Leonard Michaels was born in lower Manhattan on January 2, 1933, to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents; he grew up during the Depression in New York, where his father was a barber. He received his B.A. from New York University in 1953 and an M.A. in English literature from the University of Michigan in 1956. He entered the Ph.D. program at the University of California at Berkeley, but withdrew and moved back to Manhattan to devote his time to writing. During this time he married Sylvia Bloch, about whom he wrote a memoir, and made a living by teaching English classes at Paterson State College in Wayne, New Jersey.
After separating from his wife, who later committed suicide, Michaels went back to graduate school, this time at the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in English and married Priscilla Older, with whom he had two sons. He published his first collection of short stories, Going Places, in 1969 while teaching English at the University of California at Davis; based on the reception of that book, he was hired to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1977, he divorced his second wife and married poet Brenda Lyn Hillman, with whom he had a daughter. In the late 1980’s his third marriage also ended in divorce. Michaels wrote extensively about his marital difficulties in his fictional and autobiographical works.