Helen Holmes was born on June 19, 1892 in Illinois. While there is uncertainty about her place of birth, Holmes stated in an interview that she was born on a farm in South Bend, Indiana, but grew up in Chicago, Illinois. A 1917 article indicates Holmes was born on her father's private railroad car, "Estevan".
Holmes was the daughter of Norwegian immigrant Louis A. Holmes (born in Norway in October 1862), a railroad clerk employed by the Illinois Central Railroad, who had migrated to the United States in 1867, and his wife Sophia (born April 1869 in Indiana), and was the sister of Frank O. Holmes (born June 1889 in Illinois) and Florence (born in May 1896 in Illinois), and two other siblings who died in infancy.
Holmes was educated in St Mary's Convent in South Bend, Indiana.
Holmes began working as a photographer's model but turned to acting, performing in live theatre and making her Broadway debut in 1909. She became friends with film star Mabel Normand.
Due to tuberculosis in the family, about 1910 Holmes and her widowed mother and siblings moved to California Valley, a few miles east of Shoshone in Death Valley, California, where they lost their life savings in a real estate swindle buying a property by the Colorado River.
Meanwhile Mabel Normand moved to Hollywood in 1912 to work at Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios, she encouraged Holmes, after her brother had passed on, to try the film business in the balmier climes of the West Coast.
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