. He would have graduated in 1925, but dropped out his senior year.
Upon leaving school, Woolrich had a brief marriage to Gloria (Violet Virginia) Blackton....they married on December 6, 1930....Gloria Blackton discovered his diary and realized that he had been having daily affairs with men throughout their marriage. She quickly divorced him. Woolrich moved back in with his mother and lived with her in the Hotel Marseilles until she died in 1957....
...he became even more of a recluse after his mother died. Woolrich stayed in his hotel room until he died in 1968. There is very little information about his personal life and the information that exists may or may not be true....
History/Biographical Note, Cornell Woolrich Papers, Columbia University
By all accounts, Cornell Woolrich was a real son of a bitch. A self-hating gay man who once married a naive young woman as a cruel joke, refused to sleep with her and then left her a written account of his escapades with other men, he lived most of his life with an overbearing mother who said she would die if he ever left her. When she finally did die years later, Woolrich drank himself into a decade-long stupor, developed gangrene and died weighing 89 pounds. It was a miserable end to a thoroughly rotten life.
Review of Fear in the Night (1947) by Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor blog
Woolrich was himself, alas, pretty much a miserable son of a bitch....A self-hating gay man who tormented a young wife for a short time before retreating to a booze-soaked codependency with his beloved/despised mother, as a person Woolrich was as unpleasant as many of his darkest scenarios....He channeled that vision not only into a life of debauchery and cruelty but also into his fiction....
Pulp Kafka: The Nightmares of Cornell Woolrich, Jake Hinkson, criminalelement.com
I say it again, the man was a creep--not because he was gay, but because of the diary, and because he left it behind for Gloria to read. Then there's the fact he lived with his mother until he was 53, when she died. By itself that would just be kind of odd; taken with everything else it tends to red-line the creep factor. (It sounds like Sebastian and Violet Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer.)
Lost & Found: Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Jim Lane, Jim Lane's Cinemadrome, 6 May 2011
Was Cornell Woolrich this miserable, self-hating, misanthropic creep described by Jake Hinkson and Jim Lane, or has the legend of Cornell Woolrich over the years grown taller in the telling? Let's try to look at what we really know.
As the note on the Cornell Woolrich papers at Columbia University states there is, in fact, "very little information" about the author's personal life. We know that after his parents Genaro and Claire divorced he lived in Mexico for a time with his father, then resided with his mother at his maternal grandfather's house in New York; that he attended Columbia University but dropped out before getting a degree, publishing his first book, a Jazz Age novel inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald, at the age of 22; that he was briefly married in California; that after his divorce he moved back to New York and lived with his mother until her death; that he lived a solitary, lonely life until his own death a decade later.
back cover of Woolrich's short fiction
collection Violence (1958), which
appeared about eight months after
his mother's death at the age of 83
Nevins I'm sure did all he could to dig up information, but there just does not seem to be all that much primary material out there about this reclusive man, who by his own declaration was born to live a solitary life.
A rather similar case in some ways is that of Raymond Chandler, where almost all the personal detail on Chandler that has fueled his three (and counting) biographies comes from the letters he wrote during the last twenty years of his life (he lived to be seventy). However, these often brilliant letters that Chandler wrote in the 1940s and 1950s make a tremendous difference, bringing his remarkable personality vividly alive.
We have nothing like that from Cornell Woolrich. There are astonishingly few Woolrich letters quoted in Dream. For personal detail on Woolrich we are largely dependent on the author's unfinished memoir, Blues of a Lifetime, which Nevins thinks is to a great extent unreliable, and recollections from people--some, like the noted science fiction writer Barry Malzberg, still with us--who got to know Woolrich in the 1960s, that sad decade when the author had to learn to adjust to life without his mother.
Personal recollections of Cornell Woolrich's earlier years that are offered by Nevins in Dream are sparse (we don't even get to see childhood, high school or college photos of Woolrich, nor photos of his father or mother or his maternal grandfather's house, where he probably spent his happiest years).
An early, and to me quite incisive, recollection about Woolrich comes from an interview by German filmmaker Christian Bauer with a Woolrich Columbia University classmate, the great public intellectual (and mystery fan), Jacques Barzun (1907-2012):
"We happened to sit side by side and, as the custom was, one spoke to one's classmate without any particular introduction or any particular purpose. I found Cornell very shy indeed, very retiring, very suspicious. But somehow...he and I got into more and more conversations. As far as I could see, I was the only person in either of those classes with whom he had any sort of human dealings. He always rushed out of the class without lingering with any other students."
Barzun recalled that Woolrich sometimes broke off conversations with words to this effect: "I've got to go now. I've got to see Mother." He added that Woolrich
"had a sense of humor, particularly a sense of the grotesque, the ironic. He was a rather bitter young man. He made sarcastic comments very easily...about life in general, about other people, about institutions, about the older generation.....He had a sense of destiny, both on the positive side, that he was going to accomplish something, and on the negative side, that he couldn't possibly do it, that something would interfere, the ceiling would fall in on him just as a contract was being signed for the next book, or something of the sort."
In a portion of the interview I did not find mentioned in Dream, Bauer asked Barzun if he would be surprised to find out Cornell Woolrich was "homosexual" and Barzun said, yes, he would be. However, he added, he would not be surprised to find out that Woolrich was "asexual."
Attaining some success as a youthful Jazz Age fiction writer in the mold of his literary idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Woolrich moved out to Hollywood in 1928, to work on the film adaptation of his novel Children of the Ritz.
After more than two years had passed, he married Gloria Blackton, the younger daughter of a pioneering Hollywood film producer.
Woolrich in his memoir Blues of a Lifetime writes of having fallen in love over the course of his youth with three women. "The third time," he explains, "I married her, and it was only after it happened that I realized I wished I hadn't."
Gloria Blackton's half-sister Marian Trimble provides a more detailed--and darker--account of this marriage. Nevins interviewed her 1977, nearly fifty years after the marriage, when she was 76 years old. Nevins quotes excepts from the interview, in which Marian says Gloria told her:
(1) the marriage was never consummated ("....she flung herself on the couch and burst into tears and said: 'He's gone. Cornell's gone.' And she began to tell me that things had been very bad then, she was...[still] a virgin....)
(2) Woolrich had had homosexual encounters before and during the marriage ("but what hurt her, I think, more than anything else was the great mistake he made in leaving a diary....It covered the period from the time when he came to Hollywood until just before he left...he also spoke in this diary of how it might be a really good joke to marry this Gloria Blackton. I think that bit into her more than anything he wrote. I mean, she overlooked the grosser part of the diary.")
Frustratingly, Nevins breaks off the block quotation at this point, writing "The bulk of the diary, Marian told me, recounted a large number of homosexual encounters, 'in sordid and dreadful detail.'" Then Nevins goes back again to a block quotation from Marian telling the now infamous story of Woolrich and the sailor suit.
Woolrich had a mysterious locked suitcase, Marian says, that "one day he left open by mistake." Gloria "could see that there was a sailor suit in it. And he would don the sailor suit, get up in the night and leave her. In the dark he would put on the sailor suit and go down to the waterfront and find whatever experience he was looking for."
This is a dramatic story indeed, but, absent the evidence of this sex diary, it remains hearsay. Marian Trimble says Gloria sent the diary back to a desperately importunate Woolrich. Nevins allows that "No trace of such a diary remains among Woolrich's papers." Interestingly, Gloria had another sibling, a brother, who apparently didn't corroborate any of this in an interview with Nevins in 1987, although he did declare to Nevins that he had thought Woolrich was "a jerk."
Despite these qualifications, however, Nevins writes as if the matter is factually established:
Clearly [Woolrich's] homosexual life was of the most furtive and sordid variety, a side of himself that he despised and was ashamed of, that he could neither accept or suppress, that he never acknowledged publicly and dropped down the memory hole even in Blues of a Lifetime, which he claimed to have written for himself alone. How many of the young women he mentions in his autobiography were really young men?
Of course this must be a rhetorical question on Nevins' part, because there can be no answer to it (unless this putative diary shows up someday). But even if we accept everything Marian Trimble says, what sort of self-despising gay man records his homosexual sex acts "in sordid and dreadful detail" in a diary--and then proceeds to leave this diary behind him when he walks out on his wife? This sounds much more like a proud and self-proclaiming gay man! The whole episode, as described, seems bizarre.
|Dressing up to Play Sailor?|
(Brad Davis in Querelle, 1982)
I personally would not be comfortable stating emphatically that Cornell Woolrich was gay based on this evidence (it would have been nice had Nevins provided some historical background on gay life in LA at that time). Yet Nevins' view has been generally accepted, and indeed embellished upon, over the years. Nevins himself urges the point throughout Dream. For example, he states in passing on page 129 that "the likelihood that any of these pulps' editors would want to buy a mystery from a pale, puny, homosexual recluse who wanted to be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald hovered close to the zero mark" (was there a questionnaire or something?).
Nevins gives examples in Dream of what he views as "homosexual symbolism" in Woolrich's work:
"'I was carrying Death around in my mouth," the reporter tells us near the end [of the story "Death Sits in the Dentist's Chair," where a dentist fills cavities with cyanide], and if one is determined to find subtle traces of Woolrich's homosexuality everywhere in his work, one might as well begin here. (p. 129)
While struggling with Cook over a gun, the hobo is shot in the mouth (here we go again, homosexual symbol seekers!) (p. 141)
....they arrange for a pickpocket accomplice to take a ride on the same train that is bringing Bull to the state pen, sit in the seat behind the mobster and quietly puncture Bull's rear end with a hypodermic full of germs (homosexuality symbol hunters take notice!).... (p. 157)
the evocation of [a male character's] death...suggests a savage homosexual coupling.... (p. 299)
These examples seem rather reductive to me (not to mention in dubious taste). Since Woolrich was a gay man, so the reasoning seems to go, inevitably any time in his tales that poison, bullets or germs enter a man's mouth or buttocks it symbolizes homosexuality. Also it is disappointing to see Nevins in his hunt for "homosexual symbols" focus so relentlessly on sex acts. Is it Woolrich who associated gay sex with death, or is it Nevins who has imposed this supposed meaning on Woolrich's texts?*
*(to be sure, Dream was published in 1988, at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, something that may have influenced Nevins' view of this matter; yet Woolrich--unless he was endowed, like his seer character in Night Has a Thousand Eyes/"Speak to Me of Death," with second sight--could not have foreseen this development).
|sometimes a hypo is just a hypo....|
I have read my share of Woolrich (granted, Nevins has read everything, as Dream makes abundantly clear) and I can't say I am overwhelmingly struck in his work by intimations of gay feeling on Woolrich's part (the closest it gets that I have seen is the story "Murder, Obliquely"). I am struck by a powerful depiction of of loneliness, despair and doom, but this is not a state of mind specific to gay men. Any person, whatever his or her sexual orientation, might have these feelings and give expression to them in fiction.
In the work of Rufus King, Milton Propper* and Todd Downing, American mystery writers from the 1930s and 1940s whom I believe were gay, I see an interest in men that to me is indicative of homosexuality. In the case of Todd Downing, about whom I have written extensively, there is a suggestion in his later mysteries that his bachelor series detective Hugh Rennert is desirous of male intimacy (I have not taken stock of guns/drills placed into men's mouths or needles stuck into their posteriors). I just do not see this same thing in Woolrich. To change my mind it would take something more than the Nevins examples from Woolrich's work that are quoted above.
*(Nevins also has written about Milton Propper, who he sees as another tragic homosexual. See my review here of Propper's 1936 detective novel One Murdered, Two Dead, as well as the comments.)
Nevins also draws on a 1979 interview he conducted with the longtime mystery editor Lee Wright, two years after his interview with Marian Trimble. Wright shared Nevins' view that Woolrich was gay. When Nevins asked her how Woolrich felt about his mother, she answered: "A combination of dependence, adoration, hatred, all the things you'd expect of a homosexual's relationship with his mother." A rather invidious stereotype of gay men is on display here!
Wright corroborates Marian Trimble's claim of Woolrich's homosexuality with her own story, entirely hearsay. Writing of Woolrich's life in the 1950s, Nevins concludes that "Woolrich left the Hotel Marseilles (where he lived with his mother) almost never, just to get a haircut or a few drinks, or perhaps to see a movie, or for sex." He then quotes Wright:
"He would tell me how lonely he was, that nobody loved him. And I would say to Cornell: 'Well, it's probably your own fault. I mean, you sort of put people off. You're too shy. Why can't you be more outgoing? You'll find that people will like you very much. You're very likable.'"
Nevins immediately follows this with a story from Wright about how she invited Woolrich and a Simon & Schuster sales representative to dine with her at her apartment. Around eleven in the evening, the two men left together and the salesman told Wright afterward that he had faced "a terrible time protecting himself from Cornell on their way home on the Elevated. It almost amounted to a physical attack...."
So the "pale, puny, homosexual recluse" who was "too shy" came near to sexually assaulting a man on the Elevated?
|a book about a man|
who desperately needs
to find the right woman
In his 2012 introduction to Centipede Press' edition of Woolrich's Phantom Lady, Malzberg writes of his "sheer exasperation with Frances M. Nevins' incessant fag-baiting in his otherwise bibliographical useful biography of Cornell...."
What he calls his earlier "bleat of protest" was made in Mystery Scene in 1992, in a piece entitled "Presto: Con Malizia":
Nevins is convinced...that Woolrich was a practicing homosexual and that his fiction...was wholly framed by his sexuality, that the fiction can only be understood or appreciated in terms of a condition which Nevins regards as pathological....The only evidence which he was able to produce (we had extensive correspondence about this in the late seventies and early eighties) was a poorly recorded, almost inaudible cassette recording of an interview Nevins stated that he had conducted with Woolrich's sister-in-law....Two (or counting Nevins) three levels of hearsay were invoked and none of them constituted the kind of evidence which would stand up in a court of law for five minutes.
As for Lee Wright's testimony, Malzberg continues: "I knew Lee Wright and she thought a lot of people were homosexuals and liked to say so. Many of them who she chattily named are alive but one other of them is dead: Raymond Chandler."*
*(ironically there seems to me to be more gay-suggestive material in Chandler's work than in Woolrich's; however I don't believe Chandler was gay, even latently so)
|Cornell Woolrich in the 1960s|
near the end of his mortal tether
To be sure, Woolrich may have been gay. Or he may have been asexual/unsexual, as Barzun suggested ("writing for him had taken the place of sex," even Nevins writes at one point in Dream). Or he may have been genuinely attracted to women (or the idea of women), but, mother-dominated to an unhealthy degree (I think this point is beyond doubt), unable to consummate a physical relationship. This is the train of thought that is suggested by Woolrich's memoir Blues of a Lifetime. In her interview with Nevins, Lee Wright herself seems to echo this latter view: "He was, the way it was with his mother, too much in awe of women."
In a 2006 radio interview with Leonard Lopate, Nevins declared: "The secret of understanding Woolrich: self-hatred, self-contempt." I don't know. I would say the secret, if there is one, might lie more along the lines of what Jacques Barzun noted about Woolrich back in the 1920s: a crippling shyness and resultant loneliness coupled with an inclination to pessimism arising from a bitter conviction of the inexorable indifference, or even malignity, of fate. As Barzun strikingly put it:
He had a sense of destiny, both on the positive side, that he was going to accomplish something, and on the negative side, that he couldn't possibly do it, that something would interfere, the ceiling would fall in on him just as a contract was being signed for the next book, or something of the sort.
This attitude, I believe, lies at the heart of so much of Woolrich's crime fiction and gives it such bleak power. Not self-hatred, but despair over the isolation and ultimate annihilation of the self. "They both kept looking troubledly out and up," writes Woolrich of characters in "Speak to Me of Death," "at those distant inscrutable pinpoints of brilliance, that no man can defy or alter."