Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson was born in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), British India on 19 February 1911. Merle was given "Queenie" as a nickname, in honour of Queen Mary, who visited India along with King George V in 1911.
Born in Bombay, India, to a 12-year-old Indian girl, for most of her lifetime Oberon concealed the truth about her parentage. For many years she claimed that she had been born in Tasmania, Australia, and that her birth records had been destroyed in a fire. Some sources have claimed that Merle's parents were Arthur Terrence O'Brien Thompson, a British mechanical engineer from Darlington, who worked in Indian Railways, and Charlotte Selby, a Eurasian from Ceylon with partial Māori heritage. However, at the age of 14, Charlotte had in Ceylon given birth to her first child Constance, the result of a relationship with Henry Alfred Selby, an Irish foreman of a tea planter. Constance, age 12 at the time of Merle's birth, was actually Merle's biological mother. Despite this, Charlotte raised Merle as her own child and as Constance's sister. Charlotte's partner, Arthur Thompson, was listed as the father in Merle's birth certificate, with the forename misspelled as "Arther". Constance eventually married and had four other children, Edna, Douglas, Harry and Stanislaus (Stan) with her husband Alexander Soares. All the siblings reportedly believed Merle to be their aunt (the sister of their mother Constance), when in fact she was their half-sister. Edna and Douglas moved at an early age to the UK and Harry later in life moved to Toronto, Canada, and retained Constance's maiden name, Selby. Stanislaus was the only child to keep his father's last name of Soares; he has resided in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.
When Harry Selby tracked down Merle's birth certificate in Indian government records in Bombay, he was surprised to discover he was in fact Merle's brother and not her nephew. He attempted to visit her in Los Angeles, but she refused to see him. Harry withheld this information from Oberon's biographer Charles Higham, only eventually revealing it to Maree Delofski, the creator of The Trouble with Merle, a 2002 documentary produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which investigated the various conflicting versions of Merle's origin.
In 1914, Arthur Thompson joined the British Army and later died of pneumonia on the Western Front during the Battle of the Somme. Merle, with Charlotte, led an impoverished existence in shabby flats in Bombay for a few years. Then, in 1917, they moved to better circumstances in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) Oberon received a foundation scholarship to attend La Martiniere Calcutta for Girls, one of the best private schools in Calcutta. There, she was constantly taunted for her unconventional parentage, eventually leading her to quit school and receive lessons at home.
Oberon first performed with the Calcutta Amateur Dramatic Society. She was also completely enamored of the films and enjoyed going out to nightclubs. Indian journalist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray claimed that Merle worked as a telephone operator in Calcutta under the name Queenie Thomson, and won a contest at Firpo's Restaurant there, before the outset of her film career.
In 1929, Merle met a former actor named Colonel Ben Finney at Firpo's, and she dated him. However, when he saw Oberon's dark-skinned mother (actually her grandmother) one night at her flat, and realised Oberon had mixed ancestry, he decided to end the relationship. However, Finney promised to introduce her to Rex Ingram of Victorine Studios, if she was prepared to travel to France. which she readily did. After packing all their belongings and moving to France, Oberon and her mother found that their supposed benefactor avoided them, although he had left a good word for Oberon with Ingram at the studios in Nice. Ingram liked Oberon's exotic appearance and quickly hired her to be an extra in a party scene in a film named The Three Passions.
In relation to her Maori and other heritage and it being hidden, New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera uses this as inspiration in the novel White Lies, which was turned into the movie White Lies.
Oberon arrived in England for the first time in 1928, aged 17. Initially she worked as a club hostess under the name Queenie O'Brien and played in minor and unbilled roles in various films. "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 fortunately photogenic quality," she modestly told a journalist at Film Weekly in 1939. In view of the information discovered since this 1939 article (see preceding section) this should be seen as part of a myth perpetrated by Oberon, since apparently she did not reach Europe until 1929.
Her film career received a major boost when the director Alexander Korda took an interest and gave her a small but prominent role, under the name Merle Oberon, as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) opposite Charles Laughton. The film became a major success and she was then given leading roles, such as Lady Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) with Leslie Howard, who became her lover for a while.
Oberon's career benefited from her relationship with, and later marriage to, Korda. He sold "shares" of her contract to producer Samuel Goldwyn, who gave her good vehicles in Hollywood. Her "mother" stayed behind in England. Oberon earned her sole Academy Award for Best Actress nomination for The Dark Angel (1935) produced by Goldwyn. Around this time she had a serious romance with David Niven, and according to one biographer even wanted to marry him, but he wasn't faithful to her.
She was selected to star in Korda's 1937 film, I, Claudius, as Messalina, but her injuries in a car accident resulted in the film being abandoned.She went on to appear as Cathy in her most famous film, Wuthering Heights (opposite Laurence Olivier; 1939), as George Sand in A Song to Remember (1945) and as the Empress Josephine in Désirée (1954).
According to Princess Merle, the biography written by Charles Higham with Roy Moseley, Oberon suffered damage to her complexion in 1940 from a combination of cosmetic poisoning and an allergic reaction to sulfa drugs. Alexander Korda sent her to a skin specialist in New York City, where she underwent several dermabrasion procedures. The results, however, were only partially successful; without makeup, one could see noticeable pitting and indentation of her skin.
Charlotte died in 1937. In 1949 Oberon commissioned paintings of her mother from an old photograph. The paintings hung in all her homes until Oberon's own death in 1979.
Merle Oberon had a brief affair in 1941 with Richard Hillary, an RAF fighter pilot who had been badly burned in the Battle of Britain. They met while he was on a goodwill tour of the United States. He later became well known as the author of a best-selling book, The Last Enemy.
Oberon became Lady Korda when her husband was knighted in 1942. At the time, the couple were based at Hills House in Denham, England. She divorced him in 1945, to marry cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Ballard devised a special camera light for her to eliminate her facial scars on film. The light became known as the "Obie".
She married twice more, to Italian-born industrialist, Bruno Pagliai (with whom she adopted two children; they lived in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico) and Dutch actor Robert Wolders – later companion to actresses Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron – before her retirement in Malibu, California, where she died, aged 68, after suffering a stroke. She was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Oberon has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 6250 Hollywood Boulevard) for her contributions to Motion Pictures.
Michael Korda, nephew of Alexander Korda, wrote a roman à clef about Oberon after her death entitled Queenie. This was also turned into a television miniseries starring Mia Sara.
Oberon claimed that she was born and raised in Tasmania, Australia. The story of her alleged Tasmanian connections was comprehensively debunked after her death.
Oberon is known to have been to Australia only twice. Her first visit was in 1965, on a film promotion. Although a visit to Hobart was scheduled, after journalists in Sydney pressed her for details of her early life, she became ill and shortly afterwards left for Mexico. In 1978, the year before her death, she agreed to visit Hobart for a Lord Mayoral reception. The Lord Mayor of Hobart became aware shortly before the reception that there was no proof she had been born in Tasmania, but to save face, went ahead with the reception. Shortly after arriving at the reception, Oberon, however, to the disappointment of many, denied she had been born in Tasmania. She then excused herself, claiming illness. Whether ill or not, this meant she was unavailable to answer any more questions about her background. On the way to the reception, she had told her driver that as a child she was on a ship with her father, who became ill when it was passing Hobart. They were taken ashore so he could be treated, and as a result she spent some of her early years on the island. This story, too, seems to have been a fabrication. During her Hobart stay, she remained in her hotel, gave no other interviews, and did not visit the theatre named in her honour."Screen Snapshots Series 16, No. 4" (1936)
"Hollywood Goes to Town" (1938)
"Assignment: Foreign Legion" (1956/7 TV episodes)