Today in Literary History – December 4, 1903 – Cornell Woolrich is born

The mystery and thriller writer Cornell Woolrich was born on December 4, 1903. He was a prolific writer, under his own name and various pseudonyms, and was one of the trailblazers of the “noir” style of psychologically twisted crime stories.

Many of his books were adapted as movies, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black and Waltz into Darkness.


Woolrich himself seems to have led a very miserable life. He was a self-hating gay man who married once but refused to sleep with his wife and left her after only three weeks leaving behind a notebook with details of all his homosexual encounters.

From then on he lived with his overbearing mother in a series of sleazy hotel rooms. For years they lived in a room in what Woolrich’s biographer Frances Nevins describes as “the squalid Hotel Marseilles apartment building in Harlem, among a group of thieves, prostitutes and lowlifes that would not be out of place in Woolrich’s dark fictional world.”


After his mother died in 1957 Woolrich went into a “sharp physical and mental decline” as Nevins says. He drank heavily and quit writing. He developed diabetes and his eyesight began to fail. An untended foot infection led to gangrene and the amputation of one of his legs. By the time he died in 1968 he weighed only 89 pounds.

Despite living in squalor he was very wealthy and left an estate of over a million dollars to Columbia University.

I have enjoyed his books, which are gripping and darkly plotted. It’s a shame he had to live such a terrible life to produce them.


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