Jessie Ralph was a sailor's daughter, who first came to the stage at the age of 16, performing with a stock company in either Boston, Massachusetts, or Providence, Rhode Island (accounts differ). The year was 1880, and it took Jessie another 26 years to make her debut on the Great White Way in "The Kreutzer Sonata". Already a seasoned actress ,she enjoying third billing. Her screen career started with one and two reelers as early as 1915, but her proper entry into Hollywood did not come about until 1933.
For more than 20 years, plump, down-to-earth Jessie made her reputation as a character actress on Broadway playing an assortment of nurses, maids and aunts. She was used in musicals by George M. Cohan and acted in Shakespearean roles, from "Twelfth Night" to "Romeo and Juliet". She was nurse to Jane Cowl's Juliet in the 1923 play which ran for an unprecedented 174 performances and co-starred Eva Le Gallienne and Katharine Cornell (amazing, when considering that the star was already 39 years old!). Like other successful actresses of the stage, Jessie was brought to Hollywood to reprise a Broadway hit role, in this case her Aunt Minnie in Child of Manhattan (1933).
After half a lifetime in the theatre, Jessie's sojourn in Hollywood was relatively brief but marked by a series of memorable performances. She was the definitive incarnation of the endearing nurse Peggotty in David Copperfield (1935) and played Greta Garbo's loyal maid Nanine in Camille (1936). She was the matriarch of the Whiteoaks of Jalna (1935), an adaptable society matron in San Francisco (1936) and harridan of a mother-in-law to W.C. Fields, Hermisillo Brunch, in The Bank Dick (1940). Whether in comedy or drama, as a Chinese aunt in both stage and screen versions of The Good Earth (1937), or a kindly sorceress in The Blue Bird (1940), Jessie gave consistently good value for money. The New York Times review of October 12, 1935, wrote of her performance in 'Joan Crawford (I)'s I Live My Life (1935): "Jessie Ralph as the tyrannical head of the family, proves again that she is the best of the screen grandmothers".
Jessie retired from acting in 1941 after having a leg amputated and died three years later. She had been married to the actor Bill Patton who predeceased her.