DISCUSSED: Manhattan, Mexico City, the Specter of Anahuac, Madama Butterfly, Hollywood, Dressing As a Sailor, the Birth of Noir, Death by Dentistry, the Oscillation Thriller, Influence on Richard Wright, the Black Series, Hitchcock, “Helen, I love you”

Of all the authors whose forte was turning our spines to columns of ice, the supreme master of the art, the Hitchcock of the written word, was Cornell Woolrich. His centenary will be celebrated on December 5, 2003, at the Mercantile Library in New York City. Whatever honors he receives on that occasion will have been richly deserved, but if he were alive and well he wouldn’t enjoy a moment of the event and probably wouldn’t show up for it. His full name was Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich. His mother, born Claire Attalie Tarler, was the daughter of George Tarler, a Russian Jewish émigré who had made his fortune in the import trade with Mexico and Central America. His father, Genaro Hopley-Woolrich, was of Canadian and Mexican descent, an adventurous macho who was both attractive and susceptible to women. Genaro’s half-nephew Carlos Burlingham, who as a teenager in the early 1940s lived with him for a year, describes him as “a very good-looking man with deep blue eyes…. But you would never see him to smile. He always had a very narrow smile.” Around 1901 or 1902, while in the United States working on the construction of New York City’s nascent subway system, Genaro met Claire Tarler and soon married her. Their only child was born on December 4, 1903. In 1907 they left New York with three-year-old Cornell to resettle in Mexico, but the marriage did not long survive the move. Claire returned to the Tarler household on West 113th Street near Morningside Park, and the child stayed with Genaro below the border. His schooling was punctuated by holidays whenever another revolutionary leader captured the town where they lived, and as a hobby he collected the spent rifle cartridges that littered the streets beneath his windows.

When he was eight, Grandfather Tarler took him to Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts to see a traveling French company perform Puccini’s then-new opera Madama Butterfly, an experience that gave the boy a sudden sharp insight into color and drama and his first sense of tragedy. Three years later, on a night when he looked up at the low-hanging stars from the valley of Anahuac, he understood that someday, like Cio-Cio-San, he too would have to die. From that moment he was haunted by a sense of doom. “I had that trapped feeling,” he wrote, “like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t.”

During his adolescence he returned to New York City and lived with his grandfather and aunt and mother in George Tarler’s house on West 113th Street. In 1921 he enrolled in Columbia College, a short walk from his home, choosing journalism as his major but dreaming of a more romantic occupation, like being an author or a professional dancer. In his junior year, while immobilized with either an infected foot or a bad case of jaundice (his own accounts of the incident are at odds), he began the first draft of a novel. When it sold, a few months later, he quit Columbia to pursue the dream of bright lights.

The main influence on Woolrich’s early work was F. Scott Fitzgerald, the literary idol of the twenties, and his first novel, Cover Charge (1926), chronicles the lives and loves of the Jazz Age’s gilded youth, child-people flitting from thrill to thrill, conversing in a mannered slang which reads today like a foreign language. But several motifs from his earlier and later life and his later suspense fiction can be detected in this rather amateurish debut. The fascination with dance halls and movie palaces. The use of popular song lyrics to convey mood. Touches of vibrantly colorful description. A long interlude in Mexico City complete with performance of Madama Butterfly. Romance between Alan Walker, the ballroom-dancer protagonist, and two women each old enough to be his mother. An extravaganza of coincidence to keep the story moving. And a despairing climax with Alan alone in a cheap hotel room, his legs all but useless after an auto smashup, abandoned by the women he loved, contemplating suicide: “I hate this world. Everything comes into it so clean and goes out so dirty.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Francis M. Nevins is a professor at St. Louis University School of Law, where he has taught since 1971. In addition to his writings on legal subjects, he is the author of six mystery novels and two story collections. He has edited many mystery anthologies and collections and has written several nonfiction books about the genre. Two of these have won Edgar awards from the Mystery Writers of America. A shorter version of “One Hundred Years of Loneliness” will appear as the introduction to Night and Fear: Twenty Stories by Cornell Woolrich.

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