Phillips was born in Madison, Indiana. After graduating high school Phillips entered Asbury College following which he degreed from College of New Jersey in 1887.
After completing his education, Phillips worked as a newspaper reporter in Cincinnati, Ohio before moving on to New York City where he was employed as a columnist and editor with the New York World until 1902. In his spare time, he wrote a novel, The Great God Success that was published in 1901. The book sold well enough that his royalty income was sufficient enough to allow him to work as a freelance journalist while dedicating himself to writing fiction. Writing articles for various prominent magazines, he began to develop a reputation as a competent investigative journalist. Considered a progressive, Phillips' novels often commented on social issues of the day and frequently chronicled events based on his real-life journalistic experiences.
Phillips wrote an article in Cosmopolitan in April 1906, called "The Treason of the Senate", exposing campaign contributors being rewarded by certain members of the Senate. The story launched a scathing attack on Rhode Island senator Nelson W. Aldrich, and brought Phillips a great deal of national exposure. This and other similar articles led to the creation of the 17th Amendment.
However, Phillips' reputation as a muckraker cost him his life when, in January 1911, he was shot and killed outside the Princeton Club in New York City. His assassin was a deranged musician who believed that Phillips' novel, The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig, had cast literary aspersions on his family. A 1992 novel by Daniel D. Victor, "The Seventh Bullet," imagines an investigation into Phillips' murder by Sherlock Holmes.
Following Phillips' death, his sister Carolyn organized his final manuscript for posthumous publication as Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. In 1931, that book would be made into an MGM motion picture of the same name starring Greta Garbo and Clark Gable.
He is interred in the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
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