Like most American students, my passage through high school wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Yorkshire manor of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The book was followed by the movie, and the cinema nerd in me was over the moon to watch a classic piece of Hollywood. When the character of Cathy first appeared, I couldn’t help but notice how striking the actress looked. Who was she? And why did she look so much like Bollywood’s Rekha? It turned out there was in fact more than what met eye with this actress, known as Merle Oberon. The truth is, she was desi, part Sri Lankan, part Irish, born in Bombay, and brought up in Calcutta. Who was this enigma?
To understand the mystery surrounding Merle Oberon, one has to understand that her story doesn’t just begin with her birth. In the beginning of the 20th century, when England still held reign over India and Sri Lanka, it was common practice for European men, despite having wives already, to consort with Indian women, especially those who were underage. It was in the capitol of Sri Lanka, still known as Ceylon, that a young Eurasian girl, Charlotte Constance, all of 14 years and nine months gave birth to the daughter of an Irish foreman, Henry Alfred Selby.
Eurasians, and in India, known as the Anglo – Indians, were at cultural crossroads at the wake of the century. While pure-blooded Indians disregarded them, the British looked down on them, and some thought of the beautiful ones as “fair game”. Being all of 15 years old, Charlotte entered an uncertain future after being cast out by her baby’s father and his family, Charlotte looked at her baby as a burden. Her future, her dreams were now forever gone. She would regard Constance with a certain detachment. Charlotte decided that the best manner in which to raise the unwanted child of hers was to send Constance to a mission school where Constance would be out of sight, and out of mind for Charlotte.
The “Monsoon Capitale” as Pune was known for, served as the military garrison for the British Army. It was here that Charlotte entertained many men as her lovers, one being a mechanical engineer for the railways named Arthur Terrance O’ Brien Thompson. Charlotte found herself pregnant and Arthur married her. Sometime in October of 1910, Arthur found out that he was being transferred to the Victoria Station in Bombay. Hospitals were dealing with overpopulated patients and overworked staff, so it was no task for Charlotte to find a position as nurse again. On February 19, 1911, she gave birth to a baby girl. Charlotte looked down at her baby, who was received into the world possessing hazel eyes with a creamy complexion; she would name her daughter Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson.
Merle, or as she was known, Queenie, was taken in by everyone including her parents, and the occupants of their flat building. No one was impervious to her infectious laughter and her heartbreaking eyes. Nicknamed the visitation of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay in the year of her birth, Merle already proved to be stunningly beautiful at such an early age. But in 1914, the war broke out between Germany and England, and Arthur, feeling he was still young and strong enough, enlisted to fight for Mother England. His dreams of dying a hero’s death were deterred when in the Battle of the Somme, he succumbed to pneumonia in place of bullets. Charlotte was devastated and moved into the Imperial Mansion on Ripon Road. Imperial Mansion was known as an Anglo – Indian building. It was here that Merle began to experience the culture and manifest of being of two very distinctive bloodlines.
At the time, many Anglo Indians would believe themselves to be above the pure blooded Indian race, often speaking going back “home” to England, and held a particular fascination for the monarchy and its attendants. Her half sister, Constance, would return after obtaining a prestigious degree from the Taylor School of Pune in 1916. Bitter and insolent over being left behind and all but forgotten, Constance was bent on leaving her family behind. And so it was a year later, she was approached by a Goanese named Antionette Soares, who invited her over for tea and introduced her to her brother, Alexander, Alick for short. Constance would have preferred to marry an Englishman and move off to England but Alick would do; after all he did have money and place in society. They married that November, Charlotte and Merle were not invited.
Whether this affected Charlotte, no one would find out because the mother and second daughter were on their way to Calcutta. Calcutta proved to be more modern and ostentatious then Bombay. It was here that Charlotte campaigned for Merle to be enrolled into the most prestigious girls’ school at the time, La Martinere. To her fellow pupils and teachers, Merle was known as a dreamer, fascinated by film and stories. Popular and sweet, her friends would notice her embarrassment when her mother would appear, definitively darker in skin color and always dressed in black. Rumors were spread that Merle was actually an illegitimate child, abandoned at birth. Undeterred and however mortified she was publicly by her mother, Charlotte pampered Merle who grew into a stunning beauty already at the age of 17.
Frequenting nightclubs, she acquired a taste for older and suave looking men. Merle began dating Mark Hanna, the head of Paramount Pictures in India, who of course used the prospects getting her “into the pictures.” Later, in her retelling of her childhood, she would maintain that she always been in love with films when in reality it was Hanna who sparked her interest of stardom. Hanna would introduce her to Colonel Ben Finney, who had also been a former film actor. Merle and Finney would embark on a simple relationship that she secretly hoped would help “pave her way to the movies.”
Like a gentleman, Finney would always watch her leave from the taxi, as she would make her way to the door of her home. One night, he noticed the lights weren’t on and insisted on walking her to the door. Merle became hesitant, due to possibility of him discovering Charlotte. Her fears came true as they approached the top of the stairs and the light came on. Opening the door and dressed in a black robe, stood Charlotte, with her chocolate skin waiting and worried about her daughter. Merle was perturbed; it was obvious to Finney that Charlotte was not her servant. Upon realizing that Merle was not in fact one hundred percent white, Finney slowly eased himself out of the relationship. He kept her secret though and introduced her to his friend, the director Rex Ingram. Intrigued by her exotic looks, Ingram decided to have Merle be placed in his films as an extra. Ecstatic at the news, Merle and Charlotte packed up and left India in 1929 to embark on a journey to Marseilles, France.
Playing bit parts here and there, Merle’s big break came when director Alexander Korda had wrapped his film, The Private Life of Henry VII and decided to add the scene of Anne Boelyn being executed. By this time, Merle had made her way to England, still taking bit parts and working at nightclubs under the name of Queenie O’Brien. She was ecstatic when Korda suggested her for the role, but was horrified when she received the script. It was only 3 pages and less 2 minutes of film! Merle later told the London Observer: “When I found that they have given me exactly two [sic] minutes on the screen, that made me mad, and I thought to myself I’ll make them remember those two minutes whatever else they forget. If I don’t, they may get rid of me in a subtle the way they got rid of Catherine of Aragon. It wasn’t difficult, really; the lines were so lovely and simple-‘Mine is such a little neck’-I remember crying afterward and saying to Alex. ‘what in the world is the matter with me?’ and he said , ‘Don’t worry, that’s acting, Merle!'”
The film was a huge success and her role as Ann Boleyn was well received. Soon after, she began to receive juicer, leading lady roles, but as all stars know, the brighter one becomes the more intrusive the public becomes to know where you came from. At the time, it was more culturally accepted to be of mixed origins from Tasmania then India. Merle became desperate to keep her mixed race a secret, to the point of even having her mother being known as simply her maid. After Charlotte’s death in 1937, Merle would have paintings commissioned of her mother, but requested the artists’ to keep her mother’s skin light as to add the romantic notion that she was in fact pure white. In her defense, it was the late 1930s, Billie Holiday sang about “Strange Fruit” that hung on trees and President Coolidge had even signed off on the Asian Exclusion Act as part of the Immigration Act of 1924. Even the thoughts of a Civil Rights Movement were unheard of.
Merle’s relationship to Korda became closer and upon his suggestion she went under the screen name Merle Oberon, to which is known as today. Korda was able to convince Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn to give Merle some plum roles, one in particular, Kitty Vane in The Dark Angel. The story of three childhood friends, two boys who were in love with their friend, Kitty, set with the war as backdrop. It was Merle’s turn as Kitty that earned the greatest Hollywood honor, an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role. She would lose to Bette Davis for the film Dangerous, but Merle went on to make the film she’s most famous and known for, Wuthering Heights. Although she played unrequited lovers with Laurence Olivier, the two had anything but loving feelings for each other. The set of Wuthering Heights was notorious for being known for the crew dealing with flare-ups and conflicts. It was said that Merle wouldn’t appear to be filmed until she had the adequate amount of makeup. It wasn’t till later that it was understood she was trying to hide her dark features.
Merle kept this secret successfully until her death. Her origins had always been a mystery until acclaimed Hollywood biographers Charles Higham and Roy Moseley decided to write about her. Higham noted that when he had done research for Hollywood’s first major film star, Errol Flynn, the information on his birth and family was astounding, yet he only got a handful for Merle. He went as far as requesting birth records from the government of Tasmania, only to be find nothing other then fame hungry informants. It wasn’t unitl he received a letter that stated Merle had been born in India, from a Mrs. Frieda Syer, who, it had turned out, had been a neighbor in Bombay to Constance, Merle’s long lost half sister.
The life of Merle Oberon would be quite different had she lived now, for her to see the rise of South Asians, not just in America but also around the world. To hold the same blood as illustrious people Mahtma Ghandhi and Aishwariya Rai. In Hollywood, she would be able to see one of this year’s finest and most hailed films, India’s Slumdog Millionaire be honored with great awards like the Golden Globes and Oscars. Even though she tried her hardest to deny her South Asian bloodline, she would be proud to see that we’re accepted. That she would be accepted. — Salma Khan