««« back to CC Books

Blues of a Lifetime: the Autobiography of Cornell Woolrich [2011]

edt. with fore/afterword by Mark T. Bassett

§ What a fascinating artist, this Woolrich. Lived in hotel rooms most of his life, starting in Mexico with his father during the Revolution, and then after his parents split, living with his mother hither and yonder, mostly in New York (Harlem) or any city that took their fancy... could be Paris, could be Seattle. He was like a Samuel Beckett character, always trapped in the same room where space is both finite and infinite, waiting for the end, and to amuse himself, messing around with a typewriter.

In fact, the first piece in Blues is about his typewriter, Remington Portable NC69411. So this isn't a conventional autobio by any means in the sense that we can take it as the whole truth and nothing but, etc. It's a series of five recollections written in the fiction narrative, so that they appear as short stories, only connected by 'I', whom we suppose is Cornell Woolrich. The manuscript was left in his papers at Columbia University, written for his own edification and not for publication. Anyone who has taught creative writing for any length of time knows that fiction writers either can't or would rather not write essays; writing outside the first person is a struggle, although if we've read any Woolrich, we know he could write in the 3rd. To find narrative unity without fiction is a drag, although a straight-forward autobiography doesn't need much unity beyond the facts.

Cornell Woolrich: Blues of a Lifetime

Here's the issue: Cornell Woolrich didn't consider his cloistered world all that interesting. "This sort of life would be fatal to a writer trying to write realistically," he said. So he wrote "entertainments", escapist fiction with a dark edge, where his doomed characters fall inevitably into the abyss that sits unmapped in the shadows of everyone's mind. Yet Blues of a Lifetime does contain some Fitzgeraldian flashes of loneliness and pain so that the five episodes do reveal the measure of the man, how he became a writer, and possibly why.

Woolrich: exotic settings (1880s Gold Coast, in his masterpiece Waltz Into Darkness, or Caribbean, as in Papa Benjamin), voyeurism (Rear Window), low life on the street (his stories for Detective Fiction Weekly, Black Mask, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and other pulps) demarcate his fictional terrain. His mastery of period jive talk is evident in many of these pulp stories, where the hard-boiled and the soft collide in criminal stitchups and bizarre blunders. Innocents are victimized, criminals snake-eyed. In The Dilemma of the Dead Lady (1936), an American hustler kills a French shop girl, is forced to board an ocean liner at Cherbourg with her body in a trunk. In Phantom Lady (1942) a man accused of murdering his wife has only one alibi: a mysterious woman no one seems to remember even though they saw her with him. A cyanide cigarette, a cyanide tooth filling, a thousand dollar bill cut in two as an invitation to murder... Black Widows, dope fiends, the falsely accused, good cops, bad cops... grifters, hoods, burlesque dancers... hotel clerks, doormen, managers... jazz musicians, voodoo priests, actors and movie queens... Woolrich has them all, sometimes cheap and sleazy, often homicidal, all willing to roll the dice for good or evil, even if it means jumping through a seventh storey window or putting on the mask and getting strapped into the electric chair.

Perhaps the most interesting metafiction in Blues is II, Poor Girl (Vera), Woolrich's cruelly poetic recollection of first love. Student falls for a poor girl down the street, dresses her up, takes her to a party above her social station where she becomes a hit, a glamour doll everyone wants to be or get. She then disappears from her boyfriend's life, and he becomes a tragic pariah to her family. In the end he discovers she's been siphoned into the underworld, the moll of a faceless hood in a faceless black sedan.

So much for Vera, so much for the early dream of Woolrich. The bare essence might remind us of Maugham's Of Human Bondage or any other student love story. The New York landscape is real, as are the characters; only the ending is suspect, a romantic masochism in sketchy relief. Women go to Hell in a black car, and boys are left to become artists.

IV, President Eisenhower's Speech, is also very good, not only as a story, but also for the insight it gives us about what life was like living in a Harlem hotel with his mother. There are two actions -- Eisenhower's address to the Nation on the radio, and a fire that's coming up the ventilation shaft -- which work as contrapuntal symbolisms. As a Cold War metaphor or a straight forward account of Woolrich's concern for his mother, it tells us a lot about the reclusive writer's psychology. He's a caring man, both for his mother and the colored lady who lives just down the hall... and perhaps he's a bit like Eisenhower, concealing the truth in order to sustain a sense of calm.

V, The Maid Who Played the Races is a late Woolrich tale, based on his days in the Roosevelt Hotel in Seattle. It's whimsical, uses the old sit-com bromide of the mistaken assumption or convenient misunderstanding. The room maid thinks he's a jockey, has inside tips to offer. He goes along with the charade, not wishing to offend the aged maid, gives her the name of a horse which -- wouldn't you know it -- wins and brings a nice payout for the maid, who is facing retirement. The strength is in the telling, not the fairytale of a "writer" mistaken as a "rider".

William Irish/Cornell Woolrich: Marihuana Wm Irish/Cornell Woolrich: Phantom Lady Wm Irish/Cornell Woolrich: Rear Window Cornell Woolrich: I Married A Dead Man Cornell Woolrich: Original Sin Cornell Woolrich: Black Curtain

Cornell Woolrich also wrote under the names William Irish and George Hopley

We can say what we like about Cornell Woolrich: he's pulp, he's yesterday, he's a cheap thrill good only for B movie scenarios, a writer who always sounds like someone else, Poe or Fitzgerald or the comic book you used to read in the laundromat or the station waiting for the next bus to nowhere. "First you dream, then you die" -- didn't he write that? Cheap, lurid fatalism.

And those plots where coincidence is as predictable as the entrances and exits in a stage play -- it's all for convenience, an easy roll so the author doesn't have to "sweat the details", and luck drives the action and the word count fits the column. All of this is true, yet there's beauty in the rubble, some great phrases, scenes, characters and dialogue that jumps, hit me daddy eight to the bar. Talking about film narrative, Jean Cocteau said, "Mistakes in continuity are part of the unconscious poetry." While we can't excuse all the lapses in Woolrich's fiction, there is a sense of hidden unity in his poetic style that allows us to view the action as fated rather than accidental, and the moral optimism as reasonable.

He was homosexual, although like many others in that period of history, i.e Somerset Maugham, tried to play it straight, and married the daughter of a film producer. The marriage lasted three months. Perhaps this sort of outlaw existence of moving freely between genders (in his head at least) fueled his ability to write convincingly not only about the low-life of the Jazz Age but also from the female point-of-view (Angel Face, Phantom Lady, I Married A Dead Man). In this sense he's a less nasty mock-up of Patricia Highsmith, lighter on the realism, sweeter on the poetry

Says Bassett: "We know almost as much about him from reading his fiction as we do from studying the evidence." This is how it should be. The world today is overloaded with documentary evidence, is far too light on poetry and mystery. In the near-field, imagination is killed, so we are left staring into space, waiting for signals, possibilities.

So, Woolrich is uneven. I Married a Dead Man is full of that internal air-brushing that some might think is poetry, others, verbose nonsense. There's a sort of delirium in the wind-up that frustrates the reader, makes him/her withdraw, lose the thread. Yet this novel still gets read, as the plot is good (the classic 'mistaken identity' gambit) and the Jamesian psychology provocative.

So Blues of a Lifetime is a great read for those who've read some Woolrich and/or seen some of the noir movies based on his stories, or for those who want to study his work in depth. Some might see Woolrich as the precursor of Jack Kerouac because of the stylistic appropriation of the jazz rhythms of their respective eras.

Bassett has done a good job here editing this "autobiography", filling in some of the gaps while leaving the episodes to speak for themselves. He has tracked several sources and/or analogues for some Woolrich bon mots, and explicates the soul of the man as a son, a lover, a writer and a loner extremely well within the short profile and addendum he adds to the autobiographical reconstruction.

Bassett ends with a fragment from Woolrich's notes for Blues, "I was only trying to cheat death... a fool and his machine... yes, a fool and his machine." 'Machine' being his typewriter, we suppose. This melancholy metaphor is only surpassed by another Woolrich dagger, "First you dream, then you die."

We wish there was more. Recollections of Mexico, Hollywood, some confession... but, he is who he was: the unreliable narrator, a little bit bent, completely human, almost supernatural.

He was buried with his mother in a double-sized crypt.

© LR Dec 2015

Blues of a Lifetime at Amazon: US | Canada | UK | Australia

*Check out LR's novel RADIO BRAZIL »»