Joseph Bryan was born on April 30, 1904, at Laburnum in Henrico County, the son of Joseph St. George Bryan and Emily Nelson Page Kemp Bryan and a grandson of the preservationist Isobel Lamont Stewart Bryan and of the Richmond industrialist and newspaper publisher Joseph Bryan (1845–1908). Known as Joseph Bryan III throughout his life, Bryan was educated successively at Chamberlayne School (later St. Christopher’s School) in Richmond, Episcopal High School in Alexandria, and Princeton University, where he earned a BA in 1927. He edited Princeton’s humor magazine, the Princeton Tiger, and was voted most entertaining and most witty man in his class and runner-up for best-dressed man and best-all-around man outside athletics.
Following graduation Bryan and several friends toured Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and India. From 1928 to 1930 he worked as a reporter and editorial writer for the Richmond News Leader and the Chicago Daily Journal, both published by his uncle. The made earning a living as a freelancer difficult and forced Bryan into frequent job changes. He was associate editor of Parade magazine in Cleveland in 1931 and 1932, then worked briefly for Time, Fortune, and the New Yorker, and from 1933 to 1937 was managing editor of Town and Country. From 1937 until he resigned in June 1940 Bryan was an associate editor of the Saturday Evening Post.
As a result of his Reserve Officers’ Training Corps work at Princeton, Bryan held a commission as a second lieutenant and then lieutenant in the field artillery for several years following his graduation. In January 1942 he was commissioned a lieutenant commander in the navy and assigned to naval air combat intelligence in the Pacific. Reassigned to naval public relations in 1944, Bryant spent much of 1945 aboard the carrier U.S.S. Yorktown. From the late 1940s until 1953 he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency with a concurrent commission as lieutenant colonel in the air force, giving him the unusual distinction of having been an officer in all three major branches of the armed services. In 1953 Bryan was promoted to colonel in the air force reserve. He lived in Washington during World War II and until 1959, when through a complicated family trust he inherited the right to live at Brook Hill, an ancestral home in Henrico County.
As J. Bryan III he wrote about three dozen articles for Collier’s, Reader’s Digest, the Saturday Evening Post, and the Saturday Review of Literature during the 1930s and 1940s. After leaving government service he resumed his career as a freelance writer. From 1953 through 1974 Bryan wrote about fifty articles for Holiday magazine and numerous pieces for other journals. Other pieces Bryan published in national magazines included biographical works on the Aga Khan, the duke of Edinburgh, Britain’s Princess Margaret, and Katharine Hepburn, and in 1965 he wrote a biography offor the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 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 written with William F. Halsey; 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. He also published two volumes of short writings. The Sword over the Mantel: The Civil War and I (1960) features reminiscences and character sketches derived from his youth in Richmond, and Merry Gentlemen (And One Lady) (1985) contains memorable pen portraits of Fred Allen, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and other personalities of the Algonquin Round Table who flourished during Bryan’s years in New York. His last two books, Hodgepodge: A Commonplace Book (1987) and Hodgepodge Two: Another Commonplace Book (1989), reflect his omnivorous reading, his love of travel, and his sense of humor.
Bryan married three times. On October 4, 1930, he married Katharine Lansing Barnes, of New York. They had two sons and one daughter and were divorced in 1954. On February 22, 1960, Bryan married a widow, Jacqueline Vandesmet, viscountess Guy de La Grandière, of Paris. She died on March 8, 1988, and August 28, 1991, he married Elizabeth Mayo Atkinson McIntosh, of Richmond. Joseph Bryan III died of cancer at his home in Richmond on April 3, 1993, and was buried with other family members in the yard of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Henrico County.
- Mission Beyond Darkness (1945), written with Philip Reed
- Admiral Halsey’s Story (1947)
- Aircraft Carrier (1954)
- The World’s Greatest Showman: The Life of P. T. Barnum (1956)
- The Sword over the Mantel: The Civil War and I (1960)
- The Windsor Story (1979), written with Charles J. V. Murphy
- Merry Gentlemen (And One Lady) (1985)
- Hodgepodge: A Commonplace Book (1987)
- Hodgepodge Two: Another Commonplace Book (1989)