Born in Norwalk, Connecticut, he graduated from Harvard University in 1942. He fought in World War II, serving in the United States Coast Guard, commanding a naval trawler on the Greenland patrol and an army supply ship in the Pacific Ocean.
After the war, Wilson worked as a reporter for Time-Life. His first book, Voyage to Somewhere, was published in 1947 and drew on his wartime experiences. He also published stories in The New Yorker, and worked as a college professor at University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.
Wilson wrote fifteen books, including The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and A Summer Place (1958), both of which were adapted into motion pictures. His novel The Ice Brothers is loosely based on his experiences in Greenland while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard.
One of Wilson's books, Ice Brothers, was used to conceal a bomb by the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynksi. On June 10, 1980 the president of United Airlines, Percy Wood, received a parcel in the mail at his home in Lake Forest near Chicago, Illinois. Inside was a copy of Ice Brothers. When he opened the book a bomb concealed inside exploded severely injuring him.
The Ice Brothers bomb was the first bomb from the Unabomber to carry the initials FC, which was later determined to mean Freedom Club.