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Merle Oberon (18 February 1911 – 23 November 1979) was an Indian-born British actress.

She began her film career in British films, and a prominent role, as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), brought attention to her. Leading roles in such films as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) advanced her career, and 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 soon followed this with one of her most successful films, Wuthering Heights (1939).

Her career continued successfully during the 1940s; by the end of the decade her career was in decline and her acting performances over the following years were relatively few.

From the early days of her career, Oberon succeeded in establishing a fabricated history of her origins in which she said that she had been born in Tasmaniamarker, Australia. She maintained this story to conceal that she was of mixed-race Indian background, as she believed the truth would have destroyed her career prospects due to societal expectations and restrictions at that time.

Early life

According to her birth certificate, Oberon was born in Bombaymarker (now Mumbaimarker), British India on 18 February 1911 as Estelle Merle Thompson, although other sources note 19 February as her date of birth and "Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson" as her birth name. Merle was given "Queenie" as a nickname, in honour of Queen Mary who visited India along with King George V in 1911. Merle's parentage has remained deliberately obscure over the years. Some sources claim Charlotte Selby, a Eurasian from Ceylonmarker with partial Māori heritage, and Arthur Terrence O'Brien Thompson, a British mechanical engineer from Darlingtonmarker, who worked in Indian Railways, as Merle's parents. At the age of fourteen years, Charlotte had given birth to her first child Constance, in Ceylon, from a relationship with Henry Alfred Selby, an Irish foreman of a tea planter. Some sources claim that Constance was the biological mother of Merle, even though Charlotte raised Merle as her own child. Charlotte's partner Arthur Thompson was listed as her father in Merle's birth certificate, where he is referred to as "Arther" Thompson. Merle knew Constance only as her "sister". Constance's other child, Harry Selby, always believed he was Merle Oberon's nephew. He later moved to Torontomarker, Canadamarker, and when he tracked down her birth certificate in Indian government records, he was surprised to discover he was in fact her brother. He did attempt to visit her in Los Angeles, but she refused to acknowledge him. He withheld this information from her biographer Charles Higham, only revealing it to Maree Delofski, the maker of The Trouble with Merle, a 2002 documentary produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporationmarker, which investigated the conflicting versions of her origin.

In 1914, Arthur Thompson joined the British Army and later died of pneumonia on the Western Front during the Somme offensive. Merle, with her "mother" (really her grandmother) led an impoverished existence in shabby Bombay apartments for a few years. Then, in 1917, they moved to better circumstances in Calcutta (now Kolkatamarker). Oberon received a foundation scholarship to attend La Martiniere Calcutta for Girls, a well-known Calcutta private school. There, she was constantly taunted for her unconventional parentage and eventually quit school and had her lessons at home.

Oberon first performed with the Calcutta Amateur Dramatic Society. She was also completely enamored of the movies and enjoyed going out to nightclubs. As she entered her teen years, she dated increasingly older, urbane men.

The 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 her movie career started.

In 1929, she met a former actor named Colonel Ben Finney at Firpo's, and dated him. However, when he saw Oberon's dark-skinned mother one night at her apartment and realized Oberon was mixed-race, he secretly decided to end the relationship. But he promised to introduce her to Rex Ingram of Victorine Studios, if she could come to France. Oberon jumped at the offer and decided to follow the man to the studios in France. After packing all their belongings and moving to France, Oberon and her mother found that their supposed benefactor had dodged them. However, he had left a good word for Oberon with Rex Ingram at the studios in Nicemarker. Ingram liked Oberon's exotic appearance and quickly hired her to be an extra in a party scene in a movie named The Three Passions.

Film career

Oberon arrived in England for the first time in 1928. 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 modestly told a journalist at Film Weekly in 1939.

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 The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) with Leslie Howard, who became her lover for a while. During her time as a film star, Oberon went to great lengths to disguise her mixed-race background and when her dark-skinned mother moved in with her, she masqueraded as Oberon's maid.

Oberon's career went on to greater heights, partly as a result of her relationship with and later marriage to Alexander Korda, who had persuaded her to take the name under which she became famous. He sold "shares" of her contract to producer Samuel Goldwyn, who gave her good vehicles in Hollywoodmarker. Her "mother" stayed behind in England. Oberon received her only Oscar nomination as Best Actress for The Dark Angel (1935) produced by Goldwyn. Around this time she had a serious romance with David Niven, and according to his authorized biography, even wanted to marry him, but he wasn't faithful to her. She was selected to star in Korda's film I, Claudius (1937) as Messalina, but a serious car accident resulted in filming being abandoned. Oberon was scarred for life, but skilled lighting technicians were able to hide her injuries from cinema audiences.

She went on to appear as Cathy in her most famous film Wuthering Heights (1939), as George Sand in A Song to Remember (1945), and as Empress Josephine in Désirée (1954).

According to Princess Merle, the biography written by Charles Higham with Roy Moseley, Oberon suffered even further 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, one could see noticeable pitting and indentation of her skin.

Her "mother" died in 1937, and in 1949 Oberon commissioned paintings of her mother from an old photograph, instructing the artist to lighten her mother's complexion. The paintings would hang in all her homes until her death in 1979. Also, Oberon supposedly had a minor obsession with facial injuries after her own accident, and had an affair with Richard Hillary who had been burned after his Supermarine Spitfire was shot down in 1940.

Merle Oberon became Lady Korda upon her husband's knighthood in 1942. She divorced him in 1945, to marry cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Ballard devised a special camera light for her to eliminate her facial scars on film. The light became known as the "Obie".

She married twice more, to Italian-born industrialist, Bruno Pagliai (with whom she adopted two children; they lived in Cuernavacamarker, Morelos, Mexico) and Dutch actor Robert Wolders – who would later become Audrey Hepburn's and Leslie Caron's companion – before her retirement in Malibu, Californiamarker, where she died after suffering a stroke at the age of 68. She was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemeterymarker in Glendale, Californiamarker.

Merle Oberon has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Famemarker for her contributions to Motion Pictures, at 6250 Hollywood Boulevard.

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.

Disputed birthplace

In order to conceal her mixed racial background, Oberon claimed that she was born and raised in Tasmaniamarker, Australia. The fact that no birth or school records could be found to prove this was explained by another fabrication: all records had been destroyed in a fire. She maintained these fictions throughout her professional life. The story of her alleged Tasmanian connections was comprehensively debunked 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 Hobartmarker was scheduled, she became ill after journalists in Sydneymarker pressed her for details of her early life, and she left for Mexico shortly afterwards. 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 reception to save face. However, shortly after arriving at the reception, Oberon denied she had been born in Tasmania, to the disappointment of many. She then excused herself, claiming illness; whether ill or not, this meant she 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. This story, too, seems to have been a fabrication. During her Hobart stay, she remained in her hotel, gave no other interviews, and did not visit the theatre named in her honour.

Yet there are still many people in Tasmania who claim to have known Oberon as a child. They insist she was the illegitimate daughter of a woman named Lottie Chintock from St. Helensmarker.

Other versions of Merle Oberon's story include:
  • In Hobart in 1978, she pointed to a fine old building and told her husband Robert Wolders she had been born and raised there. The building was in fact Government Housemarker, the official residence of the Governor of Tasmania.
  • She left Tasmania for India after her distinguished father died in a hunting accident, and was raised there by aristocratic godparents.
  • Lottie Chintock had been seduced by the owner of the St Helens Hotel, John Wills Thompson.
  • Lottie Chintock gave birth to her in Hobart but was forced to relinquish her.
  • In Hobart, Lottie lived with an Indian silk merchant with the unlikely name of O'Brien. The O'Briens adopted the baby and took her to India, where she grew up.
  • She was taken to India by a travelling troupe of actors called O'Brien.
  • She was taken to India by the cousin of her mother's employer.
  • It is claimed that she attended the Model School in Hobart, but that school has no record of her.



Short Subjects

  • Screen Snapshots Series 16, No. 4 (1936)
  • Hollywood Goes to Town (1938)


  1. Merle Oberon: Hollywood's Face of Mystery
  2. Film Weekly, p. 7, May 1939.
  4. Higham, Charles; Moseley, Roy. Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon, 1983. ISBN 0698112318
  5. Higham, Charles; Moseley, Roy. Merle; A Biography of Merle Oberon,1984. ISBN 0450057097
  6. See About the "Villa Arabesque", the luxurious house where Mohammed Reza Pahlevi didn't actually live (in Spanish)
  7. Cassandra Pybus, Till apples grow on an orange tree
  8. The Age, 21 August 2002, The Legend of Merle
  9. Tim Bowden, The Devil in Tin


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