McCullers was born Lulu Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia. Her family had deep roots in the South: her great-grandfather, Major John Carson, owned a two-thousand acre plantation with seventy-five slaves before the Northern army burned the plantation and freed the slaves during the Civil War. Her father, Lamar Smith, was a watchmaker, like Mick Kelly’s father, and owned a jewelry shop like the one John Singer works in. From early childhood, Lulu Carson was expected to achieve great fame, and while she was growing up her parents did what they could to encourage her interest in music. She started formal piano lessons at age ten, and progressed swiftly through her studies in music, which were intense and consuming. After a bout with pneumonia at age fifteen, she started to question whether she had the stamina to be a concert pianist, and turned her attention to writing. She kept her parents believing that she was interested in music, and so when she was seventeen she was sent to New York to study at the Juilliard School, but when she arrived, she enrolled at Columbia University, which had better creative writing teachers, including Sylvia Chatfield Bates, who was a major influence. While home for the summer in 1936 she met Jim McCullers, an army corporal who was also interested in writing, and the following summer they were married. Living in North Carolina with him, McCullers was able to devote all of her time to writing: in a few months, she developed an outline and the first chapters of a novel she called The Mute, which Bates suggested she submit to a writing competition. It won a $1,500 Houghton Mifflin fellowship and a publishing contract, and was published as The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter the following year, when the author was twenty-three years old.
Soon after the novel’s publication, McCullers and her husband separated. She and Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis moved into a house in Brooklyn Heights, where an eccentric cast of famous boarders came and went, among them Christopher Isherwood, Richard Wright, Paul Bowles, Oliver Smith, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee, and W. H. Auden, who oversaw the housekeeping. Visitors included Anais Nin, Leonard Bernstein, Salvador and Gala Dali, Aaron Copeland, Muriel Rukeyser, Granville Hicks, and Truman Capote. McCullers became attached to Swiss novelist Annemarie Larac-Schwarzenbach, and her husband fell in love with the couple’s best friend, David Diamond. The couple divorced in 1940, but they stayed in contact, remarrying in 1945. When they were considering divorcing again in 1953, he committed suicide in Paris. During the early 1940s McCullers published a succession of books that made their mark on American literature: Reflections in a Golden Eye in 1941; The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, a novella, in 1943; and The Member of the Wedding in 1946. Tennessee Williams liked The Member of the Wedding so much that he helped McCullers develop a script for it, and it opened with great success on Broadway in 1950. As her career accelerated, though, her health deteriorated rapidly. In 1940 she suffered a minor stroke that left her vision temporarily impaired, and strokes in August and November of 1947 left her blind, unable to speak, and permanently paralyzed on her left side at the age of thirty. McCullers had operations for numerous problems: the muscles of her left hand atrophied, her hip was fractured and had to be set twice, and she had a mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. For the rest of her life she continued writing; creating stage and film adaptations of works already done and producing just one major new work, a play, Clock without Hands, in 1961. McCullers died in 1967.