Malraux was born in Paris. His parents separated when he was a child. He was raised by his mother Berthe Lamy and grandmother Adrienne. His father committed suicide in 1930.
Malraux studied Oriental languages at the École des Langues Orientales but did not gradute. At the age of 21 he left for Cambodia with his wife Clara Goldsmith. He was arrested and almost imprisoned for stealing a bas relief from the temple at Bantai Srey.
He became highly critical of the French colonial authorities in Indochina and 1925 helped to organize the Young Annam League and founded the newspaper Indochina in Chains. He may also have worked for Kuomintang in China in 1927.
On his return to France he published his first novel, The Temptation of the West (1926). This was followed by The Conquerors (1928), The Royal Way (1930) and Man's Fate (French: La Condition Humaine) (1934), a powerful novel about the defeat of a communist regime in Shanghai and the choices the losers have to face. He won the 1933 Prix Goncourt of literature for the latter novel.
During the Spanish Civil War Malraux served as a pilot for the Republican forces. He was wounded twice in effort to stop Falangists takeover of Madrid. He also toured the United States in an attempt to raise fund for the Republicans. A novel about his experiences, Man's Hope, appeared in 1938. He also divorced after the war.
On the outbreak of the Second World War Malraux joined the French Army and served in a tank unit. He was captured in 1940 during the Western Offensive but he escaped and joined the French Resistance. He was captured by the Gestapo in 1944 and even though he underwent a mock execution he was still alive when he was rescued by members of the resistance. He ended up leading Brigade Alsace-Lorraine in defense of Strasbourg and takeover of Stuttgart. He was awarded the Médaille de la Résistance, the Croix de Guerre, and the British Distinguished Service Order.
After the war General Charles De Gaulle appointed Malraux as his minister of information (1945-1946). In the 1950s he wrote about art and aesthetics. He again became a minister for information in 1958 and a minister of cultural affairs (1960-1969). During his term he authorized the cleaning of facades of the Louvre and other publinc buildings, against the public protestations.
In 1948 Malraux married Marie-Madeleine Lioux, a widow of his half-brother. In 1961 he lost his two sons in an accident. An international Malraux Society was founded in the United States in 1968.
André Malraux died in Paris on November 23, 1976. He was survived by his daughter Florence Malraux.