Joseph Bryan III was born into the influential Bryan family of newspaper publishers and industrialists. He grew up to edit and write for many national publications, including the family-owned Richmond News Leader and Chicago Daily Journal, as well as Parade, Time, Fortune, Town and Country, Reader's Digest, the Saturday Evening Post, and the New Yorker. He served in three branches of the U.S. military: first as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army following his graduation from Princeton; then as a lieutenant commander in naval air combat intelligence in the Pacific during World War II; and later as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. He also worked for the Central Intelligence Agency from the late 1940s until 1953. After leaving government service, he resumed his career as a freelance writer. His only work of fiction, a short story entitled "First Patrol," appeared in Esquire in 1956.
Bryan's principal books included Mission Beyond Darkness (1945), written with Philip Reed about the U.S.S. Lexington in the South Pacific; Admiral Halsey's Story (1947), an authorized biography; Aircraft Carrier (1954), based on a diary Bryan kept while aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown; The World's Greatest Showman: The Life of P. T. Barnum (1956), written for young readers; and The Windsor Story (1979), a dual biography of the duke and duchess of Windsor, written with Charles J. V. Murphy.