Monday, May 12, 2014

The Black Legend: The Private Life of Cornell Woolrich and The Perils of Public Memory

Blurred Image
Cornell Woolrich to this day
remains a frustratingly elusive figure
In honor of Cornell Woolrich's Black series of novels, I call this piece, about the stories concerning Cornell Woolrich's personal life that have accreted over the decades, The Black Legend.

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,

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.

Happier Days?
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
In Francis M. Nevins' Edgar-winning, evocatively-titled critical study of the author, Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die (1988), there is comparatively little personal detail about Woolrich, given the mammoth size of the book (613 pages of fairly small type).

Most of the book is given over to close detail and analysis of, I believe, every story and novel Woolrich wrote, as well as the numerous film, radio and television adaptations of his work.

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."

the legend of the "self-hating gay"
The accepted view that Woolrich was gay--or, to be more precise, a "self-hating gay"--comes from Nevins' Dream, which draws on two 1970s interviews that Nevins conducted with a pair of elderly women, Marian Blackton Trimble and Lee Wright, concerning events from several decades earlier.

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
Barry Malzberg, who was Woolrich's literary agent near the end of the author's life, has been quite critical over the years of Nevins' take on Woolrich's sexuality.

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

Malzberg, like Barzun before him (who knew Woolrich at the other bookend of his life), did not get any impression from Woolrich that he was gay. Absent the discovery of the alleged Woolrich sex diary it is unlikely we will ever know.

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."

Just how much did Woolrich's sexuality--whatever it was exactly--inform his writing and how exactly did it do so?

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."


  1. Certainly a fascinating figure Curt - Have you ever had the opportunity to ask Mike Nevins about thsi side of Woolrich's life?

    1. Nope, only ever corresponded with Nevins once, about a dozen years ago. I think the book speaks for itself however!

  2. Fascinating and, really, the kind of scholarship that is long overdue. I suspect this might be more about homophobia on Mr. Nevins's part than reality, now that you've opened up the question and backed up your ideas with research. Thank you for this!!

    1. Well, Noah, I have to say the attitude emanating from the book did start to grate (did I just give the "homosexual symbol seekers" anything?).

      Thanks for the kind words, My own feeling is that Woolrich has been maligned unfairly in some of these accounts--not because they have said he was gay, which of course is no insult--but because they have said he was a terrible person. I don't have contempt for him, I feel sorry for him.

  3. Loved this post!

    Knowing loneliness and isolation, feeling for the outsider and the outcast is key in understanding some of the most powerful fiction ever written. Certainly this type of empathy is necessary when reading Woolrich. Those who dont' get it miss out on a lot. Your final paragraph is an insight rarely written about Woolrich's ficiton.

    Interestingly, Nevins did EXACTLY the same thing in his assessment of Milton Propper's sexuality in an article he wrote for The Armchiar Detective. I bought that issue for Nevins' critiques of Propper's mystery novels and was surprised to find Neivns' tabliod style insinuations about Propper's "sordid" gay life. But he only had a single woman's viewpoint (I think it was Propper's sister) and third hand accounts of Propper's sex life to go on. And he jumps to his usual biased conclusions. Didn't help that Propper also ended his life in suicide. I'd say Nevins has a hang up about gay men and likes to paint the bleakest possible picture about them. You have to live the gay life from the inside to know that a lot of gay men truly enjoy rough trade and pick-up sex. I get so tired of this typical denigration of M2M sex being sordid. Straight guys are just as "sordid" in their dealings with pickup sex with women with just as much fetishism and "perversity" (if not moreso) than gay sex.

    1. Thanks so much John, especially for the words on the ending. I am pleased you think I caught something about the special quality of Woolrich's work.

      It saddens me that the man who has dominated the Woolrich field for so long seems to have contempt for him on one level (the personal). Ideally Woolrich should have a more empathetic biographer, I think.

      I agree with you so much about the way Nevins wrote about Milton Propper. It's the same thing he does with Woolrich, except worse because unrelieved by any real admiration for Propper's work. The way Nevins wrote about Propper just seemed cruel, really, especially considering the poor man committed suicide.

      On the sex angle, the Nevins line "Clearly [Woolrich's] homosexual life was of the most furtive and sordid variety" is highly suggestive to me. Homosexual life of the MOST furtive and sordid variety. That seems to imply that all of it is pretty sordid to the author. It does seem to me like he feels "self-contempt" and "self-hatred" is what Woolrich SHOULD have been feeling, so he must have been! But then Woolrich records all this stuff in a diary and leaves it behind for his wife? Implausible, I think.

      In any event, I think defining Woolrich's work strictly in terms of homosexual self-contempt is an error, certainly much too limiting. And even if this is the approach you want to take surely you can do more than go trolling through the text for phallic symbols! I think you could say there's a distinct lack of insight into gay men here.

    2. By the way, John, relating about your "rough trade" comments, I think that's how the publisher Claude Kendall, who published Willoughby Sharp's two mysteries, got killed in NYC in the 1930s. I wrote about it on the blog, as an unsolved murder. Didn't see any need to stand as a judge over him, I hope.

  4. I have not read the Nevins books but I feel like it really doesn't matter if Woolrich was gay or not. His fiction can be read and enjoyed without knowing the answer to that question. I think he was a terrific writer and I have enjoyed his work for many years. Thanks for this fascinating article!

    1. Jack, I agree that his themes can speak to all of his, whatever his sexuality. Thanks!

  5. Very interesting, Curt! I would say his sense of isolation and despair and sense of self were definitely symptoms of an enmeshed relationship with a domineering mother. Such damage can be done by a parent like that. And I would think a mother/son enmeshment would be very debilitating for the man. Lots of food for thought here!

    1. Peggy Ann, thanks. Yes, I can't help feeling but that that much dependence on one's mother was not an emotionally healthy thing. Kind of ironic I posted this right after Mother's Day!

  6. Interesting account of the way legend can become fact. Also that someone's life can be built up "ex pede Herculem" - from one detail. Woolrich lived with his mother, therefore he was gay, therefore he had casual sex with men, therefore [insert bizarre details about sailor suits here]. It's a template that can be applied to many who can't defend themselves. The lurid details, or the judgement, become something that "everybody just knows".

  7. Lucy, that is really beautifully put, thanks so much for the comment. The terrible thing is this "ex pede Herculem" approach you describe so often succeeds!

  8. Thanks for this great post, Curt.
    When I was younger I was a great fan of Woolrich but I gradually lost interest in his books. I never gave much thought to the reason why this has happened, but now I realize it started around the time I read Mike Nevins' foreword to one of his Woolrich anthologies, in which the issue of Woolrich sexuality was raised in the terms you described, and I must have been subconsciously put off by it. Woolrich's writing qualities were never in question for me, but if one believed in Nevins he really must have been a creepy bastard. Not because he was gay, obviously -- I also stopped reading Simenon when I learnt he was a (straight) creepy bastard.
    Your post convinced me that Nevins's characterization of Woolrich does not make sense. I don't believe in a patologically introverted recluse marrying a girl as a joke, dressing as a sailor in order to have causal sex and leaving behind him a diary documenting his sexual orientation.
    According to what we know for sure about Woolrich, I could believe he was indeed gay or at least in doubt about his sexuality, that he married Gloria in a period of conscious or unconscious refusal of this, that he was tormented by it, that this ultimately led him to leave her -- and that she, out of spite, publicly denigrated him as a stereotypical gay "of the most sordid type", which Mike Nevins acritically reproduced. But then this might have happened even if he wasn't gay at all (I once had a girlfriend who was genuinely convinced the few men that had ever dumped her had done so because they were gay -- I guess I must be on this list by now). Also, I don't remember ever finding any implictly gay aspects in Woolrich's highly personal style of writing, even in a sublimated form (as it often happens in the writing of gay authors, like Proust or L. P. Hartley, in whose books male/female couples and relationships are frequently obvious stand-ins for male/male ones). The examples you quote from Mike Nevins are ridiculous.
    In any case, the person now emerging from your post, gay or not gay, is certainly no creepy bastard. Which reminds me I must read him again.

    1. Thanks Henrique! If I've encouraged you to read Woolrich again that's great.

      I think your reconstruction of the "gay question" is more plausible. Woolrich himself indicates he may have been fooling himself about the marriage, not deliberately playing his wife for a fool. Maybe he wanted the marriage to work, then realized he couldn't do it. Who knows?

      The stuff about the sex diary, I just don't know. It seems hard to reconcile with Nevins' portrayal of someone consumed with guilt and self-loathing. Leaving the diary out would have been either amazingly crass and "in-your-face" or quite incredibly careless (he wife, had she wanted to, could have destroyed him with it).

      And he, the self-loathing gay, supposedly kept this diary full of sexually explicit details, but later in his private autobiography wouldn't admit any of this stuff? Did he only become self-loathing later in life then? Not in Nevins' view. but then it makes no sense to me.

      I can but set this hearsay aside and address the Woolrich I feel I can understand from confirmed evidence and from the books.

      Good point too about the sublimation of Proust and Hartley.

  9. Well done, much respect, and about damn time somebody argued these insubstantial suggestions; it's a tragedy this ungrounded view has been so widely accepted, if for no reason other than that the question of the authors sexuality has overshadowed the man's brilliant literary output!

    1. Thanks, Abner! Yes, I totally agree, in the case of Woolrich, no one has demonstrated that the "insubstantial allegations" have really added to our understanding of the author's impressive crime fiction legacy. And some of the worse iterations of the "black legend" are simply shameful in my opinion, blackening a man's name on very thin basis.

  10. Interesting post! I guess we'll never know for sure about Woolrich's sexuality, but there are some moments in his fiction that at least raise this gay reader's eyebrow... For example, in "Death in the Yoshiwara," the sailor, Jack Hollinger, is described as follows: "Hollinger sucked a deep breath into his toiling lungs, lifted the squirming cop up bodily off the ground and tossed him like a sack into the stream. The bulge of his chest and the sudden strain of his back and shoulder muscles split the tight middy from throat to waist." And the cat-and-mouse game between Rogers and Blake in "3 Kills for 1" strikes me as rather homoerotic, particularly the line, "The flux of uncertainty came back again, it rinsed all the starch out of him, softened him all up. It bent the gun down uselessly floorward in his very grasp" (as well as the later description of the men tussling in a "mingled heap"). Of course, none of this amounts to overwhelming evidence, though I do at least find it...suggestive.

    But I think Woolrich's deep empathy for Patrice, the secretive, guilt-ridden heroine of "I Married a Dead Man," is what sounds, to me, rather like a closeted man confessing his loneliness..."She shuddered and hid fer face against him. There is a point beyond which you can't be alone any more. You have to have someone to cling to. You have to have someone to hold you, even if he is to reject you again in a moment and you know it...Suddenly his arm dropped and he'd left her. It was terrible to be alone, just for that minute. She wondered how she'd stood it all these months, all these years...He swept a sheltering arm around her again. (That sanctuary that she'd been trying to find all her life long. And only had now, too late.)"

    1. I think you just made a better literary case than the Nevins book! I definitely think Woolrich's precise sexuality is open up question, but my biggest beef with the Nevins approach is the old analytical standby of the "self-hating homosexual." He resorts to that crutch all too frequently, in my view. Also the view that Woolrich is someone to be loathed rather than pitied, based on hearsay evidence.

    2. That's understandable. By the way, I really enjoyed reading I Married a Dead Man. What other novels of his would you recommend?

    3. Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Black Alibi, The Black Angel, Phantom Lady. All filmed too, like I Married a Dead Man! All superb, doom-laden stuff.

  11. Per, Woolrich had two half sisters: Maria de la Paz b 1927 and Alma b. 1924,daughters of Esperanza Pinon de Woolrich. Maria came to the US in 1937 with her father and Alma came in 1940.

    1. I wonder whether either is still alive, it seems a shame no one ever interviewed them.

    2. Alma was born in 1938 according to a border crossing record.

  12. I personally dont care if he was sexual or not. His writing is just so good. His prose is rich, dense, fantastic, and has an intensity and richness and humor about it that makes him just a great author. Someone ought to write a book about THAT.

    1. I agree his writing is what makes him important. But writers lives impact their writing and thus merit study as well.

  13. What I'm struck by is the flat-out ugly homophobic hate in Nevins and the other intro writers you quote as they eagerly rush to judge Woolrich's character as contemptable. Hard to believe they have any credibility at this point.
    So thank you for your brilliant take-down of all that.

    1. Well, in the latest edition of Bride Wore Black the introduction tells us that we "know" thanks to Nevins that Woolrich was a "self-loathing gay man," so the legend still lives! I've a huge expansion of this piece appearing on Monday at another website. Will post a link. Thanks!