Charles R. Jackson was born in Summit, New Jersey . His family moved to Newark, New York in 1907. He graduated from Newark High School in 1921. He attended Syracuse University, joining a fraternity there, but left during his freshman year after a "furtive sexual encounter with a fellow member of his fraternity, who then spread word of the incident in such a way that only Jackson came in for public disgrace"; a fictionalized version of that experience was later incorporated into The Lost Weekend.
As a young man he worked as an editor for local newspapers and in various bookstores in Chicago and New York prior to falling ill with tuberculosis. From 1927 to 1931, Jackson was confined to sanatoriums and eventually recovered in Davos, Switzerland. His battle with tuberculosis cost him a lung and served as a catalyst for his alcoholism.
He returned to New York at the height of the Great Depression and his difficulty in finding work spurred on his binge drinking. His battle to stop drinking started in late 1936 and was largely won by 1938. On March 4, 1938, Jackson married magazine writer Rhoda Booth. They later had two daughters, Sarah (born 1940) and Kate (born 1943).
During this time he was a free-lance writer and wrote radio scripts. Jackson's first published story, "Palm Sunday", appeared in the Partisan Review in 1939. In the 1940s, Jackson wrote a trio of novels, beginning with The Lost Weekend published by Farrar & Rinehart in 1944. The autobiographical novel chronicled a struggling writer's five-day drinking binge. It earned Jackson lasting recognition. While working on The Lost Weekend , Jackson earned as much as $1000 per week writing scripts for the radio soap opera Sweet River, about a widowed minister and his two sons.
In 1945, Paramount Pictures paid $35,000 for the rights to adapt The Lost Weekend into the a film version of the same name. The Academy Award winning film was directed by Billy Wilder and starred Ray Milland in the lead role of Don Birnam. At the height of his career, Charles R. Jackson lectured at various colleges.
Jackson's second published novel of the 1940s, titled The Fall of Valor , was released in 1946. Set in 1943, it detailed a professor's obsession with a young, handsome Marine. Jackson's The Outer Edges was released in 1948. Jackson's later works included two collections of short stories, The Sunnier Side: Twelve Arcadian Tales (1950) and Earthly Creatures (1953).
Throughout his career, Jackson continued to struggle with an addiction to alcohol and pills. Over the years, he underwent psychoanalysis to help him kick his addictions.
In September 1952, he attempted suicide and was committed to Bellevue Hospital. He was readmitted four months later after suffering a nervous breakdown. After his release, he went on an alcohol and paraldehyde binge during which he wrote six short stories and began writing A Second-Hand Life .
By the mid-1950s, Jackson was sober but was no longer writing. As a result, he and his family began struggling financially. He and his wife had to sell their New Hampshire home and eventually moved to Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Jackson's wife got a job at the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies while Jackson moved to New York City where he rented an apartment at The Dakota.
He continued to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and attempted to begin writing again. In the early 1960s, three of his short stories appeared in McCall's magazine but Jackson still struggled with periodic bouts of writer's block. He later worked as a story editor for the anthology television series Kraft Television Theatre and got a job teaching writing at Rutgers University.
A long-time heavy smoker, Jackson suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Towards the end of his life, he was admitted to the Will Rogers Memorial Hospital in Saranac Lake, New York after a relapse of tuberculosis. After his release, Macmillan Publishers gave him an advance for a new book. Jackson moved to the Hotel Chelsea and resumed work on A Second-Hand Life, a novel that he began writing some fifteen years earlier. Upon its release, the book received mediocre reviews but sold well.
On September 21, 1968, Jackson died of barbiturate poisoning at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City. His death was ruled a suicide. At the time of his death, Jackson was working on a sequel to The Lost Weekend entitled Farther and Wider .
According to author and scholar Anthony Slide, Jackson had relapsed into alcoholism around the time of his death and had become estranged from his wife and children. Slide also wrote that Jackson had been closeted for the majority of his life and, in his later years, attempted to come to terms with his bisexuality. Slide maintains that Jackson "[...] identified as bisexual late in life" and began living with his male lover in 1965.