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Encyclopedia Sabrina (Norma Ann Sykes)

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Tributes to Sabrina

19 May 1936 - 24 November 2016

Many thanks to Countess Anastasia of West Siberia for this image

If you would like to contribute a tribute to Sabrina, please send it here.

A Tribute to Sabrina from Mark, the Sabrinamaster - 4 September 2017

It was one hell of a life, Sabby, and you did it in style.

She was the last of the bombshells, outlasting her idol Marilyn Monroe, competitors Diana Dors, and Jayne Mansfield. Sabby might be a little miffed that her arch-rival June Wilkinson - four years her junior - survives her.

In these days of plastic surgery, weapons-grade star-making, and instant global communications it is hard to appreciate exactly how an ill-educated polio victim could manage to become a household name and an icon in much of the western world. After a couple of lucky breaks, her rise to global celebrity was largely her own doing since she usually acted as her own agent and manager. She was a master of publicity and promotion who should be used as a template by star-makers and publicists today. She was one of the pioneers of modern stardom.

She was not well-educated because much of her young life was spent in hospital, suffering from polio, rheumatic fever, and osteomyelitis - all at the same time. As she told me in one of our interviews, "Of course I always did everything in a big way."

But while her legs were weak, and she had no show-business training, she knew how to make the most of her strengths.

Blessed with a body that would still make most modern women weep with envy, Sabrina knew instinctively how to become a star instead of just enjoying a short-lived career as a model and pin-up girl.

Guided by her mentor Arthur Askey, she probably learned lesson number 1 very soon - Work with what you've got. So for some years she was a silent eyeful of seduction on Askey's TV show 'Before Your Very Eyes'. She only had to turn sideways to the camera and 90% of the male population of Britain would be choking on their baked beans on toast. (The other 10% were gay.)

But she was never satisfied to rely solely on her 'gimmick' - a word that constantly appears in contemporary articles on her career.

She knew she was not a natural actor or singer, so she paid her dues in lessons on acting, singing , deportment, and speech. It was ironic (and infuriating to her) that after all her work to shed her Liverpudlian accent her voice was over-dubbed in her first movie 'Stock Car' because it wasn't common enough!

She had scars on her legs from the braces attached to her as a young polio victim, but artfully disguised them with unfashionably-long dresses that served to accentuate her unique hourglass figure. She could smell a camera half a mile away and was always prepared with just the right pose to show off her charms. In the past 17 years I have found about 2,500 photos of her. The camera loved her, and she loved the camera - and she fed it generously. It did not hurt that many of these pictures showed her either leaning forward in a low-cut dress, or appearing at the most glamorous events with the most dashing men - and Cuban dictators!

She could also turn problems into opportunities. As an innocent and hungry girl in London, she posed nude at the age of 16, which she regretted, but she also turned the embarrassing event into a goldmine of publicity by dramatically destroying the playing card images whenever she found them in shops. When the novel Cinderella Nightingale said that the lead character was abused by her father, Sabrina sued the author and the publisher and managed to have the offending text redacted and the book re-published. Her grand appearance at the 1956 Royal Variety Performance was cancelled because of the Suez Canal crisis, but global coverage of her heartbreak (and photos of her with star Liberace) may have eased her distress. And many other unplanned (or planned? Who knows?) events such as the gatecrashing of the royal enclosure at the 1957 Ascot races, causing a riot in Sheffield, having her dress ripped off in publicat Birkenhead, being named as the co-respondent in Paul Carpenter's divorce, proving her claim to have a 19 inch waist, and masterfully insuring her breasts against 'shrinkage' proved that she was no dumb blonde, as the press liked to believe. She had them all wrapped around her little finger.

Her career bloomed in the mid-to-late 1950s, but when the fashion moved away from big bosoms, Sabrina moved into stage plays. But in 1967 Sabrina found herself with a German husband (she told me "I couldn't believe I ended up marrying a German.") who did not want her working. The year of her marriage was also the year of her last movie, The Phantom Gunslinger (one of the weirdest movies ever made, apart from The House of Black Death). Her last ever known public appearance was on British TV in 1974 for Arthur Askey's This Is Your Life.

In her later years, she lived quietly near West Toluca Lake in Hollywood with only rare publicity, notably from the sleazy British 'Mail On Sunday' in 2003 which claimed she was 'a tragic down and out... living alone in squalor.' The event was fortuitous for this site, since it prompted Sabby to get in touch with me for the first time to set the record straight. And, of course, she threatened to sue the Mail on Sunday and extracted an apology from them.

You don't mess with our Sabrina, yet people who met Sabrina often seemed surprised about how sweet and kind and natural she was.

Sabrina's passing in November 2016 was not a surprise: she had been suffering ill-health for some time, including troubles caused by blood poisoning and botched back surgery (for which she successfully sued her surgeon, of course).

Sabrina had an amazing life that has inspired many women over the years, including young Countess Anastasia of Siberia. She dated princes, and stars. She invented and re-invented herself. She largely invented 1950s celebrity. She is memorable, and I hope her memory will live on. This site will continue its impossible mission of gathering every Sabrinafact and Sabrinaphoto.

I started this site in 2000 because I heard the name 'Sabrina' recurring in 'The Goon Show'. I did not know her - nobody did. I wondered how someone so famous across the world in 1956 could be completely forgotten less than 50 years later. That led me to see just how much I could discover about this 'Sabrina' using just the internet. And this site is the result

I am glad that this site has reminded so many people about the life and career of such a remarkable woman.

Mark Kelly

From Countess Anastasia Arden of West Siberia. Sabrina fan #1. Aged 26 in 2017.

"Sabrina"

How perfect she was? I can't tell
How charming she was? Nobody can tell
How pure she was? They don't tell.
How amazing she was? Only we know.
Life without her – will be hard
Life without her – still we cry
Life without her – I can't guess
Living without her – God only knows.

They said – "Sabrina? Forget her."
They said – "A Blonde? Oh, Yeah"
They said – "A talent? Oh, no."
But we, we said – She was more than an idol.

"Sabrina is gone" - we hoped it was not true,
Our Lady has gone – we are crying
Our Sabby is dead – we lose our hope.
And I tell it to you – it's no time to cry

Sabrina lived a fabulous life
She had everything, and with a smile
We remember her
Our Sabby,
Goodbye.

From Ted Doan at The Plaza, Stockport...

Sabrina to be celebrated in Stockport on Sunday 10th September [2017]


Stockport will be celebrating the life of its own Hollywood Starlet / Screen Icon / Blonde Bombshell Sabrina on September 10th.

Events to celebrate her life have been scheduled for September 10th at both The Vintage Village at Stockport Market and The Plaza Super Cinema and Variety Theatre.

SABRINA real name Norma Ann Sykes who grew up in Stockport passed away peacefully at hospital in Los Angeles on Nov 24th 2016. She was 80 years old.

The events have been organised by Ted Doan of The Plaza Cinema, Alan Lowe of The Vintage Village and Sabrina's close friend Stephen Page.

Events will include
At The Vintage Village: Up to 70 stalls of authentic vintage goods, screening of Sabrina's cult movie 'Satan in High Heels', and never before seen film footage of Sabrina on tour, plus a gallery of her own favourite photos, personal artifacts and items of clothing from her own personal wardrobe.
Her close friend Stephen Page will talk about her life and career and share her stories about her visits to Stockport, her superstar pals – Frank Sinatra, Liberace, her date with Elvis, The Hollywood 'Rat-Pack' and more!
The sensational Bexi Owen sings live throughout the day, plus a 'Best Dressed' competition with prizes. The suggested dress code for the day is – of course! – full-on, high-wattage 1950s glamour and pizazz! Dress to impress and you may snag yourself a nice little treat to take home!

At The Plaza: Screenings of Pathé Newsreels featuring Sabrina which played to thousands of fans at the height of her popularity in British Cinemas across the Nation alongside a special presentation about the life and career of Sabrina during the Heritage Open Day which will this year be hosted in honour of her memory as a Patron of The Plaza and Stockport's own glamorous star.


Comments

Comment from Stevie Page:

Over the many years I knew Sabrina she often shared her fond memories of Stockport. Especially of visits with her mother Annie to Bramhall Hall and Bluebell Valley. She was a most remarkable brave lady and special friend who suffered many years of illness with great dignity.

She was previously honoured as both a patron of the Plaza Super Cinema & Variety Theatre and by The Vintage Village who paid tribute to her with a special 'Sabrina Day' back in 2012.
It is only natural and appropriate that her life celebration be hosted here in Stockport.
Ted, Alan and myself are hoping to work towards creating a future annual 'Sabrina Day' for Stockport which would both celebrate her life and benefit local charities.

Comment from Ted Doan:

Having been a fan of Sabrina's since I was a child it came as a wonderful surprise to discover she was a proud Stopfordian and an absolute personal highlight was talking to our icon of femininity when she called The Plaza to kindly agree to be a patron. Her support of The Plaza, saved by our community just over 17 short years ago and her care for the youth theatres that use the venue displayed a passion for the town where she was born and the people who saved, restored and now use Stockport's 1932 Super Cinema and Variety Theatre, a glamourous venue supported by one of the nation's most glamorous stars.

Comment Alan Lowe: We feel this remarkable lady who was a 'Stockport girl' should be remembered in a fashion she would have approved of, and where better to do this but in Stockport itself, at an event which will be true to the fashions of her time. We are proud to be involved with this 'Life Celebration' of our own Hollywood Starlet, Sabrina.

An official Life Celebration has been set for May 2018 At The Plaza Super Cinema with a day of screenings and events with a celebration concert. More news to follow.

27 October 2017 - The Telegraph published its obit for Sabrina (behind a paywall) but a copy may appear here at some time.

7 October 2017 - The Times (Editorial)

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, glamour model and actress, was born on May 19, 1936. She died of respiratory failure on November 24, 2016, aged 80

 

 

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