Nina Hartley was born in 1959 to a Lutheran father and a Jewish mother, who were both members of the communist party.
It was twelve years after her father was blacklisted from jobs due to his membership in the Party, in 1969, when her parents began studying Zen. Because Nina was only ten years old at the time, she was greatly influence by this when she was growing up, and her early years were a great contrast to the normal church upbringing of the time. Hartley has stated in interviews that she still practices Zen philosophy as she finds it "useful" in her daily life, but she is not an active Buddhist.
After graduation from Berkeley High School, Nina decided to attend San Francisco State University to study nursing and graduated with the highest honors available. During the second year of the her nursing course, Nina decided to start work in the adult entertainment industry.
She started her new career by working as a stripper, most notably in the infamous Mitchell Brother's theater. This work served as a springboard into the world of pornographic videos, and Nina began acting in 1984 at the age of 25.
The 1984 Atom production Educating Nina, produced by Juliet Anderson (also known as'Aunt Peg' and 'Judy Carr'), was Nina's breakthrough role. Anderson had discovered Nina after meeting her in a market. The film featured Nina in the two scenes and is regarded by many as the one that launched her career through its high sales volume.
Nina appeared in four more videos that year, and in the years afterwards, her popularity reached new heights. She has appeared in over 720 titles and has directed 15 videos (and appeared on many websites), working for companies such as Adam & Eve, Caballero, VCX, Bizarre, Vivid and many more.
Nina has now become one of the most sought after mature porn stars in the industry and, as of 2006, she is still performing regularly, mainly in mature niche videos or those featuring classic porn stars.