Merle Oberon (born Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson; 19 February 1911 – 23 November 1979) was a Eurasian actress who began her film career in British films as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). After her success in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), she travelled to the United States to make films for Samuel Goldwyn. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in The Dark Angel (1935). A traffic collision in 1937 caused facial injuries that could have ended her career, but she recovered and remained active in film and television until 1973.
Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson was born in Bombay, British India, on 19 February 1911. Merle was given "Queenie" as a nickname, in honour of Queen Mary, who visited India along with King George V in 1911.
Oberon was born to a 12-year-old mother, and for most of her life she protected herself by concealing the truth about her parentage, claiming that she had been born in Tasmania, Australia, and that her birth records had been destroyed in a fire.
Merle's birth certificate gave Merle's parents as Arthur Terrence O'Brien Thompson, a British mechanical engineer from Darlington who worked in Indian Railways, and Charlotte Selby, a Eurasian from Ceylon who included Māori ancestry. However, Merle's biological mother was Charlotte's 12-year-old daughter Constance. Charlotte had herself given birth to Constance at the age of 14, the result of a relationship with Henry Alfred Selby, an Irish foreman of a tea plantation.
To avoid scandal, Charlotte raised Merle as Constance's sister, listing Charlotte's partner Arthur Thompson as the father on Merle's birth certificate, with the forename misspelled "Arther". The identity of Merle's biological father is not known.
Merle's biological mother, Constance, eventually married Alexander Soares and had four other children, Edna, Douglas, Harry, and Stanislaus (Stan), who grew up believing Merle to be their aunt, when in fact she was their half-sister. Edna and Douglas moved to the UK at an early age. Stanislaus was the only child to keep his father's last name of Soares and resided in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. Harry eventually moved to Toronto, Canada, retaining Charlotte’s maiden name, Selby.
When Harry tracked down Merle's birth certificate in Indian government records in Bombay, he was surprised to discover that he was in fact Merle's brother, not her nephew. He attempted to visit her in Los Angeles, but she refused to see him. Harry withheld that information from Oberon's biographer Charles Higham and eventually revealed it only to Maree Delofski, the creator of the 2002 documentary The Trouble with Merle, produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which investigated the various conflicting versions of Merle's origin.
New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera uses Oberon's hidden Maori and non-white heritage as the inspiration for the novel White Lies, which was turned into the 2013 movie White Lies.
In 1914, when Merle was 3, Arthur Thompson joined the British Army and later died of pneumonia on the Western Front during the Battle of the Somme. Merle and Charlotte led an impoverished existence in shabby flats in Bombay for a few years. Then, in 1917, they moved to better circumstances in Calcutta (Kolkata). Oberon received a foundation scholarship to attend La Martiniere Calcutta for Girls, one of the best private schools in Calcutta. There, she was constantly taunted for her unconventional parentage, eventually leading her to quit school and receive lessons at home.
Oberon first performed with the Calcutta Amateur Dramatic Society. She was also completely enamored with films and enjoyed going out to nightclubs. Indian journalist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray claimed that Merle worked as a telephone operator in Calcutta under the name Queenie Thomson and won a contest at Firpo's Restaurant there, before the outset of her film career.
In Firpo's, in 1929, Merle met a former actor, Colonel Ben Finney, and dated him; however, when he saw her dark-skinned mother Constance one night at her flat, he realised Oberon was of mixed ancestry and ended the relationship. However, Finney promised to introduce her to Rex Ingram of Victorine Studios (whom he had known through his relationship with the late Barbara La Marr), if she was prepared to travel to France, which she readily did. After packing all their belongings and moving to France, Oberon and her mother found that their supposed benefactor avoided them, although he had left a good word for Oberon with Ingram at the studios in Nice. Ingram liked Oberon's exotic appearance and quickly hired her to be an extra in a party scene in a film named The Three Passions.
Oberon arrived in England for the first time in 1928, aged 17. Initially she worked as a club hostess under the name Queenie O'Brien and played in minor and unbilled roles in various films. "I couldn't dance or sing or write or paint. The only possible opening seemed to be in some line in which I could use my face. This was, in fact, no better than a hundred other faces, but it did possess a fortunately photogenic quality," she told a journalist at Film Weekly in 1939. In view of the information discovered since this 1939 article (see preceding section) this should be seen as part of a myth perpetrated by Oberon.
Her film career received a major boost when the director Alexander Korda took an interest and gave her a small but prominent role, under the name Merle Oberon, as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) opposite Charles Laughton. The film became a major success and she was then given leading roles, such as Lady Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) with Leslie Howard, who became her lover for a while.
Oberon's career benefited from her relationship with, and later marriage to, Korda. He sold "shares" of her contract to producer Samuel Goldwyn, who gave her good vehicles in Hollywood. Her "mother" stayed behind in England. Oberon earned her sole Academy Award for Best Actress nomination for The Dark Angel (1935) produced by Goldwyn. Around this time she had a serious romance with David Niven, and according to one biographer even wanted to marry him, but he was not faithful to her.
She was selected to star in Korda's 1937 film, I, Claudius, as Messalina, but her injuries in a car accident resulted in the film being abandoned. She went on to appear as Cathy in the highly acclaimed film Wuthering Heights (opposite Laurence Olivier; 1939), as George Sand in A Song to Remember (1945) and as the Empress Josephine in Désirée (1954).
According to Princess Merle, the biography written by Charles Higham with Roy Moseley, Oberon suffered damage to her complexion in 1940 from a combination of cosmetic poisoning and an allergic reaction to sulfa drugs. Alexander Korda sent her to a skin specialist in New York City, where she underwent several dermabrasion procedures. The results, however, were only partially successful; without makeup, noticeable pitting and indentation of her skin could be seen.
Oberon's lifelong "mother" Charlotte, actually her birth grandmother, died in 1937. In 1949, Oberon commissioned paintings of Charlotte from an old photograph, which hung in all her homes until Oberon's own death in 1979.
Relationships and marriages
Oberon announced an engagement to American studio executive Joseph M. Schenck in 1934. She married director Alexander Korda in 1939. Still married, she had a brief affair in 1941 with Richard Hillary, an RAF fighter pilot who had been badly burned in the Battle of Britain. They met while he was on a goodwill tour of the United States. He later became well known as the author of a best-selling book, The Last Enemy. Oberon had an on-again, off-again affair with actor John Wayne from 1938 to 1947.
Oberon became Lady Korda when her husband was knighted in 1942 by George VI for his contribution to the war effort. At the time, the couple were based at Hills House in Denham, England. She divorced him in 1945, to marry cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Ballard devised a special camera light for her to eliminate on film her facial scars suffered in a 1937 accident. The light became known as the "Obie". She and Ballard divorced in 1949.
Oberon next married Italian-born industrialist Bruno Pagliai in 1957, adopted two children with him and lived in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. In 1973, Oberon met then 36-year-old Dutch actor Robert Wolders while they filmed Interval. Oberon divorced Pagliai and married Wolders, who was 25 years her junior, in 1975.
To avoid criticism she began to suffer in childhood over her birth to a 12-year-old mother, Oberon created a "cover story" of being born and raised in Tasmania, Australia, and her birth records being destroyed in a fire. The story eventually unravelled after her death. Oberon is known to have been to Australia only twice. Her first visit was in 1965, on a film promotion. Although a visit to Hobart was scheduled, after journalists in Sydney pressed her for details of her early life, she became ill and shortly afterwards left for Mexico.
In 1978, the year before her death, she agreed to visit Hobart for a Lord Mayoral reception. The Lord Mayor of Hobart became aware shortly before the reception that there was no proof she had been born in Tasmania but, to save face, went ahead with the reception. Shortly after arriving at the reception, Oberon, however, to the disappointment of many, denied she had been born in Tasmania. She then excused herself, claiming illness, and was unavailable to answer any more questions about her background. On the way to the reception, she had told her driver that as a child she was on a ship with her father, who became ill when it was passing Hobart. They were taken ashore so he could be treated and so she spent some of her early years on the island. During her Hobart stay, she remained in her hotel, gave no other interviews, and did not visit the theatre named in her honour.
Oberon retired after Interval and moved with Wolders to Malibu, California, where she died in 1979, aged 68, after suffering a stroke. Her body was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Oberon has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 6250 Hollywood Boulevard) for her contributions to Motion Pictures.
Michael Korda, nephew of Alexander Korda, wrote a roman à clef about Oberon after her death titled Queenie. This was adapted into a television miniseries starring Mia Sara. F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel The Last Tycoon was made into the television series, with Jennifer Beals playing Margo Taft, a character based on Oberon.
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