Mae Marsh was Mary Wayne Marsh born in Madrid, New Mexico on November 9, 1894. She was one of five children of Charles Marsh and Mary Wayne Marsh, and she attended Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Hollywood as well as public school.
A frequently told story of Marsh's childhood is "Her father, a railroad auditor, died when she was four. Her family moved to San Francisco, California, where her stepfather was killed in the great earthquake of 1906. Her great-aunt then took Mae and [her older sister] Marguerite to Los Angeles, hoping her show business background would open doors for jobs at various movie studios needing extras.":113 However, her father, S. Charles Marsh, was a bartender, not a railroad auditor, and he was alive at least as late as June 1900, when Marsh was nearly six. Her stepfather, oil-field inspector William Hall, could not have been killed in the 1906 earthquake, as he was alive, listed in the 1910 census, living with her mother and sisters.
Marsh worked as a salesgirl and loitered around the sets and locations while her older sister worked on a film, observing the progress of her sister’s performance. She first started as an extra in various movies, and played her first substantial role in the film Ramona (1910) at the age of 15.
“I tagged my way into motion pictures,” Marsh recalled in The Silent Picture. “I used to follow my sister Marguerite to the old Biograph studio and then, one great day, Mr. Griffith noticed me, put me in a picture and I had my chance. I love my work and though new and very wonderful interests have entered my life, I still love it and couldn’t think of giving it up.”:114
Mae Marsh as a Belgian girl and A.C. Gibbons as a German soldier in Goldwyn's all-star Liberty Loan picture Stake Uncle Sam to Play Your Hand (1918)
Marsh worked with D.W. Griffith in small roles at Biograph when they were filming in California and in New York. Her big break came when Mary Pickford, resident star of the Biograph lot and a married woman at that time, refused to play the bare-legged, grass-skirted role of Lily-White in Man's Genesis. Griffith announced that if Pickford would not play that part in Man’s Genesis, she would not play the coveted title role in his next film, The Sands of Dee. The other actresses stood behind Pickford, each refusing in turn to play the part, citing the same objection.
Years later, Marsh recalled in an interview in The Silent Picture: “...and he called rehearsal, and we were all there and he said, ‘Well now, Miss Marsh, you can rehearse this.’ And Mary Pickford said ‘What!’ and Mr. Griffith said ‘Yes, Mary Pickford, if you don’t do what I tell you I want you to do, I’m going to have someone else do The Sands of Dee. Mary Pickford didn’t play Man’s Genesis so Mae can play The Sands of Dee.’ Of course, I was thrilled, and she was very much hurt. And I thought, ‘Well it's all right with me. That is something.’ I was, you know, just a lamebrain.” :117
Working with Mack Sennett and D.W. Griffith, she was a prolific actress, sometimes appearing in eight movies per year and often paired with fellow Sennett protégé Robert Harron in romantic roles. In The Birth of a Nation (1915) she played the innocent sister who waits for her brothers to come home from war and who, in one of the film's most racially charged scenes, leaps to her death rather than submit to the lustful advances of Gus, the so-called "renegade Negro" who later is killed by the Ku Klux Klan. In Intolerance (1916) she plays the wife who has her baby taken away after her husband is imprisoned unjustly.
She signed a lucrative contract with Samuel Goldwyn worth $2,500 per week after Intolerance, but none of the films she made with him were particularly successful. After her marriage to Lee Arms, a publicity agent for Goldwyn, in 1918, her film output decreased to about one per year.
She married Sam Goldwyn's publicity agent Louis Lee Arms, in 1918; they had three children together. They were married until her death in 1968. Louis Arms died in June 1989 at age 101. They are buried together in Section 5 at Pacific Crest Cemetery in Redondo Beach, California.