Robert Stone was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 21, 1937, the son of Gladys Catherine Grant, an elementary school teacher of Scotch-Irish origins whose schizophrenia profoundly affected her son’s vision of himself and his world (he often mentions the fear of chaos his life with her instilled in him), and C. Homer Stone, a former railway detective who fled domestic responsibilities shortly after Robert’s birth. Because of his mother’s illness, young Robert spent time in an orphanage and in a series of Catholic boarding schools (including St. Ann’s Marist Academy in Manhattan), where physical punishment was commonplace.
After his mother’s release from the hospital, Stone lived with her on Manhattan’s West Side; joined a street gang; read with puzzlement and then appreciation the works of Thomas Carlyle, Fyodor Dostoevski, Franz Kafka, John Dos Passos, Joseph Conrad, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and won a New York State Regents’ scholarship based on a story he wrote influenced by J. D. Salinger. However, he clashed with the Marist brothers over his drinking and his conversion of another student to atheism, and he left school before high school graduation.
In 1955, Stone joined the United States Navy and served with the amphibious force of the Atlantic Fleet. He passed his high-school equivalency test while in the military. The experiences of his childhood, captured in part in the opening to “Absence of Mercy,” one of the short stories in Bear and His Daughter (1997), clearly influenced his interest in the rootless, the psychotic, the irresponsible, and the hypocritical. His service as a radioman aboard an attack troop carrier in the Mediterranean during the Suez Crisis of 1956 and then as senior enlisted journalist on Operation Deep Freeze Three in Antarctica prepared him to write credibly of military life, language, and style and of ships and sailing (as he does in “Under the Pitons,” a story of drug smugglers who prove inept at sea, and in Outerbridge Reach (1992), with its transoceanic yachting competition). In the Triquarterly article “Me and the Universe” (1986), Stone reflected on the horrific spectacle of war that he experienced as a nineteen-year-old on Suez duty and his vision of everyday life as war.
While attending New York University from 1958 to 1960, he worked as a copy boy, caption writer, and then editorial assistant for the New York Daily News. On December 11, 1959, he married children’s protection service worker Janice G. Burr, whom he had met in a creative writing class. Early in 1960, the Stones dropped their conventional life and migrated to New Orleans, where Stone held menial jobs (in a coffee factory, on the docks, and as a radio actor, a merchant marine seaman, a door-to-door salesman, and a census taker) and where his daughter Deidre was born at Charity Hospital. Stone read his own poetry to jazz accompaniment in a French Quarter bar and moved with the beatnik crowd, including LeRoi Jones and Gregory Corso. His experiences in that city (including trumped-up arrests) and in the South during a time of sit-ins and struggles against segregation provided material for his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967), a work begun after reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925).
After the birth of their son, Ian, the Stones returned to New York City, where they became friends with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and others of the emerging bohemian scene (encountered at the Seven Arts Times Square coffee shop where Janice waitressed). She learned keypunch; he wrote advertising copy. They moved on to California when a thirty-page sample of A Hall of Mirrors won Stone a Stegner Fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University. While living in Menlo Park, California, he experimented with psychedelic drugs (particularly LSD) and struck up what proved to be a lifelong friendship with Ken Kesey, whom he joined on the Merry Pranksters’ 1964 cross-country bus trip. (Stone later referred to them as very...
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