Flashback Friday: Merle Oberon, Hollywood (Secret Indian) Star.
Merle Oberon was stunningly beautiful, and one of Hollywood's first genuinely glamorous stars. She was also mixed-race, born in India, and acutely aware of existing racism and prejudice that could've easily derailed her acting career before it even had a chance to develop. So the beautiful actress became Tasmanian with a faux studio-promoted bio, and lived for decades with a lie that even had her mom acting as a live-in maid. Sigh. From The Daily Mail:
She was one of the great stars of Hollywood’s golden age and shared a kiss with Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights.
But mystery has always surrounded Merle Oberon’s early life, not least because of the version of events given by the actress herself.
She claimed she was born in Tasmania and then moved to India to live with her aristocratic godparents after her distinguished father died in a hunting accident. Her Who’s Who entry in the 1970s listed her birthplace as Tasmania and her father as a British Army officer.
Now, however, records have been published that confirm for the first time that she was actually born in India – and that the woman she knew as her sister was really her mother.
A project between the British Library and ancestry website findmypast.co.uk has published records from the time of the Raj online, including Oberon’s birth certificate.
It shows she was born Estelle Merle Thompson in 1911 in Bombay and her father, Arthur Thompson, was a railway engineer from Darlington rather than an Army officer.
It names her mother as Constance Selby, who was only 12 at the time of the birth.
Controversially, Constance was the daughter of Thompson’s girlfriend Charlotte Selby. Charlotte, a Eurasian from Ceylon with partial Maori heritage, had had Constance by an Irish tea planter when she herself was only 14 and living in Ceylon.
Charlotte was around 26 when Merle was born and raised her as her own. The girl grew up thinking Constance was her sister rather than her mother.
Throughout her successful career Oberon, who died in 1979, lied about her mixed-race heritage, a controversial subject at the time.
She became famous for her roles in Hollywood and British films of the 1930s and 1940s such as The Cowboy And The Lady and The Private Life Of Henry VIII. She was nominated for the best actress Oscar for The Dark Angel in 1935. Her career peaked as Cathy in Wuthering Heights in 1939. She married four times, had a relationship with actor David Niven and had two children.
But she could never bring herself to admit to her heritage and told everyone that she was born in Tasmania – which back then must have seemed so removed from Europe and the US that her secret would not be discovered.
She claimed that all early records of her birth were destroyed in a fire. In 1978 she even accepted an invitation to the Tasmanian capital Hobart to see her ‘birthplace’.
She REALLY committed to that lie. I only can imagine what thoughts were running through her head as she traveled through Tasmania. More from Sapna Magazine (Remember, Charlotte, although her grandmother, raised Merle as her second daughter, and growing up, Merle did not know this):
To her fellow pupils and teachers, Merle was known as a dreamer, fascinated by film and stories. Popular and sweet, her friends would notice her embarrassment when her mother would appear, definitively darker in skin color and always dressed in black. Rumors were spread that Merle was actually an illegitimate child, abandoned at birth. Undeterred and however mortified she was publicly by her mother, Charlotte pampered Merle who grew into a stunning beauty already at the age of 17.
Frequenting nightclubs, she acquired a taste for older and suave looking men. Merle began dating Mark Hanna, the head of Paramount Pictures in India, who of course used the prospects getting her “into the pictures.” Later, in her retelling of her childhood, she would maintain that she always been in love with films when in reality it was Hanna who sparked her interest of stardom. Hanna would introduce her to Colonel Ben Finney, who had also been a former film actor. Merle and Finney would embark on a simple relationship that she secretly hoped would help “pave her way to the movies.”
Like a gentleman, Finney would always watch her leave from the taxi, as she would make her way to the door of her home. One night, he noticed the lights weren’t on and insisted on walking her to the door. Merle became hesitant, due to possibility of him discovering Charlotte. Her fears came true as they approached the top of the stairs and the light came on. Opening the door and dressed in a black robe, stood Charlotte, with her chocolate skin waiting and worried about her daughter. Merle was perturbed; it was obvious to Finney that Charlotte was not her servant. Upon realizing that Merle was not in fact one hundred percent white, Finney slowly eased himself out of the relationship. He kept her secret though and introduced her to his friend, the director Rex Ingram. Intrigued by her exotic looks, Ingram decided to have Merle be placed in his films as an extra. Ecstatic at the news, Merle and Charlotte packed up and left India in 1929 to embark on a journey to Marseilles, France.
Sigh, again. More:
Soon after, she began to receive juicer, leading lady roles, but as all stars know, the brighter one becomes the more intrusive the public becomes to know where you came from. At the time, it was more culturally accepted to be of mixed origins from Tasmania then India. Merle became desperate to keep her mixed race a secret, to the point of even having her mother being known as simply her maid. After Charlotte’s death in 1937, Merle would have paintings commissioned of her mother, but requested the artists’ to keep her mother’s skin light as to add the romantic notion that she was in fact pure white. In her defense, it was the late 1930s, Billie Holiday sang about “Strange Fruit” that hung on trees and President Coolidge had even signed off on the Asian Exclusion Act as part of the Immigration Act of 1924. Even the thoughts of a Civil Rights Movement were unheard of.
All very true. Read the whole thing here, and check out this classic episode of "Mysteries & Hollywood" to learn more about Merle. I'm thankful that today Priyanka Chopra, Mindy Kaling, Jameela Jamil, Tiya Sircar and many more are free to show off their performing talents while being beautifully brown.