One of the highlights with which EQMM begins 2021, our eightieth anniversary year, is the presentation, in our January/February issue, of a heretofore unknown story by the great Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich wrote twenty-seven novels and scores of stories and won one of EQMM‘s Worldwide Short Story Contests. Forty films were based on Woolrich works, most famously Rear Window. The award-winning author of the biography Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die, Francis M. Nevins discovered the manuscript for this neglected Woolrich story at Columbia University. But I’ll let him give you the full account of how it came into his hands. Francis (known to us all as Mike) is a novelist himself and the author of a number of stories for EQMM.—Janet Hutchings
In memory of Alex Trebek we begin with a Jeopardy!-style clue. This iconic suspense writer appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine seventy-plus times, and now more than half a century after his death he’s in the magazine again. The question of course is: Who is Cornell Woolrich? Beginning with Volume 1 Number 1 (Fall 1941) he had a total of seventy-five stories in EQMM (or, depending on whether you count once or twice the tale published in two parts in two consecutive issues, seventy-six). Recently, with the publication of the January-February 2021 issue, the number has risen to seventy-six (or seventy-seven). There’s a story behind how this new story was unearthed, and it falls to me to tell it here.
Woolrich was a native New Yorker, born in 1903, to parents whose marriage came apart soon after they moved to Mexico where his father lived. He grew up there with his father, Genaro Hopley-Woolrich (1878-1948), but after he reached high-school age and returned to Manhattan to live with his mother and maternal grandfather, he never saw Genaro again. His earliest novels and stories, beginning in 1926, were not in our genre but somewhat closer (well, maybe not all that close) to the work of the young literary idol of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1934 he began a fifteen-year period of white-hot creativity as the master of suspense, the Hitchcock of the written word. During the middle 1950s, with those years behind him, he set out to return to mainstream fiction with a series of stories about the birth, adolescence, maturity, old age, and death of a New York hotel from its opening night in 1896 till the eve of its demolition in 1957. Before these tales were published in book form as Hotel Room (Random House, 1958), the editors decided that each chapter in the collection except the first and last, which constitute a framing story, should have some link with an historic event: the end of World War I, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the stock-market collapse. This decision required the removal of the tales without such a connection. One of these, “The Penny-a-Worder,” was bought by EQMM founding editor Fred Dannay and published in the magazine’s September 1958 issue, the first of a dozen Woolrich originals in the magazine between then and 1970, two years after Woolrich’s death. Were there other such stories? And if so, what happened to them?
Woolrich’s will left all his literary rights in trust to Columbia University, where he had gone as an undergraduate in the ’20s (although he quit in his junior year when his first novel sold), and Columbia is also the repository of his papers. In March 2019 I was invited to come east and give a talk at the university’s second annual Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival, which was devoted to the many movies based on Woolrich. (You can find my presentation on YouTube simply by typing “Francis M. Nevins”—making sure you use quote marks so as to avoid a bunch of items that have nothing to do with me.) During the several days of the program, the Columbia library presented an exhibit of Woolrich papers, of which I was treated to a private viewing while I was in New York. Most of what was on display I had seen before, but two manuscripts were new to me. As chance would have it, however, I remembered something about one of them. Several years ago, Otto Penzler told me that he’d been offered a heretofore unknown Woolrich story, apparently one intended for but excised from Hotel Room. He remembered its first words and quoted them to me: “She came to the hotel alone. . . .” He had not bought the document and didn’t know what had happened to it. Now, in 2019, I was staring at the typescript of a story with the exact same first words.
After returning to St. Louis I asked the professor who had invited me to Columbia if he could possibly arrange for me to be sent a copy of that story. He did, and I liked it very much. And, thanks to the evolution of our genre “from the detective story to the crime novel” over the sixty-odd years since Woolrich had written what I now held in my hands, I thought it might interest Janet Hutchings, the present editor of EQMM, and emailed her a copy made from mine. Learning that she too liked it very much, I put her in touch with the agent for the Woolrich estate and a deal was made. If you have the first issue of the magazine for this year, you have the story—not under Woolrich’s awkward original title, “The Fiancée Without a Future,” but as “The Dark Oblivion.” Quite an improvement, yes?
A question may have crossed your mind as you were reading the last paragraph: What about that other Woolrich story in the exhibit? Well, I managed to obtain a copy of that one too, but it was hardly worth the effort. “The Fault-Finder” is not only a poor story—one of many such dating from Woolrich’s last years—but it isn’t crime fiction even in the broadest sense of that term. Since no one is ever likely to see this thirteen-page story, I have no qualms about describing it. The year is 1915, and a husband and wife are in the St. Anselm Hotel, preparing to set out on a vacation cruise across the Atlantic. (Woolrich doesn’t bother to mention that in fact all Europe was at war that year.) The woman keeps insulting and belittling her poor henpecked husband. Finally he goes out to a tavern across the street to drown his sorrows and stays there too long so that their ship has already left New York Harbor by the time he returns to the hotel. Furiously she orders him to call up the steamship line and demand their money back. Klutz to the last, the husband can’t remember the name of the ship they were to sail on. His wife berates him as an incompetent imbecile and tells him that they were booked on—have you guessed it?—the Lusitania. End of story. It’s perfectly consistent with the central insight of noir—in Hammett’s words, that we live while blind chance spares us—but that doesn’t qualify it as crime fiction or improve it as a story.
Woolrich may have written these tales a little before the publication of Hotel Room, or he may have written them a few years later, in the very early 1960s. What suggests this second possibility is that, along with copies of the stories themselves, Columbia had sent me a sort of cover sheet in Woolrich’s handwriting, the table of contents for a new and expanded version of Hotel Room, with the title of the book changed to Nine Nights In a New York Hotel and each story in the 1958 version retitled also. The most fascinating aspect of this sheet of paper is at the top: Woolrich writes his own name as the author, just as it was in the 1958 version, then crosses it out and substitutes his well-known pseudonym William Irish! Why did he do that? I think I can explain.
After the breakup of his marriage to Woolrich’s mother, Genaro Hopley-Woolrich had had liaisons with many women, the last and longest being with Esperanza Piñon Brangas. Their daughter Alma was born in Nogales, Sonora on 17 June 1938, and, as far as I know, is still alive. “I learned I had a brother who was a writer when I was fourteen,” Alma said in a telephone interview in Spanish with the Argentine author Juan José Delaney. In 1961 Alma came up from Oaxaca to New Jersey to visit her father’s half-nephew Carlos Burlingham (1925-2004) and his family, staying with them for more than a year. Carlos wrote to Woolrich via his publisher, expecting that the son of his Tio Genaro would want to meet the half-sister he’d never seen. He received in reply a telegram from Woolrich’s attorney, of which Carlos gave me a copy. “He flatly refused to accept the fact” that he had a half sister, Carlos told me, and the attorney insisted that Genaro had remained faithful to Woolrich’s mother throughout his life. Once settled in New Jersey, Alma crossed the Hudson to New York in hopes of meeting her famous half brother. “But he wouldn’t receive me. . . . I remember that he sent out his secretary saying that he didn’t want to see me.” Woolrich never had a secretary. Juan José Delaney told me that the word Alma had used in their phone interview was secretario. It was a man who had turned her away from Woolrich’s door. That man had to have been Woolrich himself. I can’t prove it, but I know it. How could anyone have resisted the temptation to sneak a peek at his only living relative without revealing himself? If he had died without a will, his half sister, who speaks little or no English, would have inherited all his copyrights by intestate succession. To me that explains why on 6 March 1961 he signed a document leaving his rights and everything else he owned in trust to Columbia University. It also explains why, later in 1961, he legally changed his name to William Irish: it was a way of spitting in the face of his long-dead father. The table of contents page for that anticipated new edition of Hotel Room, with its conspicuous name change at the top of the sheet, almost certainly dates from around this time. That new edition of course never materialized, and the tale he called “The Fiancée Without a Future” never saw print until the beginning of this year.
Now that you know the stories behind that story, I hope that, if you haven’t already read “The Dark Oblivion“ in the January/February EQMM, you soon will.