He was born to a mid-class family in Havana and, apart from two short trips to Mexico and Jamaica, he never left that city.
In 1938 he gained a law degree from the University of Havana. After graduation he decided to abandon the law and devote himself to cultural activities. His initial support of the Cuban revolution won him one of the vice-presidencies of the Cuban Union of Writers and artists (UNEAC).
His first poetic composition, Muerte de Narciso (Death of Narcissus, 1937) signalled a long career as one of Cuba's leading writers. He also founded and edited a number of important literary journals. Lezama soon published other collections of poetry and books of essays, all highly provocative with their textured imagery and allegorical symbols. In addition, he founded and edited several important literary journals, among them Orígenes (1944-1956), considered by Latin-American scholars to have been one of the most significant literary magazines of the twentieth century.
The publication of Paradiso in 1966 marked an important turning point in Lezama's career. Internationally, the novel was immediately recognized as a masterpiece. However, the novel's total lack of political commitment to the Cuban Revolution, as well as its explicit descriptions of male homosexual relations, was met with resistance in Cuba and placed Lezama in a precarious situation.
In 1965 he married María luisa Batista. this carrying out his mother's last wish. Acording to different acounts, the marriage was never consummated, but the couple lived together harmoniously. Lezama lived mostly discreet homosexual relationships, dominated by his aesthetic interest in finding the Hellenic ideal form, which explains the interest in intellectually talented and beautifuladolescents and young men.
As early as 1965, the new Cuban socialist regime had been conducting systematic purges of homosexuals whose conduct was considered to be at variance with revolutionary morals. Lezama was a victim of the campaigns sustained by the Cuban government against homosexuals and, even though he didn't spend time in jail, he lived his last years in a sort of internal exile. His position worsened after the publication of Paradiso.
Prior to his death, Lezama had been working on another novel that was to have been the continuation and culmination of Paradiso. The unfinished manuscript was published posthumously in 1977 under the title Oppiano Licario.
In Oppiano Licario, we no longer have the good heterosexual in opposition to the depraved homosexual, a Paradiso opposed to an Inferno, but rather the homosexual object is split in pairs of opposites between the friend and the enemy, the good and the bad, the individual that can be accepted and the individual that should be rejected.
The modern reader should not be quick to judge Lezama's portrayal of homosexuality harshly. In both Paradiso and Oppiano Licario, homosexual interludes occupy a considerable portion of the texts.
The mere fact that the author dared to express detailed sexual relations between men, at a time when such expressions were generally looked down on in Latin-American literature and severely censored by the Cuban revolutionary establishment, represents an important turning point in Latin-American letters that paved the way for a greater representation of homosexual desire.