Merle Oberon

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Merle Oberon
Merle Oberon-publicity.JPG
Oberon in 1943
Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson

(1911-02-19)19 February 1911
Died23 November 1979(1979-11-23) (aged 68)
Years active1928–1973
Alexander Korda
(m. 1939;div. 1945)

Lucien Ballard
(m. 1945;div. 1949)

Bruno Pagliai
(m. 1957;div. 1973)

Robert Wolders
(m. 1975;her death 1979)

Merle Oberon (born Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson; 19 February 1911 23 November 1979) was a Eurasian actress [1] 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.

Anne Boleyn Second wife of Henry VIII of England

Anne Boleyn was Queen of England from 1533 to 1536 as the second wife of King Henry VIII. Henry's marriage to her, and her execution by beheading, made her a key figure in the political and religious upheaval that was the start of the English Reformation. Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard, and was educated in the Netherlands and France, largely as a maid of honour to Queen Claude of France. Anne returned to England in early 1522, to marry her Irish cousin James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond; the marriage plans were broken off, and instead she secured a post at court as maid of honour to Henry VIII's wife, Catherine of Aragon.

The Private Life of Henry VIII is a 1933 British film which was directed and co-produced by Alexander Korda and starring Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, Merle Oberon and Elsa Lanchester. The film focuses on the marriages of King Henry VIII of England. It was written by Lajos Bíró and Arthur Wimperis for London Film Productions, Korda's production company. The film was a major international success, establishing Korda as a leading filmmaker and Laughton as a box office star.

<i>The Scarlet Pimpernel</i> (1934 film) 1934 film by Harold Young

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a 1934 British adventure film directed by Harold Young and starring Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, and Raymond Massey. Based on the 1905 play by Baroness Orczy and Montagu Barstow and the classic 1908 adventure novel by Baroness Orczy, the film is about an eighteenth-century English aristocrat who leads a double life, appearing as an effete aristocrat while engaged in an underground effort to free French nobles from Robespierre's Reign of Terror. The film was produced by Alexander Korda.


Early life

Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson [2] [3] was born in Bombay, British India, on 19 February 1911. [1] Merle was given "Queenie" as a nickname, in honour of Queen Mary, who visited India along with King George V in 1911. [4]

British Raj British rule on the Indian subcontinent, 1858–1947

The British Raj was the rule by the British Crown on the Indian subcontinent from 1858 to 1947. The rule is also called Crown rule in India, or direct rule in India. The region under British control was commonly called India in contemporaneous usage, and included areas directly administered by the United Kingdom, which were collectively called British India, and those ruled by indigenous rulers, but under British tutelage or paramountcy, and called the princely states. The whole was also more formally called the Indian Empire . As India, it was a founding member of the League of Nations, a participating nation in the Summer Olympics in 1900, 1920, 1928, 1932, and 1936, and a founding member of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945.

Mary of Teck 20th-century queen consort of the United Kingdom and Empress of India

Mary of Teck was Queen of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and Empress of India as the wife of King George V.

George V King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India

George V was King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India, from 6 May 1910 until his death in 1936.


Oberon was born out of wedlock 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.

Tasmania island state of Australia

Tasmania is an island state of Australia. It is located 240 km (150 mi) to the south of the Australian mainland, separated by Bass Strait. The state encompasses the main island of Tasmania, the 26th-largest island in the world, and the surrounding 334 islands. The state has a population of around 526,700 as of March 2018. Just over forty percent of the population resides in the Greater Hobart precinct, which forms the metropolitan area of the state capital and largest city, Hobart.

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, [5] and Charlotte Selby, a Eurasian from Ceylon who included Māori ancestry. [6] 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. [6]

Darlington town in County Durham, England

Darlington is a large market town in County Durham, in North East England. With a population of 105,564 in 2011, the town lies on the River Skerne, a tributary of the River Tees. The town is administered as part of the Borough of Darlington. The town owes much of its development to the influence of local Quaker families in the Georgian and Victorian era, and who provided much of the finance and vision in creating the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the world's first steam locomotive powered, permanent passenger railway. The town is often colloquially referred to as 'Darlo'.

A Eurasian is a person of mixed Asian and European ancestry.

Māori people Indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand

The Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. Māori originated with settlers from eastern Polynesia, who arrived in New Zealand in several waves of canoe voyages some time between 1250 and 1300. Over several centuries in isolation, the Polynesian settlers developed a unique culture, with their own language, a rich mythology, and distinctive crafts and performing arts. Early Māori formed tribal groups based on eastern Polynesian social customs and organisation. Horticulture flourished using plants they introduced; later, a prominent warrior culture emerged.

To avoid scandal, Charlotte raised Merle as Constance's sister, [1] [7] listing Charlotte's partner Arthur Thompson as the father on Merle's birth certificate, with the forename misspelled "Arther". [1] 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, he has resided in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. Harry eventually moved to Toronto, Canada, retaining Chalotte’s maiden name, Selby.

When Harry tracked down Merle's birth certificate in Indian government records in Bombay, he was surprised to discover he was in fact Merle's brother and not her nephew. He attempted to visit her in Los Angeles, but she refused to see him. Harry withheld this information from Oberon's biographer Charles Higham, only eventually revealing it 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. [7]

Charles Higham, was an English author, editor and poet.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is Australia's national broadcaster founded in 1929. It is currently principally funded by direct grants from the Australian government, but is expressly independent of government and partisan politics. The ABC plays a leading role in journalistic independence and is fundamental in the history of broadcasting in Australia.

New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera uses Oberon's hidden Maori and non-white heritage as the inspiration for the novel White Lies, [8] [9] which was turned into the 2013 movie White Lies . [10]


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. [11] Merle, with 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). [12] Oberon received a foundation scholarship to attend La Martiniere Calcutta for Girls, one of the best private schools in Calcutta. [12] There, she was constantly taunted for her unconventional parentage, eventually leading her to quit school and receive lessons at home. [13]

Oberon first performed with the Calcutta Amateur Dramatic Society. She was also completely enamored of the 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. [14]

In Firpo's, in 1929, Merle met a former actor, Colonel Ben Finney, and dated him; [15] 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. [15] 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. [15] which she readily did. [15] After packing all their belongings and moving to France, Oberon and her mother found that their supposed benefactor avoided them, [16] although he had left a good word for Oberon with Ingram at the studios in Nice. [16] 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. [17]

Acting career

Merle Oberon in 1936 Merle-Oberon-1937.jpg
Merle Oberon in 1936

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. [18] 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. [19]

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 wasn't faithful to her. [20]

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights (1939) Laurence Olivier Merle Oberon Wuthering Heights.jpg
Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights (1939)

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. [21] [22] [Note 1] 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. [24] The results, however, were only partially successful; without makeup, one could see noticeable pitting and indentation of her skin. [24]

Personal life

Oberon's lifelong "mother" Charlotte, actually her birth grandmother, died in 1937. In 1949, Oberon commissioned paintings of Charlotte from an old photograph, [25] which hung in all her homes until Oberon's own death in 1979. [26]

Relationships and marriages

Merle Oberon announced an engagement to American studio executive Joseph M. Schenck in 1934. [27] 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 - 1947.

Oberon became Lady Korda when her husband was knighted in 1942 by George VI for his contribution to the war effort. [28] 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". [29] 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. [30] 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.

Disputed birthplace

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. [31] Oberon is known to have been to Australia only twice. [32] 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. [32]

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 as a result 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. [32]


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. [33]


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 entitled Queenie . This was also turned into a television miniseries starring Mia Sara. [34] F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel The Last Tycoon was made into the television series on Amazon Studios, with Jennifer Beals playing Margo Taft, a character based on Oberon. [35]



Short subjects

Radio appearances

1946 Screen Guild Players This Love of Ours [36]
1946 Screen Guild Players Wuthering Heights [37]

See also

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  1. In July 1937, United Press correspondent Dan Rogers noted: "Beautiful Merle Oberon has two scars from her recent automobile accident, but movie fans will never see them. She is completely recovered, is entertaining again at her home … and will start a new picture here this month. … One [injury] was a slight cut on the left eyelid; it left no mark at all. The most serious hurt was to the back of her head; it left a scar but of course it is hidden by her thick hair. Just in front of her left ear is a fine perpendicular white line a half-inch long. So skillfully did surgeons do their job that this scar is invisible except at a range of a yard or less, in strong light." [23]


  1. 1 2 3 4 "Merle Oberon: Hollywood's Face of Mystery". Archived from the original on 4 May 2009. Retrieved 4 May 2009.
  2. Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 24.
  3. "£5,000 Damages for Merle Oberon." The Glasgow Herald , 5 May 1938. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  4. Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 25.
  5. Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 21.
  6. 1 2 Higham and Moseley 1983, 18.
  7. 1 2 "ABC TV documentary: The Trouble With Merle" Archived 30 October 2005 at the Wayback Machine , Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  8. Freebooksvampire White Lies, Author:Witi Ihimaera, 3. Merle Oberon was a Maori Archived 10 August 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  9. Screenz 6 October 2014 BSS 2014: on Māori filmmaking – Keith Barclay
  10. Auckland Actors Whale Rider producer & novelist reteam for Medicine Woman – Taken from Screen Daily, by Sandy George
  11. Higham and 1983, pp. 25–26.
  12. 1 2 Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 28.
  13. Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 30.
  14. Datta-Ray, Sunanda K. "More than skin-deep." Business Standard, New Delhi, 4 July 2009. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  15. 1 2 3 4 Higham and Moseley 1983, pp. 33–34.
  16. 1 2 Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 37.
  17. Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 38.
  18. Film Weekly, May 1939, p. 7.
  19. Higham and Mosley 1983, P. 94.
  20. Munn 2010, p. 70.
  21. "Star's injuries halt production of film." The Tuscaloosa News|, 25 March 1937. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  22. Graham, Sheilah. "Hollywood gadabout." Milwaukee Journal , 4 April 1937. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  23. Rogers, Dan. "Merle Oberon ready for work after accident; scars will not mar beauty." Corpus Christi Times (United Press), 7 July 1937. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  24. 1 2 Higham and Moseley 1983.[ page needed ]
  25. Kahn, Salma. "Hollywood's first Indian actress: Merle Oberon." SAPNA Magazine, Winter 2009. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  26. Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 100.
  27. Template:Cite newspaper Chicago Tribune
  28. "No. 35719". The London Gazette . 25 September 1942. p. 4175.
  29. Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 161.
  30. "Villa Arabesque", the luxurious house where Mohammed Reza Pahlevi didn't actually live (in Spanish)."[ permanent dead link ] Retrieved 22 June 2013.
  31. Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 291.
  32. 1 2 3 Pybus 1998, p. 161.
  33. Celebrities in Los Angeles Cemeteries
  34. Korda 1999, pp. 446–447.
  36. "Oberon, Cotten Star on "Guild"." Harrisburg Telegraph, 14 December 1946, p. 17, via . Retrieved 11 September 2015.
  37. "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 42 (3): 34. Summer 2016.


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