MERLE OBERON Biography - Actors and Actresses


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Name: Merle Oberon                                                                       
Birth name: Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson                                               
Born: 19 February 1911 Bombay (now Mumbai), British India                                 
Died: 23 November 1979 Malibu, California                                                 
Merle Oberon (19 February 1911 – 23 November 1979), born Estelle Merle Oberon,         
was an Academy Award-nominated British film actress.                                     
Oberon was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), British India. Her mother, Charlotte,             
was an Anglo-Sinhalese nurse; her father, Arthur, was a British railway engineer.         
Merle was her mother's second child. Charlotte had abandoned her first daughter,         
Constance, and refused to take care of another child born out of wedlock. She             
insisted that Arthur marry her, although there is no evidence that he actually           
In 1914, when she was three, Oberon's father died of pneumonia on the Western             
Front in the early months of World War I. Mother and daughter led an                     
impoverished existence in shabby Bombay apartments for a few years. Then, in             
1917, they moved to better circumstances in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Oberon               
received a foundation scholarship to attend La Martiniere College for Girls, a           
well known Calcutta private school. There, she was constantly taunted for her             
unconventional parentage and eventually quit school and had her lessons at home.         
Oberon first performed with the Calcutta Amateur Dramatic Society. She was also           
completely enamored of the movies and enjoyed going out to nightclubs. As she             
entered her teen years, she dated increasingly older, urbane men.                         
In 1929, she met a former actor who claimed he could introduce her to Rex Ingram         
of Victorine Studios. Oberon jumped at the offer and decided to follow the man           
to the studios in France. However, when he saw Oberon's dark mother one night at         
her apartment and realized Oberon was mixed-race, he secretly decided to end the         
relationship. After packing all their belongings and moving to France, Oberon             
and her mother found that their supposed benefactor had dodged them. However, he         
had left a good word for Oberon with Rex Ingram at the studios in Nice. Ingram           
liked Oberon's exotic appearance. She was quickly hired to be an extra in a               
party scene.                                                                             
Oberon arrived in England for the first time in 1928. Initially she worked as a           
club hostess under the name Queenie O'Brien and played in minor and unbilled             
roles in various films. Her film career received a major boost when the director         
Alexander Korda took an interest and gave her a small but prominent role, under           
the name Merle Oberon, as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)           
opposite Charles Laughton. The film became a major success and she was then               
given leading roles, such as Lady Blakeney in the The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)           
with Leslie Howard, who became her lover for a while. During her time as a film           
star, Oberon went to great lengths to disguise her mixed-race background and             
when her dark-skinned mother moved in with her, she masqueraded as Oberon's maid.         
Oberon's career went on to greater heights, partly as a result of her                     
relationship with and later marriage to Alexander Korda, who had persuaded her           
to take the name under which she became famous. He sold "shares" of her contract         
to producer Samuel Goldwyn, who gave her good vehicles in Hollywood. Her mother           
stayed behind in England. Oberon received her only Oscar nomination as Best               
Actress for The Dark Angel (1935) produced by Goldwyn. Around this time she had           
a serious romance with David Niven, and according to his authorized biography,           
even wanted to marry him, but he wasn't faithful to her. She was selected to             
star in Korda's film I, Claudius (1937) as Messalina, but a serious car accident         
resulted in filming being abandoned. Oberon was scarred for life, but skilled             
lighting technicians were able to hide her injuries from cinema audiences.               
She went on to appear as Cathy in her most famous film Wuthering Heights (1939),         
as George Sand in A Song to Remember (1945), and as Empress Josephine in Désirée       
According to Princess Merle, the biography written by Charles Higham with Roy             
Moseley, Oberon suffered even further damage to her complexion in 1940 from a             
combination of cosmetic poisoning and an allergic reaction to sulfa drugs.               
Alexander Korda sent her to a skin specialist in New York City, where she                 
underwent several dermabrasion procedures. The results, however, were only               
partially successful; without makeup, one could see noticeable pitting and               
indentation of her skin.                                                                 
Her mother died in 1937, and in 1949 Oberon commissioned paintings of her mother         
from an old photograph, instructing the artist to lighten her mother's                   
complexion. The paintings would hang in all her homes until her death in 1979.           
Also, Oberon supposedly had a minor obsession with facial injuries after her own         
accident, and had an affair with Richard Hillary who had been burned after his           
Supermarine Spitfire was shot down in 1940.                                               
Merle Oberon became Lady Korda upon her husband's knighthood. She divorced Sir           
Alexander Korda in 1945, 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".                                                     
She married twice more, to Italian-born industrialist, Bruno Pagliai (with whom           
she adopted two children) and Dutch actor Robert Wolders – who would later             
become Audrey Hepburn's companion – before her retirement in Malibu, California,       
where she died after suffering a stroke at the age of 68. She was interred in             
the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.                           
Merle Oberon has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to           
Motion Pictures, at 6250 Hollywood Boulevard.