First You Dream, Then You Die
FRANCIS M. NEVINS, JR.
N September 25, 1968, a 64-year-old man, one-legged
and wheelchair-bound and looking almost ninety, died
of a stroke in his room at Manhattan's Sheraton Russell
Hotel. Flis name was Cornell Woolrich. He was the greatest
writer of suspense fiction that ever lived. His two dozen novels
and mote than two bundled stories and novelettes had the same
«'rencbing impact, the same rcsonations of terror and anguish and
loneliness and despair, as the darkest films of his cinematic soul-
brother, .Alfred Flitchcock. Fie had lived as a recluse with his
mother in a series of New York residential hotels, trapped in a bi¬
zarre love-hate relationship with her and in the quicksand of his
own homosexual self-contempt. When she died, he cracked, and
began bis own long descent to the grave. He bad the most wretch¬
ed life of any American writer since Poe, and his funeral was at¬
tended by exactly five people. He left no survivors but did leave
a rich legacy of fiction whose principal beneficiary since his death
has been Columbia University. Under his will, virtually all his
literary properties \\-ere placed in a rrust fund, named for '\\'ool-
rich's mother, to provide scholatsbips for C'olumbia students.
The Columbia connection with the A\'oolrich family goes back
to before the author's birth. W'oolrich's mother (1874-1957) was
born Claire Attalie Tarlcr, and one of her brothers, George Cor¬
nell Tarlcr (1876-1945) graduated from C^olumbia Law School in
1899 and went on to a distinguished legal and diplomatic career.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Claire married Gcnaro Hop-
Opposite: Artist Larr\' Schwinger's rendition of the amnesiac hero
searching the city for his lost self in Cornell Woolrich's 1941 novel
The Black Curtain.