Cornwell herself is a woman of dichotomies. In her twenties she married her professor (male) who was 17 years older than her. Now, as of three years ago, she is married to a professor (female) who is 10 years younger. Her name is Staci Gruber and she is associate director of Harvard’s McLean psychiatric hospital. They met when Cornwell was researching sociopaths for a novel. Cornwell says with a laugh that Gruber’s first impression of her was that she was a narcissist.
Whatever the truth of that, she cannot be accused of being boring. She flies her own helicopter, rides a Harley-Davidson and drives a Ferrari. She also collects guns. And when the press outed her as gay it was because she had had an affair with a married FBI agent whose husband became so angry there was a shoot out.
Cornwell stirs up controversy in the same casual manner other people stir their tea. She is also highly litigious, not long ago taking a cyberstalker to court. The liberal left in America, meanwhile, suspect she is the devil wearing Prada – not least because she donated huge sums to the Republican party and was so chummy with the Bushes, especially Bush senior, she would be invited to their family retreat in Kennebunkport.
A descendant of abolitionist and writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, Cornwell was born in Miami, Florida. Her father was one of the leading appellate lawyers in the United States and served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.
She was five when her father walked out on the family, on Christmas morning. Soon after this she was molested by a security guard, a case that ended with her giving evidence in court.
Her mother by now was spiralling into chronic depression. This meant that Cornwell had to be sent to live with foster parents. Sadistic foster parents. She became anorexic in her teens and recovered only to succumb to depression herself, in her twenties. This has come and gone over the years.
As her father was dying, she experienced what so many of us have experienced:
“He was on his deathbed. We knew it was the last time we’d see each other; he grabbed my brother's hand and mouthed 'I love you,' but he never touched me. All he did was write on a legal pad 'How's work?'”
Following graduation from Davidson College in 1979, she began working at the Charlotte Observer, rapidly advancing from listing television programs to writing feature articles to covering the police beat. She won an investigative reporting award from the North Carolina Press Association for a series of articles on prostitution and crime in downtown Charlotte.
In 1984, she took a job at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia. She worked there for six years, first as a technical writer and then as a computer analyst. She also volunteered to work with the Richmond Police Department. Cornwell wrote three novels that she says were rejected before the publication, in 1990, of the first installment of her Scarpetta series, Postmortem. Her first crime novel, Postmortem, was published by Scribner’s in 1990. Initially rejected by seven major publishing houses, it became the first novel to win the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony, and Macavity awards as well as the French Prix du Roman d’Aventure in a single year. In Postmortem, Cornwell introduced Dr. Kay Scarpetta as the intrepid Chief Medical Examiner of the Commonwealth of Virginia. In 1999, Dr. Scarpetta herself won the Sherlock Award for best detective created by an American author.
Often interviewed on national television as a forensic consultant, Cornwell is a founder of the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine; a founding member of the National Forensic Academy; a member of the Advisory Board for the Forensic Sciences Training Program at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, NYC; and a member of the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital’s National Council, where she is an advocate for psychiatric research. She is also well known for her philanthropic contributions to animal rescue and criminal justice as well as endowing college scholarships and promoting the cause of literacy on the national scene. Some of her projects include the establishment of an ICU at Cornell’s Animal Hospital, the archaeological excavation of Jamestown, and the scientific study of the Confederacy’s submarine H.L. Hunley. Most recently she donated a million dollars to Harvard’s Fogg Museum to establish a chair in inorganic science.
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