The early 20th century was full of stereotypes and prejudice against the people of mixed ethnicity and culture, especially for those hailing from British then occupied India. Because Indians were highly discriminated against in their own country by the British, their own born India, too, were subjected to the same discrimination. One of them was Merle Oberon, the yesteryear actress of Hollywood best known for her work in The Dark Angel (1935). Oberon started her career in British films in 1933 and went on to perform in several movies till 1973. Her career ended after a traffic collision in 1937 which caused facial injuries and Oberon’s skin tone gradually faded.
For most of her life, Merle Oberon concealed the truth about her parentage.
Merle was born in Bombay, British India in 1911 as Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson. She was born to Arthur Terrence O’Brien Thompson, a British mechanical engineer who worked for Indian Railways, and his wife Charlotte Selby from Sri Lanka. However, Merle’s birth certificate differs, according to that Merle wasn’t the daughter of Charlotte, instead, she was born to the then 12-year-old daughter of Charlotte, Constance. Constance was raped by Henry Alfred Selby, the Anglo-Irish foreman of a tea plantation, and conceived Merle at the age of 12. To avoid any scandal, Charlotte raised Merle as Constance’s sister.
In 1914, Merle’s father died of Pneumonia and her family lived in the shabby flats of Bombay for a few years. In 1917, the family moved to Calcutta and Merle attended the prestige La Martiniere Calcutta girls’ school in the city. But she due to constant bullying of her mixed ethnicity, she dropped out early and attended private lessons for the rest of her schooling. Since childhood, Merle was enamored by the film industry and liked going to nightclubs and bars. She would participate in several contests and competitions and once won a contest at Firpo’s Restaurant, from here began her film career.
In 1929, at Firpo, Merle met Colonel Ben Finney, a former actor, and briefly dated him. But the duo soon separated when Finnley found out about her mixed ethnicity however promised to introduce her to Rex Ingram of Victorine Studios. Merle and her mother moved to England where they met Ingram who liked Oberon’s exotic career and was hired to be an extra at a party scene in a film called The Three Passions. She was just 17 years old at that time.
She started working at a nightclub under the name Queenie O’Brien and simultaneously continued playing minor roles in several movies. Her life took a turn when director Alexander Korda took interest in her and cast her in a small but prominent role as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). She worked under the name Merle Oberon. Though she played a minor character, her role was widely appreciated, and she bagged lead roles for the 1934 film The Scarlet Pimpernel. From there on, Oberon went on to appear in several movies and even won an Academy Award for best actress for her role in the 1935 film ‘The Dark Angel’.
The downfall of Merle Oberon
In 1937, Merle was in a serious car accident and sustained several facial injuries due to which her upcoming movie I, Claudius, was abandoned. She went on to appear in more movies including Wuthering Heights, A song to remember, and Desiree. According to Merle’s biography written by Charles Higham, Oberon suffered damage to her complexion in 1940 due to the injuries, cosmetic poisoning, and reaction of sulfa drugs. Her then-husband, Alexander Korda sent her to a skin specialist but to no good. From here her career started declining.
During the peak of her career, Merle concealed the truth about her parentage and said that she was born in Tasmania, Australia and that her birth documents were destroyed in a fire. It was not until Harry, Constance’s son from her husband Alexander Soares, found her birth certificate in Indian government records and discovered that he was in fact Merle’s half-brother, not her nephew. He attempted to visit Merle, but she denied meeting him. Though Harry never revealed her parentage when she was alive, he did share it with Maree Delofski, the creator of the 2002 documentary The Trouble with Merle.
Oberon died in 1979 aged 68 due to a heart stroke in her house in Malibu, California. Till the end of her life, Merle denied the truth about her origin and never admitted it to the public.