Merle Oberon was a Hollywood queen of the black and white era. She was most popularly known for playing the lead in the classic Wuthering Heights.
Mayukh Sen (US-based writer) revealed that She was the first actor of South Asian to be nominated for the Oscars. Even though she was born in India’s popular city called Bombay, she kept her background a secret and lived a life of the white.
Her beauty and passion for acting grew after watching her first movie which was the silent movie “Dark Angel” (nominated for her role in the Oscars) propelled her to stardom. Because of Merle Oberon’s quietness about her background life, people only saw her as a shinny and decorated book cover but it is after carefully reading about her, we get to know that she was just an ordinary woman who went through traumatic series of pain and adversities of life and tried her best to live her life to the fullest.
As a south Asian actress, she had to fight battles that no one could have imagined. She was a mixed bag of surprises, which was both magnificently astonishing and devastating.
Let’s generously get to know more about Merle Oberon’s origin, career, love life, and accident. And also try to walk in her shoes to empathize with what she had been through.
Origin: A Complicated Family
Merle was born Estella Merle O’Brien Thompson (Oberon) on 19 Feb in Bombay Presidency, India in the year 1911. Her father Arthur Terrence O’Brien Thompson was a British mechanical engineer and her mother Constance Selby (part Sinhalese and part Maori) gave birth to Merle when she was just 12. Because of this small age gap between mother and daughter, Merle grew up believing Charlotte Shelby, her grandmother to be her mother.
Just like how every family holds a messy and disturbing secret, Merle’s family did too, which is far more devastatingly upsetting. Charlotte happened to be Thompson’s girlfriend which means that Constance and Charlotte (mother and daughter) loved the same man. But soon Thompson left and Constance remarried. Merle grew up thinking Constance was her sister and whom she thought were her nephews and niece were in reality her half-siblings.
Processing and healing through such a traumatic lifestyle would have been difficult and explaining it to the world would have only ruined her life.
This is why she chose Tasmania as her new place of birth (island state of Australia) and claimed to be born to an elite British officer and grandparents.
Escaping Racism: The Road To Hollywood
Merle’s school life in Calcutta, India turned into a nightmare where she got bullied for being multiracial but she somehow managed to focus her mind on the drama society and moved to England.
Her acting performance, in the beginning, wasn’t much credited by people but soon her beaming talent was noticed by Alexander Korda (a filmmaker whom she would later marry) who gave Merle a big break and cast her as Anne Boley in the Private life of Henry VIII.
And after her two years later when she was just 24, her acting performance was recognized in “The Dark Night” and was nominated for Oscars for the best actress in a leading role.
Merle knew that her revealing her racial background in a white country wouldn’t have brought her close to her dreams and would have been a victim of racism. She wanted to start a new life and leave her past behind. Being white brought her many privileges.
An acting career was her only hope because it was the only thing she could rely on. Her extraordinary face is what she had.
After winning awards for her performance she was bagged with multiple Hollywood movies where she acted and became famous.
She portrayed several historical figures in the film like- Women who broke napoleons heart and Empress Josephine. She did return to India after her father’s death but that didn’t stop her acting career.
Car Accident: Cosmetics
Merle met with a terrible car accident that scarred her face but with first-rate cosmetic procedure helped her heal her face but not completely. Which was terrifying for someone whose life relied on it. The camera lights helped her hide the scar.
A Complicated Family: A Complicated Love Life
Merle Oberon was born in a complicated family where the definition of love she learned was even more complicated. Merle was in a romantic relationship with Alexander Korda for years and because of her contract, she became even more successful.
She fell in love with a Hollywood actor named David Niven but he left her heartbroken. After years she reunited with Korda and tied the knot.
But even while being in a marriage she struck up a relationship with Richard Hillary (RAF fighter pilot) but he tragically died.
There were on and off relationships with John Wayne and many more infidelity. Merle divorced Korda and married a cinematographer Lucien Ballard but they soon divorced each other.
But Merle never gave up on love and finally built a family with a businessman Bruno Pagliai and also adopted two children. But she left him after 15 years and married her last love, Robert Wolders until she died of a stroke at the age of 68 in 1979.
Merle Oberon was hounded by the press who tried to reveal her story instead of focusing on her performance and the fame she bought to the country. She had a reason for what she did and she knew that she owed no explanation to the world of her past life which was traumatic for her.
This is why her fierce personality is celebrated, not for her dark lie but for her stunning performance and a strong will to move on from the harshness of life making her one of a kind.
Source: The Wire