Born in Linden, a part of Malden, Massachusetts, Elliot Paul graduated from Malden High School then worked in the U.S. West on the government Reclamation projects for several years until 1914 when he returned home and took a job as a reporter covering legislative events at the State House in Boston. In 1917, he joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War I. Paul served in France where he fought in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Following the war's end, he returned home and to a job as a journalist. At this time, he began writing books, inspired in part by his military experiences.
By 1925 Elliot Paul had already seen three of his novels published when he left America to join many of his literary compatriots in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris, France. There, he worked for a time at the International Herald Tribune before joining Eugene and Maria Jolas as co-editor of the literary journal, transition. A friend of both James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, Paul defied Ernest Hemingway's maxim that "if you mentioned Joyce twice to Stein, you were dead." Paul was a great enthusiast of Stein's work, equating its "feeling for a continuous present" with jazz.
Paul left the fledgling journal after little more than a year to return to the newspaper business and to write more novels in his spare time. He had completed three more books when he suffered from a nervous breakdown and abruptly left Paris to recuperate in the Spanish village of Santa Eulalia on the island of Ibiza. With virtually no one in the literary community knowing where he was, in her 1933 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein muses over his "disappearance."
Caught in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, he was inspired to write the well received The Life and Death of a Spanish Town. Forced to flee Spain, he returned to Paris produced detective fiction featuring the amateur sleuth Homer Evans, as well as crafting what is considered as one of his best works, The Last Time I Saw Paris.
Back in the United States following the outbreak of World War II, Elliot Paul turned to screenwriting where in Hollywood, between 1941 and 1953, he participated in the writing of ten screenplays, the most remembered of which is the 1945 production, Rhapsody in Blue; he also wrote the screenplay for the Poverty Row production of New Orleans, a fictional history of Storeyville jazz featuring Billie Holiday in her only acting role. He also contributed to London Town (1946), one of the most infamous flops in British cinema history.
Contemptuous of the censorship imposed on the studios by the Hays Code, Paul mocked Hollywood's hypocritical puritanism in his satiric book from 1942, With a Hays Nonny Nonny , where he reworked Bible stories so that they complied with the Code. The Book of Esther , for example, becomes a vehicle for Don Ameche, with Groucho Marx as Mordecai.
A talented pianist, he frequently supplemented his income by playing at local clubs in the Los Angeles area.
Married and divorced five times, Paul had one son. He died in 1958 at the Veterans' Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.