Fred Exley was born March 28, 1929, in Watertown, New York. His father, who died in 1945 when Exley was 16, was a celebrated former athlete and local basketball coach whose legacy would be a dominating influence on Exley's early life. A car accident the following year injured Exley and prevented him from graduating from high school on schedule. After being awarded $14,000 in a settlement after the accident, Exley began working in nearby railroad yards. After a brief post-graduate stint at John Jay High School in Katonah, New York, where he was named to the conference all-star basketball team, Exley entered Hobart College in 1949. After a year he transferred to the University of Southern California, where he began to follow the career of fellow student and future football legend Frank Gifford. Exley avoided being drafted in 1951 when he failed his Selective Service examination on account of injuries sustained in the car accident.
The following year Exley dropped out of USC and moved to New York to find employment, only to return a year later to finish an A.B. degree in English. Subsequently he returned to New York to work in public relations for New York Central Railroad. After a year there he relocated to their Chicago office, then began working for Rock Island Railroad in the same capacity. Exley soon took over as managing editor of the railroad's employee magazine,The Rocket, where his first published writing appeared.
After losing his job in 1956, Exley entered an itinerant period of his life marred by acute alcoholism, obsession with sports, and mental instability that was to provide much of the autobiographical material for his first book, A Fan's Notes. In 1958, Exley was admitted briefly to Stony Lodge, a private mental institution in Westchester County, New York where he met Francena Fritz, whom he began courting. Soon after he was admitted to the state institution, Harlem Valley State Hospital, the model for the "Avalon Valley", facility mentioned in A Fan's Notes. It was here Exley began writing in earnest. In 1959, he was released from Harlem Valley and married Fritz on October 31. They moved to Greenwich, Connecticut and Exley was offered a teaching position at a school in Port Chester, New York. In 1960 his first daughter, Pamela Rae Exley, was born. In 1961 Exley received a provisional appointment as clerk and crier of the courts in Jefferson County, New York, where a lawyer friend, Gordon Phillips, asked Exley to forge a signature on a check for one of his clients, an action that led to Phillips' disbarment.
The following year, Francena Fritz obtained a divorce from Exley at her father's request. Several years of intermittent teaching jobs in Clayton, Gouverneur, and Indian River, New York followed. His alcoholism growing worse, Exley began a decade of briefly-held jobs and institutionalization, and spent time vacationing on Singer Island in Riviera Beach, Florida while continuing to work on A Fan's Notes. In 1964, Exley sent the completed manuscript for A Fan's Notes to Houghton Mifflin (who rejected it), and to Joe Fox at Random House, who suggested an agent, Lynn Nesbit. Nesbit shopped the manuscript around, and eventually sold it to David Segal at Harper & Row which earned Exley $3000 as an advance against royalties.
In 1965, Exley met Nancy Glenn while on vacation in Palm Beach Shores, Florida and working as a bookkeeper for The Buccaneer, her husband's resort. The following year, Nancy Glenn separated from her husband and moved in with Exley, beginning a long relationship that saw many temporary separations and reconciliations. She became pregnant while Exley was employed at the Palm Beach Post's copy desk; they married in 1967, and Glenn gave birth to Exley's second daughter, Alexandra Exley, early the following year. Later in the year, Glenn became pregnant with another child, and Exley began working on his second novel Pages From A Cold Island. The child, Robert Brandon Exley, was born with severe birth defects in April 1968. A Fan's Notes was published in the fall and, although it didn't sell well, its release prompted widespread critical acclaim and the novel was nominated for the National Book Award. It also received the William Faulkner Award for best first novel, the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and earned Exley a Rockefeller Foundation grant worth $10,000. In 1969 Exley and Glenn began divorce proceedings.
In 1970, Exley's mother purchased a small house in Alexandria Bay, New York and Fred temporarily moved in, though he still spent time in Florida working on Pages from a Cold Island. Charlotte's home was to become Exley's home base for the next 20 years. In the fall of that year he interviewed Gloria Steinem on Key Biscayne, in Florida. The resultant essay, "Saint Gloria & the Troll," published in Playboy a few years later, earned Exley their Editorial Award for the year's best nonfiction piece. In the following year, 1971, Exley's divorce from Glenn was finalized and his son died.
In 1972 Exley was a guest lecturer at the Iowa Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa and a film adaptation of A Fan's Notes starring Jerry Orbach was released in Canada. In 1973, Exley's brother, a Vietnam veteran, died in Hawaii after a battle with cancer. In 1975, Exley's second novel, Pages from a Cold Island was published by Random House to considerably less acclaim than his debut and Exley traveled to Hawaii, where he began work on the final novel of his semi-autobiographical trilogy, Last Notes From Home.
Rolling Stone paid Exley $20,000 for up to six excerpts of Last Notes from Home in May, 1977. The following year Exley's papers were acquired by collector Robert C. Stevens and donated to the University of Rochester. In 1984, Exley received a Guggenheim Foundation grant of $21,000. Last Notes From Home was published by Random House in September 1988, with Frank Gifford himself hosting a publication party for Exley in New York. Soon after, Exley began to work on a spy novel to be titled Mean Greenwich Time, but subsequently abandoned it. He moved in with his aunt Frances Knapp in Alexandria Bay and became very ill while traveling to London for a journalism assignment. After being diagnosed with congestive heart failure, Exley cared for his ailing aunt who eventually died in 1991. The following year Exley suffered a stroke while alone in his apartment and died in the hospital the next day, June 10, 1992. His ashes were interred at Brookside Cemetery in Watertown, New York, next to his parents.
A biography of Exley, Misfit: The Strange Life of Frederick Exley, by prominent literary critic and friend of Exley's Jonathan Yardley, appeared in 1997. Yardley's central thesis is that Exley was a brilliant one-book writer. Yardley wrote the preface to the Modern Library reissue of A Fan's Notes.
In 2010, author Brock Clarke released a fiction novel entitled Exley. In the novel, the main character Miller is obsessed with Frederick Exley, the cultishly beloved author of A Fan's Notes. Entertainment Weekly gave the novel a B+ and stated: Frederick Exley’s classic 1968 account of his epic alcoholism, A Fan’s Notes, bears the oxymoronic subtitle “A Fictional Memoir.” It is the space between those words, between real and fabricated memory, that Clarke examines. . . . With humor as black as Exley’s liver, Clarke picks apart the fictions we tell one another...and those we tell ourselves.