Well folks, its that day of the year again – February 19. Yes, you know what I’m talking about! Today we celebrate the birth of our favourite classic movie actress, Merle Oberon. She was born 103 years ago in Bombay, India, during that long-ago era of the British Raj. It sounds wonderfully exotic doesn’t it?
Her birth and baptismal record – available online at findmypast.co.uk – states she was born on February 19, 1911 to Arthur and Constance Thompson, clearing up a tiny anomaly that has had me perplexed for a number of years. (Some sources have stated that our Merle was born on February 18, not 19.) This British India Office ecclesiastical record further reveals that she was later christened “Estelle Merle” in the Emmanuel Church of Girgaum, in the presidency of Bombay on March 16, 1911.
Unfortunately, definite copyright restrictions prevent me from posting an image of the parish document online. However, if you navigate here to the findmypast.co.uk website and complete a search for Estelle Merle Thompson in the year 1911, the record will be made available. You may have to subscribe and pay a small fee for viewing the record, but it is very affordable and well worth it – especially if you want explore all that the amazing site has to offer.
For a number of understandable reasons, Merle spent most of her adult life claiming that she had been born in Tasmania, Australia. If the truth surrounding her real origins had been widely known it would have completely destroyed her career, since societal norms of the time were quite cruel. Yet, the denial of her real past also caused Merle much inner anguish. Ashamed and frightened, the fear of being “found out” haunted her for much of her later life.
Consequently, Merle understood the importance of never betraying a confidence. I remember reading a wonderful quote by Merle Oberon biographer, Bob Casey, who wrote, ‘Many rich and powerful people sought Merle’s advice and confided their innermost secrets. She never betrayed their trust, and, like a modern-day courtesan, was widely admired and respected.’
Merle Oberon’s life story is incredible. A product of the early Hollywood star system, she is one of the few who truly embodied the “rags to riches” myth it perpetuated. She rose from the humblest of origins to the very top echelons of Hollywood and international society, and did so in spectacular style. Yet her stairway to stardom was no easy climb. It took guts, hard work and a very fierce determination to succeed. Australian newspaper articles from the 1930s reveal how her career proceeded spasmodically until well into the middle of that decade, when finally, she achieved the success she so desired!
Merle, you must have been a very tough lady! Happy 103 years! X