(Sometime in 2003, somebody at Random House asked me to write an Introduction to a new edition of Cornell Woolrich’s Rendezvous in Black. I recall telling them to contact my former law professor,
Who Was Cornell Woolrich?
Which of these names does not belong with the others?
- James M. Cain
- Raymond Chandler
- Dashiell Hammett
- Cornell Woolrich
Put the question to the average consumer of mainstream entertainment here at the beginning of the 21st century, and most would guess number 4 then ask: Who is Cornell Woolrich? The editors of Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia would presumably agree with this assessment, for the popular reference work contains entries for Cain, Chandler, and Hammett, and nothing for Woolrich, Cornell.
The volume you hold in your hands, dear reader, should convince you that Woolrich indeed belongs with the others and perhaps even surpasses them, especially if, fresh from a reading of Rendezvous In Black, the reader is asked to choose which of the four authors best deserves the overused honorific: master of suspense.
Revered by mystery fans, students of film noir, and lovers of "hard-boiled" crime fiction and detective novels, Cornell Woolrich remains almost unknown to the general reading public. His obscurity persists even though his Hollywood pedigree rivals or exceeds that of Cain, Chandler, and Hammett. Try the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) and compare the filmographies of the four and you’ll find over twice as many films and television episodes based on the writings of Woolrich, with the breakdown as follows: Cornell Woolrich (58 entries), Hammett (25), Cain (24), and Chandler (22). Woolrich also has his fair share of film classics adapted from his works. He was the author of "It Had To Be Murder," the source material for the Alfred Hitchcock suspense thriller, Rear Window, and Francois Truffault filmed The Bride Wore Black and Waltz Into Darkness, both based upon Woolrich novels. First rate actors in the forties and fifties played characters in movies made from Woolrich tales— Burgess Meredith (Street Of Chance, based on Woolrich’s Black Curtain), Edward G. Robinson (The Chase, Deadline At Dawn, Fall Guy, and Night Has A Thousand Eyes), Dan Duryea (The Chase), and of course Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly (Rear Window).
Woolrich’s titles alone are pure noir poetry: The Black Path of Fear, Night Has A Thousand Eyes, The Bride Wore Black, Waltz Into Darkness, and, of course, Rendezvous In Black. The words black, night, dark, and death recur with such regularity in Woolrich titles that his oeuvre is credited by some for suggesting the label "film noir."
What Woolrich lacked in literary prestige he made up for in suspense. Nobody was better at it. He achieved financial success and even fame during his lifetime, but enjoyed neither, living alone or with his ailing mother in a series of decrepit New York City hotel rooms for most of his life.
Shortly after losing a leg to gangrene out of sheer self-neglect, he died miserable and alone of a stroke on September 25th, 1968. Five people attended his funeral. He left his money ($850,000) to Columbia University to fund a writers program.
In the fall of 1951, shortly after Woolrich had stopped writing and had begun a long slow descent into alcoholism, loneliness, and illness, he told a fan that, of the novels he’d written, his two personal favorites were The Black Angel (1943) and Rendezvous In Black (1948).
Most of what we know about Cornell Woolrich is contained in Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die, an excellent biography written by Francis Nevins, an Edgar Award winner and accomplished mystery writer himself, as well as a meticulous hagiographer of Woolrich and a perceptive literary critic of the Woolrich canon. Nevins’ encyclopedic compendium makes for a haunting tale in its own right, because Woolrich was possessed by the same despair and terror that haunts his doomed characters. First You Dream, Then You Die also makes discerning use of an autobiography (Blues of a Lifetime) written in the early 1960s by Cornell Woolrich after the author had put away his typewriter. On the first page of Blues of a Lifetime, Woolrich wrote in his own handwriting:
I have not written this for it to be well-written, nor read by anyone else; I have written it for myself alone."
Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich was born on December 4th, 1903 in New York City to parents who were divorced soon after. He spent his boyhood in Mexico with his father, and later moved back to New York City where he lived with his mother and her family. Love and death are twin inescapable terrors in many of Woolrich’s tales, so it’s worth examining his early experiences of each. In Blues of a Lifetime, Woolrich recalled his first overpowering intimation of mortality on a starry night while he was still in Mexico with his father: "I was eleven and, huddling over my own knees, looked up at the low-hanging stars of the Valley of Anahuac, and knew I would surely die finally, or something worse. . . I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t." Sisyphus meets Sylvia Plath.
As for love–an implacable, often destructive force in Rendezvous and many other Woolrich tales–he wrote in the opening pages of his autobiography: "I never loved women much, I guess. Only three times, that I’m fully aware of . . . . The first time it was just puppy-love, but it ended disastrously for at least one of us." Woolrich then devoted 70 pages to "the disaster" in chapter two. Lucky for us, Nevins recounts the story of that first love in some detail, weaving in Woolrich’s own version of the heartbreak; the reader of Rendezvous in Black will recognize the vibrations coming off the prose, and the tragic finale.
At age eighteen, Woolrich met Veronica Gaffney ("Vera") through a pal ("Frank"), and the young Cornell ("Con") was instantly infatuated. Vera was "shanty Irish" and lived in a tenement near the elevated train. Though Woolrich had only just met her in passing on the street, he waited three nights by the El tracks for her to appear (the "love-wait" as he called it, not unlike the vigil Johnny Marr keeps for his Dorothy in Rendezvous in Black). Finally, on the third night, young Woolrich and his buddy, Frank, worked up the nerve to go inside the building. They knocked on the door of the flat where Vera’s family lived. Her parents were impressed with the skinny, nervous youth because Con was a "college boy," and Vera promptly accepted his invitation to go for a walk.
Later that night, they kissed on a bench by a quaint Catholic church, and Con eventually made a pass at Vera, which she rebuffed, and for which he respected her. Their chaste but intense relationship continued for two or three months, until Con’s mother accepted an invitation her son had received to a birthday party on Riverside Drive. Con asked Vera to go with him. Vera vacillated for several days because she was uneasy about attending a party given by rich people, but eventually she accepted his invitation and was thrilled to be going.
On the night of the party, Vera appeared in a new party dress and "a glossy honey-brown full-length fur coat." In Woolrich’s words, "She was hugging it tight to her, caressing it, luxuriating in it . . . . She even tilted her head and stroked one cheek back and forth against it . . . . She made love to it." Vera explained that she had made a small down payment on the coat and would return it after the party for a refund. Onto the party, which was a magnificent success. Vera was so excited to be accepted into that rarefied social swim that when she and Con returned to the tenement flat and found no one home (her family was at an Irish wake), she asked Con in. He suspected that this time his overtures would not be rebuffed, but on this occasion it was young Con who thought better of going too far: "I had this image of her. I wanted to keep it, I didn’t want to take anything away from it."
Woolrich left in a state of physical and emotional panic. It was the last time he saw Vera alone. As Nevins (quoting Woolrich) describes it in First You Dream, Then You Die:
She didn’t come to their special bench the next day, or the next, or the next. When he knocks fearfully on the door of her flat, her mother glares at him ferociously and begins screaming at him. "Isn’t it enough you’ve done? Well, isn’t it? Stay away from here. There’s no Vera here for you."
Devastated, young Woolrich haunted their special bench every night and waited in vain. Several weeks later, Frank told Con what had happened. Vera had been arrested for "borrowing" an expensive fur coat from a rich old lady on West End Avenue for whom she had worked part-time. She served six months in an upstate reformatory. The end, but for a chance meeting at a block party, which ended with Con watching Vera and a girlfriend climb into a black sedan full of mysterious, prosperous-looking, older men. He never saw her again.
That winter, whenever Woolrich passed the tenement building, he imagined Vera standing in the doorway, a morbid illusion that reminded him of the suffocating sense of mortality he’d suffered so long ago in Mexico. A "sense of isolation, of pinpointed and transfixed helplessness under the stars, of being left alone, unheard, and unaided to face some final fated darkness and engulfment slowly advancing across the years toward me . . . that has hung over me all my life."
His first novel, Cover Charge (1926), garnished reviews comparing him favorably to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his second, Children of the Ritz (1927), earned $10,000 in prize money and a stint in Hollywood as a screenwriter, with all of the usual Faustian temptations and bargains. The Hollywood sojourn also provided the occasion for Woolrich’s next experience of "love"–a brief marriage to Gloria Blackton, daughter of studio mogul, J. Stuart Blackton. According to Nevins, Woolrich idolized his new wife in a bizarre, Platonic way, and was at the same time consumed with self-loathing over his own promiscuous, clandestine homosexual activity. The marriage was never consummated and ended in annulment three months later, after which Woolrich went to live with his mother in New York city.
Several years later, Woolrich returned in print as a writer of hard-boiled crime fiction. He wrote for Black Mask, Detective Fiction Weekly, and Dime Detective. In 1940, he migrated–with many other crime writers–from the pulp detective magazines to hardcover fiction with The Bride Wore Black, his first and probably his most popular novel of suspense, later made into a film by Francois Truffault. By this time he was a true professional, so obsessed, reclusive, and devoted to his craft that he dedicated The Bride Wore Black to his Remington Portable typewriter.
Woolrich’s critics would probably say that Chandler, Cain and Hammett were silver foxes who could do it all—plot, complex characters, lean, precision prose, snappy dialogue—and that Woolrich was a pathetic hedgehog who had an immodest facility for doing one thing altogether too well: fingernail-gnawing suspense. Woolrich, too, judged himself harshly for failing to live up to his youthful literary promise, and in the end he could not bear to have his own work around him. As he wrote to one fan: "I’m glad you liked Phantom Lady but I can’t help you, you see. I can’t accept your praise. The man who wrote that novel died a long, long time ago. He died a long, long time ago."
At the end of his life, Woolrich described himself to his literary agent as follows: "I wasn’t that good, you know. What I was was a guy who could write a little, publishing in magazines surrounded by people who couldn’t write at all. So I looked pretty good. But I never thought I was that good at all. All that I thought was that I tried to tell the truth."
RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK
The life of Woolrich the author makes for fascinating reading, but the less said about Rendezvous in Black by way of introduction, the better; its hallucinatory clout depends on the reader being as violently dislocated as the doomed lover, Johnny Marr.
They had a date at eight every night. If it was raining, if it was snowing; if there was a moon, or if there was none. It wasn’t new, it hadn’t just come up. Last year it had been that way, the year before, the year before that.
Johnny Marr and his girl, Dorothy, aren’t characters, they are migratory animals that move with the polar ordination of bees, geese, salmon, or sea turtles. Instead of gravity or geomagnetic forces, Love governs Johnny and Dorothy’s every movement, as surely as Fate and Chance will govern Johnny and the other mortals in the tale once Dorothy is violently taken from him.
When a bizarre, improbable accident ends Dorothy’s life, Johnny vows insane revenge on five men, only one of whom could have plausibly "caused" the accident that killed his lover. Instead of murdering the five men, Johnny plots a far more diabolical and pathological retribution, and leaves them alive to enjoy it, with a note, asking each of them in turn: " Now you know what it feels like. So how do you like it?"
The reader finds no shelter in a comfortable central character or crime-solving Hollywood "hero" and is instead disgorged onto a doomscape where paranoia, death, and meticulous, unseen vengeance rule with the caprice of wanton boys swatting flies. Instead of the Hollywood archetypes of truth-seeking tough guys, the cops in Woolrich tales are usually sadistic thugs or incompetent bureaucrats. We find both in Rendezvous.
Johnny Marr, who is nowhere near ready to face the unbearable truth of his lover’s sudden, violent death, still waits for Dorothy every night at their appointed spot, until a helpful cop sets him straight:
Your girl’s dead . . . . They told me about that. She’s buried. She’s lying in the ground, in the cemetery up on the hillside, this very minute. I even went up there and seen the plot and the marker with my own eyes. I can even tell you what the headstone says on it . . . . Now move on, and don’t let me find you here again.
By contrast, the detective in charge of "solving" the revenge murders orchestrated by an omniscient and nearly omnipotent Johnny Marr is MacLain Cameron, a mere accessory to a story governed by the mighty forces of murder, retribution, and fate:
He was too thin, and his face wore a chronically haggard look . . . . His manner was a mixture of uncertainty, followed by flurries of hasty action, followed by more uncertainty, as if he already regretted the just preceding action. He always acted new at any given proceedings, as if he were undertaking them for the first time. Even when they were old, and he should have been used to them.
To appreciate the raw power of Woolrich’s nightmarish vision, the reader should tear through Rendezvous in Black, and then read the portions of First You Dream, Then You Die, wherein Nevins performs a kind of post-mortem of its many plot weaknesses and gross factual errors, not one of which any warm-blooded reader will have noticed on first reading. There are clunkers aplenty; "His heart was frothing hate like an eggbeater," comes to mind, but the reader doesn’t care and will suffer any indignity of syntax and strained credibility to find out what happens next. As Anthony Boucher wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "Critical sobriety is out of the question so long as this master of terror-in-the-commonplace exerts his spell." Or as the undercover policewoman observes at the end of Rendezvous, "Instinct, in the deranged, can be supremely accurate; it has no reason or logic to contend with."
Nevins goes so far as to claim that Woolrich’s imperfections are a happy marriage of form and function:
Without the sentences rushing out of control across the page like his hunted characters across the nightscape, without the manic emotionalism and indifference to grammatical niceties, the form and content of the Woolrich world would be at odds. Between his style and his substance Woolrich achieved the perfect union that he never came within a mile of in his private life.
Sown amid the discord of gushing, purple prose there are gems, often visually splendid ones, which helps explain Hollywood’s enduring fascination with Woolrich’s work. A wealthy, desperate, adulterous husband sneaks out of his mansion after midnight, on his way to murder his blackmailing mistress, offering a camera-ready moment: "He went rapidly down their slowly curving stairs . . . . A grotesque shadow of himself rippled along beside him over the ivory-pale wall panels . . . . Like a ghostly adviser spurring him on to evil deeds."
At the end of Rendezvous, those who know Woolrich’s life and work hear his voice speaking through the thoughts of the undercover policewoman who finally lures Johnny to his doom: "How cruel this is. Why does it have to be so cruel? Why couldn’t it have been some other way?"
In an afterword to The Fantastic Stories of Cornell Woolrich, Barry Malzberg, Woolrich’s agent, quotes Woolrich at his darkest:
Life is death. Death is in life. To hold your one true love in your arms and to see the skeleton she will become; to know that your love leads to death, that death is all there is, that is what I know and what I do not want to know and what I cannot bear."
Born fifty years later, Woolrich probably would have graduated from a 12-step program and gone on a maintenance dose of serotonin reuptake inhibitors. But then we would be the poorer for being deprived of his unremitting nightmares. Handwritten on a scrap found among his papers, Woolrich left perhaps the most honest explanation of his writing.
I was only trying to cheat death. I was only trying to surmount for a little while the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me some day and obliterate me. I was only trying to stay alive a little brief while longer, after I was already gone. To stay in the light, to be with the living a little while past my time."
Since his death, some admirers have called him the Hitchcock of the written word and even the Edgar Allan Poe of the twentieth century, but the author of hundreds of short stories and two dozen gripping novels would have none of that, even if, by some miracle, he had lived to hear it. One might as well call him the Kafka of the suspense novel. Overwrought comparisons aside, the nightmare tales Woolrich wrote are thoroughly modern in one sense: They take place in a godless world where monstrous, irrational, barely comprehensible forces wreak violent havoc on the affairs of doomed innocents, who scatter like cockroaches in the night. Like the author of Phantom Lady, God died a long, long time ago, and in His place we have "the authorities," cruel, corrupt, or merely and tragically incompetent.
Woolrich never found a shred of comfort or happiness in such a universe, nor does he see any reason to spare his readers the full brunt of his misery and terror in his frantic, deranged recreations. Instead he traps us under the glass of his airless prose and, with the studied care of Johnny Marr plotting his insane revenge on five passengers who once flew in a plane together, he introduces us to his world.
When we finish Rendezvous, it’s easy to feel like just another one of Johnny’s victims. We half expect to find a note, this one left by Woolrich the author: "Now you know what it feels like. So how do you like it?"