Born in Yonkers, New York, Yates came from an unstable home. His parents divorced when he was three and much of his childhood was spent in many different towns and residences. Yates first became interested in journalism and writing while attending Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Connecticut.
After leaving Avon, Yates joined the Army, serving in France and Germany during World War II. By the middle of 1946, he was back in New York. Upon his return to New York he worked as a journalist, freelance ghost writer (briefly writing speeches for Attorney General Robert Kennedy) and publicity writer for Remington Rand Corporation. His career as a novelist began in 1961 with the publication of the widely heralded Revolutionary Road. He subsequently taught writing at Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, Boston University (where his papers are archived), at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, at Wichita State University, the University of Southern California Master of Professional Writing Program, and at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
In 1962, he wrote the screenplay for a film adaptation of William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness. Twice divorced, Yates was the father of three daughters: Sharon, Monica and Gina. In 1992, he died of emphysema and complications from minor surgery in Birmingham, Alabama.
His daughter Monica once dated Seinfeld co-creator, Larry David and David's first meeting with the writer was the basis for "The Jacket" episode of Seinfeld's second season.
Yates's first novel, Revolutionary Road, was a finalist for the National Book Award that year (alongside Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, which won, and Joseph Heller's Catch-22). Yates was championed by writers as diverse as Kurt Vonnegut, Dorothy Parker, William Styron, Tennessee Williams and John Cheever. Yates's brand of realism was a direct influence on writers such as Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.
For much of his life, Yates's work met almost universal critical acclaim, yet not one of his books sold over 12,000 copies in hardcover first edition. All of his novels were out of print in the years after his death, though his reputation has substantially increased posthumously and many of his novels have since been reissued in new editions. This current success can be largely traced to the influence of Stewart O'Nan's 1999 essay in the Boston Review, "The Lost World of Richard Yates: How the great writer of the Age of Anxiety disappeared from print".
With the revival of interest in Yates's life and work after his death, Blake Bailey published the first in-depth biography of Yates, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates (2003). Film director Sam Mendes directed Revolutionary Road, a film reuniting the lead actors of Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (Mendes's wife). It was released on 26 December 2008. The film was nominated for many film awards including BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Academy Awards. After Kate Winslet won her Golden Globe Best Actress Award for Revolutionary Road in 2009 she thanked Richard Yates for writing such a powerful novel and providing such a strong role for a woman.
Yates was also an acclaimed author of short stories. Despite this, only one of his short stories appeared in The New Yorker (after repeated rejections). This story, "The Canal," was published in the magazine nine years after the author's death to celebrate the 2001 release of The Collected Stories of Richard Yates.
Richard Yates was godfather to the veteran character actor John Lacy.
In the movie Lonesome Jim (2005) the protagonist cites Yates as one of his favorite authors and adds that when he died all his books were out of print.
In Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Lee (Barbara Hershey) thanks Elliott (Michael Caine) for lending her The Easter Parade, which she says was great.
Nick Hornby's 2005 novel A Long Way Down features several suicidal characters; one of them carries a copy of Revolutionary Road so that it may be discovered on his corpse.
Tao Lin's forthcoming novel, from Melville House Publishing, is entitled Richard Yates.
Singer Tanita Tikaram's 1992 album title, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, was borrowed from Yates's 1962 collection of short stories.
Yates was portrayed in an episode of Seinfeld as "Alton Benes", Elaine's taciturn and hard-driving father who totally intimidates George and Jerry. Larry David, the show's executive producer, once dated Yates's daughter, Monica.
Mitgang, Herbert, "Moving the Story Along", The New York Times, October 28, 1984.
O'Nan, Stewart, "The Lost World of Richard Yates: How the great writer of the Age of Anxiety disappeared from print", Boston Review, October/November, 1999
Wood, James, "Out of the ashes: James Wood salutes Blake Bailey's generous biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty", The Guardian, Saturday September 25, 2004. Guardian article on Yates biography.
Amidon, Stephen, "Movie May Renew Interest in Richard Yates", The Sunday Times, March 9, 2009.