Birthday: February 19, 1911
Died At Age: 68
Sun Sign: Pisces
Also Known As: Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson
Born Country: India
Born in: Bombay, Bombay Presidency, British India
Famous as: Actress
Spouse/Ex-: Alexander Korda (m. 1939–1945), Bruno Pagliai (m. 1957–1973) Lucien Ballard, Robert Wolders (m. 1975–1979)
siblings: Constance Thompson
children: Bruno Pagliai Jr., Francesca Pagliai
Died on: November 23, 1979
place of death: Malibu, California, United States
City: Mumbai, India
Who was Merle Oberon?
Merle Oberon was a ravishing and classy Anglo-Indian actress, counted among the most dazzling performers during initial phase of talkies in the British film industry. Making her debut in films as an extra she soon made her mark in British films after being spotted by producer-director Alexander Korda and she landed doing a small but significant role of Anne Boleyn in ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’. This was followed by another successful performance as Lady Blakeney, née Marguerite St. Just in British adventure film ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ directed by Harold Young. Her quick success in British films made her try her hand in the US film industry where renowned Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn gave her several plum roles, particularly in ‘The Dark Angel’, the performance in which fetched her ‘Academy Award for Best Actress’ nomination. She met with a potentially career-ending car accident during the making of ‘I, Claudius’ that damaged her face. However good make-up combined with careful lightning aided her in hiding the imperfections and moving on she soon mesmerised the audience with her most notable performance in ‘Wuthering Heights’, a film which was selected by ‘Library of Congress’ in 2007 for preservation in the ‘National Film Registry’ of the US, as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". All through her professional life she tried to conceal her Indian origin by contriving a story of being born in Tasmania, Australia, however a year before her death she admitted falsification.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson on February 19, 1911, in Bombay (presently called Mumbai) in British India.
All through her life she concealed her mixed ancestry and even concocted a story claiming her birthplace as Tasmania, Australia. However such story was debunked following her demise.
Some sources claim her parents to be Arthur Terrence O'Brien Thompson, a mechanical engineer from England who served ‘Indian Railways’ and Charlotte Selby, a Eurasian lady with partial Māori background hailing from Ceylon (at present Srilanka).
According to sources Charlotte gave birth to a daughter called Constance in Ceylon, out of her relationship with Irish foreman Henry Alfred Selby, when she was 14-year-old. When Constance was 12-year-old, she gave birth to Merle.
However, Merle was raised by Charlotte as her younger daughter and as younger sister of Constance. Merle’s birth certificate lists Arthur Thompson as her father with the first name misspelt as ‘Arther’.
Later Constance married Alexander Soares and together had four children, Stanislaus, Harry, Edna and Douglas.
Arthur Thompson began serving the ‘British army’ in 1914. He succumbed to pneumonia during the ‘Battle of the Somme’, the largest battle of ‘First World War’ on the Western Front.
After living in an impoverished condition in Bombay, Charlotte moved to Calcutta (at present Kolkata) with Merle in 1917. There Merle joined one of the prestigious schools of the city, ‘La Martiniere Calcutta’ for girls after receiving foundation scholarship. However, her parental origin haunted her here too where she was ridiculed of her unconventional heritage. Eventually she left school and studied at home.
Years later when Harry traced Merle’s birth certificate in records of the Indian government, he was shocked to find that she was actually his sister and not maternal aunt. He tried to meet her in Los Angeles but she did not agree to see him.
Harry did not reveal this fact to biographer Charles Higham who was working on her biography but later shared it with Maree Delofski, who made the 2002 documentary on Merle, ‘The Trouble with Merle’, produced by ‘Australian Broadcasting Corporation’.
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Oberon was crazy about films and would frequent the nightclubs of Calcutta.
According to Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, an Indian journalist, Oberon served for a while as a telephone operator using the name Queenie Thompson.
Her first performance was with an amateur theater group ‘Calcutta Amateur Dramatic Society’.
She got acquainted with Colonel Ben Finney, a former actor, at ‘Firpo’s Restaurant’ in 1929, where she won a contest, and soon started dating him. However the relationship did not took off as Finney distanced himself from her upon knowing about her mixed ancestry.
However she relocated to France taking word of Finney to introduce her to Irish film director Rex Ingram. Her exotic look made Ingram hire her as an extra in 1929 British silent drama film ‘The Three Passions’ that marked her first step in the film industry. Thereafter she performed in several films for the next few years mostly doing trivial roles which went without any credit.
Her breakthrough came in 1933 when she landed up playing Anne Boleyn in the historical biopic ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ starring opposite Charles Laughton, after being spotted by the film’s director Alexander Korda. Huge success of the film got her other leading roles by the turn of the year in films like ‘The Battle’, ‘The Private Life of Don Juan’ and ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’, all of which were released in 1934.
Her success graph in British films combined with her close association with Korda made her think of a career in Hollywood. Korda helped her take the next step forward by selling shares of her contract to Jewish Polish American film producer Samuel Goldwyn who on the other hand provided her with good opportunities in Hollywood.
She went on to do several films in Hollywood including those produced by Goldwyn like ‘Beloved Enemy’ and ‘These Three’ in 1936 and by others like ‘Folies Bergère de Paris’ (1935) and ‘The Dark Angel’ (1935) of which the latter fetched her the sole ‘Academy Award for Best Actress’ nomination of her career.
She met with a severe car accident that damaged her face while making of the 1937 film ‘I, Claudius’, which was never completed. However the incident could not deter her from her goal and she went on to do several notable films reviving her beauty and charm with the aid of good make-up and prudent lighting.
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Some such films include 'Wuthering Heights’ starring opposite Laurence Olivier in 1939; ‘Lydia’ (1941); ‘A Song to Remember’ (1945); ‘Night in Paradise’ (1946); ‘Berlin Express’ (1948); and ‘Désirée’ (1954).
Personal Life & Legacy
On June 3, 1939, she married Alexander Korda in Antibes and after Korda was knighted in 1942, she became Lady Korda.
‘Princess Merle’, her biography by Charles Higham and Roy Moseley apprised that in 1940 her complexion suffered damage due to allergic reactions. Korda made arrangements for her skin treatment in New York City where she had to undergo many dermabrasion procedures which gave partial results and without makeup the flaws of her skin would remain noticeable. On June 4, 1945, the couple divorced.
On 26th June 1945, Merle married cinematographer Lucien Ballard. A special camera light was introduced by Ballard to tactfully hide her facial flaws on film which became famous as the ‘Obie’. Their marriage lasted till February 11, 1949.
Her third marriage was with Italy-born industrialist, Bruno Pagliai from July 28, 1957 to 1973 with whom she adopted two children, Francesca Pagliai and Bruno Pagliai Jr.
Her fourth marriage with Dutch actor Robert Wolders, 25 years younger to her, lasted till her death.
On November 23, 1979, she succumbed to a stroke in Malibu, California and was buried at ‘Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery’ in Glendale, California.
‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ has a star on her, for motion pictures at 6250 Hollywood Boulevard.