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Poet of the Century’s Shadows : CORNELL WOOLRICH : First You Dream, Then You Die <i> by Francis M. Nevins, Jr. (Mysterious Press: $19.95; 613 pp.) </i>

The movies could hardly get along without Cornell Woolrich. Hollywood has made at least 23 films from his stories and novels. The most recent, “Cloak and Dagger” in 1984, was the fourth remake of his story “The Boy Cried Murder.” There have also been “Phantom Lady,” “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” taken from a story by Woolrich that appeared in Dime Detective magazine.

There have been foreign films as well, most memorably Francois Truffaut’s “The Bride Wore Black” and “Mississippi Mermaid,” and others from the Soviet Union, Japan, Germany, Italy and Argentina.

The world of Woolrich’s crime fiction--dark, tortured, murderous, doom-haunted--was perfectly suited for the screen, never more so than in the days when Hollywood used black and white to perfection. Woolrich does not colorize well: he was the first, great inspiration for film noir .

His own life was as noir as they come, and it has been gleaned to the last crumpled scrap of copy paper by Francis M. Nevins Jr., a St. Louis lawyer who is literary and legal consultant to the Woolrich estate as well as a veteran researcher-historian of crime fiction (“Royal Bloodline,” a biography of “Ellery Queen,” appeared in 1974 from Bowling Green University Press).

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In 1982, Nevins edited a series of six Woolrich novels in softcover for Ballantine, among them “Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” which Woolrich wrote as George Hopley, and “Phantom Lady,” which he wrote as William Irish.

Ironically, the seven-page introduction Nevins wrote for the Ballantine editions revealed almost as much about Woolrich as this 600-plus-page biography. It’s no fault of Nevins’, who has been all but demonic in his investigations. Woolrich is simply a biographer’s nightmare, a recluse who spent most of his creative years willingly cooped up with his mother in a suite in the Versailles Hotel in upper Manhattan.

On the rare occasions he wrote anything about himself, he told conflicting lies, invented blue-sky fictions or unintentionally got the most easily checkable facts wrong. Frequently Nevins throws up his hands and says we’ll never be sure.

Sorting through the Woolrich papers, which the author donated to Columbia University, along with his royalties, for an endowment in his mother’s memory, Nevins came across a title for a story Woolrich never finished. “First You Dream, Then You Die” seemed a perfect epitaph for the troubled man Woolrich was.

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He was born in New York in 1903. His English-born father, Genaro Hopgood-Woolrich, was a civil engineer; his mother, Claire Tarler, was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family. The parents separated when Woolrich was still a child and he spent most of his early years with his father in Mexico City.

When he was 8, his grandfather Tarler came for a visit and took the boy to a performance of “Madama Butterfly,” which apparently gave him intimations of doom. At 11, looking at the stars in the Valley of Anahuac, the doom feeling hit him again. “I had that trapped feeling,” he wrote later of the moment, “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.”

In his teens, Woolrich came back to live with Claire in a hotel suite and, metaphorically if not quite literally, he never left. Actually he worked for a short time in Hollywood and in 1930 was briefly and inexplicably married to the daughter of a producer. In a feature at the time, the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote that Woolrich had “loved his wife too much to kiss her,” and Nevins says explicitly that the marriage was never consummated.

Woolrich was in fact gay and miserable and seems to have kept the closet of concealment pitch dark. During their short marriage his wife pried open a suitcase and found a diary in which Woolrich recounted his sexual adventures, cruising the waterfront in a sailor uniform at night. But even the diary is suspect, because it is clear that fantasy and reality, private fact and public fiction, had a way of blurring in Woolrich’s life.

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He started writing as an undergraduate at Columbia, and once he had sold, the work was the life, and vice-versa. His first novel was an unsuccessful emulation of Scott Fitzgerald, and it was soon obvious that suspense--often embracing crimes of passion, thwarted love, the corruption of the innocent, crooked cops, travesties of justice, entrapment, double- and triple-crosses and lethal coincidences--was his forte.

Hollywood started buying him early, although for pittances at first. In his best year, 1946, he earned just over $60,000, the equivalent of $500,000 today, Nevins calculates. But when Claire died in 1957, Woolrich’s creative drive appears to have died with her. He wrote less and less, passed off old stories as new and got along (quite nicely, actually) on reprint rights and movie sales.

Always a drinker, he was now a heavy drinker, a melancholy loner who occasionally showed up, rumpled and unshaven, at banquets of mystery writers. He was a revered figure among other writers and he had loyal friends, to whom he could display a sudden and beguiling charm. His unpredictability made him a trial, but a few close friends tried to lure him out of his hotel hidey-holes. He promised to come visiting but never did, and he died in September, 1968, 11 years after Claire.

“First You Dream, Then You Die,” with its fat appendices on the publications and their peripheral uses, and with its tireless searching for clues to a reclusive life, is a long labor of devotion any author would be grateful to have done on his behalf.

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Both because of and despite the biographer’s unabashed fervor in his subject’s cause, the reader is almost ready to validate Nevin’s claim that Woolrich was “the Poe of the 20th Century and the poet of its shadows.” More precisely, Woolrich was an engrossing teller of tales within a special genre, and his work carries a special resonance because the unhappy and embittered soul of the author informs every tense and shadowy moment.


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