Howard Lindsay was born Herman Nelke on March 29, 1889, in Waterford, New York, United States. His stage name was taken from a grandmother. His father, whose first name is unknown, was a German immigrant who was unable to support his family on his income as a traveling salesman. Lindsay's mother, whose name is unknown, divorced his father and took her children to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she worked as a compositor on her brother's newspaper. When Lindsay was twelve his family moved to Dorchester, now part of Boston, Massachusetts, where his mother had found more regular employment.