Richard Lee Rhodes was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on July 4, 1937, the son of Arthur Rhodes, a railroad mechanic and Georgia (maiden name Collier) Rhodes. When he was only thirteen months old, his mother committed suicide. Richard’s eldest brother went to live with relatives while Richard and his brother, Stanley, who was two years older, stayed with their father. When Richard was ten, their father remarried, and their stepmother, Anne Ralena Martin, began a reign of terrifying physical and emotional abuse against the boys while their father passively looked on. After two years of deprivation, torture, and violence, Stanley sneaked out of the house to report this abuse to the police. The boys were removed from their home by state officials and placed in the Drumm Institute, a home for boys near Independence, Missouri. Although the Drumm Institute imposed strict rules upon the boys, who were also required to work at farming, Richard thrived in this environment, becoming an avid reader. In 1955, he graduated from high school with a scholarship to Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. He attended Yale from 1955 to 1959, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in intellectual history.
Rhodes worked as a writer trainee for Newsweek magazine in 1959. In 1960, he married Linda Iredell Hampton and began working as a staff assistant for Radio Free Europe, in New York City. Rhodes joined the Air Force Reserve from 1960 to 1965, during which time he worked as an instructor in English at Westminster College, in Fulton, Missouri, (from 1960 to 1961) and found work as an editor. Rhodes became book editing manager for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Missouri, from 1962 to 1970. He was a contributing editor to Harper’s magazine from 1970 to 1974. He divorced Linda in 1974 and began working as a contributing editor for Playboy magazine in Chicago from 1974 to 1980. In 1976, he married Mary Magdalene Evans, whom he later divorced. Rhodes became a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine, in New York City, from 1988 to 1993. During this time, he was also a visiting fellow in the Defense and Arms Control Study Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1988–1989), and a visiting scholar in the History of Science Department at Harvard University. Although Rhodes had been a severe alcoholic for thirty years, he was inspired to quit drinking by his love for Ginger Untrif, who became his third wife.