Day 288 of Colourisation Project – February 19
Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.
Ever since I first saw her playing Cathy in Wuthering Heights (1939) opposite Laurence Olivier, I always believed Merle Oberon was as Tasmanian as Errol Flynn! Throughout her career she was always referenced as “the Tasmanian born movie star.”
So it was quite a shock to the system to discover that one of my favourite actresses had been living a lie all her life in order to conceal her Indian heritage. Oberon had always claimed she was born in Tasmania and then moved to India to live with her aristocratic godparents after her father, a distinguished British Army officer died in a hunting accident.
The year before her death in 1979, she finally admitted this story was not true. Birth records had come to light officially confirming that she was born in India and that the woman she knew as her sister was really her mother.
Born Estelle Merle Thompson this day, 19 February in 1911 in Bombay, the records reveal that her father, Arthur Thompson, was a railway engineer from Darlington, rather than an army officer and that her mother, Constance Selby, was only 12 at the time of the birth.
The reality is that Oberon’s story exposed the lengths to which she was forced to hide her Anglo-Indian ethnicity in order to become a Hollywood movie star. Rampant racism in Hollywood made it difficult for women of mixed race to be accepted on the big screen. (See my story on Chinese-American actress, Anna May Wong).
Though her Tasmanian connections have comprehensively been debunked, some Tasmanians refuse to let go of her and continue to insist that Oberon was born in the Australian island state. They still cling steadfastly to the legend of a beautiful Chinese-Australian by the delightful name of Lottie Chintook, claiming to have been Oberon’s mother, who was forced to give up her girl child at birth…but that’s another story.
Oberon died in 1979 aged 68, after suffering a stroke in Malibu, California,
She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6250 Hollywood Boulevard for her contributions to Motion Pictures.