Drury was born on September 2, 1918 in Houston, Texas, to Alden Monteith Drury (1895-1975), a citrus industry manager, real estate broker, and insurance agent, and Flora Allen (1894-1973), a legislative representative for the California Parent-Teacher Association. The family moved to Whittier, California, where Alden and Flora had a daughter, Anne Elizabeth (1924-1998.) Drury was a direct descendant of Hugh Drury (1616-1689) and Lydia Rice (1627-1675), daughter of Edmund Rice (1594-1663), all of whom were early immigrants to Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Allen Stuart Drury grew up in Porterville, California, and earned his B.A. at Stanford University, where he joined Alpha Kappa Lambda, in 1939. He told Writer's Yearbook that he was "associate editor, wrote a column, and editorials." His last series of novels, written shortly before he died, were inspired by his experiences at Stanford. After graduating from Stanford, Drury went to work for the Tulare Bee in Porterville in 1940, where he won the Sigma Delta Chi Award for editorial writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He then moved to Bakersfield and wrote for the Bakersfield Californian, where he "handled what they called county news." Drury enlisted in the U.S. Army on July 25, 1942, in Los Angeles and trained as an infantry soldier, but was discharged "because of an old back injury."
In 1943, Drury moved to Washington. "I went East and wound up in Washington, which fascinated me, and I thought I would get a job for about a year for experience before coming back to the coast. I came back twenty years later, finally."
From 1943-45, Drury worked as the United States Senate correspondent for United Press which, as he wrote, gave him the opportunity "to be of some slight assistance in making my fellow countrymen better acquainted with their Congress and particularly their Senate." He worked as a reporter, but also kept a journal in which he recorded the events of Congress as well as his impressions and views of individual senators and the Senate itself. Drury's journal followed the career of Harry S. Truman from junior senator to President of the United States, and also covered "President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his contentious relations with the Senate." The journal was published in 1963 as A Senate Journal 1943-45 after Drury had experienced great success with his 1959 novel Advise and Consent.
After leaving United Press, he free-lanced for a year, writing a column for local papers in the West. "This venture lasted about a year and did not succeed, as it does not for many people." He then moved to Pathfinder Magazine, a general news magazine. From there, he moved to the Washington Evening Star, where he gained a reputation for the quality of his writing. Various pieces from this period were collected in a volume entitled Three Kids in a Cart.
In 1954 James Reston, the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, hired Drury. Russell Baker, hired at about the same time, recalled the circumstances in a remembrance published after Drury's death:
He had a reputation as an elegant writer when he came to the paper. Scotty Reston was then trying to persuade The Times to write plain English, and it was assumed that Allen was brought in to promote this campaign ... He tried. The results depressed him. In those days plain English was under suspicion at The Times. Many stories read as if written by a Henry James imitator with a bad hangover. Incomprehensible English was accepted as evidence of the honest, if inarticulate, reporter; plain English bothered people.
In his spare time, Drury wrote the novel which would become 1959's Advise and Consent. Drury later wrote a memorandum for his archives at the Hoover Institution in which he gives a full account of how the book came to be written and published. Baker was one of the first people to read the manuscript and describes his initial reluctance and then reaction:
What lies I would be compelled to tell poor Allen ... The box weighed slightly less than a ton. The manuscript inside was typed not very well on long, legal-size paper. I took it home, ate, fixed a drink, sat down and with a heavy heart reached into the box for a fistful of manuscript. Good Lord! You couldn't put the thing down! I read half the book that night and finished it next day. My wife finished close behind, and the sight of her suppressing a tear at one point confirmed my hunch.
The novel uses several incidents from Drury's fifteen years in Washington as pegs for the story, about a controversial nominee for Secretary of State. Addressing the suggestion that the book was a roman à clef, Drury wrote a very sharply worded preface which was only published in the new edition:
You will have to take the writer's word for it, because it is true. There are people and events in this book as in any that are akin to people and events in reality, but they are not the people and events of reality. Such resemblances as they do bear are transmuted through the observations and perceptions and understandings of the author into something far beyond and basically far different from the originals in the cases where originals can be argued to exist.
The novel spent 102 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1960. It was adapted into a well-received Broadway play by Loring Mandel, who is known for a highly successful career writing for television. Otto Preminger directed an acclaimed 1962 film starring Henry Fonda. In 2009, Scott Simon of NPR wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "Fifty years after its publication and astounding success ... Allen Drury's novel remains the definitive Washington tale." When it was republished, ABC News White House correspondent Jonathan Karl wrote for The Wall Street Journal that it offers "a compelling portrait of American social and political history and even today is well worth reading."
With the success of Advise and Consent, Drury left The New York Times. He became a political correspondent for Reader's Digest, but wrote very little for it. From then on, his only major publications were his books. He followed Advise and Consent with several sequels. A Shade of Difference (1962) is set a year after Advise and Consent, and uses the United Nations as a backdrop for portraying racial tensions in the American South and in Africa. Drury then turned his attention to the next presidential election after those events with Capable of Honor (1966) and Preserve and Protect (1968). Preserve and Protect had a cliffhanger ending—an assassination in which the victim is not identified. He then wrote two alternative finales based on two different outcomes of the assassination: Come Nineveh, Come Tyre (1973) and The Promise of Joy (1975). The last two books are set in the middle of a full international crisis.
In 1971, Drury published The Throne of Saturn, a political/science fiction novel about the first attempt at sending a manned mission to Mars in competition with a similar Soviet effort. With the historical novel A God Against the Gods (1976) and its sequel Return to Thebes, Drury explored the reign and fall of Pharaoh Akhenaten of ancient Egypt. The novels are based on extensive reading about the Amarna Period and, in the introduction to A God Against the Gods, he thanks at length the greatest Egyptologist of the time, Cyril Aldred, for his guidance on research. He disagreed with Aldred's view that Akhenaten's religious innovations were accepted by the supplanted religious authorities. Drury wrote, "I am afraid my own view, conditioned by some years as a political correspondent, is much more cynical concerning the lengths to which human beings, of whatever era, will go in order to get, and keep, power."
After the Egypt novels, Drury returned to Washington in a succession of novels that were only tenuously related. Anna Hastings (1977) is more a novel about journalism than politics. He returned to the Senate in 1979 with Mark Coffin, U.S.S., which was followed by the two-part The Hill of Summer (1981) and The Roads of Earth (1984), though the four books are not a series. Drury also wrote stand-alone novels, Decision (1983) about the Supreme Court, and Pentagon (1986) and A Thing of State (1995) about the State Department. His career ended with the trilogy of books following the lives of fictional members of his Stanford graduating class: Toward What Bright Glory? (1994), Into What Far Harbor?(1997), and Public Men (1998). John J. Miller wrote that readers are "able to mark through Washington's major institutions with Drury and his novels ... Television producers who want to develop a show to compete with Netflix's House of Cards would do well to look to Drury."
Advise and Consent was out of print for almost 15 years and it ranked #27 on the 2013 BookFinder.com list of the Top 100 Most Searched for Out of Print Books before WordFire Press reissued it in paperback and e-book format in February 2014. The WordFire edition includes never-before-published essays about the book written by Drury himself, new appendices, and remembrances by Drury's heirs and literary executors Kenneth and Kevin Killiany. WordFire also released Advise and Consent's five sequels, and other novels. WordFire is projected to ultimately bring out about 20 of Drury's novels.
Drury lived in Tiburon, California from 1964 until his 1998 death by cardiac arrest. Drury had completed his 20th novel, Public Men, just two weeks before his death. He died on September 2, 1998 at St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco, California on his eightieth birthday. Drury was never married.
In Advise and Consent, Drury dealt with the youthful homosexual affair of Sen. Brig Anderson. The story is similar to the case of Sen. Lester Hunt, a Democrat from Wyoming, whose son was arrested for soliciting sex in a park in DC. Opponents of Hunt threatened to go "door to door" telling people in Wyoming, which drove Hunt to commit suicide. As Frank Rich noted in the New York Times, "The senator's gay affair, (Drury) wrote, was "purely personal and harmed no one else." As the historian David K. Johnson observes in "The Lavender Scare," his 2004 account of Washington's anti-gay witch hunts during the cold war era, it's the gay-baiters in Drury's novel who "are the unprincipled menace to the country, using every available tool for partisan advantage." When his wife asks him how he could do "such a horrible thing," Anderson tells his wife, "It didn't seem horrible at the time...and I am not going to say now that it did, even to you." One of the last memories Anderson has as he puts a gun to his head is the beach where he met his lover long before.
Although gay characters are not common in Drury's books, when they appear, they are almost always portrayed sympathetically, and he highlights their plight in a society that would not accept them. In The Throne of Saturn, which deals with the first, years-long manned flight to Mars, one of the proposed crew members is known throughout "the Program" for being gay. The mission commander and his wife discuss openly the ramifications of having another crew member who has always had strong feelings for the commander. The gay character dies when the mission meets Soviet counterparts on the Moon. As he is dying, he openly confesses his love to the commander.
Drury returned to the theme in a major way in his University series. In the first volume, Toward What Bright Glory?, dealing with members of a fraternity at an unnamed university (though it is clearly Stanford) during the war, there are two gay characters. One gets arrested in a men's room on campus and comes close to despair, but the main character, Willie Wilson, and another member help him get through it. Another is deeply in love with the Wilson's younger brother. In the second volume, Into What Far Harbor?, North McAllister, who had been in love with Wilson's brother, recounts that they encouraged him to get married to a girl he seems genuinely interested in. "It was, they told him on the eve of graduation, the only way out." Although he is happy with his wife, he leads a very carefully arranged double life. Then he falls in love with another man, and the situation is agonizing.
The final volume, Public Men, Wilson is a highly successful centrist politician whose politics fit the description of the classic Cold War Liberal. He is uninterested in any questions of sexual morality. During his long anticipated run for the Presidency, the press finds out that his emotionally delicate younger son, Amos, has been living with another man in New York City. The two younger men try to hide in Canada, but the press hounds them. Major newspapers use the pretense of covering the furor caused by the tabloid press to fan the flames. The two gay members of the fraternity call Wilson to offer their support, but the younger people cannot stand the pressure. Amos and his lover drive to a hotel in a remote part of Idaho and kill themselves. Wilson tries to continue, but his wife's jealous ex-husband threatens violence, so he withdraws.
At the final class reunion at the end of the novel, the two gay characters meet in the University's famed church and discuss how they have accommodated their marriages with their sexual desires over the sixty years since they were in school together. "I think we've done pretty well with our lives, all things considered. We've never shouted, we've never demonstrated, we've never done big, dramatic things. We've just lived quiet, steady, productive, responsible lives." Wilson finds them there and tells them that he was glad they had been friends for so many years.
In Mark Coffin USS, a minor but pivotal character, a henchman of an opponent, is controlled by his boss by threats of revealing his homosexuality.
Drury's two Egypt novels focus on the Pharaoh Akhenaten and the changes he brought to Egyptian religion. Drury says in his introduction that he was portraying things as they obviously were, including the fact that Akhenaten elevated his own much younger brother Smenkhara (Smenkhare) as Co-regent and had depictions made in poses which, one character says, were "more than brotherly." (The relationship is heavily disputed, but its historicity was strongly supported by Cyril Aldred in his book, Akhenaten, Pharaoh of Egypt, and Drury attests to his dependence on Aldred's work in his introduction.) Akhenaten's love for his brother is shown in the context of how he wished to totally change Egyptian society. In the novels, this becomes a monomania. The High Priest of Amon, the god who had previously been most exalted, mentions the relationship among many other things that upset the normal balance of Egyptian life, as he considers his plan to kill Akhenaten and his brother.
Further, even traditional Egyptian society at the time had many customs that most modern societies would find shocking, such as intermarriage with close family members. Drury has rulers routinely killing slaves and servants to secure secrets, and these actions are portrayed without judgement. In the novel, Akhenaten even fumes that some of his unusual actions are "in our house's history." Drury's periodically has a character say, "as is our custom," to make it clear that the characters would not be surprised.
The public is shocked by the public portrayals of brotherly incest, but mainly concerned about changes to their religion. A modest villager comments how the affairs of the royal family do not concern his life, and then, with the change in religion, they begin to. Ultimately, that character gets sucked up into the fights within the House of Thebes, the ruling family. Many characters wonder why all the infighting and strange doings can't be kept private, including Akhenaten's fathering three daughters by his own three daughters.