RARA-AVIS: Avallone's article on Woolrich's funeral

From: Richard Moore ( moorich@aol.com)
Date: 29 Feb 2008

Michael Avallone was one of a handful of writers who befriended Cornell Woolrich in the last decade of his life. Mike was quite active in the New York MWA chapter for many years and this piece was written for the MWA's The Third Degree following Woolrich's funeral. For those interested in the full article, it can be found in the Ace Books reprint of THE BLACK ANGEL (Ace 06505), the fifth of the Woolrich reprints published by Ace in a series that began a few months before Woolrich died. Here follows a substantial portion of that piece:

"Cornell Woolrich died on September 25, 1968, leaving behind a body of suspense work that ensures him immortality. The man who used the alias William Irish as well as his own name, also bequeaths to posterity one of the most sorrowful personal lives this side of Edgar Allan Poe. Woolrich died a millionaire and almost a million dollars of that money has been left to Columbia University, his alma mater, for the care and keeping of budding writers. But few authors so comfortably `fixed' have ever lived out their days in all the loneliness and meanness and selfishness that this incredibly gifted author did…

"His woeful personal life can best be described by the simple facts: he lived some forty years of his time in a hotel room; he had no close personal friends and the Big Romance always eluded him; some of most memorable works are dedicated to such lifeless things as hotel rooms, typewriters, and the utter sadness of the human condition; later on in life he discovered John Barleycorn and the empty days and nights of his withdrawal from society, echoed and reechoed with the typical alcoholic miseria of broken appointments, paranoiac harangues and self-lashing, which ended in the usual weeping haze of `Where did I go wrong?'….."

"Yet, with all that, this still is the shadowy figure responsible for some of the greatest suspense novels in the field, and many of the classic short stories and novellas of the genre-mystery.

"His pitiful personal luck worked for him to the very bitter end.

"For a last look at him, his lawyer, doctor, banker and estate handlers showed up for the funeral services. The New York Times, in their obit, misspelled his name twice: Cornell Wollrich (sic) and the wrong day was given for the ceremony; The Times obit never mentioned Phantom Lady or The Bride Wore Black, easily his two most famous works. No writers' organization sent flowers or a card-no, not even Mystery Writers of America. And only the presence of Robert L. Fish, Hans Stefan Santesson, Herbert Brean and an affiliate named John Reynolds, could have established any form of connection with the words writer and mysteries. Beatrice Radin came to the funeral because she thought Cornell Woolrich was a poor, lonely old man whom nobody would even remember. She was only incorrect about the financial poverty of the man. (RM note: Beatrice was probably the widow of true crime writer Edward D. Radin)

"So many things had gone wrong.

"The Creator of Woolrich's life had provided for the services, one Catholic priest to mark the conversion of the man to Catholicism late in life. The role has seldom been worse played; the priest raced through a five minute requiem, half-turned to the mourners, mumbling and phurmphering all the way….

"It was too much for me.

"Me-who along with Bob Fish and Hans Santesson and some others who didn't want the story of Cornell Woolrich to end so shabbily, who had talked with him and drunk with him, if you will, and buoyed him down through the last decade trying to instill in him a proper sense of who he was and what he was-writhed in our chairs.

This then was the ultimate end for one of the Great Ones. Was this how it had to be? A great talent, long unacknowledged by Mystery Writers of America and abandoned by the show business machinery-this man, this Woolrich-Irish, who had entertained two generations of American mystery fans and God alone knows how many Europeans-this man whom the current French director, Traffaut, is reharvesting to his own personal credit with versions of The Bride Wore Black and Waltz Into Darkness-was this man to go to his grave, loaded to the gunwales with nothing but hiss personal fortune of a million-and no word from his own kind, his real family? Writers?

"Brothers and sisters he had none-his father was a long ago memory and his mother had strangled him with the silver cord until the day she died-and now there was no one. No children, no lovers, no sweethearts…Only the lawyer, the doctor, the banker and the estate handlers….

"I got to my feet, asked the priest to wait, walked to the lectern and delivered vocally a personal poem of a few lines that perhaps said more than all the gushing eulogies I could have composed.

"Later, when the high priced hearse pulled away, heading for the luxurious crypt in Hartsdale, New York, we all went to the nearest bar restaurant and spent a few hours trying to forget, each in his own private way, that perhaps if all the world is indeed Vanity and little else, there still must be a far, far better way to say goodbye to a great writer.

"Thus the story of Cornell Woolrich ended.

"Just about as lonely and unloved as if had been lived.

"He always called me `Mickey' and I had never been able to convince him how good a writer he was. Nobody could. Not Bob, or Hans or anybody.

"So the word has to be all. The story is the thing. On those counts at least, Cornell Woolrich died a rousing, tremendous success."

Michael Avallone Somewhere in New Jersey 27Oct68

Although the New York MWA members would know something of Woolrich's background from word of mouth and seeing him at a few MWA functions, much of the detail herein would be news to other writers. This was before the days of mystery conventions, specialty publications, and etc. The one exception I know of was Frank Gruber's THE PULP JUNGLE published in 1967 which contained the details of Woolrich's life sharing a hotel room with his mother.

Richard Moore

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