An American writer of biographical novels, he is particularly known for Lust for Life, a work that focuses on the life of painter Vincent Van Gogh. His other works include Those Who Love (based on the lives of John and Abigail Adams) and The Origin (about the life of Charles Darwin).
He received his bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley.
The Italian government gave him several honorary awards while he worked on The Agony and the Ecstasy, his 1961 Michelangelo-themed work.
He was born in San Francisco, California. He later married Jean Stone.
His 1934 novel, Lust for Life, was made into a film starring Kirk Douglas.