Merle Oberon (Part 1)
If you doubt astrology or have some scepticism about the patterns that have been emerging in the relationships of the subjects shown so far on this web site and in the pages of When Stars Collide, the story of Merle Oberon and her relationships should at least cause a little pause for thought.
As an movie star, Merle Oberon is all but forgotten today. Carole Matthau describing her as a person, said she was boring and narcissistic. As a research subject to an astrologer, she is 100% pure gold.
Merle Oberon was one of those women who just didn't feel at ease without a Sun-Venus trine in her relationship. Married four times, at least three of these marriages were to men who were born with Venus almost exactly 120 degrees from the position of the Sun in Merle's chart. 1 Perhaps she knew what she liked and was amazingly sensitive to the type of relationship she was prepared to enter. Her other relationships, especially those from 1936 onwards, provide us with a casebook of conventional progressed and natal Venus synastry.
Merle had Venus in giving and forgiving Pisces, a sign of great emotional depth; the Sun in unconventional Aquarius and Mars in sensible Capricorn. Her Moon was in secretive Scorpio.
Her childhood was shrouded in mystery for the majority of her public life, only a few snippets of information suggestive of her true heritage were forthcoming. She told the public she was born in Tasmania in 1911. She then gave differing stories over the years as to the circumstances of her birth. Her biographers, Higham and Moseley 2 recount one story told in 1965. Her parents, she said, has stopped off there during a long sea voyage and her mother had given birth in Hobart . This type of story was plausible enough at the time, it kept the press and in particular Tasmanians film fans happy: their little island had brought forth a couple of the world's biggest film stars in Merle Oberon and Errol Flynn, the only problem with this story lay in the fact that it was different to previous versions of the same story. Previously released versions of Merle's early life stated that her father, a distinguished soldier connected to the Tasmanian government, had died variously from pneumonia or in a hunting accident or had gone to sea never to return. Until her celebrity caused biographers to investigate her life and could find no record of her birth in Hobart , no one really noticed the contradictions or cared much for that matter. Besides this, many of her contemporaries had their biographies re-written by studio publicists. David Niven her one time lover was one whose father had been posthumously promoted by the Goldwyn studio from second Lieutenant to General. Had Merle not been such a stunningly successful actress, her true beginnings would probably never have come to light.
Merle was actually born in Bombay , India and was of mixed heritage. Her mother, Charlotte was Anglo-Singhalese with some Maori ancestry and her father, Arthur Terrance O'Brien Thompson was a British engineer, born in Darlington and who actually died in the Somme offensive in 1914.
These facts, particularly the fact that she had mixed heritage at a time when such a factor could have ruined the chances of an upcoming socialite and actor, was enough to have her concoct a background that some believe was more her ideal than anything. It was an escape from the truth rather than a lie, for telling the truth in her time would not have been productive. In the early twentieth century, Tasmania was such a far away and exotic sounding place, she never expected anyone to go looking.
Merle was born Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson and spent the first 18 years of her life in Bombay and Calcutta , moving to Europe in 1929 following a somewhat vain hope that she could get into film acting. This brought her to Nice in 1929 and on to London later the same year where she worked as a hostess at the stylish and discreet Café de Paris. She also picked up work as an extra in a couple of British pictures before hooking up with the famous and entrepreneurial producer director Alexander Korda in 1932. Their working relationship, which began with some minor roles in forgettable pictures, would blossom into Merle's first marriage some years later. Her career started to make headway when she landed the part of Anne Boleyn in Korda's 1933 production of the Private Life of Henry VIII playing briefly (such was the fate of the Lady Anne) opposite Charles Laughton's memorable Henry.
Merle Oberon (a name arrived at via O'Brien, through Overell, to Auberon then to Oberon) was a very ambitious and single-minded individual and, when it came to achieving her goals, she was not above charming male acquaintances in order to do so. She cried on at least one shoulder (that of Leonard Urry, the manager of the Café de Paris) in order to get a job. She was also quite unconventional and very direct, taking film actor Edward Ashley by surprise on their first meeting in asking him to make a screen test with her rather than discussing the weather or the price of tea or some other such small talk. She did not do well on this occasion, but what she lacked in acting ability was made up for by diligent and thorough research into the characters she was set to play. Merle's approach was akin to that of the method school of the 1950's. She took elocution lessons from Margaret Yarde in order to suppress the exotic lilt of her Indian accent. Her demanding and perfectionist teacher gave her a very pronounced and flawlessly posh English accent (although if you listen carefully to her dialogue in the 1934 film the Scarlet Pimpernel , you can just about discern a Bombay accent). Merle's single-mindedness in such pursuits bordered on the obsessive and gave her a good platform from which to launch herself.
Her relationship record begins in 1930 according to her biographers, with Miles Mander, an actor/director with whom they suggest she had an affair in 1930. They later acted together in a number of Korda's films. Higham and Moseley quote Reginald Denham who saw them together.
Merle Oberon and Miles Mander
Fig 1. Matrix showing the natal planetary positions of Merle Oberon and Miles Mander, together with their progressed planetary positions for the year 1930.
1930 was a propitious year to be with Miles Mander - his progressing Venus (C6) has reached a trine aspect with Merle's natal Sun (B3). Merle's progressing Venus (D6) has reached an exact opposition with Miles' natal Mars (E7). Their astrological planets collided on two fronts around this time.
Fig 2. Graph showing the two degree window of opportunity 1928 to 1931 created by Mander and Oberon's progressed Venus natal Sun trine
Her next liaison was with Leslie 'Hutch' Hutchinson, the black American jazz pianist. This relationship brought Merle into contact with a high social set. Hutch, although married, was known for his conquests of rich and bejewelled British society ladies who were delighted by his stylish performance both on stage and behind closed doors. He is described by Higham and Moseley as 'a legendary stud.' 3 Merle entered a kind of exclusive club by becoming a notch on his bedpost.
Merle Oberon and Leslie ' Hutch' Hutchinson
With Hutch, Merle's astrological attraction seems to have been via the similarity between his natal Sun and her natal Venus. Although not within the 2 degrees I have circumscribed as the limit for my study, there are very few astrologers who would not call this conjunction relevant to their attraction and relationship
Fig 3. Matrix showing the natal planetary positions of Merle Oberon and Leslie Hutchinson, together with
their progressed planetary positions for the year 1930.
Merle Oberon and Joseph Schenck
Later we will encounter Joseph Schenck in the relationships of Marilyn Monroe. This Hollywood mogul, co-founder (with Darryl Zanuck) of Twentieth Century Pictures 4 visited London in 1934 and through Merle's association with Douglas Fairbanks Senior (who was in the UK filming Korda's the Private Life of Don Juan in which Merle had a small part), she was introduced.
Schenck had been married to silent movie star Norma Talmadge, but had recently divorced after an unhappy marriage that had seen Norma have a number of affairs, the two most passionate being with Gilbert Roland and George Jessel. Schenck was free, single (although it must be said he was neither young nor handsome) and he was looking for a wife. Her biographers often describe men as being electrically attracted to Merle. Schenck was no exception.
The summer of 1934 saw Merle joining Schenck, Fairbanks Senior and his partner Lady Sylvia Ashley on a holiday to the South of France. It was her first taste of stardom as the fledgling paparazzi tried to catch a glimpse of the two glamorous couples.
It's fair to say that Merle did not find Schenck attractive and it is obvious that she threw her hat in with him because of who he was and what he could do for her rather than because he aroused feelings within her. But having said that, Schenck was generous and he courted Merle. He of course believed her to be a typical upper-middle-class well mannered and faithful English rose and a good catch for an aspiring movie mogul such as himself especially as he had been so hurt by Norma Talmadge's romantic dalliances. On 4 th August 1934 Schenck announced that he and Merle were engaged to be married. He then abandoned her and returned to the US where he had business. Merle was now being photographed by the press and had signed a contract to appear in a Schenck backed Hollywood film with Maurice Chevalier Folies Bergere . Her star was in the ascendancy, as they say, and on top of this she was conveniently engaged to a man who could do her a lot of good, but with whom she had little intention of marriage.
Fig 4. Matrix showing the natal planetary positions of Merle Oberon and Joseph Schenck, together with
their progressed planetary positions for the year 1934.
Here was a meeting of people who had similar, though not necessarily complimentary outlooks.
In 1934, Joe Schenck's progressing Venus (C6) was coming into a close conjunction with Merle's natal Venus (B6). Needless to say Venus - Venus conjunctions often accompany romance, in its many forms and guises. This aspect is applying within two degrees and therefore its tone is full of anticipation
Fig 5. Graph showing the two degree window of opportunity 1933 to 1936
created by Oberon and Schenck's progressed Venus natal Venus conjunction
Merle Oberon and Leslie Howard
Merle returned to London and in September she met Leslie Howard, who was to be her co star in her next picture The Scarlet Pimpernel . Howard, although a dashing stage and screen actor did not exude sexuality, but like Leslie Hutchinson's wife, Howard's wife Ruth put up with his reputation as the temporary companion of a long list of un-named females.
Leslie and Merle began an affair immediately. Their passion was instant and spontaneous both on and off set, in their dressing room as well as in hotel rooms. On one occasion Ruth happened to enter Howard's dressing room while he and Merle were making love. Her simple question ' What are you doing? ' gained the altogether more creative response from Howard of ' Rehearsing '.
All this time Merle's future husband the film's producer director Alexander Korda looked on as her latest affair developed, perhaps sick with jealousy, he was also a pragmatist who knew that such passion would transfer well to the screen in a story such as this. It is interesting that producers and directors tended not to interfere with the clandestine relationships of their actors for two reasons, firstly (and this is the case with Oberon and Howard) the transfer of passion to screen is made all the more easy, secondly and of less import in the 1930's, rumours of romance tend to make the public more curious which leads inevitably to more backsides being placed on seats in movie theatres. (This was certainly the idea that the Mankiewicz and Wanger had in 1962 when Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's relationship caused such a scandal. This backfired as the British spoof Carry on Cleo ended up being more popular with the general public than the epic and expensive Cleopatra .)
Joe Schenck arrived back in Britain in October and immediately suggested that he and Merle should marry and she come to the US with him. She refused, but she characteristically held him to the Folies Bergere contract and returned his extravagant ring, which he promptly sold to Douglas Fairbanks Snr who placed it on Lady Sylvia Ashley's finger.
In November Merle set off on the SS Paris to the United States .
Merle spent Christmas 1934 almost completely alone, her co-star in Folies Bergere Maurice Chevalier turned up at her house and he later claimed they became very well-acquainted. She did not find him attractive and as her biographers write:
'Merle was emphatic and committed in her attitude to men: unless great power and money were offered, as in the case of Schenck, or great beauty, she could not enter into a sexual relationship with any man. And for all his fame, Chevalier wasn't her type.' 5
Her affair with Leslie Howard spanned September 1934 to February 1935. Howard, working on the New York stage and starring opposite Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest , became ill with boils all over his body, possibly a reaction to the fact that his wife Ruth had flown to the US seeking a divorce. His priorities were with his wife and so he rejected Merle and embraced his wife.
Fig 6. Matrix showing the natal planetary positions of Merle Oberon and Leslie Howard, together with their progressed planetary positions for the year 1935.
Another wide aspect, but this time progressed, between Mars in Merle's chart and Venus in Leslie's together with a very different type of aspect, but this one absolutely exact in September 1934, between her progressed Venus and his progressed Mars occur at the time of this relationship. There are a number of reasons why couples become couples, but invariably the presence of a close applying Venus aspect in one chart to Mars, Venus or the Sun in the other sets the scene. It should be noted that other Venus aspects can interfere with the overall direction of the relationship. Merle's progressing Mars (D7) is in a wide dissociate trine (meaning the planets are nearly 120 degrees apart, but in incompatible signs) with Leslie Howard's progressing Venus (C6) at a distance of about two and a half degrees in 1935. Five years later this aspect would be exact, but Howard's decision to return to his wife and end their affair made in 1935 prevented the perfection of this aspect in their relationship. Merle's progressing Venus (D6) forms a 72 degree quintile aspect with his Mars (C7) in September 1934. This aspect is theoretically useful in relationships, but as it has not been explored in this study it is mentioned purely as an aside. Below is a trajectory graph showing how and when this quintile formed.
In all, this relationship lasted seven months and can be described quite accurately as one of Howard's sexual escapades, of which there were many. There could even have been a little of the self-centred use and abuse in Howard's approach. His progressing Venus squares Merle's Sun and this is theoretically an indicator that - at the time - they either had different ideas about where the relationship was to go, or that despite their sexual compatibility (which is the remit of Venus and Mars), their compatibility in a relationship was much less than ideal and Howard saw the seduction of Merle as a role or a job of work that he was wont to do
Fig 7. Graph showing the two degree window of opportunity 1933 to 1936 created by Oberon and Howard's
progressed Venus progressed Mars quintile which was exact around the time of their five month affair
Merle Oberon and David Niven
Merle had first met David Niven at the Café de Paris when she was a hostess and involved with Hutch. Laurence Olivier also spied them together on a film set in England in the early thirties. They met and started to date in Hollywood sometime after Merle split with Howard. Niven was a complete contrast to the sensitive and emotional Howard. He had little natural acting ability and was more sporty, athletic and easy going. In fact his affair with Merle had quite a superficial quality that suited them both for a time. It's true that Merle wanted to marry, but Niven, possibly becoming aware of her true background, eventually rejected her in favour of the wild Hollywood lifestyle that he shared with fellow bon vivant Errol Flynn . Perhaps more pertinently, Niven was probably enjoying his life too much at the time for him to commit himself to marriage.
There is only one of the conventional relationship indicators available in this matrix and that is an aspect between the Sun and the Moon and not the subject of this book. Apart from this possible Sun Moon conjunction there are none of the conventional progressed synastry patterns. A close semi-sextile between Niven's progressing Venus and Merle's progressing Sun suggest a relationship that was primarily one of a teacher (Merle) and a pupil (Niven), or in some senses, Niven was Merle's property. This is quite a detached and unserious astrological aspect when applied to relationships. Merle seems to have been taken by the active and athletic Niven whose lack of seriousness is legendary.
Fig 8. Matrix showing the natal planetary positions of Merle Oberon and David Niven, together
with their progressed planetary positions for the year 1935.
Merle Oberon and George Brent
Merle's next affair in the Summer of 1938 was with Irish actor George Brent. Here we see a close applying progressed Sun (D3) Venus (C6) conjunction together with a close natal Venus (B6) Mars (E7) trine.
Fig 9. Matrix showing the natal planetary positions of Merle Oberon and George Brent, together
with their progressed planetary positions for the year 1938
Fig 10. Graph showing the two degree window of opportunity 1930 onwards created by
Oberon and Brent's progressed Venus progressed Sun conjunction
Merle Oberon with Alexander Korda
All this time Merle was under contract to Alexander Korda, the eccentric Hungarian producer, who had made his name in England with his almost-always-in-debt London Film company.
He had long admired Merle and there had been occasions when he must have made this plain, but being principled, married and her boss, they did not come together in a relationship until the early months of 1939. Korda was a scion of the British film industry by now and it transpired that he was also very close to the British establishment. Although Hungarian by birth, Korda was an avowed Anglophile and there is much evidence that he worked for and with British intelligence in an effort to undermine the Nazi government. There is much speculation that he had waited until she had established herself as a star in her own right before he made the move to propose. He did this in 1939 and the couple were married after overcoming a nightmare of red tape 6 in Antibes in June 1939.
Merle and Alex moved into a mansion in Denham, near to Korda's film studio and Alex also moved his brothers Zoltan and Vincent and their wives into the same house. This family affair proved to be the undoing of their relationship. Alex' brothers did not have a high opinion of Merle and there was coolness and animosity from the start.
Alex and Merle were an odd couple, not only was Alex older by 18 years (and by now quite heavy). He liked to drink and smoke cigars, while Merle hated smoke and drank sparingly. He would work into the early hours, and had a massive appetite, while she needed lots of sleep and would eat like a bird. Their compatibility although no doubt genuine in some areas, was lacking in some of the more obvious areas of commonality. They were perhaps destined to come together as much as they were destined to part company
Fig 11. Matrix showing the natal planetary positions of Merle Oberon and Alex Korda, together with their progressed planetary positions for the year 1939.
In 1940 Merle was struck down by a skin complaint that threatened to damage her looks. She needed to have a form of surgery called dermabrasion which, in 1940, involved the skin on her face being frozen and then scraped off with a drill-like device. This process required a recovery period and she stepped out of the limelight for a while. She worked behind-the-scenes on pictures like the Jungle Book while also financing her husband's venture Lady Hamilton . She also took time out to go door to door in New York to collect money for the British war effort.
The chart below shows the very close motion of Oberon and Korda's progressing Venus trine (C6 and D6). It was never further much more than a degree from exact throughout their relationship, but was exact in 1934.
Fig 12. Graph showing the trajectory of the progressed Venus trine shared by Oberon and Korda
Her next three films were not well received and the Korda-produced Lydia was a disaster. She blamed the ever distant Alex for the bad script, and their relationship which was by now on shaky ground, took a turn for the worse. Alex was also doing a lot of work for the British war effort, but Britain (by this time alone in an expensive war) had frozen his bank account (hence Merle's financing of Lady Hamilton). Alex also had to appear before a congressional committee investigating the work of foreign agents in the US after the obviously propagandist story of Lord Nelson and the embattled British nation was told in Lady Hamilton . Further to this, his ex-wife Maria went to the courts demanding unpaid alimony.
Alex and Merle had not shared the same bed since mid 1940 and so the scene was set for Merle's most remarkable affair. It took place in the summer of 1941, and was with Richard Hillary an Australian Spitfire pilot whose horrific burn injuries had tragically transformed him from athletic Adonis to a disfigured hero and member of the famed Guinea Pig club.
Merle Oberon and Richard Hillary
Hillary was born in Australia , and had attended Shrewsbury school in England and Trinity College Oxford. He had a strong athletic background and is described as a very handsome, volatile and direct individual (a Sun Aries) he had enlisted immediately at the outbreak of war to 'fight the Nazi's' becoming a Spitfire pilot and taking part in the Battle of Britain. He was shot down once without injury, then on a second occasion he bailed out of his burning plane over the North Sea and was very badly burned. Treated by reknowned plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe at East Grinstead hospital, he had skin grafts to his face. His severely burned hands and arms required extensive treatment. His eyelids were grafted with skin taken from his leg, and his hands, burned to the bone, were clawlike and although still useable, caused him much pain.
After his recovery, Hillary approached the war office and asked for permission to travel to the US , the purpose of his visit being to rally the workers there. His idea was to show the Americans what the Nazi war was doing to freedom-loving young athletes. Of course, on his arrival in the US, his face and disfigured hands created such revulsion that British Ambassador Lord Halifax and representatives of the US government decided that Hillary would do more harm than good and banned him from speaking to the workers, although it is difficult to understand why, as photographs taken of Hillary in 1941 do not suggest the monstrous visage depicted by Higham and Moseley. He was however, devastated and resentful of this development, but while in New York he was introduced (or perhaps re-introduced as they may already have met) to Merle, who soon recognised that beneath the changed façade, Richard Hillary was a man of great beauty and passion. She sympathised with Hillary for he was a man who had previously been very attractive to women and must now live inside a transformed body. She must have empathised with him as she was a woman who had lost her beauty for a while and needed to undergo surgery to regain it. Perhaps she also felt guilty for the feelings she had while recovering from the dermabrasion treatment and Richard Hillary's condition placed her own suffering into context. Perhaps her Piscean Venus was blessed with the intuition and insight required to see beyond physical beauty to the beauty that lies within. Whatever her motivation, she cancelled all her engagements and secretly joined Richard for two weeks of passion in the summer of 1941. Hillary has been described as 'a frenzied driving lover' suggesting a high sex drive and adequately descriptive of the approach of the Aries archetype. Higham and Moseley conjecture that because of their well twinned sex drives, their time must have been ' ectstatically abandoned and fulfilling ' 7. During this period of time he penned much of his book The Last Enemy . The quite extraordinary experience of a man whose identity had been so brutally challenged by circumstance, being taken to bed by one of the most glamorous film stars of his time allowed Richard to regain some confidence in himself as a desirable individual. The secret lovers parted in the autumn of 1941. Theirs was a light, unserious relationship, but still loaded with passion and mutual desire.
Higham and Moseley comment that Merle's marriage to Alex had now been completely eliminated in her mind by the affair with Hillary. 8
This did not mean they were both still very much married in the eyes of the world. Alex was awarded a Knighthood in 1942 and while Merle visited Britain to entertain the troops she accompanied him to Buckingham Palace at his investiture. She thus became Lady Korda.
During her trip to Britain she was reunited for two days with Richard Hillary. Richard had fallen in love with another woman, Mary Booker, and Merle was married, but they spent a weekend together anyway.
'Their romance was doomed; there could be no chance of permanence and it is not entirely certain whether, had they been free, they would have entered into a long-term relationship. They were restless spirits both: it was part of their empathy that they had this wildness in common.' 9
Richard was killed in 1943 when the Blenheim plane he was piloting crashed. Some say he committed suicide; that is probably not true, because he took with him his navigator. It is more likely that he died as the result of an accident which was caused by either his inability to see well through his grafted eyelids or that his injured hands could not control his plane with enough skill. We'll never know.
Fig 13. Matrix showing the natal planetary positions of Merle Oberon and Richard Hillary, together
with their progressed planetary positions for the year 1941.
Fig 14. Graph showing the two degree window of opportunity 1939 to
1942 created by Oberon and Hillary's progressed Venus natal Sun trine
Richard Hillary and Mary Booker
Mary Booker was twenty years older than Richard Hillary. They share a natal Venus (Richard) Mars (Mary) conjunction. Michael Burn, later Mary's husband and biographer says that Mary knew both Merle and Alex Korda. Hillary and Mary met in December 1941, Hillary came bearing messages from Merle. Their relationship developed and Mary became Hillary's partner 10.
Fig 15. Matrix showing the natal planetary positions of Richard Hillary and Mary Booker, together with their progressed planetary positions for the year 1942.
Alex Korda and Merle separated in 1943, he no doubt knew of her affair with Hillary and he was anxious to leave Hollywood anyway. He took up Louis B Mayer's offer to run his British operation and returned to London . The parting of the ways for Alex and Merle was amicable.
More bad news arrived in the same year, as Leslie Howard was killed on a Dutch airline flight from Britain to Portugal in June 1943...
References and Notes
1 I have no birth data for Merle Oberon's third husband, Bruno Pagliai.
2 Merle - A biography of Merle Oberon , Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, New English Library, 1983
3 ibid p29
4 Two years later in 1935 this company became Twentieth Century Fox by merging with William Fox's Fox films
5 Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, Merle - A biography of Merle Oberon , New English Library, 1983, p 59
6 Korda's birth certificate was somewhere in Nazi occupied Hungary at the time, while Merle's was in Bombay .
7 Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, Merle - A biography of Merle Oberon , New English Library, 1983, p134
8 ibid pp135-136
9 ibid pp142-143
10 The relationship of Richard Hillary and Mary Booker is not included in the 1300 relationships