Sybil Christopher, Nightclub Founder, Dies at 83
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: March 11, 2013
Sybil Christopher, a theater producer, former actress, famous ex-wife and founder of Arthur, one of Manhattan’s most popular celebrity nightclubs in the 1960s, died on Thursday in Manhattan. She was 83.
Dave Pickoff/Associated Press
Her death was confirmed by a spokesman for the theater she helped found in Sag Harbor on Long Island, the Bay Street Theater, a showcase for writers and artists who summer there.
Ms. Christopher, the first wife of the actor Richard Burton — both were Welsh-born — first became widely known in the United States in 1963 as the injured party in the first of Mr. Burton’s several divorces. He left her to marry Elizabeth Taylor after months of intense gossip about their affair, which at the time was considered a shocking scandal. Ms. Christopher (Ms. Burton at the time) and Mr. Burton had been living in Southern California.
Ms. Christopher apparently inherited most of the friends from their marriage, at least those in New York, where she moved soon after the divorce to settle with her two young daughters in an apartment on Central Park West. When she decided to open a discotheque in 1965 on the site of the old El Morocco, at 154 East 54th Street, she raised money from hundreds of people, most of them New York friends, including Roddy McDowall, Julie Andrews, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
They called it Arthur, she said, in honor of a George Harrison quip in the Beatles’ 1964 film, “A Hard Day’s Night.” After someone asked him the name of his hairstyle, he replied, “Arthur.”
The club became a celebrity hangout, attracting artists like Rudolph Nureyev, Lee Remick and Tennessee Williams as well as aristocrats like Princess Margaret of Britain. Ms. Christopher, once famous mainly for having lost her husband to another woman, had been transformed into a kind of accidental avatar of new womanhood.
Ms. Christopher was “the heroine of the stickiest mess in the history of sticky messes,” Nora Ephron, then a feature writer for The New York Post, wrote in 1966. She had come through the ordeal with her dignity intact, her circle of friends enlarged and a social presence in Manhattan that made her “the bellwether of a good party,” Ms. Ephron added,
“After the divorce,” she wrote, “it became clear that Sybil Burton was going to cut a fine swath for herself in New York City.”
In 1966 she married Jordan Christopher, the lead singer of Arthur’s house band, the Wild Ones.
Sybil Williams was born in Tylorstown, South Wales, on March 27, 1929. Her mother died when she was 10, and her father, a coal miner, when she was 15. Living near London with an older sister, she became interested in the theater and attended the London Academy of Dramatic Arts. She met Mr. Burton while they were making a British film, “The Last Days of Dolwyn” (1949) — her first and last movie.
She essentially stopped acting after she and Mr. Burton were married in 1949, performing only on rare occasions, as she did in 1954 when she helped record the celebrated BBC radio production of Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood.” She and Mr. Burton had two children, the actress Kate Burton and Jessica Burton, both of whom survive her, as does a daughter, Amy Christopher, from Ms. Christopher’s second marriage. Mr. Burton died in 1984, Mr. Christopher in 1996.
After Arthur closed in 1969, Ms. Christopher helped found the New Theater on 54th Street, which produced shows like “The Knack,” directed by Mike Nichols, “Scuba Duba,” starring Jerry Orbach, and the revue “The Mad Show.”
Ms. Christopher founded the Bay Street Theater in 1991 with two partners, Emma Walton and Stephen Hamilton, setting up in an old warehouse near Sag Harbor’s town pier. She was its artistic director for 22 years and lived in Sag Harbor until her health began to fail, returning to Manhattan last December.
The company initially drew from the work of playwrights who lived locally, including Joe Pintauro, Terrence McNally and Lanford Wilson. Its productions featured well-known actors like Ben Gazzara, Polly Draper, Hal Linden, Tony Roberts, Alan Alda and Eli Wallach.
“She was a woman who reinvented herself again and again, from the time she was a young girl until the end of her life,” said Murphy Davis, a longtime friend and former co-director of the Bay Street Theater. “She was a phoenix.”