Marilyn, Sylvia Syms, and a Strap Fit for the Queen

Sylvia Syms, who died in January aged 89, was one of Britain’s most beautiful and accomplished actresses. Her film credits included Woman in a Dressing Gown, Ice Cold in Alex, Victim, Flame in the Streets, and The Tamarind Seed. In 2006, she played the Queen Mother to Helen Mirren’s The Queen.

Fifty years previously, on October 29th, 1956, Sylvia had attended the Royal Film Performance of The Battle of River Plate at the Empire Cinema in London’s Leicester Square. She can be seen in photographs taken that night, standing to the right of Marilyn Monroe and Anthony Quayle among a star-studded line-up waiting to be introduced to Queen Elizabeth II.

In a recent letter to The Guardian, reader Peter Rankin recalled this evening…

“Sylvia Syms was in a film premiere lineup when Marilyn Monroe cried out: ‘My shoulder strap’s snapped.’ Anthony Quayle told Sylvia: ‘Take Marilyn to the Ladies and get it fixed.’

‘But I might miss seeing the Queen,’ said Sylvia. ‘Just do it,’ said Tony. In her clutch bag Sylvia had a safety pin – problem solved, and they all met the Queen.”

I don’t know where Mr. Rankin heard about this, but no such incident is mentioned in Michelle Morgan’s When Marilyn Met the Queen, the definitive account of Marilyn’s time in England. I think the story is probably apocryphal, and conflated with an earlier event.

Marilyn had broken a dress-strap several months before, during a press conference with Laurence Olivier at New York’s Plaza Hotel on February 9th, when they announced their plans to film The Prince and the Showgirl. Her wardrobe mishap made headlines – some, like photographer Eve Arnold, believed it was staged – and it was later incorporated in a scene from the movie, which Marilyn was still shooting when she met the Queen.