Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born Lawrence Monsanto Ferling on March 24, 1919, in Yonkers, New York.
His father was an Italian immigrant and shortened the family name. Just before Lawrence was born, his father died of a heart attack. Before his second birthday, his mother was committed to a mental institution, leaving him to be raised by an aunt and then foster parents.
After attending Mount Hermon School for Boys, Ferlinghetti was inspired by Thomas Wolfe and his novel "Look Homeward, Angel" to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He graduated with a B.A. in Journalism in 1941, then served in the U.S. Navy in WWII. After the War, he completed a master's degree in English Literature at Columbia University before earning his Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Paris. His master's thesis on the art critic John Ruskin and the artist J.M.W. Turner inspired a lifelong love of painting.
In 1951 Ferlinghetti moved to San Francisco. In 1953 he invested $500, along with business partner Peter D. Martin, in starting City Lights Bookstore in North Beach, and by 1955 he had bought out Martin's share and started a publishing company under the same name. Ferlinghetti began his first series, the Pocket Poet series, with a publication of his own work, Pictures Of the Gone World. The series also included Allen Ginsburg's famous beat work Howl. In 1957 Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing Howl, considered an 'obscene work,' but he was later acquitted in the First Amendment trial.
City Lights Bookstore was the first all-paperback bookshop in the country (the format was not popular at the time). And Ferlinghetti did not consider himself a Beat Poet, although he published many significant works by the pivotal authors in that movement, including Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, and Michael McClure. Ferlinghetti rejected the Beat transient lifestyle, marrying Selden Kirby-Smith in 1951 and having two children Julie and Lorenzo. The couple later divorced.
Another of Ferlinghetti's collections, Coney Island of the Mind, published in 1968, is one of the most successful volumes of poetry ever, selling over a million copies.
In 1998 he was named the first poet laureate of San Francisco.
City Lights Booksellers & Publishers was deemed a historic landmark in 2001.
In 2019 Ferlilnghetti's Little Boy, an experimental novel that is part memoir, was published by Doubleday after two decades of writing. It was published on his 100th birthday, which was named Ferlinghetti Day by the mayor of San Francisco.