Cornell Woolrich by Barry Malzberg
Premiere science fiction and crime writer Barry Malzberg worked with Cornell Woolrich in the last years of Woolrich's life. Here is a legendary piece he wrote about the man.
1. He is ordered, once again, to meet his public. Accordingly, he stands behind a lectern while a long line of people, curiously orderly, wait to speak to him one by one. "I loved your dancing," the first, a young man, says, "but essentially, you know, it was very cheap." He agrees with this. "I hated your dancing," an elderly critic points out, "but essentially I admit it was important." He agrees with this. "I both loved and hated your dancing," the third, a young woman, says, "because it was cheap and important," and he agrees with this as the line comes upon him, talking far through the night and passing, one by one, into darkness until he stands blinking in the dawn, rubbing his eyes and looking at the faint trail of litter, wondering if it is a code which somehow he could decipher.
2. He imagines himself being strangled and thrown, still alive, into a small mass of struggle at the bottom of a well. In this well he slowly explodes, balloons to enormous proportion, and as his body slowly fills the area, he perishes in his own breath. This pleases him, rather, although he is not exactly sure how he can get at it artistically.
3. In the hotel room he dreams he is watching on television a tape of his own performance. He has become a dancer and is describing great arcs of grayness while the television host smiles and a chorus of ten sings the songs he loves best. His dancing is a success, and, squinting at his own image, he notices that gaps in his technique appear to have been missed by the studio audience. At the end of his performance the television host embraces him and brings him out for another bow, before the commercial goes on. "Wonderful of you to be herewith us," the host says, "and we'll have you back real soon," but although he dreams that he watches the television unsleeping for many years, he never sees himself again.
4. He receives an award from a national guild of his profession. The award is cast in the form of a finger of silver, pointing at him. No matter which which way he turns the award, the finger always points in his direction. He conceals it with small scraps of paper and hides it in his closet.
5. He is given an assignment but all that he can think of when the time comes to work is cyanosis: the way in which the facial skin will change color when strangulation ensues. It will go from the white of terror to pink to rose to deeper red to purple and finally to gentlest blue of the forgotten sea. The colors tantalize him and he is unable to work for thinking of them, but when the time comes for his assignment to be done he is told that he has done well and is paid accordingly. He then develops a trick of thinking about cyanosis whenever the time comes for work and up to a point this functions well, although he realizes that he cannot rely on such mental tricks forever.
6. He dreams that a girl asks him for his autograph but before he can sign she walks away. Turning in his bed, he finds that this is only partially a dream and that some girl is talking to him in the sheets. He does not know what she is saying. She seems to have a speech impediment and the words are blurred. At a certain point, although he tries to be polite, he throws her out. The girl in the bed and the girl in his dream may have been the same although the question of the speech defect makes this somewhat doubtful. She has asked him very distinctly for his autograph.
7. A man in the hotel lobby asks him for an autograph. He balances the page between his knees while he signs. The man says that he grew up watching him dance and for a moment he doubts the dream until he remembers that all of them all of them all of them are liars.
8. The hotel burns to the ground. Saved, he moves to another hotel whose inscription is: WE ANNOUNCE FIRES BEFOREHAND.
9. While he sleeps something seems to seize him by the throat and he awakens gasping,but it is only the hand of one of the businessmen with whom he deals. "This can't go on indefinitely," the businessman says mildly, and he answers, "I know that very well; let me straighten it out in the morning"—and so on and so forth until the businessman finally goes away, at which point he returns to sleep until dawn. Awakening, it seems that he should remember something but there is already too much on his mind for such worthless games of recollection.
10. He is ordered, once again, to meet his public. Accordingly, he stands behind a lectern and stands behind a lectern and stands behind a lectern and stands—
Afterword to "Cornell"
Cornell Woolrich (1904-68) lived in the Sheraton Russell Hotel on Park Avenue, New York City, through the last decade of his life. He was represented by the literary agency with which I worked from 1965 to 1967, and I sought out Woolrich as an admirer of his work. I was able to do a few things for that work—Ace reissued many titles in the late sixties, Escapade took a story— but I was able to do nothing for the man, who was the unhappiest writer I have ever known. This is quite a statement.
Cornell is still so close and so painful to me (my younger daughter's middle name is his) that I cannot discuss him, in or out of print. This pastiche, written in July 197I and sold to his last patron, Fred Dannay of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, was a false attempt at purgation. No mercy, no mercy: Cornell lives within all of us. His work of the forties was the best of his generation in his field and he will someday be recognized as one of the finest American writers. No mercy there either: such recognition in his lifetime would have made for Cornell no difference. He needed to die.