Topics: Entertainment, Native Affairs

Native Affairs: The Mystery Of The Māori Hollywood Star

By Aroha Awarau

It’s one of Hollywood’s oldest mysteries – with a Māori twist. Screen goddess Merle Oberon was just as famous as legends such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. But did she hide her Māori and Indian culture to succeed in Hollywood?

One of Merle’s biggest fans is acclaimed Māori writer Witi Ihimaera. When he read Oberon’s biography in 1990, he was surprised to discover the whakapapa of one of Hollywood’s first female legends.

“Around about page 7, it mentioned she had Māori ancestry. That absolutely totally blew me away,” Ihimaera says. “The whole idea that a Māori had conquered Hollywood. She was regarded being one of the most beautiful and most influential actresses of her time. And that’s one of the reasons why we should remember her here in New Zealand.”

Oberon was born in Mumbai, India in 1911. It is reported that her father was English and her mother was Māori and Sri Lankan.  

She was cast in her first film when she moved to London at 17. By the time she reached Hollywood, where she made more than 60 films, Oberon fabricated her past to conceal her true identity. Hollywood at the time was full with prejudice and faces on the big screen were mostly white.

Ihimaera says she used clever lighting to hide her dark complexion and when she had her mother with her, Oberon lead people to believe her mother was her servant. Oberon inspired one of the main characters in Ihimaera’s book and film White Lies. 

“If she had acknowledged that she had any, a touch of the tar is what they called it in those days, her whole life, her whole career would have been totally destroyed,” Ihimaera says.

Gossip columnist David Hartnell met Oberon when she visited Auckland in 1977. He says she was exotic and exuded star quality.

“She said that she was born in Tasmania and that was so far away from Hollywood, Tasmania in those days. Later in life the mayor of Tasmania wanted to present her with a citation and then found out later that hello she wasn’t born here at all,” Hartnell explains.

Ihimaera has done research on Oberon’s Māori background. He says the key to Oberon’s Māori ancestry is through her grandmother, Charlotte.

“All I know is that she was a Selby. Whether or not her mother met a Mr Selby in India or New Zealand, I don’t know.”

Peter Krafft, who has been a genealogist for more than 30 years, doubts Oberon has Māori blood. He says she may have lied for publicity.

“On the surface, I can’t find where you’re going to find Māori ancestry on that line because you’re going backward in time. If her mother was born in 1870 or something like that, how many Māoris were there in Sri Lanka in 1870?”

Despite the mystery, Ihimaera insists that Oberon is Māori.

“It isn’t Merle who told that story herself, her biographers told that story I’d like to think that Merle Oberon was a Māori, I’d like to think that Merle Oberon was Ngāti Porou.”

Oberon died in 1979. She’s a woman who kept many secrets but she has taken this mystery to her grave.