She was born on May 30, 1901 in Chicago, Illinois, United States, the daughter of Otis Skinner and Maud Durbin, actors who were on tour at the time. Otis Skinner had learned his craft in supporting roles to the leading Shakespearean actor, Edwin Booth. His wife retired from the stage when their daughter was born. The Skinners maintained a home in Bryn Mawr, where Skinner was brought up.
Skinner grew tall and lanky in her adolescence, features she was to convert to a dignified, commanding presence onstage and off.