Born as Harold Rubin in New York City, he later claimed to be a Jewish orphan who had been raised in a Catholic boys home. In reality he was the son of well-educated Russian and Polish immigrants. He was reared by his pharmacist father and stepmother in Brooklyn. His first wife was his high school sweetheart
His first book, Never Love a Stranger (1948), caused controversy with its graphic sexuality. Publisher Pat Knopf reportedly bought Never Love a Stranger because "it was the first time he had ever read a book where on one page you'd have tears and on the next page you'd have a hard-on".
The Dream Merchants (1949) was about Hollywood's film industry, from the first steps to sound era. Again Robbins blended his own experiences, historical facts, melodrama, sex, and action into a fast-moving story.
He would become arguably the world's bestselling author, publishing over 20 books which were translated into 32 languages and sold over 750 million copies. Among his best-known books is The Carpetbaggers, loosely based on the life of Howard Hughes, taking the reader from New York to California, from the prosperity of the aeronautical industry to the glamor of Hollywood. Its sequel, The Raiders, was released in 1995.
Since his death, several new books have been published, written by ghostwriters and based on Robbins's own notes and unfinished stories. On the last couple of books, Junius Podrug has been credited as cowriter. His often profane style was referred to in the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where Kirk cites his work to explain how people in the 20th century talk.
Robbins was married three times.
From 1982 he used a wheelchair because of hip trouble, but continued writing. He spent a great deal of time on the French Riviera and Monte Carlo until his death on October 14, 1997 from respiratory heart failure at the age of 81.
Harold Robbins has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6743 Hollywood Boulevard.