Gurney was born on November 1, 1930 in Buffalo, New York to Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Sr. (1896-1977), who was president of Gurney, Becker and Bourne, an insurance and real estate company in Buffalo, and Marion Spaulding (1908-2001). His parents had three children, of which Gurney was the middle: (1) Evelyn Gurney Miller (b. 1929), (2) Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr. (b. 1930), and (3) Stephen S. Gurney (b. 1933).
His maternal grandparents were Elbridge G. Spaulding (1881-1974) and Marion Caryl Ely (1887-1971). Ely was the daughter of William Caryl Ely (1856-1921), a lawyer and Member of the New York State Assembly in 1883. Gurney's 2x great-grandfather was Elbridge G. Spaulding (1809-1897), a former Mayor of Buffalo, NY State Treasurer, and member of the U.S. House of Representatives who supported the idea for the first U.S. currency not backed by gold or silver, thus credited with helping to keep the Union economy afloat during the Civil War.
Gurney attended the Nichols School in Buffalo and graduated from St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. He attended Williams College, graduating in 1952, and the Yale School of Drama, graduating in 1958, after which he began teaching Humanities at MIT.
In 1959, following graduation from Yale, Gurney taught English and Latin at a day school, Belmont Hill School, in Belmont, Massachusetts for one year. He then joined Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a Professor of Humanities, from 1960 until 1996, and Professor of Literature, from 1970 until 1996.
He began writing plays such as Children and The Middle Ages while at MIT, but it was his great success with The Dining Room that allowed him to write full-time. Since The Dining Room, Gurney has written a number of plays, most of them concerning WASPs of the American northeast. While at Yale, Gurney also wrote the musical: Love in Buffalo; this was the first musical ever produced at the Yale School of Drama. Since then, he is known to be a prolific writer, always writing something.
His first play in New York, which ran for just one performance in October 1968, The David Show, premiered at the Players’ Theater on MacDougal Street. The play was cut after its first show by sneers from the entire press except for two enthusiasts, Edith Oliver in The New Yorker and another from the Village Voice.
His 2015 play, Love and Money, is about a mature woman making plans to dispose of her fortune, and the twists that ensue; the world premiere was at New York's Signature Theatre in August 2015. Before that, The Grand Manner, a play about his real life encounter with famed actress Katharine Cornell in her production of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, was produced and performed by Lincoln Center for the summer of 2010. It was also produced in Buffalo by the Kavinoky Theatre. He appeared in several of his plays including The Dining Room and most notably Love Letters .
In June, 1957, Gurney married Mary Forman "Molly" Goodyear (b. 1935) of the prominent Goodyear family. The Gurneys lived in Boston until 1983, when they moved their family to New York to be near the theater, television, and publishers while he was on sabbatical from MIT. Together, they had four children:George Goodyear Gurney, who married Constance "Connie" Lyman Warren in 1985.
Amy Ramsdell Gurney, who married Frederick Snow Nicholas III in 1985.
Evelyn "Evie" R. Gurney, who married Christopher Bumcrot
Gurney's father, Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Sr., died in 1977 and Molly's mother, Sarah Norton, died in 1978. After their deaths, his mother, Marion, married Molly's father, George, and remained married until Marion's death in 2001, followed by George's death in 2002.
Gurney died at his home in Manhattan, on June 13, 2017, at the age of 86.
In 2006, Gurney was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2007, Gurney received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award as a master American dramatist.
Gurney's plays often explore the theme of declining upper-class "WASP" (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) life in contemporary America. The Wall Street Journal has called his works "penetratingly witty studies of the WASP ascendancy in retreat." Several of his works are loosely based on his patrician upbringing, including "The Cocktail Hour" and Indian Blood. The New York Times drama critic Frank Rich in his review of “The Dining Room,” wrote, “As a chronicler of contemporary America’s most unfashionable social stratum — upper-middle-class WASPs, this playwright has no current theatrical peer.”
In his 1988 play, "The Cocktail Hour", the lead character tells her playwright son that theater critics "don't like us.... They resent us. They think we're all Republicans, all superficial and all alcoholics. Only the latter is true." The New York Times described the play as witty observations about a nearly extinct patrician class that regards psychiatry as an affront to good manners, underpaid hired help as a birthright.
In an 1989 interview with the New York Times, Gurney said, "Just as it's mentioned in 'The Cocktail Hour,' my great-grandfather hung up his clothes one day and walked into the Niagara River and no one understood why." Gurney added that "he was a distinguished man in Buffalo. My father could never mention it, and it affected the family well into the fourth generation as a dark and unexplainable gesture. It made my father and his father desperate to be accepted, to be conventional, and comfortable. It made them commit themselves to an ostensibly easy bourgeois world. They saw it so precariously, but the reason was never mentioned. I first learned about it after my father died."
Gurney told the Washington Post in 1982:
WASPs do have a culture — traditions, idiosyncrasies, quirks, particular signals and totems we pass on to one another. But the WASP culture, or at least that aspect of the culture I talk about, is enough in the past so that we can now look at it with some objectivity, smile at it, and even appreciate some of its values. There was a closeness of family, a commitment to duty, to stoic responsibility, which I think we have to say weren’t entirely bad.”
Gurney has also written several novels, including:The Snow Ball (1984)
The Gospel According to Joe (1974)
Entertaining Strangers (1977)
Early American (1996)
The House of Mirth (1972)