She was born Edna May Nutter, a child of solid New England stock, in Malden, Massachusetts. The daughter of Ida May and Charles Edward Nutter, Edna was a descendant of the 6th American president John Quincy Adams. Edna May took an early interest in the stage, and she would quit school at the age of 14 to pursue her ambitions in the theater.
Despite abandoning traditional schooling, Edna continued to study the performing arts, including speech and piano. One of her first jobs was as pianist with an all female orchestra which toured America around the turn of the century. By 1917 she had achieved success on Broadway in the hit play Oh, Boy. By 1923 she had appeared in her first film.
Edna May seems to have been born to play the classics of American and British literature. Some of her most memorable film roles were in adaptations of works of Charles Dickens. Although some have described her as plain or "horse faced", Edna May's comedic talents lent a beautiful droll warmth to her characters.
She was usually called upon to play less glamorous roles such as a spinsters, but she played them with such soul, wit, and depth that to this day she remains one of the best loved of Hollywood's character actresses. A fine example of her comedic talent can be found in Laugh and Get Rich (1931).
Edna May married stock broker David Pratt in 1928, but the marriage ended in divorce five years later. In 1939 she received an Oscar nomination for her supporting role as Widow McKlennar in the picture Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). That was to be one of her last films. She was struck ill in August of 1942. Although she seemed to recover briefly, she was re-admitted to Los Angeles's Cedars of Lebanon hospital in October.
Her dear friend actress Virginia Hammond flew out from New York to stay by her bedside. Edna May Oliver died on her 59th birthday, of intestinal disorder. Virginia Hammond was with her and said, "She died without ever being aware of the gravity of her condition. She just went peacefully asleep."