Sunday, February 19, 2017

Born Today February 19 (Not So Silent Edition): Merle Oberon


Merle Oberon was a woman with secrets. She went to great lengths to obscure her origins, the history of which was so convoluted that she herself may not have known all of the details until later in her life.  She is listed in most sources as an "Anglo-Indian actress," but her background was more complicated than that description belays.  Her birth name was Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson. She was born Mumbai, India (then Bombay).  She spent most of her life and career trying to flee even these basic facts, claiming that she was, in fact, born in Tasmania and spent her formative years there.  When reporters, sensing a story, dug they found the basic facts of her true origins; but when it came to who her parents were, things got considerably more complicated.  The woman that for years was thought to be her mother, Charlotte Shelby (who was mixed race: Sri Lankan/Maori/Anglo), was, in fact, her grandmother.  Her eldest "sister" Constance, was actually her birth mother, who gave birth to her at the shockingly young age of 12.  For this reason, her grandmother decided to raise her as her daughter.  Who her birth father was does not seem to be known. Oberon went to great lengths throughout her life to keep all of this secret; so much so that she tried and failed to keep away from being honored in Tasmania--she, in fact, seems to have only visited Australia twice in her life.  She also frequently told people that her "mother" who lived with her was actually her housekeeper, to keep people from realizing that she was not 100% Anglo.  She claimed that at the age of 17 she left India for Great Britain; the year was 1928.  She got work as a hostess at a club under the name Queenie O'Brien ("Queenie" being her childhood nickname); it here that she got into acting by accepting bit-parts in dinner theater there.  This was later proven to be part of a concocted story--at least in part.  She was reportedly given a bit part in an early talkie directed by Rex Ingram:  The Three Passions (1928).  Her career took off in the 1930's when she was noticed by director Alexander Korda, who gave her the name "Merle Oberon."  By the mid-1930's she was in Hollywood under partial contract to Samuel Goldwyn.  This made  her a huge star; by 1935 she was nominated for an Academy Award.  In 1937, she was in a very bad car accident, that could have ended her career as she was left with some facial scarring; but fortunately it only resulted in one film project being shelved. Oberon acted steadily right through the 1950's, even getting into television work.  But by the 1960's she was, for all intense and purposes, in retirement.  She accepted only two roles in the 1960's and only 1 in 1970's.  Oberon died on the 23rd of November 1979, following a massive stroke.  She is interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park.  

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