One of the best-loved of British actresses from the golden age of cinema - not least for her role as Cathy in Wuthering Heights opposite Laurence Olivier, Merle entertained us mainly in a string of romantic melodramas throughout the thirties.
In the forties, however, she turned to more interesting fare - in particular, the excellent The Lodger with George Sanders and Laird Creger, a film of Jack the Ripper; the excellent little film noir Dark Waters with Franchot Tone and Elisha Cook Jnr; the magnificent Berlin Express with Robert Ryan; and later she excelled in The Price of Fear amidst a weaker cast.
But what intrigues Merle's legions of fans (well, that's at least me and my mate Ron down the pub) is where did she spring from?
Merle claimed at one time that she was born in Tasmania, Australia. However, her birth certificate shows her to have been born in Mumbai, India and named Estelle Merle Thompson.
A lot centres on her mother - obviously. A Eurasian named Charlotte Selby from Sri Lanka raised Merle as her child. Charlotte had given birth to her first child Constance when only 14, the father being an Irish foreman on a tea plantation. Evidence suggests that Constance is in fact Merle's biological mother and a railway engineer, Arthur Thompson, her father. Merle grew up knowing Constance as her 'sister'. Charlotte went on to have four other children, who grew up believing Merle to be their auntie. One of them later in life tracked down Merle's birth certificate in Mumbai - why would he do that? - and claims it confirmed that Merle was his sister, not auntie. He with-held this information from the press until after Merle's death.
But what of the Australian connection? The most likely explanation is that it was a complete fabrication on the part of Merle - possibly in collusion with her studio - to obscure her unconventional relationship with her family and her mixed-race origins - still a big issue in the 1930s. Like many lies, however, it grew and grew. As late as the seventies, there were people in Tasmania who claimed to have known Merle as a child and that she was the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese immigrant called Lottie Chintock.
Merle, herself, attended a reception to honour her origins in Hobart, Tasmania in 1978, a year before she died. She claimed her father had been ill aboard a steamer and had to be left in Hobart to recover during which time she was conceived. She quickly pulled out of the reception to avoid answering any questions as to why there were no records of her birth or education in Australia.
Merle's birth certificate shows Constance as her mother.
Ever more fanciful stories emerged - lies seeking to rationalise inconsistent untruths - that poor Lottie had had to give her up as a child; that she had been raised by aristocrats in India; that she was taken to India by a travelling troupe of actors called O'Brien; that she was the daughter of Hobart Constable Richard Thompson......
The family of PC Thompson, one of whom it's claimed is Merle.