Mary Anderson was born in Sacramento, California, the daughter of Charles Henry Anderson, an Oxford University-educated New Yorker, and his wife Antonia Leugers. A short time after she was born, the family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where her father enlisted in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He was killed in action when she was three years old.
Mary was educated at a convent school and the Presentation Academy in Louisville. At age 14, she was allowed to go to New York City for lessons with the actor George Vandenhoff -- this was her only professional training.
After her return to Louisville, she made her first stage appearance in 1875 at a benefit performance in the role of Juliet. Professional engagements in Louisville, St. Louis, New Orleans, and San Francisco led to a contract at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. She played Lady Macbeth in 1877, then embarked on an extensive tour of the USA, culminating with a six-week engagement in Edward Bulwer Lytton's play The Lady of Lyons in New York. She enjoyed great popularity in New York and on tour. In 1883, she made her debut on the London stage and remained in England for six years, performing often in Shakespearean roles. She was the first actress to appear in The Winter's Tale in the double role of both Perdita and Hermione. She retired from the stage at age 30. In England in 1890, she married Antonio Fernando de Navarro, an American lawyer and sportsman with whom she had two children. Under the name Mary Navarro, she acted in silent films, including Bridge (1912), Hearts of Oak (1914) and Eve's Daughter (1918). She published two books of memoirs, A Few Memories (1896) and A Few More Memories (1936), and worked with Robert Smythe Hichens on a stage adaptation of his novel The Garden of Allah.