Nash was born in Rye, New York. His father owned and operated an import-export company, and because of business obligations, the family relocated often. Nash was descended from Abner Nash, an early governor of North Carolina whose brother, Francis, is the namesake for Nashville, Tennessee.
Throughout his life, Nash loved to rhyme. "I think in terms of rhyme, and have since I was six years old," he stated in a 1958 news interview. He had a fondness for crafting his own words whenever rhyming words did not exist, though admitting that crafting rhymes was not always the easiest task.
His family lived briefly in Savannah, Georgia in a carriage house owned by Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA; he wrote a poem about Mrs. Low's House. After graduating from St. George's School in Newport County, Rhode Island, Nash entered Harvard University in 1920, only to drop out a year later.
He returned as a teacher to St. George's for one year before returning to New York. There, he took up selling bonds, about which Nash reportedly quipped, "Came to New York to make my fortune as a bond salesman and in two years sold one bond—to my godmother. However, I saw lots of good movies." Nash then took a position as a writer of the streetcar card ads for Barron Collier, a company that previously had employed another Baltimore resident, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He spent three months in 1931 working on the editorial staff for The New Yorker.
In 1931 he married Frances Leonard. He published his first collection of poems, Hard Lines, that same year, earning him national recognition. Some of his poems reflected an anti-establishment feeling. For example, one verse, titled Common Sense, asks:
- Why did the Lord give us agility,
- If not to evade responsibility?
In 1934, Nash moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he remained until his death in 1971. Nash thought of Baltimore as home. After his return from a brief move to New York, he wrote "I could have loved New York had I not loved Balti-more."