Man of SmokeRoundup
tags: literature, archives, fiction, Crime Fiction, Literary Biography, Cornell Woolrich
Jason Ridler teaches history and creative writing to such clients as Google, Johns Hopkins University, and several educational non-profits. He is the author of Maestro of Science (University of Toronto Press) and Mavericks of War (Stackpole).
On September 25, 1968, Cornell Woolrich was found dead in his room at the Sheraton-Russell on Park Avenue. He was in a wheelchair and weighed 89 pounds; after years of depression, he had let a minor foot injury turn into gangrene and had to have the leg amputated. Cornell Woolrich, the innovative author of tales of psychological horror and suspense, whose work had been adapted into such films as Rear Window and The Bride Wore Black, was snuffed out at sixty-four years old. Five people attended the funeral. It was a sad end befitting one of his own stories.
Chase Manhattan Bank, which had been made executor and trustee under his will, hired Frances M. Nevins, a young expert in estate and copyright law, as a consultant to the Woolrich estate. Two major tasks were at hand. First, Woolrich had bequested to his alma mater Columbia University a $750,000 journalism fellowship in his mother’s name. Second, the university received all of Woolrich’s personal papers from his forty-year career. Nevins arrived at Columbia on a snowy afternoon to assess the holdings — the primary sources needed for a masterful biography.
He was brought three boxes.
They contained 1.5 linear feet of material.
He completed his entire review that afternoon.
By contrast, the crime author Patricia Highsmith deposited over 120 boxes of documents at the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern: notebooks, letters, and diaries detailing her rotten childhood and successful career, drafts of The Talented Mr. Ripley and other novels, plays, short stories, and more. Highsmith’s archive has fed three major biographical works, and more needs to be done.
Woolrich left Nevins a fistful of bad checks from publishers and little else.1
Yet there was hope. One box contained an unfinished draft of his autobiography, Blues of a Lifetime, which no one else had ever read. “Everyone in life can make a claim of one thing, one good point,” Woolrich wrote in the opening chapter. “Everyone has one. And I can claim credit for at least one thing — self-honesty. I’ve never lied a day in all my life, not to anyone else and not to myself. And that is why, though these pages may be boring, though these pages are fatuous and unremarkable, these pages will at least be truthful.”2 However, after reading the hundred or so pages of text, Nevins called the dead man’s bluff. Blues of a Lifetime offered valuable data, but this data was embedded in a web of exaggerations, distortions, and lies — as untrustworthy as Woolrich’s amoral characters. Even now, Woolrich’s archival finding aid warns researchers that “there is very little information about his personal life, and the information that exists may or may not be true.” Woolrich was so elusive Nevins called him the “man of smoke.” With this dearth of material, could a biography of any real value be written?