Lehman was born Dec. 8, 1915 on Long Island, N.Y. His family was affluent until hit by the Depression. He graduated from the College of the City of New York with a degree that combined chemical engineering and English. He became a freelance writer, and his first sale was a profile of entertainer Ted Lewis to Colliers magazine. Freelancing was, he claimed, a "very nervous way to make a living," so Lehman went to work writing copy for a publicity firm specializing in theatrical productions and celebrities.
That experience later informed 1957's "The Sweet Smell of Success," which he scripted with Clifford Odets based on one of Lehman's novellas, "Tell Me About It Tomorrow." Starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, the movie focused on the relationship between a powerful gossip columnist and an unscrupulous press agent and has come to be considered a classic dissection of the underside of show business. In 2002, it served as the basis for a Broadway musical.