“He is known in the trade as an idea writer,” explained Raymond Chandler to his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, in February, 1943, “liking the tour de force, and not much of a character man,” and Chandler added, “I think his stuff is very readable, but leaves no warmth behind it.” Chandler was referring to Cornell Woolrich, who also wrote under the names William Irish and George Hopley. Woolrich had been writing crime fiction since 1934, and so by 1943 Chandler could describe him to Knopf as “one of the oldest hands there are at the pulp detective business.”
Chandler, creator of the fictional Los Angeles detective Philip Marlowe, was hard to please, so for him to say Woolrich’s crime fiction was “very readable” was high praise indeed. As did Chandler, Woolrich had an eye for architectural and domestic details so that the location became another character in the story. Like Chandler, Woolrich was a well-traveled man, but his stories often occurred in New York City, where for much of his adult life he lived in residential hotels with his widowed mother.
Woolrich was a master of impressionistic sketches with words, conveying an oppressive, ominous atmosphere. No one was better at conjuring for the reader packed railroad passenger cars blue with the haze of hours of cigarette smokers, or red neon signs reflected in rainy concrete sidewalks just before the bars close. After absorbing pages of Woolrich’s gritty and foreboding scenes, the reader is tempted to glance back to see if someone is following in the shadows and clenching and unclenching black-gloved hands.
What Chandler saw as a lack of warmth goes beyond why critics tend to call Woolrich’s stories “chilling.” While Woolrich can weave a spell of fear as his protagonist races against time, the reader finishes Woolrich’s harrowing page-turners not only with a sense of relief, but also with an odd sense of detachment. All the same, film directors saw the dramatic potential in Woolrich’s taut, austere prose, as did producers of half-hour radio anthology series such as Escape and Suspense.
Probably the best-known film adaptation of a Woolrich story is Rear Window (1954), directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Based on one of Woolrich’s short stories from 1942, it shows what can result when a bored but creative man confined to a wheelchair believes he has witnessed a murder in a neighboring flat.
In that same letter to Knopf, Chandler noted he had just re-read parts of his own first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), and he winced as he saw “I sure did run the similes into the ground.” Woolrich also had a knack for comparisons, so that in Chapter 12 of Phantom Lady (1942) he could say of the suspect’s mistress, “She just sat and looked after him, with the inscrutable gravity of an owl.” In Chapter 3 of Rendezvous in Black (1948), Woolrich said of a caddish victim of blackmail, “His heart was frothing hate like an eggbeater.”
Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich (1903-1968) came from an affluent but broken home. He grew up partly in Mexico with his father and in New York City with his mother. After studying at Columbia University, Woolrich set out to become the next F. Scott Fitzgerald. A couple of glossy tales in the style of The Great Gatsby earned him critical praise but not much money.
However, one of his Jazz Age short stories won first place in a contest sponsored by First National Pictures, and that studio invited Woolrich to California to work on screenplays. He lived in Hollywood, and he married the daughter of a movie mogul, an unhappy venture that after a few years ended in divorce, in no small degree because she grew impatient with his lack of interest in consummating their vows. He returned to New York and took up writing crime fiction.
With nosiness worthy of the voyeur in Rear Window, critics speculate about Woolrich’s failure to consummate his brief marriage, and they repeat old rumors about his unmarried night life. Francis M. Nevins, Jr., in his magisterial biography, Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die (1988), related Woolrich’s surreptitious, nocturnal promiscuity deriving from his same-sex attraction, and he also recounted how as Woolrich sensed the end of his life approaching, he sought out a priest and was reconciled to the Catholic faith into which he had been baptized yet had long ignored.
Culturally, the country has changed a lot even since Nevins’ day, and someone’s career is less likely to be wrecked by being gay than by being Catholic. In any case, prurient personal inquiries aside, where Woolrich’s detective stories can shed light for a cultural historian is more generally, such as his depictions of lonely people driven by fear and looking for love. Despite his crowd scenes, an Edward Hopper loneliness haunts Woolrich’s menaced city streets. With methodical melancholy Woolrich chronicled how people in this country seventy-five or eighty years ago sought to meet other people, even for what was then politely called a brief encounter.
Two examples can suffice. In Chapter5 of Rendezvous in Black, Woolrich described young men and women waiting every night under the clock in a hotel lobby. They were waiting for “their partners of just that one evening, or their partners of every evening.” Either way, it was exciting, like Christmas, with each partner like a Christmas present, but then someday the Christmas presents stop arriving and “you know all of a sudden you’re old.” To us uninitiated, it sounds like a plausible description of random gay pick-ups.
In Chapter 40 of I Married a Dead Man (1948), the context is a constricting circle of anxieties for Patrice Hazzard, but this insight about her could well apply to an isolated and needy gay man: “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, even if he is to reject you again in a moment or two and you know it.”
As Chandler said, Woolrich’s stuff is very readable, murder mysteries likely keeping a reader enthralled well past bedtime, but Woolrich’s lack of warmth comes from a permeating twilight sadness. Maybe without meaning to do so, Woolrich showed us starkly what can befall when fearful human loneliness gets filled with something other than God.