From Bombay to Beverly Hills
The myth and truth about Merle Oberon who achieved stardom with her beauty and brains.
Street-smart and successful: Merle Oberon
Noted sex symbol Theda Bara (1890-1955) was the first ‘vamp’ of cinema. She was supposed to have been born in the deserts of Arabia to a pasha, and, as the story went, she was fed poison as a child by a snake which turned her into a scintillatingly man-eating woman. In fact, she was Theodosia Goodman, a poor American woman who did not even know where Arabia was on the globe!
But Merle Oberon did not need a press agent. She was street-smart and ambitious. And she had the beauty, body and the drive to propel herself forward in life. Merle Oberon was not her real name. And she told the world that she was the only daughter of a rich Australian rancher and was born in Tasmania. In truth, she was born in Bombay (Khetwadi) on February 19,1911 and christened in a small church in Girgaon as Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson.
Her mother, Charlotte Constance Selby, had a colourful history. A dark-skinned Anglo Indian with a tantalising figure and a strong amatory appetite (which the daughter inherited), she made her way to Colombo looking for work and became the mistress of Henry Alfred Selby, a rich British tea planter in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
After she became pregnant, she blackmailed her lover into marrying her in secret. Soon she left the island to return to Bombay with her baby, Joyce Selby.
Meanwhile, Charlotte settled down in Poona (now Pune) and worked as a nurse in a hospital where she had many lovers. One was an Irishman, Arthur Terrence O’Brien Thompson (Merle’s father), a railway engine driver operating a train between Poona and Bombay.
Charlotte and Arthur moved to Bombay and lived in a small house in Khetwadi, where Merle was born. Merle never knew about her step-sister, Joyce.
Desirable young woman
Merle grew up into a desirable young woman. Men buzzed around Merle, who did not discourage them either. Then Charlotte decided to relocate to Calcutta.
Merle made the rounds of the Calcutta night clubs. She met Mark Hanna, the local boss of Paramount Pictures handling the distribution of its movies in India. He was a Hollywood guy and quickly added an obliging Merle to his list of conquests.
Hanna introduced Merle to Ben Finney, an actor passing through Calcutta.
Finney wished to repay his debt to Merle for the good time he had and recommended her to the noted Hollywood actor, screenwriter and filmmaker, Rex Ingram. For a period in the late 1920s, Ingram had his studio in Nice, France, and Merle received a letter asking her to go over to France. She reached the Ingram Studio in July, 1929 and took her bow in a forgotten film, ‘The Three Passions’ as an extra. Soon she moved to London where the action was and became a hostess in a London night club. The contacts got her work as a film extra.
She met a noted Jamaican nightclub singer, Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, and lived with him. Thanks to him, she met many London bigwigs. One was Hungarian Alexander Korda, a moviemaker.
Merle charmed Korda and soon became his mistress. It proved to be the turning point in her life and career. After a few and forgettable films for Korda, she had her major break when he cast her as Anne Boleyn in ‘The Private of Life of Henry the Eighth’ opposite Charles Laughton. The thumping success of the film made her a star. Her fame soared with another hit, ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel,’ in which her hero was Leslie Howard with whom she had an affair.
Now Merle, the star, lived in a fine house in London and wore expensive jewels. At this time, her mother came to live with her. Merle introduced Charlotte to her friends as her Indian maid and housekeeper. In front of friends and guests, she always spoke to her mother in Hindi.
Her active and aggressive love life landed her in a London hospital, and then doctors discovered that she had cancer in her Fallopian tubes, which might endanger her life. So they removed them without telling her. She never knew why she did not become pregnant, although she loved kids. In 1939 she married Korda. Yet she and Korda continued to have affairs.
Earlier, Merle had set her eyes on Hollywood, which she often visited with Leslie Howard. By 1936 she had made her way into the ‘Mecca of Movies’. She became a Hollywood star with the Sam Goldwyn-William Wyler hit, ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1938).
During the making of the film, Merle had a torrid affair with David Niven and a casual fling with Wyler. ‘A Song To Remember’ (1944, a musical biopic about the famed composer, Chopin and his love affairs ) had Merle, handsome Cornel Wilde and Paul Muni in the lead roles. Expectedly, she had a raging affair with the hero, Wilde. The movie was a big hit.
She divorced Korda after nine years of marriage and settled down in in a fine bungalow in Beverly Hills, Hollywood.
She continued to act in movies and have affairs. Her films included ‘That Uncertain Feeling,’ ‘Lydia’ and ‘Temptation’ among others.
Among her lovers were movie mogul Joseph Schenck, Robert Ryan and Rod Taylor. But to the shock of snobbish Hollywood, she married a cameraman.
Her big society pals such as Irene Selznick ( daughter of the top movie mogul , Louis B. Mayer and wife of David O. Selznick ) had reservations about inviting a mere cameraman for lunch or dinner to their rich homes. Whenever Merle took her husband to parties, nobody noticed him.
Latin American connection
Soon she discarded him for Bruno Paglai, a fabulously wealthy Latin American, who gave her four houses including a palatial mansion in Acapulco apart from lots of jewellery. The Merle Oberon jewel collection was the talk of Hollywood.
After many films, four husbands, and lovers galore, she passed away in 1979. Till the end she kept her birth and background a secret. Many books still mention her birth place as Tasmania! Only in recent years the myth has been exploded, thanks to Charles Higham. It was quite a journey from Bombay to Beverly Hills, from the seedy night spots of Calcutta to the highlights of Hollywood, but Merle Oberon achieved it with her body, beauty and brains.
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