Orlovsky was born on the Lower East Side of New York City to Oleg and Katherine Orlovsky, one of five children who grew up in the Northport section of Long Island, New York. When he was still a teen, his parents separated after a series of failed business ventures and bouts with alcoholism.
Orlovsky moved to Queens with his mother and siblings. Orlovsky dropped out of school in his senior year and began supporting himself at age 17 due to family economic problems. After many odd jobs, he began working as an orderly at Creedmore State Mental Hospital in New York giving him an opportunity to complete the requirements for a high school diploma.
In 1953, Orlovsky was drafted into the military as the Korean War began. Due to his erratic behavior and conspicuous anti-military sentiments at boot camp, army psychiatrists ordered his transfer. He spent the rest of his military service as a medic in a San Francisco hospital.
Following his discharge from the army, Orlovsky moved in with San Francisco painter Robert LaVigne as both model and companion. In 1954, Orlovsky was introduced to LaVigne's friend, Allen Ginsberg. Soon after this first meeting, Orlovsky and Ginsberg became lovers and moved in together, defining their relationship as a marriage. Orlovsky and Ginsberg eventually settled into an apartment on New York's Lower East Side.
Their relationship had rocky periods and was never monogamous (Peter Orlovsky had heterosexual leanings, for one thing), but it survived, as a close and important friendship at least, until Ginsberg's death in April 1997.
Prior to meeting Ginsberg, Orlovsky had made no deliberate attempts at becoming a poet. With Ginsberg's encouragement, Orlovsky began writing in 1957 while the pair was living in Paris. His early compositional process began at the typewriter as spontaneous outbursts of ideas. From that point on, he often carried small notebooks to document his experiences, dreams, and impressionistic images.
Orlovsky has written and performed his own poetry, though he never fully established a literary identity for himself that transcended his status as Ginsberg's lover. His poems have a charm and a certain logic, though, and his legacy may someday find its own enthusiastic fan club.
During the 1970s, Orlovsky spent much of his time on a farm in Cherry Valley, New York, writing, playing music, growing his own food, and communing with nature. In 1974, Orlovsky joined the faculty of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, to teach a course entitled "Poetry for Dumb Students."
Orlovsky has supported many social and political causes by participating in anti-nuclear demonstrations; LEMAR, a pro-marijuana organization; and the League for Sexual Freedom. Orlovsky and Ginsberg's frank and open discussion of their homosexual marriage has been credited with increasing gay consciousness in America.