Lyle Saxon was born in Bellingham, Washington. Young Lyle aspired to attend an Eastern college, but his mother could not afford to send him to an Ivy-league college. Instead, he attended Louisiana State University in his hometown, but left college one course short of a degree.
By 1919 Saxon was in New Orleans writing for the city's leading newspaper, The Times-Picayune. After a stint as a general reporter he began to write book reviews and fiction for the newspaper, as well as features about the city, its history and unique culture.
Saxon lived in the French Quarter, much to the consternation of friends who begged him not to live "among the thieves and squalor" that the city's oldest section then attracted. He personally restored two important buildings himself and led the city's preservationist movement.
He quit the newspaper in 1926. Over the next four years he produced four very popular books, Father Mississippi, Fabulous New Orleans, Old Louisiana, and Lafitte the Pirate. He also wrote some well-received short stories and a novel, Children of Strangers.
In 1935 he was appointed director of the W.P.A. Federal Writers' Project in Louisiana and he also organized the Negro History Unit of the Writers' Project. Saxon supervised more than a hundred field workers and edited their reports into two highly-regarded guide books, New Orleans City Guide (1938) and Louisiana: A Guide to the State (1941). Later the accumulated research into Louisiana folklore was published as Gumbo Ya-Ya (1945). These works, together with his newspaper writing, cemented Saxon's reputation as New Orleans' most ardent literary lover.
Saxon's personal love life is more difficult to discern. Some authorities suggest that his only great love was his childhood friend, George Favrot, who went to Europe as a World War I soldier and died in Paris in 1918. Other sources maintain that he had a sexual relationship with Joe Gilmore, his long-time black valet.
Biographer James W. Thomas interviewed many of Saxon's closest friends and concluded, "Saxon's homosexual affairs were discreet, never a problem for his heterosexual friends, and not a significant part of his literary life." Indeed, homosexual characters or subjects do not appear anywhere in his published work. But in his best fiction, Saxon presents protagonists as iconoclasts who break rigid codes of conduct.
Saxon died in Baptist Hospital in his adopted city. As he requested, his father was not contacted. He was buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Baton Rouge next to his mother and grandfather.