Early life and family
Burroughs was born on September 1, 1875, in Chicago, Illinois (he later lived for many years in the suburb of Oak Park), the fourth son of Major George Tyler Burroughs (1833–1913), a businessman and Civil War veteran, and his wife, Mary Evaline (Zieger) Burroughs (1840–1920). His middle name is from his paternal grandmother, Mary Coleman Rice Burroughs (1802-1889). He was of almost entirely English ancestry, with a family line that had been in North America since the Colonial era.
Through his Rice grandmother, Burroughs was descended from settler Edmund Rice, one of the English Puritans who moved to Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 17th Century. He once remarked, "I can trace my ancestry back to Deacon Edmund Rice." The Burroughs side of the family was also of English origin and also emigrated to Massachusetts around the same time. Many of his ancestors fought in the American Revolution. Some of his ancestors settled in Virginia during the colonial period, and Burroughs often emphasized his connection with that side of his family, seeing it as romantic and warlike, and, in fact, could have counted among his close cousins no less than seven signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, including his third cousin, four times removed, 2nd President of the United States John Adams.
Burroughs was educated at a number of local schools. He then attended Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts, and then the Michigan Military Academy. Graduating in 1895, and failing the entrance exam for the United States Military Academy at West Point, he became an enlisted soldier with the 7th U.S. Cavalry in Fort Grant, Arizona Territory. After being diagnosed with a heart problem and thus ineligible to serve, he was discharged in 1897.
, showing Tarzan holding the planet Mars, surrounded by other characters from his stories and symbols relating to his personal interests and career
Typescript letter, with Tarzana Ranch letterhead, from Burroughs to Ruthven Deane
, explaining the design and significance of his bookplate
After his discharge Burroughs worked a number of different jobs. During the Chicago influenza epidemic of 1891, he spent half a year at his brother's ranch on the Raft River in Idaho, as a cowboy, drifted somewhat afterward, then worked at his father's Chicago battery factory in 1899, marrying his childhood sweetheart, Emma Hulbert (1876–1944), in January 1900.
In 1903, Burroughs joined his brothers, Yale graduates George and Harry, who were, by then, prominent Pocatello area ranchers in southern Idaho, and partners in the Sweetser-Burroughs Mining Company, where he took on managing their ill-fated Snake River gold dredge, a classic bucket-line dredge. The Burroughs brothers were also the sixth cousins, once removed, of famed miner Kate Rice, a brilliant and statuesque Maths professor who, in 1914, became the first female prospector in the Canadian North. Journalist and publisher C. Allen Thorndike Rice was also his third cousin.
When the new mine proved unsuccessful, the brothers secured for Burroughs a position with the Oregon Short Line Railroad in Salt Lake City. Burroughs resigned from the railroad in October 1904.
By 1911, after seven years of low wages as a pencil-sharpener wholesaler; Burroughs began to write fiction. By this time, Emma and he had two children, Joan (1908–1972), and Hulbert (1909–1991). During this period, he had copious spare time and began reading pulp-fiction magazines. In 1929, he recalled thinking that
...if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines.
In 1913, Burroughs and Emma had their third and last child, John Coleman Burroughs (1913–1979), later known for his illustrations of his father's books.
In the 1920s, Burroughs became a pilot, purchased a Security Airster S-1, and encouraged his family to learn to fly.
Daughter Joan married Tarzan film actor, James Pierce, starring with her husband, as the voice of Jane, during 1932-34 for the Tarzan radio series. The pair were wed for more than forty years, until her death, in 1972.
Burroughs divorced Emma in 1934 and, in 1935, married the former actress Florence Gilbert Dearholt, who was the former wife of his friend (who was then remarrying himself), Ashton Dearholt, with whom he had co-founded Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises while filming The New Adventures of Tarzan. Burroughs adopted the Dearholts' two children. He and Florence divorced in 1942.
Burroughs was in his late 60s and was in Honolulu at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite his age, he applied for and received permission to become a war correspondent, becoming one of the oldest U.S. war correspondents during World War II. This period of his life is mentioned in William Brinkley's bestselling novel Don't Go Near the Water.
After the war ended, Burroughs moved back to Encino, California, where after many health problems, he died of a heart attack on March 19, 1950, having written almost 80 novels. He is buried at Tarzana, California, US.
When he died, he was believed to have been the writer who had made the most from films, earning over $2 million in royalties from 27 Tarzan pictures.
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame inducted Burroughs in 2003.