Born of Anglo-Australian and Italian parents, Lee Cataldi was briefly interned during World War II due to her father's Italian heritage. When her father took out Australian citizenship and joined the air force, Cataldi and her mother moved to Mosman to stay with Cataldi's maternal grandparents. The family shifted to Hobart in 1948 where Cataldi attended the Friends' School.
Cataldi undertook a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney; she graduated with Honours and the University Medal in 1962. In May 1964, Cataldi moved to Oxford to study Renaissance Literature. (She received a Bachelor of Letters from Oxford University in 1968.) Cataldi married while in the UK and lived in Italy for a year. In 1967, she published A Handbook to 16th Century Rhetoric (as Lee Ann Sonnino) and, from 1967 to 1973, she lectured in English at the University of Bristol. She became an active socialist during this period.
On her return to Australia, Cataldi gained a Diploma in Education. She taught at Tempe High School and several other Sydney schools from 1975 to 1981. She also co-ordinated the Poets in Schools Project (1981-1982) in Sydney for the Australia Council. From 1983 to 1991, Cataldi worked at Lajamanu School in the Northern Territory as a teacher/linguist.
In 1991, Cataldi and Peggy Rockman Napaljarri won a grant from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Studies to collect and translate Warlpiri traditional narratives. Together they edited and translated Walpiri Dreamings and Histories (1994). During this period, Cataldi also lectured in Languages and Linguistics at Batchelor College, Alice Springs. As well as being fluent in Warlpiri, Cataldi has some knowledge of three other Aboriginal languages: Ngardi, Jaru and Kukatja. She also speaks Italian and French.
In 1993 Cataldi was joint consultant with Christine Nicholls of Flinders University in delivering the third stage of the AIDAB project 'Vernacular Publishing, Creating a Literature' for the Education Departments of the Republic of Kiribati and the Cook Islands. In 1998, Cataldi was Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Women's Studies at the University of Adelaide, and had an ASIALINK Writer's Residency in Delhi, India. She has held several other consultancies and lectureships (working in Western Australia and New South Wales), and has presented film reviews for the Australian Broadcasting Commission's Radio National network.
'Race against Time vigorously and clearly apprehends the facts of mortality while eschewing the conceit of human centrality. Even if hardly prolific, Lee Cataldi is nonetheless one of our wisest and most striking poetic voices, evoking a spontaneous, unforced engagement with life and death'. (McLaren, Greg. 'Race against Time.' Southerly 58.4 (1998): 219.