Merle Oberon, a British/Indian actress probably best known for her portrayal of Cathy in Wuthering Heights (1939), is an interesting person in Gable history. No, they were never paired together onscreen; they did have a brief romance offscreen. But what’s interesting is that Merle, who at first glance is only a flicker on Clark’s romantic radar, was present at many of the defining moments in Clark’s life.
In 1936, Clark had officially been declared “fair game” after moving into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel after separating from Ria, and Merle was one of the first to announce her intentions. She was a relative Hollywood newcomer and her romance with fellow British import David Niven wasn’t getting her on the front pages, so maybe she decided to set her sights a bit higher on the star ladder.
On January 25, Merle was there with David as a witness to see sparks flying between Clark and Carole Lombard at the Mayfair Ball (unlike Norma Shearer, in her infamous red dress, Merle obeyed the white dress code).
Merle must have decided to make a move before Carole could claim him as her own, for just a week later, on Clark’s thirty-fifth birthday, she showed up at his door dressed to the nines, clutching champagne and two glasses.
On February 7, just a few days after Clark’s birthday, Clark and Merle attended the infamous “Nervous Breakdown Party” for Donald Ogden Smith’s wife who had just been released from a sanitarium. This party is well known to Gable and Lombard fans, as this is the event where the pair fought (after Carole jokingly arrived on a stretcher in an ambulance and Clark found it in bad taste) and then gingerly made up with a spirited game of tennis. Merle started out watching the pair as they played, but grew bored and asked someone to take her home. Clark didn’t seem to notice.
Clark’s head was spinning from Carole, no doubt, but she was still playing hard to get. Merle was a willing and eager fill-in. On March 5, the Academy Awards ceremony was held. Clark was nominated for Best Actor for Mutiny on the Bounty and wasn’t too keen on attending the ceremony, but went more as Merle’s escort–she was also nominated, as Best Actress for The Dark Angel. Neither won, and it’s funny to note that in most of the pictures taken at the ceremony, Merle looks like she’s having a grand time while Clark looks bored to death.
It wasn’t too long after this event that Clark and Carole became a true item. It’s not documented whether Clark ever actually “broke up” with Merle, but she must have known she had been defeated. She quickly moved on to Gary Cooper for a while and in 1939 she married the illustrious British producer Alexander Korda, the first of four husbands.
Merle was later a frequent vistor to the ranch house, as she was close friends with Clark’s fourth wife Sylvia Ashley. She was a guest at Clark’s infamous birthday dinner in 1951, when Sylvia instructed the cook to make chicken and dumplings, one of Clark’s favorite meals. Unfortuantely, the cook made the dish the night before and then left it out all night and it spoiled. When it was served, the smell of the spoiled poultry was so overpowering that the guests started making jokes about food poisoning and laughing. Clark was furious, stomped off and refused to return to the party. The incident proved to be the final straw in his fourth marriage.
I have heard it mentioned that Merle attended Clark’s funeral but I have not been able to confirm that; I have not seen any pictures of her there.
Merle certainly was a lucky audience member to many milestone events in Clark’s life and maybe wasn’t a great romance by any stretch, but an interesting footnote in Gable history.
What’s one of the things these three ladies have in common? All three kissed Clark!