The dark forebodings that affected the author’s works may have originated in his early life. Cornell Woolrich was born Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich in New York City on December 4, 1903. His father was a civil engineer and his mother was a socialite; as a boy, Woolrich was often in Latin America. At about the age of eight, after seeing a production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (1904), he was overwhelmed with a profound sense of fatalism. When revolutions broke out in Mexico, he was fascinated by the fighting and collected spent cartridges that could be found on the street. It would appear that he was badly shaken by the eventual breakup of his parents’ marriage, which left him unusually dependent on his mother.
In 1921, Woolrich entered Columbia University in New York, where courses in English may have spurred his interest in creative writing. One of his classmates, Jacques Barzun, later recalled that Woolrich was an amiable if somewhat distant individual. On one occasion, he was immobilized by a foot infection, an experience that may be reflected in the theme of enforced immobility that would appear in some of his later writings. During that time, however, under the name Cornell Woolrich he composed his first novel, Cover Charge (1926); this romantic work was favorably received. His Children of the Ritz (1927) won a prize offered jointly by College Humor magazine and a motion-pciture company; Woolrich went to Hollywood to adapt a film script from that book. In 1930, he married Gloria Blackton, a film producer’s daughter, but she left him after a few weeks. Woolrich may have had homosexual inclinations. After he returned to New York, he wrote other sentimental novels, the last of which was Manhattan Love Song (1932), before devoting his efforts entirely to mystery writing.
In 1934, Woolrich’s first crime and suspense stories were published in detective magazines. Even with the success of The Bride Wore Black (1940) and other full-length works, Woolrich remained a reclusive figure; frequently he would remain in his room at a residential hotel for long periods, venturing outside only when necessary. Success and public esteem apparently meant little to him, even when his works were widely distributed and had become known through films and other adaptations. In 1950, he won the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America for the motion picture The Window, based on his story “The Boy Who Cried Murder.” His mother, to whom he remained inordinately devoted, died in 1957, and he dedicated the stories in Hotel Room (1958) to her. His ensuing despondency seemed to diminish his creative output. In addition to bouts of alcoholism, he developed diabetes, yet he ignored the progressive deterioration of his health. Gangrene affected one leg, but he left this condition untreated until it became necessary for doctors to amputate the limb. He finally suffered a stroke and died in his native city on September 25, 1968. Very few people attended his funeral. His will established a trust fund, dedicated to his mother’s memory, in support of scholarships for the study of creative writing at Columbia.