Lindsay was born in New York City on West End Avenue to George Nelson Lindsay and the former Florence Eleanor Vliet. Contrary to popular assumptions, John Lindsay was neither a blue-blood nor very wealthy by birth, although he did grow up in an upper middle class family of English and Dutch extraction. Lindsay's paternal grandfather migrated to the United States in the 1880s from the Isle of Wight, and his mother was from an upper-middle class family that had been in New York since the 1660s. John's father was a successful lawyer and investment banker, and was able to send his son to the prestigious Buckley School, St. Paul's School and Yale, where he was admitted to the class of 1944 and inducted into the secret society, Scroll and Key.
With the outbreak of World War II, Lindsay completed his studies early and joined the United States Navy in 1943 as a gunnery officer. He obtained the rank of lieutenant, earning five battle stars through action in the invasion of Sicily and a series of landings in the Pacific theaters. After the war, he returned to Yale and received his law degree in 1948. He was admitted to the bar in 1949 and rose to became a partner in his law firm four years later. He also gravitated toward politics, serving as one of the founders of the Youth for Eisenhower club in 1951 and as president of the New York Young Republican club in 1952.
Elected to Congress as a Republican from the "Silk Stocking" district in 1958, Lindsay established a liberal voting record, in light of his advocacy of civil rights legislation and various federally-funded social programs. Also known for his wit, when asked by his party leaders why he opposed legislation to combat communism and pornography, he replied they were the major industries of his district and if they were suppressed then "the 17th district would be a depressed area".
As New Yorkers endured the transit strike, Lindsay remarked, "I still think it's a fun city," and walked four miles (6 km) from his hotel room to City Hall in a gesture to show it. Dick Schaap, then a columnist for The New York Herald Tribune, coined and popularized the sarcastic term in an article titled Fun City. In the article, Schaap sardonicly pointed out that it wasn't. The term continued to carry with it a derisive tone as the city became more dangerous and corporate headquarters began moving to suburban locations in Westchester County and Fairfield County.
The settlement of the strike, combined with increased welfare costs and general economic decline, forced Lindsay to push through the New York state legislature in 1966 a municipal income tax hike and higher water rates for city residents, plus a new commuter tax for people who worked in the city but resided elsewhere. By 1970, New Yorkers were paying $384 per person in taxes, the highest in the nation. In contrast, the average Chicago resident paid $244 per person.
The transit strike was the first of many labor struggles. In 1968 the teachers' union (the United Federation of Teachers (UFT)) went on strike over the firings of several teachers in a school in the neighborhood of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. . Demanding the reinstatement of the dismissed teachers, the four-month battle became a symbol of the chaos of New York City and the city's difficulty to deliver a functioning school system. The strike was tinged with racial and anti-Semitic overtones, pitting Black and Puerto Rican parents against Jewish teachers and supervisors. Many thought the mayor had made a bad situation worse by taking sides against the teachers
That same year, 1968, also saw a week-long sanitation strike. Quality of life in New York reached a nadir during this strike, as ten-foot tall mountains of garbage grew on the city's sidewalks. There was also a "sickout" by patrol officers in the same year and a full scale "wildcat" walkout in 1971.
The summer of 1970 ushered in another devastating strike, as over 8,000 workers belonging to AFSCME District Council 37 walked off their jobs for two days. The strikers included workers on the city's drawbridges and sewer plants. Drawbridges over the Harlem River were locked in the "up" position, barring transit by automobile, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage flowed into area waterways.
Lindsay's position in the Republican Party grew increasingly tenuous over time. He had nominated Spiro Agnew (then seen as something of a Maryland "moderate") for Vice President in 1968 at the GOP Convention, which met in Miami Beach. Lindsay soon opposed Nixon's policies. In 1969, a backlash against Lindsay caused him to lose the Republican mayoral primary to state Senator John J. Marchi, who was enthusiastically supported by Buckley and the party conservatives. In the Democratic primary, the most conservative candidate, City Controller Mario Procaccino, defeated several more liberal contenders and won the nomination with only a plurality of the votes. "The more the Mario," he quipped.
Despite not having the Republican nomination, Lindsay was still on the ballot as the candidate of the New York Liberal Party. In his campaign he said "mistakes were made" and called being mayor of New York "the second toughest job in America". While losing white ethnic, working-class voters, Lindsay was able to win with support from three distinct groups. First were the city's minorities, mostly African American and Puerto Rican, who were concentrated in Harlem, the South Bronx and various Brooklyn neighborhoods including Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville. Second were the white, educated and economically secure residents of certain areas of Manhattan. Third were those whites in the outer boroughs with a similar educational background and "cosmopolitan" attitude, namely residents of solidly middle-class neighborhoods such as Forest Hills and Kew Gardens in Queens and Brooklyn Heights. This third category included many traditionally Democratic Jewish Americans, who had been put off by Procaccino's conservatism. Lindsay re-entered City Hall, however, in a politically weakened position, neither aligned with Democrats or Republicans, nor having support from the majority of the electorate.
Lindsay left office in 1973, having declined to seek a third term as mayor, which was then permitted. His critics have argued that mistakes he made played a large part in causing the city's fiscal problems in the 1970s; Lindsay had allowed one in seven New Yorkers to work for the city, with almost as high a proportion receiving welfare; he was perceived as too sympathetic to organized labor, and he had borrowed for operating expenses. The bargains Lindsay made with the unions later contributed to the fiscal crisis of Beame's administration. To secure their political support, Lindsay offered unions large raises — the transit workers managed an 18 percent salary increase, an extra week of vacation and fully paid pensions; District Council 37 got a raise and retirement after twenty years; the teachers received increases of 22 to 37 percent.
In a Gallup poll conducted in 1972, six of ten citizens felt Lindsay's government was working poorly, nine of one hundred thought it was good, and not one person thought it was excellent
In his critical biography The Ungovernable City, Vincent J. Cannato argued that Lindsay was the wrong man for the job of mayor, as he was more concerned with solving the enormous social problems of NYC's poor instead of delivering basic services. Nevertheless, Lindsay's concern for racial minorities and the poor in New York helped guide the nation's largest city through the years of the "long hot summers" between 1965 and 1969 and averted massive, violent unrest, a significant accomplishment.
Years after Lindsay was out of office, his budget aide Peter Goldmark would admit that his administration's basic problem was this: "We all failed to come to grips with what a neighborhood is. We never realized that crime is something that happens to, and in, a community." Assistant Nancy Seifer said "There was a whole world out there that nobody in City Hall knew anything about. . . If you didn't live on Central Park West, you were some kind of lesser being."
According to a Pat Buchanan column on April 15, 2008, Frank Mankiewicz, a former press secretary to the late U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, described Lindsay as "the only populist who played squash every day at the Yale Club.
After the folding of several law firms for which he had worked, including Webster & Sheffield, Lindsay in the 1990s was left in failing health and without health insurance. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani appointed Lindsay to several largely ceremonial posts as a way to qualify him for municipal health insurance.
In 2000, he died at the age of seventy-nine of complications from pneumonia and Parkinson's disease, in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where he and his wife, the former Mary Harrison (October 30, 1926 – March 9, 2004), had moved the previous year. The couple had married on June 18, 1949. In addition to Mary, Lindsay was survived by their son, John V. Lindsay, Jr.; three daughters, Katharine Lake, Margaret Picotte and Anne Lindsay; two sons-in-law, Stephen Lake and Michael Picotte; a brother, Robert V. Lindsay; and grandchildren Jessica and Stephanie Lake and Nicole, Joseph and Michelle Picotte. Memorial services were held on January 26, 2001, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Lindsay was Episcopalian. Memorial contributions were requested to the John V. Lindsay Fund, Lincoln Center Theater. For many years, Lindsay was a Lincoln Center trustee.
In 2001, the East River Park was renamed John V. Lindsay/East River Park in his memory. He is featured on a poster picture with Governor Rockefeller at the groundbreaking of the former World Trade Center in the city history section of the Museum of the City of New York at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.