Edward Albee has had one of the weirdest lives of any famous American writer now living, as we learn in Mel Gussow's new biography of the 71-year-old three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Adopted as an infant by a wealthy couple, Albee grew up in WASP splendor. He was driven to Broadway shows as a child in one of the family's two Rolls-Royces, and every winter the clan decamped from the New York suburb of Larchmont to Palm Beach, traveling to Florida in his grandmother's two private railroad cars hooked to the back of a passenger train.

Lavished with money but emotionally frozen out by his pallid father and "dragon lady" mother, Albee fled the family at 20, spent a decade fumbling around Greenwich Village, and emerged at 30 a full-fledged playwright with 1959's The Zoo Story, an existential encounter between two strangers on a park bench.

Over the next six years, he had four more enormous successes, none greater than the 1962 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the play for which he will always be best known. This remarkable explosion of literary talent -- all the more amazing for being dyspeptic, intellectually challenging, anything but warm and fuzzy -- was followed by nearly 20 years of serious drinking and a string of increasingly mediocre plays. And then, just when it was time for him to die of an overdose or something, Albee zoomed back to prominence in 1994 with Three Tall Women. That play was an astonishingly gracious and poignant character study of the imperious, bigoted mother who insulted his friends, snubbed his lovers, and ultimately disinherited him because he is gay.

Gussow, a longtime New York Times critic, writes on Albee from the inside track -- he first profiled the playwright in 1963, and they were neighbors in the Village for years -- which has its pluses and minuses. While hardly a hagiography, it rarely departs from Albee's view of himself, glossing over the years of decline and drawing a veil of extreme discretion over his love life. Readers learn nearly nothing about Albee's relationship with Terrence McNally, which lasted five years (during the writing and success of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and scarcely more about his nearly-30-year marriage to Jonathan Thomas.

On the other hand, Gussow does provide an unusually frank chapter on Albee's notorious career as a mean drunk. And his section on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a trove of delicious detail that fans of the play will gobble up. Albee's classic portrait of a marriage driven by passionate love-hate is thought by some to pay homage to August Strindberg, by others to be a disguised drama about bitchy queens (a theory Albee has invariably denounced). But who knew that its true influences include New Yorker cartoonist James Thurber and the TV puppet show Kukla, Fran, & Ollie?

The Advocate, September 14, 1999