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
(m. 1939; div. 1945)
(m. 1945; div. 1949)
Bruno Pagliai
(m. 1957; div. 1973)
(m. 1975)

Merle Oberon (born Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson; 19 February 1911 – 23 November 1979) was a British 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 the 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.

Early life[edit]

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]


For most of her life, Merle protected herself by concealing the truth about her parentage, claiming that she had been born in Tasmania, Australia,[5] and that her birth records had been destroyed in a fire.

She was raised as the daughter of Arthur Terrence O'Brien Thompson, a British mechanical engineer from Darlington who worked in Indian Railways[6] and his wife, Charlotte Selby, a Eurasian from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). Her mother also had Māori ancestry.[7] However, according to her birth certificate, Merle's biological mother was Charlotte's then-12-year-old daughter, Constance. Charlotte had herself given birth to Constance at the age of 14, the result of rape by Henry Alfred Selby, the Anglo-Irish foreman of a tea plantation.[7] To avoid scandal, Charlotte raised Merle as Constance's half-sister.[1][8]

Constance eventually married Alexander Soares and had four other children: Edna, Douglas, Harry, and Stanislaus (Stan). Edna and Douglas moved to the UK at an early age. Stanislaus was the only child to keep his father's surname 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 half-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.[8]

New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera uses Oberon's hidden South Asian and Māori heritage as the inspiration for the novel White Lies,[9][10] which was turned into the 2013 movie White Lies.[11]


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.[12] 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 (present-day Kolkata).[13] Oberon received a foundation scholarship to attend La Martiniere Calcutta for Girls, one of the best private schools in Calcutta.[13] There, she was constantly taunted for her mixed ethnicity, eventually leading her to quit school and receive lessons at home.[14]

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.[15]

In Firpo's in 1929, Merle met a former actor, Colonel Ben Finney, and dated him;[16] however, when he saw Charlotte one night at her flat, he realized Oberon was of mixed ancestry and ended the relationship.[16] 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 were prepared to travel to France,[16] which she readily did.[16] After packing all their belongings and moving to France, Oberon and her mother found that their supposed benefactor avoided them,[17] although he had left a good word for Oberon with Ingram at the studios in Nice.[17] 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.[18]

Acting career[edit]

Merle Oberon in 1936

Oberon arrived in England for the first time in 1928, aged 17. 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.[19]

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.[20]

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.[21]

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.[22][23][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.[25] The results, however, were only partially successful; without makeup, noticeable pitting and indentation of her skin could be seen.[25]

Personal life[edit]

Oberon's mother, Charlotte Selby, who was actually her birth grandmother, died in 1937. (Merle's biological mother was Charlotte's daughter, Constance, who was 12 years old when Merle was born.) In 1949, Oberon commissioned paintings of Charlotte based on an old photograph (but depicting Charlotte with lighter skin),[26] which hung in all her homes until Oberon's own death in 1979.[27]

Relationships and marriages[edit]

Oberon married director Alexander Korda in 1939. While 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 wrote the best-selling autobiography, 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.[28] At the time, the couple was 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 obscure on film her facial scars suffered in the 1937 accident. The light became known as the "Obie".[29] She and Ballard divorced in 1949.

Oberon 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.[30]

Disputed birthplace[edit]

To avoid prejudice over her mixed background, 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. Another visit, to Hobart, was scheduled, but 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 celebration. Shortly after arriving at the reception, Oberon, to the disappointment of many, denied she had been born in Tasmania. She then excused herself claiming illness, and was unavailable to answer 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, thereby spending 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.[33] Her body was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.[34]


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.[35] F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel The Last Tycoon was made into a television series, with Jennifer Beals playing Margo Taft, a character created for the TV series and based on Oberon.[36]



Short subjects[edit]

  • "Screen Snapshots Series 16, No. 4" (1936)
  • "Hollywood Goes to Town" (1938)
  • "Assignment: Foreign Legion" (1956/7 TV episodes)

Radio appearances[edit]

Year Program Episode/source
1946 Screen Guild Players This Love of Ours[37]
1946 Screen Guild Players Wuthering Heights[38]

See also[edit]



  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."[24]


  1. ^ a b c "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." Archived 12 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine The Glasgow Herald, 5 May 1938. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  4. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 25.
  5. ^ Hastings, Max (4 April 2019). "Staying On". New York Review of Books. ISSN 0028-7504. Archived from the original on 3 April 2019. Retrieved 3 April 2019.
  6. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 21.
  7. ^ a b Higham and Moseley 1983, 18.
  8. ^ a b "ABC TV documentary: The Trouble With Merle" Archived 30 October 2005 at the Wayback Machine, Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  9. ^ Freebooksvampire White Lies, Author:Witi Ihimaera, 3. Merle Oberon was a Maori Archived 10 August 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Screenz 6 October 2014 BSS 2014: on Māori filmmaking – Keith Barclay Archived 17 June 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Auckland Actors Whale Rider producer & novelist reteam for Medicine Woman – Taken from Screen Daily, by Sandy George Archived 8 February 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Higham and 1983, pp. 25–26.
  13. ^ a b Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 28.
  14. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 30.
  15. ^ Datta-Ray, Sunanda K. "More than skin-deep." Business Standard, New Delhi, 4 July 2009. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  16. ^ a b c d Higham and Moseley 1983, pp. 33–34.
  17. ^ a b Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 37.
  18. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 38.
  19. ^ Film Weekly, May 1939, p. 7.
  20. ^ Higham and Mosley 1983, P. 94.
  21. ^ Munn 2010, p. 70. Archived 25 April 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ "Star's injuries halt production of film." Archived 9 May 2016 at the Wayback Machine The Tuscaloosa News|, 25 March 1937. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  23. ^ Graham, Sheilah. "Hollywood gadabout." Archived 18 May 2016 at the Wayback Machine Milwaukee Journal, 4 April 1937. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ a b Higham and Moseley 1983.[page needed]
  26. ^ Kahn, Salma. "Hollywood's first Indian actress: Merle Oberon." Archived 31 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine SAPNA Magazine, Winter 2009. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  27. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 100.
  28. ^ "No. 35719". The London Gazette. 25 September 1942. p. 4175.
  29. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 161.
  30. ^ Christopher, Schemering (28 April 1985). "The High Price of Fame and Fortune". The Washington Post. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  31. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 291.
  32. ^ a b c Pybus 1998, p. 161.
  33. ^ "Oberon, Merle [real name Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson] (1911–1979)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/56978. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  34. ^ Ellenberger, Allan R. (1 May 2001). Celebrities in Los Angeles Cemeteries: A Directory. McFarland. ISBN 9780786450190. Archived from the original on 12 October 2020. Retrieved 20 September 2020 – via Google Books.
  35. ^ Korda 1999, pp. 446–447.
  36. ^ Liebman, Lisa (28 July 2017). "The Fascinating Old Hollywood Story That Inspired The Last Tycoon's Best Plotline". Vanity Fair. Archived from the original on 31 July 2017. Retrieved 9 January 2018.
  37. ^ "Oberon, Cotten Star on "Guild"." Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine Harrisburg Telegraph, 14 December 1946, p. 17, via Retrieved 11 September 2015.
  38. ^ "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 42 (3): 34. Summer 2016.


  • Bowden, Tim. The Devil in Tim: Penelope's Travels in Tasmania. London: Allen & Unwin, 2008. ISBN 978-1-74175-237-3.
  • Casey, Bob. Merle Oberon: Face of Mystery. Hobart, Tasmania, Australia: Masterpiece@IXL, 2008. ISBN 978-0-98054-822-8.
  • Higham, Charles and Roy Moseley. Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon. New York: Coward-McCann Inc., 1983. ISBN 978-0-69811-231-5.
  • Korda, Michael. Another Life: A Memoir of Other People. New York: Random House, 1999. ISBN 0-67945-659-7.
  • Munn, Michael. David Niven: The Man Behind the Balloon. London: JR Books, 2010. ISBN 1-9-0677-967-8.
  • Pybus, Cassandra. Till Apples Grow on an Orange Tree. St Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0-70222-986-2.

External links[edit]