Richard Yates was born in Yonkers, New York, on February 3, 1926, to a middle-class family. His parents were divorced when he was two years old. Yates was raised by his mother, a sculptress, and by his older sister. He attended Avon Old Farms School as a teenager and left to serve in World War II immediately after graduation. After his discharge from the army, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent more than a year in a sanatorium run by the Veterans' Administration. He married his first wife, Sheila Bryant, in 1948, and they moved to France after his release from the hospital.
In 1953, Atlantic Monthly accepted one of his short stories, and Yates's writing career began. Yates returned to the United States and worked as a freelance writer of advertising copy while working on his novel Revolutionary Road. In the following years, he taught creative writing and wrote. Yet he was dragged down by depression and alcoholism, which ended his marriage in 1959.
Revolutionary Road was an instant success when it was published in 1961, and as of the early 2000s, it was considered one of the great American novels of the twentieth century. The celebrity that it brought to Yates led to his serving as a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy, who was then the U.S. attorney general. When Kennedy's brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963, Yates left government life: he went to Hollywood to write screenplays for a brief while then he became an instructor at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop. He remarried in 1968, to Martha Speer. After seven years, he left Iowa when he was denied tenure. He taught at several Midwestern universities before returning to New York City. After the dissolution of his second marriage in 1974, he moved to Boston, where he wrote four books between 1976 and 1986.
In 1991, after spending more time in Hollywood, Yates took a position at the University of Alabama. Though the position was temporary, he found, after a two-year stint, that he was too ill with emphysema to leave Tuscaloosa. He was working on a novel about his time as Kennedy's speech-writer when he died at the VA hospital in Birmingham on November 7, 1992, of complications arising from surgery on a hernia. Yates's short story, "The Canal," appeared in print for the first time in The Collected Stories of Richard Yates, which was published by Holt in 2001.