Mary Louise Streep was born on June 22, 1949, in Summit, New Jersey. She is the daughter of Mary Wilkinson Streep (née Mary Wolf Wilkinson, 1915-2001), a commercial artist and art editor; and Harry William Streep, Jr. (1910-2003), a pharmaceutical executive. She has two younger brothers: Harry William Streep III (born 1951) and Dana David Streep (born 1953), who are also actors.
Meryl Streep as a senior in high school, 1966
Streep's father Harry was of German and Swiss ancestry. Her father's lineage traces back to Loffenau, Germany, from where her second great-grandfather, Gottfried Streeb, immigrated to the United States, and where one of her ancestors served as mayor (the surname was later changed to "Streep"). Another line of her father's family was from Giswil, Switzerland. Her mother had English, German, and Irish ancestry. Some of Streep's maternal ancestors lived in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, and were descended from 17th-century immigrants from England. Her eighth great-grandfather, Lawrence Wilkinson, was one of the first Europeans to settle in Rhode Island. Streep is also the second cousin 7 times removed of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania; records show that her family is among the first purchasers of land in the state. Streep's maternal great-great-grandparents, Manus McFadden and Grace Strain, the latter the namesake of Streep's second daughter, were natives of the Horn Head district of Dunfanaghy, Ireland.
Streep as a cheerleader at Bernards High School, 1966
Streep's mother, whom she has compared in both appearance and manner to Dame Judi Dench, strongly encouraged her daughter, and instilled confidence in her from a very young age. Streep has said: "She was a mentor because she said to me, 'Meryl, you're capable. You're so great.' She was saying, 'You can do whatever you put your mind to. If you're lazy, you're not going to get it done. But if you put your mind to it, you can do anything.' And I believed her." Although Streep was naturally more introverted than her mother, at times, when she later needed an injection of confidence in adulthood, she would consult her mother, asking her for advice.
Streep was raised as a Presbyterian in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and attended The Family Upstairs". In 1963, the family moved to Bernardsville, New Jersey, where she attended Bernards High School. Author Karina Longworth described her as a "gawky kid with glasses and frizzy hair", yet noted that she liked to show off in front of the camera in family home movies from a young age. At the age of 12, Streep was selected to sing at a school recital, leading to her having opera lessons from Estelle Liebling. However, despite her talent, she has remarked that, "I was singing something I didn't feel and understand. That was an important lesson—not to do that. To find the thing that I could feel through." She quit after four years. Streep had many Catholic school friends, and regularly attended mass. Meryl was a high school cheerleader for the Bernards High School Mountaineers and was also chosen as the homecoming queen her senior year. Her family lived on Old Fort Road.
Although Streep appeared in numerous school plays during her high school years, she was uninterested in serious theater until acting in the play Miss Julie at Vassar College in 1969, in which she gained attention across the campus. Vassar drama professor Clinton J. Atkinson noted, "I don't think anyone ever taught Meryl acting. She really taught herself." Streep demonstrated an early ability to mimic accents and to quickly memorize her lines. She received her B.A. cum laude from the college in 1971, before applying for an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. At Yale, she supplemented her course fees by waitressing and typing, and appeared in over a dozen stage productions a year, to the point that she became overworked, developing ulcers. She contemplated quitting acting and switching to study law. Streep played a variety of roles on stage, from Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream to an 80-year-old woman in a wheelchair in a comedy written by then-unknown playwrights Christopher Durang and Albert Innaurato. She was a student of choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, whom she introduced at the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. Another one of her teachers was Robert Lewis, one of the co-founders of the Actors Studio. Streep disapproved of some of the acting exercises she was asked to do, remarking that the professors "delved into personal lives in a way I find obnoxious". She received her MFA from Yale in 1975. Streep also enrolled as a visiting student at Dartmouth College in the fall of 1970, and received an Honorary Doctor of Arts degree from the college in 1981.