Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: Cornell Woolrich / Jim Thompson's Recoil

From: David Schmid (
Date: 03 Jun 2001

The following excerpts from a reference article I wrote a couple of years ago address the question of what fame did to Cornell Woolrich. The full article can be found in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 226,
"American Hard-Boiled Crime Writers" pp. 349-363.

David Schmid

By the mid-1940s, Woolrich was at the top of his profession. He was regarded as the premiere suspense writer in the country, and he was making good money both from his fiction and the sale of radio and movie rights. But it appears that Woolrich did not derive much enjoyment from his success or his reputation. In 1943, in a letter he wrote for inclusion in an anthology of mystery stories, Woolrich described his life in distinctly muted tones: "I have never had any other job or occupation than a you can see that very little has happened to me. This makes for a very uneventful life, with nothing to report. One day is exactly like another" (quoted in Nevins 282). Although Woolrich was naturally self-effacing to the point of being uncommunicative, this is actually quite an accurate description of his life at this time, and it points to the significance of Woolrich's relationship with his mother. By this stage, Woolrich and Claire Attalie Tarler had been sharing an apartment in the Hotel Marseilles for eleven years, and the nature of their relationship is indirectly indicated by the dedication to Phantom Lady: "To Apartment 605, Hotel M___ in unmitigated thankfulness (at not being in it anymore)." In the last year of his life, Woolrich explained that this dedication referred to his attempt to break away from his mother in 1942, albeit only by moving to another room in the same hotel. Woolrich's attempt at independence lasted only three weeks, and then his mother persuaded him to come back. Woolrich was to stay with his mother until her death, and he said he never regretted his decision to return. Whatever we may think of the relationship, there is no doubt that Woolrich's mother jealousy hoarded her son's attention, and made it very difficult for Woolrich to form any other attachments during her lifetime. Bearing this in mind, Woolrich's 1943 description of his daily life should be admired for its restraint as well as its accuracy.
        I Married A Dead Man shows that Woolrich was still at the height of his powers fourteen years after his first crime story, and eight years after his first crime novel. His stature in the field can be measured by the fact that in 1948, the Mystery Writers of America awarded Woolrich an Edgar
(their equivalent of an Oscar) for lifetime achievement. In retrospect, the presentation of the award to Woolrich on April 19, 1949 marks the end of the most active phase of Woolrich's career, because after this time he would produce very little new work. Instead, from now on Woolrich was largely content to live off reprint and movie rights of his work, and he augmented his income even further by developing the unfortunate habit of passing off old stories as new by changing their titles repeatedly.
        The paucity of new work during this period can perhaps be attributed to developments in Woolrich's personal life. In the Spring of 1956, Woolrich's mother suffered a massive heart attack and from then on she was unable to even leave her room. Always emotionally shackled to his mother, Woolrich now became even more of a prisoner in the Hotel Marseilles. Claire Attalie Tarler died in October 1957 at the age of 83, with Woolrich at her bedside. At first, there were signs that Woolrich was going to assert his independence in the wake of his mother's death. He moved from the Hotel Marseilles to the Hotel Franconia, and although his aunt, Estelle Tarler Garcia, moved in with him and tried to take the place of his mother, he soon sent her packing. Woolrich also traveled, something he had never been able to do when his mother was alive, and his trip to Canada in 1961 was his first trip outside of New York City in thirty years. Most significantly, there is evidence to suggest that Woolrich was trying to send his writing in new directions. His most ambitious work of this period, Hotel Room (1958), was a collection of largely non-criminous stories set in a New York City hotel at different periods of its history from its early fashionable years to its last days before demolition. In writing the book, which was dedicated to his mother, Woolrich drew upon his years of experience in hotel living, but if the book was designed to win Woolrich a larger, non-mystery audience, it failed to do so.
        In spite of Woolrich's signs of independence, the true aftermath of his mother's independence was to make Woolrich even more reclusive and embittered. After having cataract surgery in 1965, Woolrich moved into his last hotel, the Sheraton-Russell. During the last years of his life, Woolrich saw practically no one, and he would spend his evenings sitting in the hotel lobby, staring out at the life on the streets. Woolrich was in the middle of slow but inexorable process of decline, and the extent of that decline was vividly illustrated in January, 1968 when, having failed to seek medical treatment for a gangrenous leg, he had to have it amputated. After a stroke which rendered him unconscious, Woolrich passed away on September 25, 1968, two and a half months short of his 65th birthday. Like so many of his fictional characters, Woolrich died practically alone, with very few friends or family to mourn him. He left his estate of some $850,000 to Columbia University for them to establish a scholarship fund for journalism in his mother's memory.

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