He is the son of MP and advertising mogul Sir Charles Higham. He published two early books of verse in England, before moving to Sydney, Australia in 1954, where at twenty-three he was already a prominent book and film critic. He became literary editor of The Bulletin, the country's leading weekly, in 1964, and published three more collections of verse.
Higham was then chosen by the University of California as Regents Professor, an honor accorded to leading literary figures in foreign countries, and while at UC Santa Cruz he made the discovery of the lost footage of It's All True, Orson Welles's uncompleted Latin American triptych. In The Films of Orson Welles (1970), and in Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius (1985) he alleged that the film maker Orson Welles suffered from a "fear of completion" which led to Welles abandoning projects when they were nearly finished in order to be able to blame others for their flaws. Friends of Welles, in particular Peter Bogdanovich, criticised this thesis. The book earned Higham a full-page spread in Newsweek as the film detective, and he was engaged as the New York Times Hollywood feature writer for the Sunday theatre Section.
His first best seller was Kate (1975), the first authorised biography of Katharine Hepburn. This success was followed by others: Bette, the Life of Bette Davis, and a biography of Lucille Ball. The Duchess of Windsor (1988, 2005) is a biography of the controversial thrice-married woman, Mrs. Simpson, for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne to marry; he gave up his title and became the Duke of Windsor, while she became the Duchess of Windsor. His book Howard Hughes became the basis of Martin Scorsese's film The Aviator (2004), which covers the early life of Howard Hughes. Higham's Trading with the Enemy: The Nazi American Money Plot 1933-1949 detailed U.S. industry's links with Nazi Germany. He also wrote Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine, in 1984, about the legendary feud between actresses Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
Higham has also written Murder in Hollywood: Solving a Silent Screen Mystery on the death of William Desmond Taylor and a biography of Jennie Churchill (Dark Lady: Winston Churchill's Mother and Her World 2006).
With Roy Moseley (b. 1938) with whom he later had a serious falling out (in the first edition of Moseley's memoir of Bette Davis, Higham is called "my great friend", but in the second revised edition he is a "doubtful author" and his name is omitted from the acknowledgements), he has written biographies of Cary Grant, Merle Oberon, and of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (Elizabeth and Philip: The Untold Story 1991).
Charles Higham published his autobiography, In and Out of Hollywood: A Biographer's Memoir, in 2009. In his autobiography Higham talks of his molestation by his stepmother and reveals his early marriage despite his burgeoning homosexuality. He and his wife stayed great friends although she later adopted a lesbian lifestyle. Mr Higham lives with his boyfriend Richard V. Palafox, a nurse .
In 1980, Higham published a controversial biography, Errol Flynn: The Untold Story in which he alleged that Errol Flynn was a bisexual fascist sympathiser who spied for the Nazis before and during World War II and had affairs with Tyrone Power, Howard Hughes, and Truman Capote.
Tony Thomas, in Errol Flynn: The Spy Who Never Was (Citadel, 1990) and Buster Wiles in My Days With Errol Flynn: The Autobiography of a Stuntman (Roundtable, 1988) have denounced Higham's claims as fabrications, a claim substantiated by one's viewing the F.B.I. documents, which were altered - rather than quoted verbatim - by Higham.
According to Thomas and Wiles, Flynn was notorious in Hollywood as a womaniser and was a left wing supporter of the Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War and of the Cuban Revolution, even narrating a documentary entitled The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution shortly before his death.