(born Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson, 19 February
1911 – 23 November 1979) was an
began her film career in British films as
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
Academy Award for Best Actress
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.
1 Early life
2 Acting career
3 Personal life
6 Disputed birthplace
7.2 Short subjects
8 Radio appearances
9 See also
11 External links
Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson was born in
Bombay (now known as
Mumbai), British India on 19 February 1911. Merle was given
"Queenie" as a nickname, in honour of Queen Mary, who visited India
along with King
George V in 1911.
Born to a 12-year-old mother, for most of her lifetime Oberon
concealed the truth about her parentage. For many years she claimed
that she had been born in Tasmania, Australia, and that her birth
records had been destroyed in a fire. Some sources have claimed that
Merle's parents were Arthur Terrence O'Brien Thompson, a British
mechanical engineer from Darlington, who worked in Indian Railways,
and Charlotte Selby, a Eurasian from
Ceylon who was also of Māori
heritage. However, Charlotte's 12-year-old daughter Constance was
actually Merle's biological mother. Charlotte had 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. Charlotte
raised Merle as her own child and as Constance's sister.
Charlotte's partner, Arthur Thompson, was listed as the father in
Merle's birth certificate, with the forename misspelled as
"Arther". Constance eventually married and had four other children,
Edna, Douglas, Harry and Stanislaus (Stan) with her husband Alexander
Soares. All the siblings reportedly believed Merle to be their aunt
(the sister of their mother Constance), when in fact she was their
half-sister. Edna and Douglas moved at an early age to the UK and
Harry later in life moved to Toronto, Canada, and retained Constance's
maiden name, Selby. Stanislaus was the only child to keep his father's
last name of Soares; he has resided in Surrey, British Columbia,
When Harry Selby 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 Trouble with Merle,
a 2002 documentary produced by the Australian Broadcasting
Corporation, which investigated the various conflicting versions of
In 1914, Arthur Thompson joined the
British Army and later died of
pneumonia on the Western Front during the Battle of the Somme.
Merle, with Charlotte, led an impoverished existence in shabby flats
Bombay for a few years. Then, in 1917, they moved to better
circumstances in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) Oberon received a
foundation scholarship to attend
La Martiniere Calcutta
La Martiniere Calcutta for Girls, one
of the best private schools in Calcutta. There, she was constantly
taunted for her unconventional parentage, eventually leading her to
quit school and receive lessons at home.
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.
In 1929, Merle met a former actor named Colonel Ben Finney at Firpo's,
and she dated him. However, when he saw Oberon's dark-skinned
mother (actually her grandmother) one night at her flat, and realised
Oberon had mixed ancestry, he decided to end the relationship.
However, Finney promised to introduce her to Rex Ingram of Victorine
Studios, if she was prepared to travel to France. which she
readily did. After packing all their belongings and moving to
France, Oberon and her mother found that their supposed benefactor
avoided them, although he had left a good word for Oberon with
Ingram at the studios in Nice. 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.
New Zealand author
Witi Ihimaera uses Oberon's hidden Maori and
non-white heritage as the inspiration for the novel White
Lies, which was turned into the movie White Lies.
Merle Oberon in 1936
This section appears to contradict itself on when Oberon came to
Europe. Please see the talk page for more information. (November 2014)
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 modestly told a journalist at Film Weekly in
1939. 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
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.
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.[Note 1] She went on to appear as Cathy in the
highly acclaimed film Wuthering Heights (opposite Laurence Olivier;
George Sand in
A Song to Remember
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
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.
Charlotte died in 1937. In 1949 Oberon commissioned paintings of her
mother from an old photograph. The paintings hung in all her homes
until Oberon's own death in 1979.
Merle Oberon announced an engagement to American studio executive
Joseph M. Schenck
Joseph M. Schenck in 1934.  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 became Lady Korda when her husband was knighted in 1942 by
George VI for his contribution to the war effort. 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 her facial scars on film.
The light became known as the "Obie". She and Ballard divorced in
Oberon next married Italian-born industrialist Bruno Pagliai in 1957,
adopted two children with him and lived in Cuernavaca, Morelos,
Mexico. After meeting then 36-year-old Dutch actor Robert Wolders
(later companion to actresses
Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron) while
they filmed Interval in 1973, Oberon divorced Pagliai and married
Wolders in 1975.
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
Oberon has a star on the
Hollywood Walk of Fame
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. F. Scott Fitzgerald's
The Last Tycoon
The Last Tycoon was made into the television series
on Amazon Studios, with
Jennifer Beals playing Margo Taft, a character
based on Oberon.
Oberon claimed that she was born and raised in Tasmania, Australia.
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
scheduled, after journalists in Sydney pressed her for details of her
early life, she became ill and shortly afterwards left for Mexico.
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. 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.
The Three Passions (1928)
A Warm Corner (1930)
Alf's Button (1930)
Never Trouble Trouble (1931)
The W Plan
The W Plan (1931)
For the Love of Mike (1932)
Reserved for Ladies
Reserved for Ladies (1932)
Ebb Tide (1932)
Aren't We All? (1932)
Wedding Rehearsal (1932)
Men of Tomorrow (1932)
Strange Evidence (1933)
The Private Life of Henry VIII
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
The Battle (1934)
The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)
The Broken Melody (1934)
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
Folies Bergère de Paris (1935)
The Dark Angel (1935)
These Three (1936)
Beloved Enemy (1936)
I, Claudius (1937) (unfinished)
The Divorce of Lady X
The Divorce of Lady X (1938)
The Cowboy and the Lady (1938)
Wuthering Heights (1939)
Over the Moon (1939)
The Lion Has Wings
The Lion Has Wings (1939)
'Til We Meet Again
'Til We Meet Again (1940)
That Uncertain Feeling (1941)
Affectionately Yours (1941)
Forever and a Day (1943)
Stage Door Canteen (1943)
First Comes Courage
First Comes Courage (1943)
The Lodger (1944)
Dark Waters (1944)
A Song to Remember
A Song to Remember (1945)
This Love of Ours (1945)
Night in Paradise
Night in Paradise (1946)
Night Song (1948)
Berlin Express (1948)
The Lady from Boston
The Lady from Boston (1951)
Dans la vie tout s'arrange (1952), a French version of The Lady from
24 Hours of a Woman's Life
24 Hours of a Woman's Life (1952)
All Is Possible in Granada (1954)
Deep in My Heart (1954)
The Price of Fear (1956)
Of Love and Desire
Of Love and Desire (1963)
The Oscar (1966)
"Screen Snapshots Series 16, No. 4" (1936)
"Hollywood Goes to Town" (1938)
"Assignment: Foreign Legion" (1956/7 TV episodes)
Screen Guild Players
This Love of Ours
Screen Guild Players
English rose (personal description)
^ In July 1937, United Press correspondent Dan Rogers noted:
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
^ a b c Merle Oberon: Hollywood's Face of Mystery
^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 24.
^ "£5,000 Damages for Merle Oberon." The Glasgow Herald, 5 May 1938.
Retrieved 5 January 2016.
^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 25.
^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 21.
^ a b Higham and Moseley 1983, 18.
^ "Merle Oberon." merleoberon.net. Retrieved: 16 July 2009.
^ a b "ABC TV documentary: The Trouble With Merle", Australian
Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
^ Higham and 1983, pp. 25–26.
^ a b Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 28.
^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 30.
^ Datta-Ray, Sunanda K. "More than skin-deep." Business Standard, New
Delhi, 4 July 2009. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
^ a b c d Higham and Moseley 1983, pp. 33–34.
^ a b Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 37.
^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 38.
^ Freebooksvampire White Lies, Author:Witi Ihimaera, 3. Merle Oberon
was a Maori Archived 10 August 2016 at the Wayback Machine.
^ Screenz 6 October 2014 BSS 2014: on Māori filmmaking – Keith
^ Auckland Actors Whale Rider producer & novelist reteam for
Medicine Woman – Taken from Screen Daily, by Sandy George
^ Film Weekly, May 1939, p. 7.
^ Higham and Mosley 1983, P. 94.
^ Munn 2010, p. 70.
^ "Star's injuries halt production of film." The Tuscaloosa News, 25
March 1937. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
^ Graham, Sheilah. "Hollywood gadabout." Milwaukee Journal, 4 April
1937. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
^ 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.
^ a b Higham and Moseley 1983.[page needed]
^ Kahn, Salma. "Hollywood's first Indian actress: Merle Oberon." SAPNA
Magazine, Winter 2009. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 100.
^ Template:Cite newspaper Chicago Tribune
^ "No. 35719". The London Gazette. 25 September 1942.
^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 161.
^ "Villa Arabesque", the luxurious house where Mohammed Reza Pahlevi
didn't actually live (in Spanish)."[permanent dead link] exonline.com.
Retrieved 22 June 2013.
^ "Merle Oberon.' findagrave.com. Retrieved 9 September 2014.
^ Korda 1999, pp. 446–447.
^ Higham and Moseley 1983, p. 291.
^ a b c Pybus 1998, p. 161.
^ "Oberon, Cotten Star on "Guild"." Harrisburg Telegraph, 14 December
1946, p. 17, via Newspapers.com. Retrieved 11 September 2015.
^ "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 42 (3): 34. Summer
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.
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.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Merle Oberon.
Merle Oberon on IMDb
Merle Oberon at the TCM Movie Database
Merle Oberon at the British Film Institute's Screenonline
Classic Movie Favorites website
Merle Oberon and bibliography
Merle Oberon at
Find a Grave
Find a Grave – Note 1917 birthyear on headstone
Merle Oberon in pose for The Dark Angel in Vanity Fair portrait by
Guy, Randor (1 August 2008). "From
Bombay to Beverly Hills". The
Hindu. Retrieved 4 May 2016.
The Trouble With Merle (Australian documentary) – investigation of
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