Wednesday 19 February 2014

Oh, Merle!

'I couldn't dance or sing or write or paint. The only possible opening seemed to be in some line in which I could use my face. This was, in fact, no better than a hundred other faces, but it did possess a fortunate photogenic quality.' That's an unusually modest statement for a film star - especially one as spectacularly beautiful as Merle Oberon, who assessed herself thus in an interview in 1939.
  Merle was born on this day in 1911. That date - and her birthplace, Bombay - is one of the few certainties about her beginnings. Also the approximate name of her father, Arthur Thompson, who was to die a few years later, at the Somme (of pneumonia). Merle's birth name was Estelle Merle Thompson, and her mother was Charlotte Selby, a Eurasian from Ceylon with partial Maori origins. Or at least, Charlotte is named on the birth certificate as Merle's mother, but it seems quite likely that the real mother was Charlotte's daughter Constance, then just 12 years old (but Charlotte had given birth to her at the tender age of 14). Merle liked to confuse matters by claiming that she was born and brought up in Hobart, Tasmania - where she is still fondly remembered and memorialised, despite the fact that she never set foot there until she was already a star (and, when there, was careful to avoid questions from the locals).
  Merle's spirit, intelligence, performing talent and looks propelled her from genteel poverty in India to film stardom under the tutelage of Alexander Korda. She was married to him for some years, but also had affairs with Leslie Howard, David Niven and wartime hero Richard Hillary, who wrote The Last Enemy. Her most striking film performance was opposite Laurence Olivier in the lush 1939 Wuthering Heights. She found Olivier insufferable; he detested her and - charming fellow that he was - made no attempt to disguise the fact. Poor old David Niven, playing Edgar Linton, was given something to assist  his weeping in the deathbed scene, with the result that some kind of 'green goo' came out of his nose.


  1. I can't see Hillary's name without a shudder passing through me at the memory of what an awful little tick I must have been at school. My father was at Shrewsbury with Hillary and went on to fly Lancasters in the war, and I imagined that these facts burnished me with an enviably romantic aura when, in fact, very few people had heard of Hillary in those days, and the ones that had were not overly interested in the son of somebody who had known him. This left me with just one unique distinction to fall back on; I was the only child of a single parent in a school of 350, my dad having 'flown' the nest when I was still wearing a terry-towelling nappy. Too much information? Probably.

  2. Ah those far-off days when single parent families were rare as hen's teeth - and babies wore terry-towelling nappies. I doubt if anyone much remembers Hillary now either...