Lowry was born in New Brighton, Wirral, UK the fourth son of Evelyn Boden and Arthur Lowry, a cotton broker with roots in Cumberland. He was educated at The Leys School in Cambridge (the school made famous by the novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips) and St Catharine's College, Cambridge. In 1912, the family moved to Caldy on another part of the Wirral peninsula. Their home was mock Tudor estate on two acres with a tennis court, small golf course and a maid, a cook and a nanny. Lowry was said to have felt neglected by his mother, and was closest to his brother. He began drinking alcohol at the age of 14.
At age 15 Lowry won the junior golf championship at the famed Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Hoylake. His father expected him to go to Cambridge and enter the family business, but Malcolm wanted to experience the world and convinced his father to let him work as a deckhand on a tramp steamer to the Far East. In May 1927 his parents drove him to the Liverpool waterfront and, while the local press watched, waved goodbye as he set sail on the freighter S.S. Pyrrhus. The five months at sea gave him stories to incorporate into his first novel, Ultramarine.
In autumn 1929 he enrolled at Cambridge to placate his parents. He spent little time at the university, but excelled in writing, graduating in 1931 with a 3rd class honours degree in English. During his first term, his roommate, Paul Fitte, committed suicide. Fitte had wanted a homosexual relationship which Lowry refused. Lowry felt responsible for his death and was haunted by it for the rest of his life.
The twin obsessions which would dominate his life, alcohol and literature, were firmly in place. Lowry was already well travelled; besides his sailing experience, between terms he made visits to America (to befriend his literary idol Conrad Aiken) and Germany.
After Cambridge, Lowry lived briefly in London, existing on the fringes of the vibrant Thirties literary scene and meeting Dylan Thomas, among others. He met his first wife, Jan Gabriel, in Spain. They were married in France in 1934. Theirs was a turbulent union, especially due to his drinking, and because she resented homosexuals' attraction to her husband.
After an estrangement, Lowry followed Jan to New York City where, almost incoherent after an alcohol-induced breakdown, he checked into Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in 1936 — experiences which later became the basis of his novella Lunar Caustic. When the authorities began to take notice of him, he fled to avoid deportation, and then went to Hollywood, where he tried screenwriting. At about that time he began writing Under the Volcano. Lowry and Jan moved to Mexico, arriving in the city of Cuernavaca on 2 November 1936, the Day of the Dead, in a final attempt to salvage their marriage. Lowry continued to drink heavily though he also devoted more energy to his writing.
The effort to save their marriage failed. Jan saw that he wanted a mother figure, and she did not want to mother him. She then ran off with another man in late 1937. Alone in Oaxaca, Lowry entered into another period of dark alcoholic excess, culminating in his deportation from Mexico in the summer of 1938. His family put him in the Hotel Normandie in Los Angeles; his father's cheques went directly to the hotel manager. He continued working on his novel, and met his second wife, the actress and writer Margerie Bonner.
In August Lowry moved to Vancouver, Canada, leaving his manuscript behind. Later, Margerie moved up to Vancouver, bringing his manuscript, and the following year they got married. At first, they lived in an attic apartment in the city. When World War II broke out, Lowry tried to enlist but was rejected. Correspondence between Lowry and Canada's Governor-General Lord Tweedsmuir (who was known as the writer John Buchan) during this time resulted in Lowry's writing several articles for the Vancouver Province newspaper. The couple lived and wrote in a squatter's shack on the beach near Dollarton in British Columbia, north of Vancouver. In 1944, the beach shack was destroyed by a fire, and Lowry was injured in his efforts to save manuscripts. Margerie was an entirely positive influence, editing Lowry's work skillfully and making sure that he ate as well as drank (she drank, too). The couple travelled to Europe, America and the Caribbean, and while Lowry continued to drink heavily, this seems to have been a relatively peaceful and productive period. It lasted until 1954, when a final nomadic period ensued, embracing New York, London and other places. During their travels to Europe, Lowry twice attempted to strangle Margerie.
Lowry died in June 1957, in a rented cottage in the village of Ripe, Sussex, where he was living with wife Margerie after having returned to England in 1955, ill and impoverished. The coroner's verdict was death by misadventure, and the causes of death given as inhalation of stomach contents, barbiturate poisoning, and excessive consumption of alcohol.
It has been suggested that his death was a suicide. Inconsistencies in the accounts given by his wife at various times about what happened at the night of his death have also given rise to suspicions of murder.
Lowry is buried in the churchyard of St John the Baptist in Ripe. Lowry reputedly wrote his own epitaph: "Here lies Malcolm Lowry, late of the Bowery, whose prose was flowery, and often glowery. He lived nightly, and drank daily, and died playing the ukulele," but the epitaph does not appear on his gravestone.
Lowry published little during his lifetime, in comparison with the extensive collection of unfinished manuscripts he left. Of his two novels, Under the Volcano (1947) is now widely accepted as his masterpiece and one of the great works of the 20th century (number 11 on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th century). It exemplifies Lowry's method as a writer, which involved drawing heavily upon the autobiographical material and imbuing it with complex and allusive layers of symbolism. Under the Volcano depicts a series of complex and unwillingly destructive relationships and is set against a rich evocation of Mexico.
Ultramarine (1933), written while Lowry was still an undergraduate, follows a young man's first sea voyage and his determination to gain the crew's acceptance.
A collection of short stories, Hear Us, O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961), was published after Lowry's death. The scholar and poet Earle Birney edited Selected Poems of Malcolm Lowry (1962). He also collaborated with Lowry's widow in editing the novella Lunar Caustic (1968) for re-publication. It is a conflation of several earlier pieces concerned with Bellevue Hospital, which Lowry was in the process of rewriting as a complete novel. With Douglas Day, Lowry's first biographer, Lowry's widow also completed and edited the novels Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend Is Laid (1968) and October Ferry to Gabriola (1970) from Lowry's manuscripts.
The Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, edited by his widow and Harvey Breit, was released in 1965, followed in 1995-6 by the two-volume Sursam Corda! The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, edited by Sherrill E. Grace. Scholarly editions of Lowry's final work in progress, La Mordida, and his screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night have also been published.
Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry (1976) is an Oscar-nominated National Film Board of Canada documentary directed by Donald Brittain and John Kramer. It opens with the inquest into Lowry's "death by misadventure", and then moves back in time to trace the writer's life. Selections from Lowry's novel are read by Richard Burton amid images shot in Mexico, the United States, Canada and England.
In 2001, Lowry's first wife Jan Gabrial revealed in her memoir that she had an early draft of Lowry's novel In Ballast to the White Sea, which was thought to have been lost. According to Professor Dean Irvine at Dalhousie University, Lowry had given an early copy of the novel to Gabrial’s mother before the couple went to Mexico in 1936. Lowry's working copy of the manuscript was then lost in a fire. In October 2014 it was published for the first time by University of Ottawa Press and a launch was held at the Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool.Ultramarine (1933), published by Jonathan Cape
Under the Volcano (1947), made into a film by John Huston in 1984
Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961)
Selected Poems of Malcolm Lowry (1962)
Lunar Caustic (1968)
Dark as the Grave wherein my Friend is Laid (1968)
October Ferry to Gabriola (1970)
The Cinema of Malcolm Lowry: A Scholarly Edition of Malcolm Lowry's "Tender is the Night" edited by Miquel Mota & Paul Tiessen (1990)
The 1940 Under The Volcano (1994)
La Mordida edited by Patrick A. McCarthy (1996)
In Ballast to the White Sea (2014), Edited by Patrick A. McCarthy, Notes by Chris Ackerley, Foreword by Vik Doyen, University of Ottawa Press, ISBN 978-0-7766-2208-8
Selected Poems of Malcolm Lowry -City Lights Publishers (2017) ISBN 9780872867291