Encyclopedia Sabrina (Norma Ann Sykes)

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An English Affair:

Sex, Sabrina, Profumo?

by Davenport-Hines, Richard (2012),
An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo (pp.128ff)

Thanks to Lord Ken for the tip-off to this book, and archive.org for the text!

If Dors was the ersatz Monroe, then the glamour model 'Sabrina' (real name Norma Sykes) was the ersatz Dors. Sykes was born at Stockport in 1936, daughter of a factory mechanic and a seamstress who later opened a small hotel at Blackpool.

She contracted polio in girlhood, and endured years under medical orders. At the age of sixteen she went to London, where she worked as a waitress and posed nude to decorate the backs of playing cards. She tried to get modelling work from Harrison Marks, but was rejected - perhaps because at that time her waist size matched that of her bust.

In 1955 the comedian Arthur Askey noticed her picture in a magazine. He invited her to his office, where he found that she could not sing, dance or act. Her Lancashire accent, too, jarred. But because her measurements were now 41-19-36, Askey put her on his television programme Before Your Very Eyes as a 'dumb blonde'. Viewers were so enthusiastic about her bust that she was moved centre stage for the next episode. Her stage name 'Sabrina' was coined.

Soon she was hired to attend shop openings and publicity stunts. In 1957, for example, she graced the launch of the Vauxhall Victor motor car (a four-door saloon with chrome trimming and a touch of Chevrolet swank), and spent a night at Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire (newly opened for sightseers in order to pay death duties levied after the recent death of its owner, Lord Manvers).

When booked to star in the revue Plaisirs de Paris , Sabrina was paid to do nothing but stand with her chest held firm. In Askey's boisterous comedy-western Ramsbottom Rides Again (1956), she appeared alongside Sid James and Frankie Vaughan, but hardly uttered a word.

In the film Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957) she was given star billing after Alastair Sim, above Terry-Thomas, Joyce Grenfell and Terry Scott, but played a swot who stayed in bed with a book, and never spoke. She bobbed in the background behind Dickie Henderson in a 1957 revue at the Prince of Wales Theatre.

Every week she signed thousands of pin-up photographs. A young schoolmaster at St Custard's prep school, in the classic Nigel Molesworth school novel, had one such picture, and daydreamed about her.

Sabrina's agent, Joe Matthews , was profiled in the Spectator of 1957 as representative of a new generation of self-made men. A cockney with a sharp weather-beaten face, he had discovered his flair for publicity when working as a stage manager. Then he opened a shop (flanked by an undertaker's and a supplier of jellied eels) selling photographs of American stars at 148E Lambeth Walk. During 1955-58 he operated as Sabrina's Svengali, managing her celebrity appearances and publicising her charms.

Among his stunts, Matthews insured Sabrina's breasts for £100,000: she was promised compensation of £2,500 for every inch her bust measurement shrank below forty inches. Another device to curry publicity was to spend £2,700 buying a yellow and white Chevrolet for Sabrina, together with the registration number S41 (her bust measurement).

Matthews drummed-up press interest in her romance with an American film-star, Steve Cochran: speculation about whether she would meet him on arrival at Heathrow airport relegated mine disasters from front pages. Dancing with Cochran at the Pigalle restaurant in 1957 she let her shoulder strap slip, and paparazzi snapped her in an expression of rapture.

After Sabrina scored a hit speaking at the Variety Club lunch, Matthews boasted: 'It was splendid corn - I wrote it.' The Variety Club was an exuberantly masculine showbiz charity with which he enjoyed cooperating. His reaction was different when Antonella Kerr, the Marchioness of Lothian, invited Sabrina to speak at the Women of the Year luncheon at the Savoy hotel.

'Tony' Lothian was a broadcaster who had spent her adolescence in Nazi Germany, voted Labour after the war and was married to one of the Catholic representatives on the Wolfenden committee. Her idea of an annual luncheon for women high-achievers - enabling women to meet one another and develop networks of shared affinities and plans, honouring women for outstanding work that was not headline-grabbing - was initially derided, especially by men who thought that the weaker sex could achieve little without male protection, and should either look like Sabrina or stay at home.

Eventually Lady Lothian enlisted the support of Odette Churchill Hallowes, a survivor of polio and a year's blindness in childhood, who had been parachuted by the Special Operations Executive into Nazi-occupied France, served with the resistance, survived Ravensbruck concentration camp, and was the first woman to receive the George Cross. Lothian, Hallowes and Lady Georgina Coleridge finally launched these enjoyable, estimable luncheons, which also raised funds for blind charities, in 1955.

Matthews, however, liked his women weak and helpless, and revelled in the growing cult of ill-manners and brazen disrespect. When approached by Lady Lothian, he decided the uppity women needed to be toyed with and snubbed. There would be 'better publicity', he reckoned, if Sabrina disrupted the luncheon with his gimmicks. 'When a countess or something asked her to speak at this Savoy lunch I made all sorts of impossible demands like them hiring a special plane to bring her down from Blackpool. Finally they dropped the idea of her speaking. Anyway, she went to the lunch, and after the coffee walked out.' To the journalists who had been primed by Matthews to follow Sabrina, she claimed to be hurt that she had not been asked to speak, and read some wisecracks that were widely if not respectfully reported.

It was, as Matthews intended, an insult to all the good, strong women who organised and attended the luncheon. Sabrina's walk-out occurred during a speech by a Pakistani woman who had represented her country at the United Nations - just the sort to threaten Matthews' sense of male supremacy. With the rodomontade of one man speaking to another about a woman under his control, Matthews wouldn't like to say whether I think the kid's got talent .. . Let's put it this way, I think the bust attracts 'em and then they realise that she has a beautiful face.' Matthews said Sabrina was 'not intellectually inclined. I've only known her to write one letter, and that was to me . .. I've got her invitations to parties at which they've been dukes and earls, but it wasn't a success. She would talk to them for a bit, but they never seemed to get real friendly. They didn't seem to have much in common.'

Sabrina was not so simple and downtrodden that she did not resent this denigration by her agent. In 1958 she took herself, with her earning-power, out of Matthew's ambit towards Hollywood. One journalist recalled seeing her at three o'clock in the morning, sitting forlornly at the white baby grand piano in her barely furnished apartment near Sunset Boulevard, picking out the tune T've Got the World on a String' with one bejewelled finger. 'You know,' she said, 'when I finally do go back to London I'm going back big. You know? I'll make those people who laughed at me laugh on the other sides of their faces. For a long time I didn't know what it was I wanted. Now I know . . . Just a little respect. It goes a long way. Respect.'

Sabrina went first to Australia, where she was swindled by a druggy impresario, toured Venezuela, and had a part in an American film, Satan in High Heels , about a burlesque dancer, her junkie husband and a lesbian club owner, which was refused a certificate by the British film censors in 1963.

That year she returned to London, aged twenty-six, with English derision of her still rankling, to open beside Arthur Askey at the Saturday night Palladium show on 23 March. One interviewer found her in a Mayfair hotel, wearing shocking-pink tights and a body- hugging sweater. 'I've got eight minks,' she told him happily. 'They cost me three years' work. Not one gift among the lot.'

Sabrina's Palladium run coincided with the public breaking of the Profumo Affair: she was knocked out of the photoshoots by Christine Keeler. It coincided, too, with the climax of the murder trial of a nightclub owner who had shot his wife, a case that provided some background noise to he Profumo Affair, and similar judicial bias as the Ward trial. This sad, squalid story was eloquent of young women's muddled aspirations, marital incompatibility, the Iegitimisation of male violence to discipline unruly wives, and men's angry fright at suggestions of sexual inadequacy.

Where should Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies be located in this terrain? Somewhere in the hinterland between Pamela Green, Diana Dors and Sabrina, whose 'sex appeal' brought fame and fugitive prosperity, and those young women from the industrial provinces who felt they had nothing to offer but sexual relief for the men who found them in the London streets.

If Mandy Rice-Davies resembled one of Proops's modern women, who found that life without sex was arid, Christine Keeler resembled Christine Holford: chaotic, lurching from one escapade to another, sexy-looking but not always enjoying sex; improvising moves, and ill-starred.


At school Keeler acquired the nickname 'Sabrina' once her breasts developed: she aspired, perhaps, to be a Sabrina who did not have to work.


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