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Merle Oberon

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Merle Oberon
Merle 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). Oberon hid her mixed heritage out of fear of discrimination and the impact it would have had on her career.[2]

She was perhaps best known for her portrayal of Catherine Earnshaw in the 1939 film adaptation of the novel Wuthering Heights, directed by William Wyler.

Her other notable films are These Three (1936), A Song to Remember (1945), Berlin Express (1948), and Désirée (1954).

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[3][4] 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.[5]


For most of her life, Merle protected herself by concealing the truth about her parentage, claiming that she had been born in Tasmania, Australia,[6] and that her birth records had been destroyed in a fire.

She was raised as the daughter of Arthur Terrence O'Brien Thompson, a Welsh mechanical engineer from Darlington who worked in Indian Railways[7] and his wife, Charlotte Selby, a Burgher from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). (Charlotte's full name was Constance Charlotte Thompson, according to her 1937 obituary.)[8] According to Merle's birth certificate, her biological mother was named "Constance Thompson", so it's unclear whether it was Charlotte's then-12-year-old daughter, Constance Selby. A theory that has circulated is that Constance became pregnant as a result of rape by her step-father, Arthur Thompson. To avoid scandal, Charlotte raised Merle as Constance's half-sister.[1][9] Charlotte had herself given birth to Constance at the age of 14 as the result of rape by Henry Alfred Selby, the Anglo-Irish foreman of a tea plantation.[10] In their 1983 biography of Oberon, Charles Higham and Roy Moseley also wrote that Selby had Māori ancestry, though the iwi (Maori tribe) was not known.[10]

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. He lived 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 possibly 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, who made the 2002 documentary The Trouble with Merle, produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which investigated the various conflicting versions of Merle's origin.[9]

New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera used Oberon's hidden South Asian and alleged Māori heritage as the inspiration for the novel White Lies,[11][12] which was turned into the 2013 movie White Lies.[13]


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.[14] 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 (now Kolkata).[15] Oberon attended La Martiniere Calcutta for Girls, one of the best private schools in Calcutta, as a charity student.[15][16] There she was constantly taunted for her mixed ethnicity, eventually leading her to quit school and receive lessons at home.[17]

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 said 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.[18]

At Firpo's in 1928, aged 18, Merle met a former actor, Colonel Ben Finney, and dated him;[19] however, when he saw Charlotte one night at her flat, he realized Oberon was of mixed ancestry and ended the relationship.[19] 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, which she readily did.[19] After packing all their belongings and moving to France, Oberon and her mother found that their supposed benefactor avoided them,[20] although he had left a good word for Oberon with Ingram at the studios in Nice.[20] Ingram appreciated Oberon's exotic appearance and quickly hired her to be an extra in a party scene in a film named The Three Passions.[21]

Acting career[edit]

Merle Oberon in 1936

Early roles[edit]

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.[22]

Alexander Korda and British stardom[edit]

Her film career received a major boost when 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 for other producers, starting with The Battle (1934) opposite Charles Boyer, and The Broken Melody (1934).

Oberon then made two more films for Korda: The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) with Douglas Fairbanks was a disappointment but The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) with Leslie Howard, who became her lover for a while, was a huge hit.[23]

Hollywood and Sam Goldwyn[edit]

Oberon's career benefited from her relationship with, and later marriage to, Korda. He sold "shares" of her contract to producer Samuel Goldwyn and she moved to Hollywood. Her "mother" stayed behind in England. Oberon's career there began with Folies Bergère de Paris (1935) with Maurice Chevalier.

Goldwyn put her in The Dark Angel (1935), which earned her a sole Academy Award for Best Actress nomination, then These Three (1936) for William Wyler and Beloved Enemy (1936). The latter co starred David Niven with whom Oberon had a serious romance, and according to one biographer even wanted to marry him, but he was not faithful to her.[24]

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 crash resulted in the film being abandoned.[25][26][Note 1] While in England she co starred against Laurence Olivier in the Korda comedy The Divorce of Lady X (1938).

Back in Hollywood, Oberon appeared opposite Gary Cooper in The Cowboy and the Lady (1938) and then played Cathy in the highly acclaimed film Wuthering Heights (opposite Laurence Olivier; 1939).

In England Oberon made Over the Moon (1939) and The Lion Has Wings (1940) for Korda.

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.[28] The results were only partially successful; her face had become noticeably pitted and indented unless concealed by makeup.[28]

Oberon starred in Til We Meet Again (1940) and Affectionately Yours (1941) for Warner Bros, then That Uncertain Feeling (1941) for Ernst Lubitsch. Korda financed Lydia (1941). None of these films was particularly successful at the box office. Oberon was one of many stars to make cameos in Forever and a Day (1943) and Stage Door Canteen (1943). She made First Comes Courage (1943) at Columbia and played the female lead in The Lodger (1944), a popular noir. Also admired was Dark Waters (1944).

Oberon had a big hit with A Song to Remember (1945) in which she played George Sand. However she was in a series of unsuccessful films at Universal: This Love of Ours (1946), Night in Paradise (1946), and Temptation (1946). She made some films for RKO, Night Song (1948), and Berlin Express (1948).

Later career[edit]

In France, Oberon appeared in Pardon My French (1951) then she did 24 Hours of a Woman's Life (1952) in England and All Is Possible in Granada (1954). Back in Hollywood she played the Empress Josephine in Désirée (1954) and had a cameo in Deep in My Heart (1954). She had the lead in a noir, The Price of Fear (1956).

Oberon came out of retirement sporadically to appear in films such as Of Love and Desire (1963) and Hotel (1967).

Her last movie was Interval (1973).

Personal life[edit]

Charlotte Selby, Oberon’s possible birth grandmother, raised Oberon as her daughter until her death in 1937. In 1949, Oberon commissioned paintings of Charlotte based on an old photograph (but depicting Charlotte with lighter skin),[29] which hung in all her homes until Oberon's own death in 1979.[30]

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 became Lady Korda when her husband was knighted in 1942 by George VI for his contribution to the war effort.[31] 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".[32] 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.[33]

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.[34] Oberon is known to have been to Australia only twice.[35] 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.[35]

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 went ahead with the celebration to avoid embarrassment. 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.[35]


Oberon retired after Interval and moved with Wolders to Malibu, California, where she died in 1979, aged 68, after suffering a stroke.[36] Her body was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.[37]


For her contributions to Motion Pictures, Oberon has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6274 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, California USA.

Michael Korda, nephew of Sir Alexander Korda, wrote a roman à clef about Oberon after her death titled Queenie. This was adapted into a television miniseries starring Mia Sara, Kirk Douglas, Sarah Miles, Claire Bloom, Leigh Lawson, and Joss Ackland.[38]

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.[39]



Year Title Role Notes
1928 The Three Passions Bit Part Uncredited
1930 The W Plan Woman at Cafe Table Uncredited
Alf's Button Bit Part Uncredited
A Warm Corner Bit Part Uncredited
1931 Never Trouble Trouble Bit Part Uncredited
Fascination Flower Seller Uncredited
1932 Service for Ladies Minor Role Uncredited
Ebb Tide Girl Uncredited
Aren't We All? Bit Part Uncredited
Wedding Rehearsal Miss Hutchinson
Men of Tomorrow Ysobel d'Aunay Lost film
For the Love of Mike Bit Part Uncredited
1933 Strange Evidence Bit Part Uncredited
The Private Life of Henry VIII Anne Boleyn - The Second Wife
1934 The Battle Marquise Yorisaka
The Broken Melody Germaine Brissard
The Private Life of Don Juan Antonita, a Dancer of Passionate Temperament
The Scarlet Pimpernel Lady Blakeney
1935 Folies Bergère de Paris Baroness Genevieve Cassini
The Dark Angel Kitty Vane Nomination - Academy Award for Best Actress
1936 These Three Karen Wright
Beloved Enemy Lady Helen Drummond
1937 I, Claudius Messalina Unfinished
1938 The Divorce of Lady X Leslie
The Cowboy and the Lady Mary Smith
1939 Over the Moon Jane Benson
Wuthering Heights Cathy
The Lion Has Wings Mrs. Richardson
1940 'Til We Meet Again Joan Ames
1941 That Uncertain Feeling Jill Baker
Affectionately Yours Sue Mayberry
Lydia Lydia MacMillan
1943 Forever and a Day Marjorie Ismay
Stage Door Canteen Herself
First Comes Courage Nicole Larsen
1944 The Lodger Kitty Langley
Dark Waters Leslie Calvin
1945 A Song to Remember George Sand
This Love of Ours Karin Touzac
1946 Night in Paradise Delarai
Temptation Ruby
1947 Night Song Cathy
1948 Berlin Express Lucienne
1951 Pardon My French Elizabeth Rockwell
1952 Dans la vie tout s'arrange Elizabeth Rockwell French version of The Lady from Boston
24 Hours of a Woman's Life Linda Venning
1954 All Is Possible in Granada Margaret Faulson
Désirée Empress Josephine
Deep in My Heart Dorothy Donnelly
1956 The Price of Fear Jessica Warren
1963 Of Love and Desire Katherine Beckmann
1966 The Oscar Herself
1967 Hotel The Duchess Caroline
1973 Interval Serena Moore

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[40]
1946 Screen Guild Players Wuthering Heights[41]

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."[27]


  1. ^ a b c "Merle Oberon: Hollywood's Face of Mystery". Archived from the original on 4 May 2009. Retrieved 4 May 2009.
  2. ^ Vox. Who was the first Asian nominated for Best Actress?. Retrieved 3 March 2023 – via YouTube.
  3. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 24.
  4. ^ "£5,000 Damages for Merle Oberon." Archived 12 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine The Glasgow Herald, 5 May 1938. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  5. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 25.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 21.
  8. ^ "The Sydney Morning Herald".
  9. ^ a b "ABC TV documentary: The Trouble With Merle" Archived 30 October 2005 at the Wayback Machine, Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  10. ^ a b Higham and Moseley 1983, 17-18.
  11. ^ Freebooksvampire White Lies, Author:Witi Ihimaera, 3. Merle Oberon was a Maori Archived 10 August 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Screenz 6 October 2014 BSS 2014: on Māori filmmaking – Keith Barclay Archived 17 June 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ Higham and 1983, pp. 25–26.
  15. ^ a b Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 28.
  16. ^ Woollacott, 2011, P97
  17. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 30.
  18. ^ Datta-Ray, Sunanda K. "More than skin-deep." Business Standard, New Delhi, 4 July 2009. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  19. ^ a b c Higham and Moseley 1983, pp. 33–34.
  20. ^ a b Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 37.
  21. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 38.
  22. ^ Film Weekly, May 1939, p. 7.
  23. ^ Higham and Mosley 1983, P. 94.
  24. ^ Munn 2010, p. 70. Archived 25 April 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ "Star's injuries halt production of film". The Tuscaloosa News. 25 March 1937. p. 8. Archived from the original on 9 May 2016.
  26. ^ Graham, Sheilah. "Hollywood gadabout." Archived 18 May 2016 at the Wayback Machine Milwaukee Journal, 4 April 1937. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ a b Higham and Moseley 1983.[page needed]
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 100.
  31. ^ "No. 35719". The London Gazette. 25 September 1942. p. 4175.
  32. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 161.
  33. ^ Christopher, Schemering (28 April 1985). "The High Price of Fame and Fortune". The Washington Post. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  34. ^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 291.
  35. ^ a b c Pybus, Cassandra (1998). Till Apples Grow on an Orange Tree. Univ. of Queensland Press. p. 161. ISBN 978-0-7022-3036-3.
  36. ^ "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.)
  37. ^ 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.
  38. ^ Korda 1999, pp. 446–447.
  39. ^ 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.
  40. ^ "Oberon, Cotten Star on "Guild"." Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine Harrisburg Telegraph, 14 December 1946, p. 17, via Newspapers.com. Retrieved 11 September 2015.
  41. ^ "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.
  • Woollacott, Angela. Race and the Modern Exotic. Three 'Australian' Women on Global Display. Monash University Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1-92186-712-5

External links[edit]