S. S. Van Dine was born Willard Huntington Wright on October 15, 1888, in Charlottesville, Virginia, the son of Archibald Davenport Wright and Annie Van Vranken Wright. (Wright adopted his pen name, based on Van Dyne—an old family name—and the abbreviation of “steamship,” when he turned to writing detective fiction.) Van Dine attended St. Vincent College, Pomona College, and Harvard University and also studied art in Munich and Paris. In 1907, he became a literary and art critic for the Los Angeles Times. During his distinguished career in this field, Van Dine published books on art, literature, philosophy, and culture. Also in 1907, he married Katharine Belle Boynton; they had one daughter and were divorced in 1930. He later married Eleanor Pulapaugh.
From 1912 to 1914, Van Dine edited The Smart Set, a sophisticated New York literary magazine, to which he attracted important new authors. He continued his career as critic and journalist until 1923, when a demanding work schedule caused his health to deteriorate. Confined to bed with a heart ailment for more than two years and forbidden by his physician to do any serious work, he spent his convalescence assembling and analyzing a two-thousand-volume collection of detective fiction and criminology. These activities inspired him to write a detective novel of his own. As S. S. Van Dine, he submitted to a publisher thirty thousand words of synopsized plans for three novels. The expanded draft of the first plan appeared in 1926 as The Benson Murder Case. This novel introduces Philo Vance, the hero of the most popular American detective series in its day. Van Dine also wrote several short detective films for Warner Bros. from 1931 to 1932 (their titles and exact dates are not known).
The twelve Philo Vance novels brought wealth to their heretofore debt-ridden author, enabling him to cultivate a luxurious lifestyle comparable to that of his fictional hero. Van Dine lived in a penthouse, delighted in witty and erudite conversation, fine cuisine, costly wines, and elegant clothes, and spent his very large income rapidly; he left an estate of only thirteen thousand dollars when he died on April 11, 1939.