February 19, 1911– Merle Oberon:
“Without security, it is difficult for a woman to look or feel beautiful.”
Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson was probably born in Bombay 110 years ago. It might seem improbable, but our lives intersected once. I have always been interested in the idea that her origins are so nebulous and rather queer: Who was her mother? Was it the woman who she thought was her sister? Was Oberon mixed-race, Ceylonese, Indian, or Irish? Was she Tasmanian born?
Los Angeles, 1974; I was 20 years old, fearless, and not always engaged in reality. I had decided to crash the premier of the exciting new film That’s Entertainment and post-show gala MGM 50th Anniversary Ball. I borrowed a tuxedo from my university, Loyola Marymount’s Theatre Department costume shop, I drove my cool black 1959 T-Bird from my apartment in Playa Del Rey to Hollywood, and indeed, managed to sneak into the event, having secured a room at the venue, The Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and then moving through the kitchen and server areas. When confronted by security, I explained that I was a guest that had become a bit drunk and was lost. That acting training came in handy.
I sat at Merle Oberon’s table and enjoyed a bit of conversation with the still ravishingly beautiful, Golden Age movie star. Oberon was quite gracious to me. She even accepted my offer of a dance. Later, I swiped her place card and event invitation.
Oberon’s film career began in Britain. Her first major role was as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life Of Henry VIII (1933), where she plays opposite gay actor, Charles Laughton.
After finishing the filming of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), she was signed by Samuel Goldwyn and she made the move to Hollywood. She was nominated for an Academy Award only once, for her performance in the appropriately titled romantic drama The Dark Angel (1935) where she is cast opposite Fredric March.
She suffered from allergies to theatrical make-up and suffered from problems to her complexion, but when I encountered Oberon, then her early 60s, she looked tan, rested and radiant. Outside of Elizabeth Taylor, Oberon was probably the most alluring female I had ever met.
Oberon worked steadily in films into the early 1970s, always doing strong work as a leading lady. She married four times, and always married well, her first husband was director/producer Alexander Korda. She was lucky enough to have had affairs with several of her leading men.
In 1945, she divorced Korda 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” and it is still in use today.
She married twice more, to Italian-born industrialist, Bruno Pagliai (with whom she adopted two children); they lived in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. Next was Dutch actor Robert Wolders (later companion to Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron). They lived together in Malibu.
Oberon was one of the biggest film stars of the 1930s and 1940s. MGM‘s publicists insisted that she was born, like her friend Errol Flynn, into a wealthy family in Tasmania, the Australian island state.
Her studio invented life story read like a film script. They said that after her father’s death Oberon traveled to India to be with her aristocratic godparents. But, rumors were swirling that the exotic almond-eyed Oberon was concealing her true past. The gossip rags claimed that she was actually “Oriental”, maybe Anglo-Indian, and that she was born in Calcutta. In Tasmania, people were convinced she was their island’s most famous person, born not to wealthy parents, but to a Chinese hotel maid and the married hotel owner.
In Hollywood at that time, an actor of mixed race would not have been accepted. The racism of her era made it quite clear: Oberon’s Indian heritage would be a major obstacle to her becoming a star. Tasmania was chosen as her new birthplace because it was so incredibly far from the USA and was generally considered by the dim Americans to be “British”. So, Estelle Thompson from Bombay became glamorous Merle Oberon, a white upper-class girl who moved to India from Tasmania after becoming an orphan.
There were also fantastic tales of Indian silk merchants stealing Oberon when she was a baby, or a troupe of travelling actors called The O’Briens taking her to India. Tasmania embraced her as one of their own, but there is no official record of anyone who could remotely be Oberon in the official Tasmanian Archives or birth records. But, there is no record of her birth in India either.
The studio reconstructed her history and she had to live that life story and keep living that life story.
Oberon successfully kept her secret until her final credits rolled in 1979, when she was taken by a stroke. No one really knows her true story.
I find Oberon to have been an actor of limited range, but unlimited appeal. Her exotic beauty was jaw-dropping. Oddly, one of my favorite of Oberon’s roles was in the rather trashy The Oscar (1966), in which she convincingly plays Merle Oberon.
I can only say my youthful impression her Oberon was correct. She possessed a subtly peculiar beauty that no other star has surpassed. She may not have been Hollywood’s greatest actor, but, hell, anyone can act. Right?
A decade ago, while in preparation for our annual yard sale, The Husband came upon a cigar box filled with nostalgic ephemera: Bits and tiny pieces from my past, including concert ticket stubs, Joel Grey’s autograph, a very significant special Valentine, a hand-canceled letter from Rutledge, Georgia (circa 1986) from my father, photos of past affairs, a love note (circa 1981) from the man that would eventually become my husband, and Merle Oberon’s invitation to the That’s Entertainment premier and MGM 50th Anniversary Gala Ball.