The Art of Glamour #10 - The Mysteries of Merle Oberon
Merle Oberon is considered a true great from an era of stars who fill Hollywood’s Pantheon. A unique beauty and Academy award nominee, she was one of the most celebrated actresses of her time. The biggest role of her life was, however, little seen. And that’s just how she wanted it.
Fearing discrimination, she was forced to conceal her ethnicity from the world and it wasn’t until after her death that the truth was revealed.
Born in 1911 as Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson in Bombay, British India, she was raised the daughter of Arthur O'Brien Thompson, a British engineer, and his wife Charlotte Selby, who was of Sri Lankan and Maori heritage. In reality, they were her grandparents. Estelle’s biological mother was Constance Thompson, whom she grew up believing was her older sister. This peculiar domestic set-up was an attempt by the family to save Estelle from disgrace owing to the fact Constance was only 12 when she fell pregnant. The identity of the child’s father is unknown to this day. It is unclear if Oberon ever found out the truth about her parents; it would have added a layer of complexity to the racial arrangements she would have to make in her life.
In 1914 Arthur Thompson left his family to join the British Army. He would die of pneumonia two years and half a world away later on the Western Front. Those were years of hardship for the Thompson family, who were living in shabby apartments. Bombay then was pretty much as it is now. Hectic with heat and crowds, the city has an oppressive air, and it was perhaps harsher still for the Thompsons, whose future of possibilities in having an Englishman as head of the household had been extinguished. Things looked to have changed for the better when in 1917 Estelle won a scholarship to attend a prestigious private school in Calcutta. The family moved the length of India and set up in more comfortable lodgings. Comfortable was not, however, Estelle’s time at school. Though light-skinned compared to Charlotte, her mixed-race heritage was known and she became the subject of terrible abuse. The bullying was so intolerable that she was forced to stop attending lessons, eventually finishing her studies by being tutored at home.
It was as a direct result of this episode that Estelle first considered concealing her identity.
With her schooling over, she began to feel restless, sensing that her ethnicity would forever constrain her life chances. The glint of something different, the light leading to a new path, was movies; perhaps initially not in a starring role, but the prospect she saw in them of transformation. If nothing else, her education had given her perfect diction, which, when combined with an upper-class English accent and the beauty that by now was quite evident, gave her a way into the Calcutta Amateur Dramatics Society. She later said that she’d joined in the hope it would help ‘pave her way to the movies.’
It was there she met Ben Finney, a former actor and Colonel in the British Army, and whom she began seeing. The relationship lasted until Finney one day caught a glimpse of Charlotte Thompson. He abruptly dumped Estelle, having realised she was not white, only passing for. To ease his guilt, Finney promised that if she ever visited France, he would make the necessary introductions to Rex Ingram, the head of a French film studio in Nice. What seemed like conscience-greasing hyperbole in fact had merit, as Finney had become acquainted with Ingram via his old flame Barbara Lamarr, the American film star. Feeling that this promise may be as short-lived as his romantic interest in her, Estelle and Charlotte packed their belongings and set off for Nice. On their arrival, they found the ever-chivalrous Finney was not there to meet them, although he did keep his bargain and put in a good word for her at the studio. Rex Ingham liked Estelle’s looks, which set her apart from the blonde and blue-eyed types he was more used to working with. He immediately hired her as an extra.
‘I couldn't dance or sing or write or paint. The only possible opening seemed to be in some line in which I could use my face. This was, in fact, no better than a hundred other faces, but it did possess a fortunately photogenic quality’
– Merle Oberon
She played minor roles for a while and at the age of 17 decided the best way to forward her career was to move to London. Once there, and to make ends meet, she found work as a hostess at the Café de Paris, on Piccadilly, but continued to take what scraps the film industry threw at her. One day, while queuing for tea at the Paramount studio canteen, Estelle caught the attention of the famous producer Alexander Korda. He cast her in the small but very focal role of Anne Boleyn in his 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII.
‘They’re trying to make me the first Glamour Girl of England. I suppose it is because my face is odd, and my eyes slant. I don’t look like any of the other movie stars over there, and they feel that if they worked on me hard enough, perhaps I would be the type’
– Merle Oberon
Fearing Estelle’s mixed heritage might become an obstacle to her movie career, Korda decided to re-form her. He dropped the O’Brien for the more aristocratic Oberon. Next was the creation of a fictional biography that said she was born in Tasmania to upper class British parents. No new identity could be complete without the material destruction of the old. Her records were made to disappear, with the official line being that they had gone up in flames.
‘It's easier for me to be something which I am not than it is to act myself’
– Merle Oberon
By now, Oberon herself was anxious to keep her race a secret, so desperate that at one point she had Charlotte pose as her maid. Even after death in 1937, Charlotte Selby Thompson was destined, in a sense, to carry on playing the maid: in the portraits Estelle commissioned of her, the artist was instructed to lighten her skin colour.
The role of Anne Boleyn would be Oberon’s breakout and the film’s success paved the way to leading-lady status. Her career benefited from her growing professional and personal relationship with Korda, and she was so much in demand that he sold shares of her contract to the American producer Samuel Goldwyn, of Goldwyn Mayer. Hollywood hits such as the Scarlet Pimpernel and Wuthering Heights followed, with Oberon commuting between London and California. Her performance in the 1935 film The Dark Angel earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
It was the first time a biracial actress had been recognised in segregated Hollywood, though of course it did little for people of colour as no one other than Oberon and those close to her knew the truth.
Oberon had always refused to appear on camera without make-up, which was used to mask her natural complexion. She was set to star in another Korda film, 1937’s I, Claudius, where she was due to play the role of Messalina, but she was injured in a car crash and filming abandoned. The accident left her with facial injuries severe enough that they might have ended her career, but these too were masked away with make-up.
Korda and Oberon were married in 1939 and as an engagement present he gave her a spectacular Cartier necklace. It was an incredible and very distinctive piece, with 29 teardrop-shaped emeralds linked by platinum and covered in single-cut diamonds. The Indian emeralds must have held a special, if tortuously conflicted, significance. They were a connection to a distant past that was less racially piercing, but she was all too aware it was a place from which she could never have flourished. It was as though Estelle O’Brien and Merle Oberon had been born conjoined twins and in order for one to survive, truly survive, the other had to die. It must have seemed at the time that it was an obvious choice. Estelle had to be killed. But was a touch of humanity lost along with that soul? Oberon would continue to wear the necklace throughout her life.
In 1940 Oberon suffered further damage to her face, now thought to have been as a result of using chemicals to further lighten her complexion. It was reported at the time as being ‘cosmetic poisoning’. Korda arranged for her to see the best skin specialist in New York, where she underwent several dermabrasion procedures. The results were only partially successful and she was left with noticeable pitting and indentations in her skin. The cinematographer Lucien Ballard devised a special light to eliminate all her flaws, at least on film, by the use of a compact spotlight he called the Obie. Mounted on the side of the camera, it lit the subject head-on, reducing unflattering lines and shadows, and removed signs of scarring. Obie went into general use and is still around today. Oberon left Korda to marry Ballard in 1945. She was to marry twice more.
By the end of her life Oberon had amassed a major jewellery collection, with a number of impressive pieces. Today her favourite emerald necklace is one of Cartier’s most photographed pieces.
Merle Oberon died in 1979 after suffering a stroke. She did her best to maintain her fictional background until the very end, though an increasingly sceptical press were asking difficult questions of her early life. Her Tasmanian origins were comprehensively debunked after her death.
She once said:
‘Without security it is difficult for a woman to look or feel beautiful’
The price she paid for that security was a life complex in identity issues, of scars, real and emotional, of masks, painted and psychological; a story worthy of a Hollywood script.