Ira Wolfert was born in New York City on November 1, 1908, the son of Moses Wolfert and the former Sophie Seidl. He attended public school in New York and worked as a copy boy on a newspaper in his mid-teens. He married poet Helen Herschdorfer in 1928, and drove a cab and served as a trolley motorman to pay his way through the Columbia School of Journalism, graduating in 1930. He worked as a journalist, in New York and later in Berlin, writing for the New York Post. Wolfert witnessed the rise of the Nazis and eventually returned to New York, where he went to work for the North American Newspaper Alliance as a drama critic and columnist, covering Broadway and the theater beat of the period, with occasional sports and celebrity interviews. Wolfert lucked out as a reporter when, by chance, he was the only journalist present for Fighting French expedition to the islands of St. Pierre and Miquenon. Back on his sports beat when in 1942, he was assigned to cover the American campaign in the Solomon Islands, and he turned in copy while traveling with the navy that was inspiring and vivid. One day, seeing an exchange between signalmen on two ships, Wolfert inquired as to whether there was news of the siege of Stalingrad; discovering that they men were passing along World Series scores and that the Yankees were winning, he asked about Stalingrad and got a semaphore signal back, "The Russians are doing okay, too!"
Wolfert benefited from his past as a sports writer, which gave him more credibility with the Marines on Gaudalcanal than he would have had as a Pulitzer-winning correspondent. He wrote some of the best journalism to come out of the war and the Pacific theater, and generated a book on the Solomon campaign. Wolfert also engendered controversy by defending the wage demands of civilian defense plant workers, insisting that there was a battle for social justice at home that would prove every bit as important to the G.I., the marine, or the sailor when he got home as the ammunition and weapons he worked with were during the war. For years, Wolfert had published occasional short stories that were well received, but, in 1943, he published his first novel, Tucker's People. Based loosely on the rise and fall of Dutch Schultz, the book presented a vivid picture of life among the poor and restless in New York City, as well as of the city itself during those years, and was populated by characters of astounding depth and richness. The book was well received critically and was a commercial success, and the film rights later went to Enterprise, an independent production company which filmed it in 1948 as Force of Evil, based on a screenplay co-authored by Wolfert and the movie's director, Abraham Polonsky. (Wolfert's participation is likely a major reason that the movie, despite being a distillation of only about a third of the novel, was so true in spirit and focus to the original book.) The film went on to become one of the more most highly regarded crime dramas and one of the finest examples of film noir in the history of Hollywood, although it was generally overlooked by audiences at the time. Wolfert's second and third books, Torpedo 8 and The Battle of the Solomons, were published in 1943, and he earned a Pulitzer Prize for the latter. His next book, An American Guerrilla in the Philippines, published in 1945, became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and was adapted into a 1950 movie. In 1948, the same year that Tucker's People was filmed, Wolfert published the novel An Act of Love. His reputation gradually faded during the 1950s and early '60s, although the rediscovery of Force of Evil in the 1970s and '80s brought on a renewed interest in Wolfert's writing, and some of his work began coming back into print. Wolfert died in 1997 at the age of 89.