Olga Edna Purviance was born in Paradise Valley, Nevada, to English immigrant Louisa Wright Davey and American vintner to the western mining camps Madison (Matt) Gates Purviance. When she was three, the family moved to Lovelock, Nevada, where they assumed ownership of a hotel. Her parents divorced in 1902, and her mother later married Robert Nurnberger, a German plumber. Growing up, Purviance was a talented Pianist.
She left Lovelock in 1913, and moved in with her married sister Bessie while attending Business college in San Francisco.
Chaplin and Purviance were romantically involved during the making of his Essanay, Mutual, and First National films of 1915 to 1917. Purviance appeared in 33 of Chaplin's productions, including the 1921 classic The Kid. Her last film with him, A Woman of Paris, was also her first lead role. The film was not a success and effectively ended Purviance's career. She went on to appear in two more films: The Sea Gull, also known as A Woman of the Sea (which Chaplin never released) and Éducation de Prince, a French film released in 1927, just before she retired from acting.
Although she was romantically involved with Charlie Chaplin for several years, Purviance eventually married John Squire, a Pan-American Airlines pilot, in 1938. They remained married until his death in 1945.
On January 13, 1958, Purviance died from throat cancer at the Motion Picture Country Hospital in Hollywood. Her remains are interred at Grand View Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
She was portrayed by Penelope Ann Miller in the film Chaplin (1992) and by Katie Maguire in the film Madcap Mabel (2010).