Merle Oberon: Indian Hollywood star who took her secret to her grave
Merle Oberon was a Hollywood star who went to great lengths to hide that she was born in Bombay and was the first Indian-born actress to be nominated for an Oscar
Hollywood is big on inclusivity lately. In the second season of Netflix Bridgerton series, there is an Indian “Sharma” family who entered the period drama set in 1830s London. (As well as having a colorful Queen of England!). But Hollywood wasn’t in that space in the 1940s.
And this xenophobia against actors of other races caused one of Hollywood’s famous actresses to go to great lengths to hide her true identity from the world. It was unthinkable for a non-white person to run Hollywood. And, the “hauntingly beautiful” Merle Oberon, who starred alongside Laurence Olivier in the 1939 Wuthering Heightsand was a reigning Hollywood star, took her secret of being born in Bombay – to a Ceylonese mother and British father – to her grave.
It was not until after his death in 1979 that the truth about Merle surfaced, although journalists were already questioning his story from Tasmania and the birth of a British army officer father who died in a car crash. chase. Merle is described by the New York Times as having been a petite 5ft 2in… “an almost exotic beauty, with flawless skin, black hair and a slight slant of the eyes which was further accentuated by makeup”.
While alive, Oberon declined to talk about his connection to India. She clung fiercely to the story that she was from Hobard in Tasmania. According to Marée Delofski, director of a 2014 documentary The problem with MerleTasmania was chosen as his new birthplace by his film producers because it was so far removed from the United States and Europe and was generally considered “British” in its essence.
Oberon studied at Calcutta’s top school, La Martiniere, according to a Facebook post on the La Martiniere Past & Present page. People from her youth in Calcutta began to remember her acting in the Calcutta Amateur Dramatic Society or working as a telephone operator in Calcutta under the name Queenie Thomson.
Charles Higham and Ros Moseley, the authors of his 1983 biography, Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon, found his birth certificate in Bombay, his baptismal certificate, as well as letters and photographs which his Indian parents possessed.
There is also a novel loosely based on his story titled Queen, written by one of her husband’s nephews, Michael Korda. She was given the nickname “Queenie”, in honor of Queen Mary, who had visited India with King George V in 1911.
It follows the life of a Hollywood star who flees her original home in London after a crime she didn’t commit and ends up becoming a star after being discovered by a famous producer. Meryl Oberon in real life was discovered by Alexander Korda, a famous Hungarian-born British film director and producer.
Much later, the secret Merle concealed was established when a project between the British Library and the ancestry website findmypast.co.uk published documents online dating from the time of the Raj, which included the Oberon’s birth certificate.
Born in Bombay as Estelle Merle Thompson
Records have conclusively revealed that she was born Estelle Merle Thompson in 1911 in Bombay and that her father, Arthur Thompson, was a railway engineer from Darlington rather than an army officer. Her story had a strong underlying sense of tragedy, as her mother in her records is shown as Constance Selby, who was only 12 at the time of her birth.
Thus, Merle must not have known for a long time that his “sister” Constance was in fact his biological mother. She used to think her grandmother Charlotte Selby, a Eurasian from Ceylon with part Maori heritage, was her mother, news reports said. Charlotte is said to have given birth to Constance in Ceylon when she herself was just 14 after an affair with an Irish tea planter.
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Arthur Thompson, whom Charlotte met in India and became her boyfriend, allegedly got her daughter Constance pregnant.
Charlotte was around 26 when Merle was born and raised as her own. In 1914 Thompson joined the British Army and later died of pneumonia on the Western Front during the Battle of the Somme.
According to a report, Constance got married and had four more children, Edna, Douglas, Harry and Stanislaus. When her brother Harry discovered the truth, he ostensibly tried to arrange a meeting with his Merle, but she refused to see him. By then Merle, who had moved to London in 1928, had become famous for her roles in Hollywood and British films of the 1930s and 1940s.
She rose to fame playing the unfortunate Anne Boleyn in 1933 The private life of Henry VIII opposite Charles Laughton and produced by Alexander Korda, who would become her husband. In 1938 she starred in a romantic western with Gary Cooper – The Cowboy And The Lady.
She also did scarlet pimpernel (1934) with Leslie Howard, with whom she allegedly had an affair. In 1935, she was nominated for the Oscar for best actress for The black Angel in 1935, becoming the first Indian-born Hollywood actor to be nominated. Her career culminated with her portrayal of the beautiful Cathy, who tormented and rejected Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) in the 1939 classic The Wuthering Heights.
Critics had praised her for perfectly capturing the restless, changeling spirit of Brontë’s heroine. In 1941, she did the tour de force lydia for Korda Films.
Oberon tried out for the role of George Sand in the film A song to remember (1945) and Joséphine by Napoleon in Desiree (1954). His last screen appearances date back to Hotel (1967) and Interval (1973).
Her marriage to Korda ended in 1945 and she married three more times, including an Italian director, Bruno Pagliai, the richest man in Mexico. She was again divorced, and in 1978 married Robert Wolders, a Dutch-born actor and co-star in her last film. She was even in a relationship with actor David Niven. Oberon had two children from his marriages.
Fair skin and exotic appearance
Oberon was able to hide her Indian origin because she was light-skinned and posed as an “exotic” looking white woman. Quite wealthy in the late 1930s, she had homes all over the world and traveled widely and was known as the “Empress of the Jet Set“.
A car accident would have left scars on his face. But she managed to camouflage her imperfections by wearing makeup, and her cinematographer Lucien Ballard developed a famous technique that lit up her face in a way. She divorced Korda and married Ballard in 1945.
Until the end, Merle Oberon never admitted that she was from India and rarely mentioned Calcutta. She even threatened Michael Korda to sue him if he mentioned details of her birth in his book.
Persis Khambatta does the opposite
It seems odd now that Oberon went to great lengths to conceal her Indian birth since shortly after her death, Persis Khambatta would take Hollywood by storm and proudly claim to the world that she belonged to India.
In fact, Indira Gandhi called it “the pride of India”. Khambatta rose to fame in Hollywood as Lieutenant Ilia, Deltan’s bald alien in Star Trek: The Movie (1979). This Parsi beauty, who died aged 49 in 1998, paved the way for Indian heroines, albeit rare ones, to make their way to Hollywood.