Hi folks, welcome back to the blog. This week I want to delve into Hollywood a little, and look at a tale I personally find tragic, disturbing, and a little window into just how much our mores have changed in the last couple of generations. Today I think the reaction by many to our subject’s twin secrets would be on the first count, so what? And on the second, to show great sympathy for our subject’s hellish upbringing – her mother’s too for that matter. Hopefully some righteous anger towards her deadbeat father- but I am getting ahead of myself a little. In her, less enlightened, less woke time her secrets hung on her like a scarlet letter, and if exposed to the more puritanical folk of her time, would likely have ruined her. She bore these secrets heavily. In 1978 her façade began to crumble, the effects of this possibly bringing on her early death the following year. Today I want to shine a light on the tale of one time Hollywood starlet Merle Oberon, a Dark Angel if ever there was one. Apologies ahead of time if this comes out remotely Kenneth Anger-esque – this is not my intention.
To start we should begin in Hobart, Tasmania in 1978. In the numerous texts exact dates are scarce, but it appeared to be in November, maybe early December. Several months earlier the Lord Mayor of Hobart (also never named in the sources, but it has to be Doug Plaister, a former competitive swimmer, turned business owner, turned Lord Mayor from 1976 to 1984.) well, Mayor Doug contacts Merle Oberon directly. ‘As one of our most famous and successful expatriates, the city of Hobart would love to throw a shindig in our town hall in your honour. We’ll put on some food and drink, get the press out – even put on a band – and then there’ll be speeches and stuff- it’ll be a blast’. This is how I imagine the conversation going anyway. Truthfully it was to be quite a flashy, and formal shindig, probably with a very formal letter. The town hall had been host to another famous guest that year, thanks to Mayor Doug – none other than Queen Elizabeth II. Merle accepted the invitation.
Now the story of Merle Oberon that everyone knew at that time was she was born in Tasmania, to an aristocratic British family in 1911. When she was young her father died while away on a hunting expedition, and she moved to India to live with her wealthy, aristocratic godparents. As can happen there was a fire in the building holding her birth certificate and other official documentation, and all official papers concerning her origins went up in smoke. In 1928 Merle left India for Britain to be in the movies, eventually catching the eye of acclaimed film director Sir Alexander Korda in 1933. Korda cast Merle as Anne Boleyn opposite Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Whether Korda, or anyone else thought her a great actor – and I suspect probably not, what film I could find of her online lacks all subtlety and nuance… basically she recites lines in a breathy, Mid Atlantic accent: all melodrama – I doubt anyone questioned her X factor in front of a camera. Strikingly beautiful, luminous; a raven-haired, almond eyed beauty with an aristocratic air – Merle Oberon certainly commanded one’s attention. Besides being beautiful, she also looked kind of exotic – there was something almost oriental about her appearance, but nothing you could pin down for certain. Given the racial politics at the time, being slightly exotic looking made one quite bankable, but actually being from an exotic place would limit the amount of work, and the type of work you might get… but this was ok for Merle, she was an English blue blood after all – even if born in Tasmania.
To run a potted history of Merle Oberon’s acting career – it went pretty well for her. She may not have been in the first rank of actresses, but she did play the lead in a number of films opposite some top leading men. Besides her role in The Private life of Henry VIII she had a leading role in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) opposite Leslie Howard, played a love interest caught in a love triangle in Dark Angel alongside Fredric March and Herbert Marshall. She had the role of Claudius’ wife Messalina in a 1937 production of I Claudius, which got canned after Oberon was involved in a serious car crash. She starred opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939), played Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine opposite Marlon Brando in 1954’s Désirée. Her career stretched all the way out to 1973.
She had four marriages, first to director Alexander Korda (1939- 45), then a cinematographer called Lucien Ballard (1945-49), third a wealthy Italian industrialist called Bruno Pagliai (1957-73) and finally Robert Wolders, a television actor, from 1975 till her death. She was nominated for a best actress Oscar in 1935 for her role in Dark Angel, but lost out to Bette Davis – clearly a lot of people disagree with my claim she was an awful actress. She had a couple of notable off screen dramas – a car crash in 1937 left her badly injured. In 1940 her biographers claimed she got a bad skin infection from an allergic reaction to antibiotics, and had to spend a small fortune on dermabrasion treatments to try and fix the damage. The sources also claim she used skin whitening cream early in her career, and over time began to look more and more olive skinned – so I guess you can take that with a grain of salt. She became Lady Korda in 1942 after then hubby Alexander was knighted. She had two known affairs, one in 1941 with a disfigured RAF fighter pilot called Richard Hillary. The other affair was an on again- off again thing with the Duke, John Wayne, throughout most of the 1940s. For her affairs and multiple marriages however, she maintained an elegant, respectable public image.
Back to 1978, Merle Oberon arrives in Hobart for her shindig. Things have been going on at the council however – after the Lord Mayor had invited, and Merle accepted someone decided to go do a little research. Sure, Merle Oberon claimed to have come from Hobart, and sure over the years people popped up to claim they remembered the time in school when Merle did this or that, and how they knew she was destined to be a star and so forth – but people lie, and sometimes memories are nowhere near as sharp as we like to believe. It soon became apparent to the researcher in the council’s employ that Merle’s origin story was bullshit. There was no aristocratic father killed out hunting. There was no fire which destroyed a bunch of birth records. No documentation full stop. The problem the council faced however was they discovered this a little too late. The advertising was out, Merle Oberon’s arrival was imminent. The decision was made to just keep quiet, have the shindig, let her go on her way. The problem was, when she did show up she was clearly under huge pressure. At the ceremony she broke down during her acceptance speech and fled the room.
During the rest of her stay she remained hidden in her hotel room, refusing to speak with reporters – allegedly, well actually almost certainly correctly claiming she was very unwell. Friends and family have claimed the stress from the Hobart incident did send her health into a downward spiral, from which she never recovered. She died November 23rd 1979, after having a stroke.
So, who was Merle Oberon exactly? What were these twin mysteries which dogged her career and ultimately sent her into a downward spiral. Well, firstly that she was, shock – horror, Anglo-Indian in origin – I know right, in a day and age where the entertainment industry is at least making an effort to cast a little more diverse some of us might shrug that off – I don’t know if Anglo Indian, or Iranian, or Afro-American, or anyone other than white actors would feel that imbalance is anywhere near redressed today- but I think we can all agree Hollywood at the time was very very white. Often when the role required a non white, they cast white actors anyway – Anna May Wong, Lupe Valez and Sabu the Elephant boy were rarities, and very often typecast into one type of role for their short careers. The second part, is genuinely disturbing.
Charlotte Selby was born sometime around 1885 in Ceylon – modern day Sri Lanka. The sources say she was part Indian, part Maori. Many also refer to her as Eurasian so she may have had some European blood too. For many years though, she was known in Hollywood circles as Merle Oberon’s Indian valet. Aged only 13 or 14 she met an Irish tea planter out on the plantations, and had a brief relationship which left her with baby. Soon after Constance Selby was born. Clearly Charlotte and the unnamed Irishman (in two dozen articles and two books!!) never married, Constance carried her mother’s maiden name – and whether out of a sense of having brought shame to the family, or because the opportunities were better elsewhere, Charlotte Selby – a child with a child – moved to Bombay, India – known as Mumbai since 1995.
Things looked on the up and up when Charlotte met a young railway engineer from Darlington UK named Arthur Thompson. The two fell in love, and married…. And Arthur impregnated Charlotte’s 12 year old daughter Constance, who gave birth to Estelle Merle Thompson in 1911.
To avoid a repeat of what I imagine was a great scandal which befell Charlotte, she adopted Estelle as her own, claiming to all who would ask, Constance was her elder sister and not the mother. Arthur high-tailed it out of Bombay, joining the army soon after. His death certificate states he died of pneumonia in 1915, caught in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme.
Now the next part of the tale I only have commentary of friends, confidants and Hollywood gossipmongers to go on, in a handful of online documentaries. The family, it is said, lived in extreme, subsistence poverty for several years in the less attractive parts of Bombay. Constance would come of age and marry a guy called Alexander Soares – she would have four more children who all called their older sister aunty – at least till later in life Harry, the oldest son, discovered the truth chasing up Aunty Merle’s birth certificate. Some sources suggested a teenaged Merle may have sold herself as a high end escort to get the money together to escape India, others stating she continued doing this in England till discovered by Alexander Korda – but somehow Merle and mother/grandmother Charlotte scraped the money together to get over to London in 1928, where Merle was sure she could become a big name actress. I completely understand why she would not have wanted this public knowledge – but ultimately none of this is on her. I hope at least that the vast majority of us in this age would not slut shame a Merle Oberon for a sordid family secret not of her making. In an age of #metoo Arthur Thompson would be excoriated by public opinion – probably shamed out of his job and off all social media. Merle Oberon was probably right though to suspect, in her time, she would have been the one shamed – the one to carry the Scarlet Letter.