Merle Oberon (born Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson; 19 February 1911 – 23 November 1979) was an Indian-born British actress who began her film career in British films as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). After her success in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), she travelled to the United States to make films for Samuel Goldwyn. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in The Dark Angel (1935). A traffic collision in 1937 caused facial injuries that could have ended her career, but she recovered and remained active in film and television until 1973.
Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson was born in Bombay, British India, on 19 February 1911. Merle was given "Queenie" as a nickname, in honour of Queen Mary, who visited India along with King George V in 1911.
For most of her life, Merle protected herself by concealing the truth about her parentage, claiming that she had been born in Tasmania, Australia, and that her birth records had been destroyed in a fire.
She was raised as the daughter of Arthur Terrence O'Brien Thompson, a British mechanical engineer from Darlington who worked in Indian Railways and his wife, Charlotte Selby, a Eurasian from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). However, according to her birth certificate, Merle's biological mother was Charlotte's then-12-year-old daughter, Constance. Charlotte had herself given birth to Constance at the age of 14. To avoid scandal, Charlotte raised Merle as Constance's half-sister. Charlotte Selby died in 1937. (In 1949, Oberon commissioned paintings of Charlotte based on an old photograph (but depicting Charlotte with lighter skin), which hung in all her homes until Oberon's own death in 1979.)
In 1914, when Merle was 3, Arthur Thompson joined the British Army and later died of pneumonia on the Western Front during the Battle of the Somme. Merle and Charlotte led an impoverished existence in shabby flats in Bombay for a few years. Then, in 1917, they moved to better circumstances in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata). Oberon received a foundation scholarship to attend La Martiniere Calcutta for Girls, one of the best private schools in Calcutta. There, she was constantly taunted for her mixed ethnicity, eventually leading her to quit school and receive lessons at home.
Oberon first performed with the Calcutta Amateur Dramatic Society. She was also completely enamored with films and enjoyed going out to nightclubs. Indian journalist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray claimed that Merle worked as a telephone operator in Calcutta under the name Queenie Thomson and won a contest at Firpo's Restaurant there, before the outset of her film career.
In Firpo's, in 1929, Merle dated Colonel Ben Finney, a former actor who ended the relationship after he realized Oberon was of mixed ancestry. But he introduced her to Rex Ingram of Victorine Studios. Ingram liked Oberon's exotic appearance and quickly hired her to be an extra in a party scene in a film named The Three Passions.
Oberon arrived in England for the first time in 1928, aged 17. 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 Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) with Leslie Howard, who became her lover for a while.
Oberon's career benefited from her relationship with Alexander Korda. Korda sold "shares" of her contract to producer Samuel Goldwyn, who gave her good vehicles in Hollywood. Her "mother" Charlotte stayed behind in England. Oberon earned her sole Academy Award for Best Actress nomination for The Dark Angel (1935) produced by Goldwyn. Around this time she had a serious romance with David Niven.
She was selected to star in Korda's 1937 film, I, Claudius, as Messalina, but her injuries in a car accident resulted in the film being abandoned. But she recovered enough later to play Cathy in the highly acclaimed film Wuthering Heights opposite Laurence Olivier which was released in 1939, the same year when she married Alexander Korda.
While married, she had a brief affair in 1941 with Richard Hillary, an RAF fighter pilot who had been badly burned in the Battle of Britain. They met while he was on a goodwill tour of the United States.
Oberon became Lady Korda when her husband was knighted in 1942 by George VI for his contribution to the war effort.
She went on to appear as George Sand in A Song to Remember (1945) and as the Empress Josephine in Désirée (1954).
According to Princess Merle, the biography written by Charles Higham with Roy Moseley, Oberon suffered 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, noticeable pitting and indentation of her skin could be seen.
Oberon divorced Korda in 1945, to marry cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Ballard devised a special camera light for her to eliminate on film her facial scars suffered in a 1937 accident. The light became known as the "Obie". She and Ballard divorced in 1949.
Oberon next married Italian-born industrialist Bruno Pagliai in 1957, adopted two children with him and lived in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. In 1973, Oberon met then 36-year-old Dutch actor Robert Wolders while they filmed Interval. Oberon divorced Pagliai and married Wolders, who was 25 years her junior, in 1975.
Oberon retired after Interval and moved with Wolders to Malibu, California, where she died in 1979, aged 68, after suffering a stroke. Her body was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera uses Oberon's hidden South Asian and Maori heritage as the inspiration for the novel White Lies, which was turned into the 2013 movie White Lies.
Michael Korda, nephew of Alexander Korda, wrote a roman à clef about Oberon after her death titled Queenie. This was adapted into a television miniseries starring Mia Sara.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel The Last Tycoon was made into the television series, with Jennifer Beals playing Margo Taft, a character created for the tv series and based on Oberon.