Actress once hailed as a British Marilyn Monroe
October 7, 2017
The prefix “sex” — whether placed before siren, bomb, symbol or kitten when describing women — is taboo in modern social protocol. In the rainy, frigid Britain of the 1950s, however, such terms were badges of honour, rather than crude or reductive. ‘‘I’m using my bosom to move on to bigger and better things,’’ said Sabrina in an early interview.
Sabrina was one of a number, among them Diana Dors and June Wilkinson, to proffer themselves as Britain’s riposte to Marilyn Monroe. They dyed their hair luminescent white, wore tight clothes to accentuate full figures and tittered (what else?) on cue. The stereotype of the “blonde bombshell” was set loose, with perfect timing. Before the arrival of film and, more influentially, television, sex had been either a grubby commodity played out across pulp magazines or dull and perfunctory when coalesced with nature in magazines such as Health and Efficiency.
Suddenly sex became glamorous and giggly, colourful and comical. Sabrina, born from the brick dust of a northern working-class life, was at the forefront of this breakthrough, but unlike, say, Dors, who had been to drama school, and Wilkinson, a stage performer from the age of 12, Sabrina had little discernible talent. Although said to “wear charisma like scent”, she was only ever passable as an actress, singer or comedian.
Still, she had verve and vim, and built for herself an extraordinarily rich life. Generous with her affections, she spent an evening with Elvis Presley in Las Vegas. She was a friend of Sammy Davis Jr and attended parties at Frank Sinatra’s mansion in Palms Springs, California. She went on shopping trips with Lucille Ball. Sabrina charmed princes and revolutionaries alike. She also suffered a great deal of derision, ill luck and illness. Her last decades were spent in great pain with a live-in carer at a house near West Toluca Lake in Hollywood. She died last November, but her death wasn’t known until a week ago, such was her retreat from public life.
The daughter of an engineer, Walter Sykes, and a seamstress, Annie (née Haslam), Sabrina’s real name was Norma Ann Sykes. She was brought up in a terraced house in Heaviley, an area of Stockport. A strong swimmer, at nine years old she swam a mile a day at the local baths. She contracted rheumatic fever and polio in childhood and spent long periods in hospital. After one operation there were fears that a leg may have to be amputated. She wore callipers and had scars for life. She left Stockport at the age of 12, when her parents took over a boarding house in Blackpool. Touring artistes often stayed, which might have provided Norma a glimpse of a life lit brighter.
At 16 she moved to London and lived alone in a rented windowless attic room in King’s Cross. She made jewellery and sold it at local shops. She survived on bread, potatoes and baked beans. She had a voluptuous figure, with a 41in bust and 18in waist. ‘‘I soon realised the effect my figure had on people,’’ she said. ‘‘They would frequently stop and stare at me in the street, especially if I was wearing a sweater.’’ Sydney Aylett, a barristers’ clerk and keen photographer, became a friend. ‘‘It seemed every man’s head turned towards her,’’ he said. ‘‘And from the looks, which ranged from admiration to downright lechery, it became apparent she had something. It wasn’t just the bosom; she radiated a sort of sensual purity, which sounds like a contradiction in terms.’’
Aylett introduced her to luminaries in show business, but first he met her mother. He told her that film stars such as Jane Russell, Jayne Mansfield and Monroe had made “big bosom big business”. Aylett wrote later: “Mrs Sykes took my point, albeit a little rustically. ‘Aye, I see what you mean,’ she broke in, ‘and our Norma’s got a couple of beauties, hasn’t she?’ ’’ Annie Sykes was to remain close to her daughter, travelling across the globe at her side.
Norma took up offers to pose for photographers. Hungry and tired one day after walking to a studio because she had no bus fare, she agreed to pose nude for the photographer Russell Gay, who, she said, paid her 15 shillings. The pictures, to her apparent regret, appeared later in downmarket magazines, sold after she became famous.
By the mid-1950s almost half the British population owned a television. Before Your Very Eyes, hosted by Arthur Askey, was a popular comedy series. “I hit on the idea of having a dumb blonde around the set,” Askey wrote in his autobiography. “We held auditions for a suitable dumb-cluck and found one in Norma Sykes. She had a lovely face and figure, but could not act, sing, dance, or even walk properly.” Askey, with whom Sabrina became a close friend, claimed to have named her, borrowing it from the romantic comedy Sabrina Fair.
In February 1955 Sabrina started a 16-week run on Before Your Very Eyes. She seldom spoke, but more often pouted and feigned admonishment as Askey made scores of jokes about her figure. She was reportedly the first woman to show her cleavage on British television. Within a few weeks the word Sabrina became a euphemism for breasts and she was regularly name-checked in episodes of The Goon Show. The critic Cosmo Landesman later referred to her appearance as a pivotal point in Britain’s postwar cultural history.
She began receiving more than 1,000 fan letters a week. Personal appearances often degenerated into riots; about 4,000 people turned up to a shop opening in Sheffield, for which her fee was £100 (the average weekly wage was £7.50 at the time). Sabrina constantly fed stories to the press — her dress was routinely “almost torn off” by fans; Lloyd’s of London insured her bust for £40,000; she held regular public measurements of her bust and owned a Cadillac with the number plate “S41”, in tribute to her bra size. Unusually for the times, she acted as her own press agent and largely crafted her own image.
Sabrina dated Prince Christian Oscar of Hanover. One evening, after he’d downed several brandies, she duped him into kissing her while photographers were present, ensuring she appeared in the Sunday newspapers. ‘‘When I look back on what I did to Christian, I feel ashamed,’’ she said. ‘‘At the time he was simply another rung on the ladder to the top. I learnt early that I had to fight my own way. I have used men as playthings to achieve my ends and have, in turn, been ruthlessly exploited by them.’’
She appeared in a handful of British films, including the comedy Blue Murder at St Trinian’s with Terry-Thomas and Alastair Sim. The parts were small and insignificant. She relocated to the US, where she performed in a touring cabaret.
In April 1959 Sabrina found herself in the company of Fidel Castro at a television studio. She later told friends that he was “very courteous and respectful”. She was popular in Australia, where 10,000 people turned up to see her arrival at Perth airport in June 1960. The clamour was such that a section of the airport roof collapsed, although no one was injured. She was chosen as the “Caltex Oil girl”, starring in hackneyed television adverts in Australia.
In November 1967 Sabrina withdrew from public life when she married Dr Harry Melsheimer, a wealthy Hollywood gynaecologist. ‘‘He’s tall, dark and handsome, and we’re very much in love,’’ she said. The couple owned a 40ft yacht and several sports cars. Their doberman pinscher had its own bedroom at their mansion in Encino, California. They divorced about ten years later.
Sabrina suffered chronic back problems through her adult life and had several unsuccessful operations. In later years she was paraplegic. In 1990 her mother moved to Hollywood to look after her, but died five years later. Sabrina lived quietly thereafter, visited regularly by a small group of friends with whom she rarely talked of her colourful past.
SABRINA (Norma Ann Sykes)
Born: 5/19/1936, Stockport, Cheshire, England, U.K.
Died: 11/24/2016, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
Sabrina’s westerns – actress:
Ramsbottom Rides Again – 1956 (Indian girl)
The Phantom Gunslinger – 1970 (Margie)