His biographer, Francis Nevins Jr., rated Woolrich the fourth best crime writer of his day, behind only Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner and Raymond Chandler. A check of film titles reveals that more film noir screenplays were adapted from works by Woolrich than any other crime novelist, and many of his stories were adapted during the 1940s for Suspense and other dramatic radio programs.
Born in New York City, Woolrich's parents separated when he was young. He lived for a time in Mexico with his father before returning to New York City to live with his mother, Claire Attalie Woolrich.
He attended Columbia University but left in 1926 without graduating when his first novel, Cover Charge, was published. Cover Charge was one of six Jazz Age novels inspired by the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He soon turned to pulp and detective fiction, often published under his pseudonyms. For example, William Irish was the byline in Dime Detective Magazine (February, 1942) on his 1942 story "It Had to Be Murder", (source of the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window) and based on H. G. Wells' short story "Through a Window". François Truffaut filmed Woolrich's The Bride Wore Black and Waltz Into Darkness in 1968 and 1969, respectively, the latter as Mississippi Mermaid. Ownership of the copyright in Woolrich's original story "It Had to Be Murder" and its use for Rear Window was litigated before the United States Supreme Court in Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207 (1990).
Woolrich was homosexual and sexually active in his youth. In 1930, while working as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, Woolrich married Violet Virginia Blackton (1910–65), daughter of silent film producer J. Stuart Blackton. They separated after three months, and the marriage was annulled in 1933.
Woolrich returned to New York where he and his mother moved into the Hotel Marseilles (Broadway and West 102nd Street). He lived there until her death on October 6, 1957, which prompted his move to the Hotel Franconia (20 West 72nd Street). In later years, he socialized on occasion in Manhattan bars with Mystery Writers of America colleagues and younger fans such as writer Ron Goulart, but alcoholism and an amputated leg (caused by an infection from a too-tight shoe which went untreated) left him a recluse. He did not attend the premiere of Truffaut's film of his novel The Bride Wore Black in 1968, even though it was held in New York City. He died weighing 89 pounds. He is interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Woolrich bequeathed his estate of about $850,000 to Columbia University, to endow scholarships in his mother's memory for journalism students.
Woolrich's novels written between 1940 to 1948 are considered his principal legacy. During this time, he definitively became an author of novel-length crime fiction which stand apart from his first six works, written under the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Most of Woolrich's books are out of print, and new editions have not come out because of estate issues. However, new collections of his short stories were issued in the early 1990s.
Woolrich died leaving fragments of an unfinished novel, The Loser; fragments have been published separately and also collected in Tonight, Somewhere in New York (2005).
- Cover Charge (1926)
- Children of the Ritz (1927)
- Times Square (1929)
- A Young Man's Heart (1930)
- The Time of Her Life (1931)
- Manhattan Love Song (1932)
- The Bride Wore Black (1940)
- The Black Curtain (1941)
- Marihuana (1941, as William Irish)
- Black Alibi (1942)
- Phantom Lady (1942, as William Irish)
- The Black Angel (1943, based on his 1935 story Murder in Wax)
- The Black Path of Fear (1944)
- After Dinner Story (1944, as William Irish)
- Deadline at Dawn (1944, as William Irish)
- Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945, as George Hopley)
- Waltz into Darkness (1947, as William Irish)
- Rendezvous in Black (1948)
- I Married a Dead Man (1948, as William Irish)
- Savage Bride (1950)
- Fright (1950, as George Hopley)
- You'll Never See Me Again (1951)
- Strangler's Serenade (1951, as William Irish)
- Hotel Room (1958)
- Death is My Dancing Partner (1959)
- The Doom Stone (1960, previously serialized in Argosy 1939)
- Into the Night (1987, an unfinished manuscript finished by Lawrence Block)
Short story collections
- I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes (as William Irish), Lippincott 1943
- After Dinner Story (as William Irish), Lippincott, 1944
- If I Should Die Before I Wake (as William Irish), Avon, 1946
- Borrowed Crime (as William Irish), Avon, 1946
- The Dancing Detective (as William Irish), Lippincott, 1946
- Dead Man Blues (as William Irish), Lippincott, 1948
- The Blue Ribbon (as William Irish), Lippincott, 1949
- Six Nights of Mystery (as William Irish), Popular Library, 1950
- Eyes That Watch You-as (as William Irish), Rinehart, 1952
- Bluebeard's Seventh Wife (as William Irish), Popular Library, 1952
- Nightmare Dodd, Mead, 1956
- Violence Dodd Mead, 1958
- Hotel Room Random House, 1958
- Beyond the Night Avon, 1959
- The Dark Side of Love Walker, 1964
- The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich Simon and Schuster, 1965
- Nightwebs: A Collection of Stories Harper & Row, 1971
- Angels of Darkness Mysterious Press, 1978
- The Fantastic Stories Of Cornell Woolrich Southern Illinois University Press, 1981
- Darkness at Dawn Southern Illinois University Press, 1985
- Vampire's Honeymoon Carroll & Graf, 1985
- Blind Date with Death Carroll & Graf, 1985
- Night and Fear: A Centenary Collection of Stories Carroll and Graf, 1995
- Tonight, Somewhere in New York: The Last Stories and an Unfinished Novel Carroll and Graf, 2005
- Love and Night: Unknown Stories'' Dennis McMillan, 2007
- Four Novellas of Fear A. J. Cornell Publications, 2010
Selected films based on Woolrich stories
- Convicted (1938) (story Face Work)
- Street of Chance (1942) (novel The Black Curtain)
- The Leopard Man (1943) (novel Black Alibi)
- Phantom Lady (1944) (novel)
- The Mark of the Whistler (1944) (story Dormant Account)
- Deadline at Dawn (1946) (novel)
- Black Angel (1946) (novel)
- The Chase (1946) (novel The Black Path of Fear)
- Fall Guy (1947) (story Cocaine)
- The Guilty (1947) (story He Looked Like Murder)
- Fear in the Night (1947) (story Nightmare)
- The Return of the Whistler (1948) (story All at Once, No Alice)
- I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes (1948) (story)
- Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) (novel)
- The Window (1949) (story The Boy Cried Murder)
- No Man of Her Own (1950) (novel I Married a Dead Man)
- El Pendiente (1951) (story The Death Stone) directed by León Klimovsky.
- Si muero antes de despertar (1952) (story If I Should Die Before I Wake) directed by Carlos Hugo Christensen.
- No abras nunca esa puerta (1952) (stories Somebody on the Phone and Humming Bird Comes Home) directed by Carlos Hugo Christensen.
- Rear Window (1954) (story It Had to Be Murder) directed by Alfred Hitchcock
- Rear Window (1998) (story It Had to Be Murder) remake starring Christopher Reeve
- Obsession (1954) (story Silent as the Grave)
- Nightmare (1956) (story)
- The Bride Wore Black (1968) (novel) directed by François Truffaut
- Mississippi Mermaid (1969) (novel Waltz Into Darkness) directed by François Truffaut
- Kati Patang (1970) (novel I Married a Dead Man) 
- Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972) (novel Rendezvous in Black)
- Union City (1980) (story The Corpse Next Door)
- I Married a Shadow (1983) (novel I Married a Dead Man)
- Cloak & Dagger (1984) (story The Boy Who Cried Murder)
- Mrs. Winterbourne (1996) (story I Married a Dead Man)
- Original Sin (2001) (novel Waltz Into Darkness)
- Four O'Clock (2006) (story Three O'Clock)
- Corliss, Richard (8 December 2003). "That Old Feeling: Woolrich�s World". Time.
- Krinsky, Charles (2003). "Woolrich, Cornell". glbtq.com. Retrieved 2007-08-20
- Nevins, Francis M. "Introduction," Tonight, Somewhere in New York. Carroll & Graf, 2001.
- Goulart, Ron: "The Ghost of Cornell Woolrich" The Twilight Zone Magazine, December 1984, pages 16-17
- Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. p. 158.
- "Shabnam Still Gets Fan Mail". Indian Express. Dec 04 2010. Retrieved May 7, 2013.
- Nevins, Francis M. Jr. (1988), First You Dream, Then You Die, Mysterious Press.
- Lane, Joel. "Mansions of Fear: The Dark Houses of Cornell Woolrich". Wormwood No 3 (Autumn 2004), 22-32.
- Cornell Woolrich at the Internet Movie Database
- Radio adaptations of Cornell Woolrich's stories on the CBS radio show Suspense
- Works by or about Cornell Woolrich in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- "Cornell Woolrich and the Tough-Man Tradition of American Crime Fiction" by Christine Photinos (Clues: A Journal of Detection 28.2, 2010)