Woolrich and Whitfield, was Re: RARA-AVIS: Fright & Savage Bride

From: Richard Moore ( moorich@aol.com)
Date: 07 Feb 2008

--- In rara-avis-l@yahoogroups.com, William Ahearn
<williamahearn@...> wrote:
> --- harry.lerner@... wrote:
> > In FRIGHT Woolrich seems to
> > write in a very
> > ornately formal way. His descriptions of Press's
> > intended, Marjorie,
> > are almost poetic or at least the noir equivalent of
> > poetic. This is a
> > marked contrast to the more traditional noir economy
> > of word use.
> Woolrich didn't have a lot of exposure or experience
> with women -- at least as far as I know -- and his
> descriptions usually take on a mythic glow. Somehow he
> makes it work.
> William
> Essays and Ramblings
> <http://www.williamahearn.com>
I was just reading Lee Wright's recollections of working with Woolrich in Mike Nevins' biography of the writer FIRST YOU DREAM, THEN YOU DIE. Wright bought Woolrich's first novel THE BRIDE WORE BLACK for Simon and Schuster. As the editor of their Inner Sanctum mysteries, Nevins calls Wright (accurately I would think) the best known crime fiction editor of the day. Woolrich had been introduced to Wright at some writers function and a short time later sent her the manuscript of BRIDE.

She called him to say it was "magnificent" and she was buying it. As Nevins described it, this began a short but very intense relationship. "The curse of working with Woolrich, Wright said, was that once having completed a novel he viewed it with `an absolutely unmixed double reaction. One was that every word he wrote was marvelous, magnificent and shouldn't be changed. And the other was that everything he wrote was terrible, awful, and nobody should read it.' The man was "manic-depressive, absolutely. And there was a while when I thought he was dangerous.'"

Wright had a penthouse office on the ninth floor of the Weber Building and because of his highly emotional reactions, she told Nevins she was afraid he would throw her through the glass. In some detail, she described the course of the conversation when he brought her a new manuscript. He would burst into tears and say "Oh it's no good, it's not good enough for you. I shouldn't even show it to you." Finally she would reassure him enough to leave the manuscript.

Wright bought Woolrich's first three novels but they had a falling out over PHANTOM LADY. She told him she loved the book but suggested he rework one paragraph. He became very upset and, even though she told him if he felt strongly enough about it, they would keep it as originally written. He left taking the manuscript with him and that was the end of their professional relationship. I say this now, so you can factor in that history in what she told Nevins.

I should also add that while I have no idea how Lee Wright appeared in 1939, when I met her forty years later, she was very forceful in conversation-a tough old broad. I've heard the same impression from other writers who knew her through the years. So it is understandable to me that Cornell might have been a bit intimidated. Here is her summation on Woolrich as Wright told Nevins:

"'It was very difficult to like him…I felt sorry for him but that doesn't constitute liking him…What I got from Cornell was this absolute idiot adoration, a combination of that and a sense of awe. He was afraid of me. I was not his idea of what a woman should be.' According to Wright, it was the same combination of attitudes that Woolrich showed toward his mother. `She was like a small mouse,' Wright recalled. `Fat but small.' How did she (his mother) feel toward Woolrich? `She adored him.' What were feelings toward her? `A combination of dependence, adoration, hatred, all the things you'd expect of a homosexual's relationship with his mother.' If Woolrich thought he had found a new mother figure, Wright perceived the relationship as extremely uncomfortable and did what she could to keep it on a business basis. Unlike his mother, she did not adore him at all, only his work. `How those words came out of that skinny rat of a man!'"

Wright did run into Woolrich through the years in New York City and even invited him to dinner at her home. He would tell her how lonely he was. Characteristically, Wright told him "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're very likable. And he would say: `You're so wonderful.' Not me! You know, you never could believe a word he said, really, although he believed it at the time."

Nevins did a fine job with CORNELL WOOLRICH: FIRST YOU DREAM, THEN YOU DIE (The Mysterious Press 1988) considering the scarcity of details about his early life and then the mature years when he had so little contact with the outside world and few, if any, close friendships. I'm reasonably certain that more information has come to light in the past twenty years and it would be great if some publisher gave Nevins a chance to do a revised second edition.

Richard Moore

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