Merle Oberon (19 February 191123 November 1979) was an Anglo-Indian actress.〔(Merle Oberon: Hollywood's Face of Mystery )〕 She 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 soon followed this with her most renowned performance in ''Wuthering Heights'' (1939).
Throughout her adult life, in order to conceal her Indian heritage she maintained the fiction that she was born in Tasmania, Australia; she concocted a story that all her school records had been destroyed in a fire, which meant it could be neither proven nor disproven. She maintained these fictions throughout her professional life. The year before she died she finally admitted this story was not true, and records located since her death have confirmed her true origin.
Estelle Merle Thompson was born in Bombay, British India on 19 February 1911.〔 According to some sources, her birth name was Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson. Merle was given "Queenie" as a nickname, in honour of Queen Mary, who visited India along with King George V in 1911.
Over the years, Oberon obscured her parentage. Some sources claim Merle's parents to have been Arthur Terrence O'Brien Thompson, a British mechanical engineer from Darlington, who worked in Indian Railways,
and Charlotte Selby, a Eurasian from Ceylon with partial Māori heritage.
However, at the age of fourteen, Charlotte had in Ceylon given birth to her first child Constance, the result of a relationship with Henry Alfred Selby, an Irish foreman of a tea planter,〔 and Constance, twelve at the time of Merle's birth, was actually her biological mother. Despite this, Charlotte raised Merle as her own child and as Constance's sister.〔("Merle Oberon." ) ''merleoberon.net.'' Retrieved: 16 July 2009.〕〔("ABC TV documentary: The Trouble With Merle." ) ''abc.net''. Retrieved: 19 September 2014.〕 Charlotte's partner, Arthur Thompson, was listed as the father in Merle's birth certificate, with the forename misspelled as "Arther".〔
Constance eventually married and had four other children, Edna, Douglas, Harry and Stanislaus (Stan) with her husband Alexander Soares. Edna and Douglas moved at an early age to the UK and Harry later in life moved to Toronto, Canada and retained Constance's maiden name, Selby. Stanislaus was the only child to keep his father's last name of Soares and he currently resides in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. All the siblings reportedly believed Merle to be their aunt (the sister of their mother Constance), when in fact she was their half-sister.
When Harry Selby tracked down Merle's birth certificate in Indian government records in Bombay (Mumbai), he was surprised to discover he was in fact Merle's brother and not her nephew. He attempted to visit her in Los Angeles, but she refused to see him. Harry withheld this information from Oberon's biographer Charles Higham, only eventually revealing it to Maree Delofski, the creator of ''The Trouble with Merle'', a 2002 documentary produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which investigated the various conflicting versions of Merle's origin.〔
In 1914, Arthur Thompson joined the British Army and later died of pneumonia on the Western Front during the Battle of the Somme. Merle, with Charlotte, led an impoverished existence in shabby Bombay flats for a few years. Then, in 1917, they moved to better circumstances in Calcutta. 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 unconventional parentage and eventually quit school and received her lessons at home.
Oberon first performed with the Calcutta Amateur Dramatic Society. She was also completely enamored of the 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.〔Datta-Ray, Sunanda K. "More than skin-deep." ''Business Standard'', New Delhi, 4 July 2009. Retrieved: 16 July 2009.〕
In 1929, Merle met a former actor named Colonel Ben Finney at Firpo's, and dated him. However, when he saw Oberon's dark-skinned mother one night at her flat, and realised Oberon was mixed-race, he decided to end the relationship.〔 However, Finney promised to introduce her to Rex Ingram of Victorine Studios, if she was prepared to travel to France.〔 which she readily did.〔 After packing all their belongings and moving to France, Oberon and her mother found that their supposed benefactor avoided them, although he had left a good word for Oberon with Ingram at the studios in Nice.〔 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''.
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