Heartbreak. Struggle. Love affairs. And a dark secret that she tried to hide until the day she died. In her time on Earth, starlet Merle Oberon lived a thousand lives. Her devastating beauty propelled her to stardom, but the scandalous circumstances of her birth haunted her throughout her life. It was only after her death that her truth was finally exposed.
The striking beauty never let anyone else tell her what to do—so find your best light for these 42 facts about Merle Oberon.
Merle Oberon Facts
1. Murky Origins
Merle Oberon's affairs and relationships might have set Hollywood a titter during her adult life, but the starlet was quite literally born into scandal as well. While Oberon's birth certificate lists Arthur Terrence O'Brien Thompson and Charlotte Selby as her parents, in reality, the truth was so much stranger and darker.
2. Great on Paper…
Merle Oberon was born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson in 1911 in Bombay, British India—what we know today as Mumbai, India. Oberon's father, Arthur Thompson, was a British mechanical engineer who worked for Indian Railways. Oberon's mother, Charlotte Selby, was from Ceylon—now known as Sri Lanka—and was of mixed ancestry, including some Maori roots.
3. Seeing Double
Oberon’s birth certificate hid a twisted secret—Charlotte Selby, the woman listed as her mother, was actually her grandmother. Charlotte’s 12-year-old daughter Constance was Oberon’s real mother, and the starlet's real father is unknown to this day. In order to avoid prevent public embarrassment, Charlotte put her own name on the birth certificate. Oberon was raised to believe that she was Constance’s sister.
4. Corrupted Youth
How did Charlotte Selby pass a baby off as her own when she already had a 12-year-old daughter? Even though you might think that Charlotte would have been to old to pull off the lie, you'd be wrong. Charlotte herself had been an incredibly young mother, giving birth to Constance at just 14 years of age. When Oberon was born, Charlotte became a secret grandmother at only 26. Yikes.
5. The Road to Hollywood
After appearing in a number of British films, Merle Oberon became Hollywood royalty nearly overnight thanks to a contract with legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn. She was just 24 when she appeared in the hit film The Dark Angel. Not only did Dark Angel launch Oberon's career, it also sky-rocketed her into cinema history. She netted an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
6. Cries & Whispers
Young Merle was just three years old when the man she thought was her father, Arthur Thompson, died during WWI. He perished on the Western Front at the Battle of the Somme—but he didn’t die in combat. Instead, pneumonia took his life in 1914.
7. So Much To Mourn
Thompson’s death left Charlotte, Constance, and Merle alone and impoverished in Bombay—until 1917, when it finally looked like their lives were turning around. They moved to Calcutta where Oberon received a scholarship to attend one of the finest private schools in the city. It should’ve been a step toward a better life, but it was the beginning of a nightmare.
8. Kids Can Be So Cruel
Oberon was relentlessly bullied at La Martiniere Calcutta School for Girls. They targeted her home life—she had no father anymore, and her single mother was poor and a woman of color. Kids always seem to know what will cut the deepest.
9. Breaking Point
These early years should’ve been some of the happiest of Oberon’s life, but the bullying became so bad that she couldn't bear to attend the private school any longer. Oberon dropped out of school and begin home-schooling with her mother. Despite these setbacks, this difficult time had one enormous silver lining: This was when Oberon fell in love with performing.
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10. The Little Queen
As a girl and into her teen years, Oberon went by the nickname “Queenie.” She was given it at birth, since her arrival on this planet coincided with Queen Mary’s and King George V’s 1911 visit to India.
11. Mixed Bag
When Oberon was just 18 years old, she met a former actor named Colonel Ben Finney at a local restaurant and began dating him—but he would soon deal her a savage betrayal. When Finney went to visit Oberon’s home and meet her mother for the first time, he broke up with her. The reason? Oberon’s mother was a woman of color.
12. I’ve Got Friends in High Places
Despite this heinous rejection, Oberon stayed in contact with Finney. Turns out that this was definitely a good move for the aspiring actress. Finney knew the Irish director Rex Ingram, who was working out of a French film studio at the time. Finney suggested that Oberon go to France to meet the director and jumpstart her film career. It was a gamble, but it paid off in a big way.
13. Baby Steps
Oberon and her mother packed their bags and headed to France. They expected to immediately meet Ingram, only for him to avoid them. Thankfully, he came around, hiring Oberon as an extra in a party scene for the film The Three Passions. However, it was hardly the overnight success of a young actress' dreams. Between 1928 and 1932, all Oberon's parts in films were uncredited.
Later in life, Oberon looked back on this time and remarked that she only began acting because she couldn’t “dance or sing or write or paint." In her own opinion, Oberon only had one thing to rely on: her extraordinarily beautiful face. Considering that she had moved to France specifically to meet a producer, this might have been an embellishment on her part.
15. Total Package
When Oberon met director and producer Alexander Korda, he gave her the world. Not only did the pair fall in love, but he cast her as Anne Boleyn in his 1932 film The Private Life of Henry VIII. Oberon co-starred with Hollywood heavyweights like Charles Laughton in the role of Henry VIII and Elsa Lanchester—the Bride of Frankenstein herself—as Anne of Cleves.
16. High and Low
Margo Taft, a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel The Last Tycoon, was reportedly based on Oberon. That’s the high. As for the low? Her ex-husband’s son, Michael Korda, also wrote a roman à clef about her titled Queenie, which was made into a miniseries in 1987. It was criticized for being trashy and for its racial insensitivity.
17. Mixing Business With Pleasure
Oberon maintained a working and (on-and-off) romantic relationship with Hollywood big wig Alexander Korda for years. While she had a contract with Korda, her success made her an in-demand property. In a strategic move, Korda sold some of the “shares” of her name to Samuel Goldwyn, the legendary Hollywood studio executive.
18. Birth of the Dark Angel
It was Goldwyn who put Merle Oberon in the film The Dark Angel in 1935, about two male friends for vie for the heart of one woman. For this film, Oberon would get her sole Oscar nomination in the revered Best Actress category.
19. All Work and No Play…
While in Hollywood, Oberon fell desperately in love with actor David Niven, with the two even becoming engaged. Overjoyed, Oberon announced that the pair were going to wed, but sadly, Niven would end up leaving her with a broken heart. After numerous affairs, Niven refused to change his ways and walk down the aisle. The couple parted.
20. The Greats
Aside from her role as Anne Boleyn, Oberon portrayed a number of famous historical figures on film, including Empress Josephine, the woman who broke Napoleon's heart, and the writer and cross-dressing playwright George Sand.
21. When It Comes Crashing Down
Oberon was supposed to work with both Korda and Charles Laughton again in 1937’s I, Claudius, where she’d appear as Claudius’s wife Messalina, but the project was abruptly abandoned for an incredibly dark reason. After a terrible car accident, Oberon was far too injured, and some would say disfigured, to film anything.
22. Trauma Bonding
While I, Claudius may have been canceled, Oberon and film exec Alexander Korda weren't. The couple finally cemented their on-and-off relationship by tying the knot in 1939.
23. A Friend in Need
Who could Oberon turn to in this trying time? Her beloved husband, of course. Korda paid for his wife to go to New York City and receive first-rate cosmetic procedures that would help fix her damaged skin. They helped—and stage makeup was able to do the rest—but sadly, nothing could ever heal Oberon's scarred face completely.
24. Everyone Heals Differently
Oberon's own experiences with disfigurement were, in a strange way, part of what led her to find love. In 1941, while she was still married to Korda, Oberon struck up a relationship with young Richard Hillary, a RAF fighter pilot. During his valiant actions at the Battle of Britain, Hillary sustained terrible burns that disfigured his face and deformed his hands into claws. Tragically, he died at just 23 years old.
25. Giddy Up, Cowboy
Oberon's affair with Hillary wasn’t her only infidelity. She also had an on-again off-again relationship with none other than John Wayne, classic Western star, between 1938 and 1947.
26. Rags to Riches
Before Grace Kelly ever became a princess, Oberon fulfilled an unbelievable rags-to-riches dream. In 1942, her husband Alexander Korda was knighted thanks to his part in the war effort. This honor transformed Merle Oberon, Hollywood star, into “Lady Korda,” esteemed aristocrat—but not even a fancy title could tie a lady like Merle down.
27. Find Your Light
Who’s an actor’s best friend—other than their makeup artist? Whoever’s in charge of her lighting, of course. In 1944, cinematographer Lucien Ballard put together a small light that could be mounted on his camera specifically for Oberon. It provided an effect that washed away any blemishes or scars. Now known as a catch light, it was originally nicknamed the “Obie light” after, of course, Oberon.
28. The Next Big Thing
Lucien Ballard sounds like a pretty devoted cinematographer, huh? Well, there may have been another reason for his intense involvement in inventing the famed Obie light. In 1945, Oberon divorced her longtime partner Korda and married her beloved cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Sadly, they were doomed to a sad end. The use of the light outlasted their relationship—they divorced in 1949.
29. More Than a Mother
In 1937, Oberon lost her “mother,” Charlotte Selby, who (as we know) was actually her grandmother. By this time, Oberon was in the dark secret of her parentage (more on that below), but that doesn’t mean that she didn’t mourn the loss. In an utterly heartbreaking gesture, Oberon had portraits painted of Charlotte. She hung them in each of her homes.
30. Hidden Heritage
Due to how young her mother was when she was born, and her Indian heritage, Merle Oberon spent most of her life obscuring the circumstances of her birth. It was only later in her life that all her lies began to unravel.
While Oberon hid the fact that she was born in India—likely due to the rampant racism in Hollywood at the time—it actually means that she has two unique distinctions. Not only was she first woman of Asian descent to be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, she was the first Asian nominated for any Academy Award.
32. So Happy Together
After her first two (relatively) short marriages to Korda and Ballard, Oberon finally found love and built a family with Italian businessman Bruno Pagliai. They moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, about 90 minutes south of Mexico City, and adopted two children. The starlet continued to make films during these years, but at a much slower rate.
33. The Tasmanian Liar
The story that Oberon generally told about her birth was that she was born and raised in Tasmania, Australia. If pressed for details, she would demur by claiming that her birth records had been destroyed. As the years wore on, more and more people began to question her cover story—including the press, and even some members of her own family.
34. Caught in a Lie Part I
Oberon visited Australia in 1965, and despite all her Hollywood training, she didn’t exactly react in the most inconspicuous manner. When the press asked questions about her early life in Australia, Oberon would become nervous. Whether it was feigned or not, she became sick before her planned visit to Hobart, Tasmania, and flew back to Mexico immediately.
35. Caught in a Lie Part II
In 1978, Oberon actually did visit Hobart, and a ceremony was planned to honor their native daughter—and it couldn’t have been more of a disaster. First, the mayor found out that she wasn’t actually Australian, but it was too late to cancel the gala. He was ready to cover for her—but then Oberon’s bizarre behavior caused the whole thing to unravel.
36. Web of Lies
When she got to the party, Oberon began to deny that she’d been born in Tasmania at all. Instead, she made up a convoluted story about spending some years on the island after her father fell ill. Once again, perhaps realizing that she was in a tailspin of deception, Oberon panicked, said that she was sick, and left. The press hounded her, but she refused to answer any more questions.
37. Hollywood Boy Toy
Did we mention it was hard to tie Oberon down? After 15 years of marriage to Pagliai, she left him for a handsome Dutch actor that she met while making her final film, Interval. The relationship raised some eyebrows—the actor, Robert Wolders, was 25 years younger than Oberon. Later in life, he was Audrey Hepburn's longtime partner.
38. Latest Love, Last Love
Oberon married Wolders in 1975 and stayed with him until her death in 1979. She died of a stroke at 68 years old.
39. Some Scars Heal, Others Don’t
While Oberon sustained serious injuries from the 1937 car crash, she was able to return to the screen the next year—but soon enough, her worst nightmare would come true. In 1940, she found herself scarred from a combined “cosmetic poisoning” and an allergic reaction to a prescription drug. For a woman who told the press that her face launched her career, it must have been devastating.
40. Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Oberon's mixed Indian background had long been a badly-kept secret in Hollywood, but in the final years of Oberon’s life, one of her family members worked to expose the truth about her parentage. After Oberon's birth, her biological mother, Constance, went on to marry and have four legitimate children. All were told that Oberon was their aunt, despite the fact that she was actually their half-sister. For one of the kids, that answer wasn't good enough.
41. Skeletons in the Closet
It was one of these half-siblings, Harry Selby, who found Oberon's real birth certificate in Bombay. It contained a jaw-dropping revelation: Oberon wasn't his aunt. She was his half-sister. After this discovery, Oberon dealt her own brother a heartbreaking betrayal. She refused to see him. He must have understood her wishes, because he didn’t discuss the truth of her parentage until 2002, when he participated in a documentary about Oberon.
42. Breaking Out and Breaking Up
Merle Oberon appeared in multiple films in 1934, and landed the lead role in an adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel—but behind the scenes, she hid a dark secret. While making the film, she had an affair with her co-star, the handsome British actor (and, depending on who you ask, secret agent) Leslie Howard.