Josephine Herbst was born in Sioux City, Iowa, on 5th March 1897. Raised in near-poverty, Herbst attended several colleges between periods of work. She developed radical political opinions and began contributing to the socialist journal, The Masses.
Herbst graduated from the University of California in Berkeley in 1919. She now moved to New York City and soon became associating with a group of radicals who were producing The Liberator. This included Crystal Eastman, Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Art Young, Claude McKay, Boardman Robinson, Michael Gold, Louis Fraina, Louise Bryant, Dorothy Day, Robert Minor, Stuart Davis, Lydia Gibson, Maurice Becker, Helen Keller, Cornelia Barns, Louis Untermeyer, Hugo Gellert, K. R. Chamberlain and William Gropper.
As well as writing for The Liberator she also published short stories under the pseudonym Carlotta Geet in American Mercury and Smart Set, then edited by H.L. Mencken, for whom she had also worked as a publicity writer and editorial reader. Following an unhappy affair and near-breakdown, Herbst moved to Berlin in 1922. Two years later she fell in love with the writer John Hermann. They married in 1926. He was eight years her junior but it was his alcoholism that brought the relationship to an end.
In 1928 Herbst settled in Pennsylvania where she wrote several novels, including Money for Love (1929), Pity is not Enough (1933) and The Executioner Awaits (1934). She also contributed to radical magazines such as New Masses and The Nation. In 1935 she went to Nazi Germany as a special correspondent for the New York Post. In 1937 Herbst reported on the Spanish Civil War and during this period was a passionate supporter of the Popular Front government.
After returning to the United States she published Satan's Sergeants (1941). After Pearl Harbor, Herbst got a job as a propaganda writer for the Office of the Coordinator of Information, but was fired a few months later after background investigation by the FBI found that she had admitted in one article that she had voted for the American Communist Party but considered Earl Browder, the current leader, as "too timid."
According to Mari Jo Buhle: "From 1942, when she lost a government job for political reasons, to 1954, she endured government harassment in a variety of forms. Her further literary work meanwhile received scarce recognition."
Josephine Herbst died on 28th January 1969.