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Merle Oberon: Hollywood’s First Indian Actress

Promo Photo (1943)

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.

With Boyfriend David Niven, Courtesy ITTF Museum
With Boyfriend David Niven, Courtesy ITTF Museum
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

Princess Merle:
The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon (Hardcover)
by Charles Higham & Roy Moseley 317 pages
Publisher Coward McCann 1 editon (May 1983)

47 thoughts on “Merle Oberon: Hollywood’s First Indian Actress

  1. yo she totally does not look indian but thats cool.
    nice article. I wonder who the first indian man was

  2. Woah, I did not know that Merle Oberon was of South Asian descent! Beautifully written article – very informative yet equally interesting. This was a much needed article about film history especially since most available information in the USA is “white-washed” or merely painted in a Western/European light. Love the writer, Salma Khan, and am a fan of her intriguing writing style which shows through in all the articles that she has written for Sapna. And yes, who was the first South Asian man in Hollywood?

  3. This was a nice read. I always like to learn more about other cultures, and you pulled me right in.

  4. I knew Merle Oberson was an “in the closet” South Asian but never knew all this about her origins. So interesting to read the story of her origins! And yes, it would’ve been nice if she could’ve seen that some day, she too would have been accepted for what she is… Hopefully she is watching from somewhere :-)

  5. I had absolutely know idea about Oberon being of south asian descent, and I expect many others still don’t know this. It’s also a very interesting history lesson about people’s attitudes during those times.

  6. I knew about Merle Oberon being the first women of South Asian Ancestry in Hollywood. I think the fact that South Asian magazines are finally reconizing mixed South Asian women is a good thing.For so long we have been left out of South Asian cultue and soceity. I also think that it is unfair for people to call us “white washed” because of the fact that we are living in two worlds.In Merle Oberon’s time she was in Hollywood because she was mainstream enough but had an exotic appeal that was acceptable as long as she did not tell about ther mixed hertiage. I think only with in the last five years have mixed South Asian women had a voice in soceity to express that we have two cultures that we grow up in and that we are not all Indian. So Merle Oberon was in a way a revolutionary for the growing population of mixed South Asian girls.

  7. I was told, many years ago, that Merle Oberon had been employed as a telephonist with a tea company prior to her acting career – this I believe.

    Is she not the most attractive of women?

  8. from start to finish, I could not stop reading this article! It was so great….we have come so far. I just watched this old TCM movie…I think it was called When the Rains Come…and the Indian actors were just white actors with brown tanner on their face.

  9. First off people, remember British ruled India before its independence, so many British children living in India were born there. It does not make them Indian by blood, they are still Caucasian. Merle has Caucasian parents, and no Indian blood in her. Yes, she was born in India, but she’s British.

  10. GetReal…you need to “get real”. You are obviously in denial. Merle Oberon was BIRACIAL. Where is your proof that she had no Indian blood? She most certainly did! She went to great lengths to hide it. Her maternal grandmother was a dark-skinned woman from Sri Lanka.

    She was a beautiful woman of both European and South Asian ancestry. She was not fully Indian, but she was not white either.

    A white man broke up with her when he discovered that she was of mixed race. It didn’t matter that she had white skin and European blood…she was still part Indian. To him, that was unacceptable, especially in a time where racism determined social status.

    She was gorgeous, beautiful, classy, and exotic. She was not white. She looked like a white woman because of her mixed heritage. Perhaps in today’s world, she would not have been so ashamed of who she was. Unfortunately, she felt that she had to hide her roots to make it as an actress.

  11. Dear Get Real,
    There are so many inbetween scenes of Merle from the l930s in which she looks very much the super-beautiful Indian girl! Anybody in the least familiar with the beauty of Indian women will see that Merle was more Indian than British. Did you ever see a British woman of just a bit of Merle’s legendary beauty?? No way!!
    The big Swedish movie magazine had a major article on Merle Oberon in 1940 with the headline “A drop of Indian Blood”. When I was in Karachi as a young boy, I met with an English harridan with a lovely adopted Indian son who told me all about “Queenie Thompson” and her ancestry. So what? Indians had a great civilization, great cities and palaces and flush toilets with water when the British were dressed in animals’ skins, lived in primitive huts and had to shit in the bush using leaves to clean themselves. Merle came from a more advanced civilization, but the British colonial powers had no idea about this fact. Possibly even Merle did not know.
    In the l930s entry into the United States by “half-bloods” or “half-castes” was strictly forbidden. This extraordinary woman would have been left a hotel cleaner or something in England, not to mention the U.S., just because of her “mixed” blood.
    Thank goodness Hungarian Alexander Korda knew better! And Merle soon became a most popular and beloved actress both in the U.S. and Europe, famed for her exquisite beauty and jewelry and royal connections. Thank God she did so well for herself!! She became the empress of international society! One can only wish that in time she should have had the courage to acknowledge her ancestry, but I understand it could never be (even when Marlon Brando’s fiancée Anna Kashfi claimed a fake Indian ancestry to make herself more interesting). I wrote to Merle discreetly about it and got a lovely letter with a signed Cecil Beaton photograph, but dodging the question. Merle was of an age when one shouldn’t displease the Queen (Victoria) and she lived the part to perfection. We don’t know about the anxiety and apprehension she may have felt, but she played the part to perfection. I’m sure the Queen and Prince Charles and her royal friends knew everything, but they loved her for herself and said nothing.
    Merle Oberon is the most beautiful woman ever, in all times of history, I’m sure! She is my goddess!! And I don’t care about her blood – her blood is just human, her soul is most extraordinary, exquisite, marvellous!
    I’m absolutely sure Prince Charles would agree with me! If anybody is doubting me, I’ll write to HRH and get his opinion, and we’ll put all of you doubters to shame!

  12. Wonderful Web site! I wanted to ask if I would be able pages and use a couple of things for a school assignment.

  13. This is something i have been thinking about. Well done. i will be back to read some more after lunch

  14. Get real? Caucasian does not mean “white” or “european.” Don’t believe me? Look it up yourself.

  15. You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people agree with what you said.

  16. my God, i thought you were going to chip in with some decisive insght at the end there, not leave it with ‘we leave it to you to decide

  17. I Read It, But I Don’t Get it… what’s the Point?!
    “In life’s poker game, the optimist sees the pessimist’s night and raises him the sunrise.”

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  19. This is a re-tred of the Higham-Moseley book, with no independent evidence. Lazy writing filled with stereotypes and assumptions.

  20. Everyone reads this from a different point of view:

    Having lived in various British colonies, I have seen what their snobism did to the self esteem of the local people.

  21. A secret? My mother, with whom I watched Wuthering Heights late night on NYC tv in the fifties, told me Merle O. was a woman of color.

  22. Charlotte was not her mother…Constance was her mother although Charlotte raised her….sloppy writing, indeed.

  23. I remember seeing her story in a film called, Queenie, starring Mia Sara, Josh Ackerman and Kirk Douglas. It was a really good story.

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