Helen Yglesias, née Bassine, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of seven children in an impoverished Jewish family. Her parents Solomon Bassine and his wife Kate were emigrants from Poland. She wrote her first novel as a teenager, but it was never published. After graduating from James Monroe High School at age 16, she worked at a series of dull jobs, including selling underwear, stuffing envelopes, teaching ballroom dancing, and typing. In her free time, she avidly read books from the public library. An older brother paid her way for a trip to Palestine and Europe, where she was introduced to the works of D.H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, and Marcel Proust. In 1937, she married Bernard Cole, with whom she had two children. Having become a member of the Young Communist League, she began contributing books reviews to The Daily Worker and helped edit the cultural section for a while. In 1950, she and Cole divorced, and that year she remarried to José Yglesias, with whom she had another child. By 1965, she had joined the staff of The Nation and rose to become its literary editor. She left her job at age 54 to become a full-time writer. She published the first of her five novels, How She Died, in 1972. The others were Sweetsir (1981), her best-known work; Family Feeling (1976); The Saviors (1987); and The Girls (1999). She also published a memoir called Starting Early, Anew, Over, and Late (1978).