She could have remained forever known as Richard Burton’s first wife, thrown over for Elizabeth Taylor after a slew of other affairs, but Sybil Williams Burton Christopher was not satisfied being a footnote in someone else’s biography.
“I’m not famous,” she told The Star in 1994, “I’m notorious.” But she was resolute in not wanting “to talk about that nonsense” surrounding her first marriage, which lasted 14 years, despite the affairs.
Instead, Ms. Christopher, who died in New York City on March 9 at the age of 83 from heart disease, decided in 1965 to move to New York, where she became a successful nightclub owner. The club, on 54th Street in the old El Morocco space, was named Arthur and was co-owned by Edward Villella, a ballet dancer, and the actor Roddy McDowall.
Tony Walton, an art director and production designer for film and theater, who also designed the club, recalled that “when the Beatles first came to America one of the journalists asked George Harrison, ‘What do you call that haircut?’ He said, ‘Arthur.’ ” The joke was later used in the movie “A Hard Day’s Night.”
At about the same time in a space upstairs, Ms. Christopher helped create the New Theatre, where, Gen LeRoy-Walton recalled, Mike Nichols and many others put on plays. Ms. LeRoy-Walton remembers meeting Ms. Christopher around that time. The club “was the place to be. I remember her dancing and Jordan [Christopher, her second husband] playing guitar, it was so romantic. There was a line to get in, but I don’t remember it being a long line and everybody was well behaved. Inside there was great music. It was the first of its kind.”
Mr. Walton, who was previously married to Julie Andrews, remembered meeting Ms. Christopher in 1960 at the first reading of “Camelot,” in which both of their then-spouses were starring.
Locally, she was best known as a co-founder of the Bay Street Theatre with Steve and Emma Walton Hamilton in 1991. For Ms. Christopher, whose first calling was as an actress, transforming a former dance club into a theater was especially satisfying, she told The Star in 1994.
“Emma and Steve had been living in Sag Harbor and wanted to have a theater,” Ms. LeRoy-Walton said. They suggested that the couple include Ms. Christopher for her vision and her years of contacts. “Emma and Steve had a great Rolodex, but when Sybil called, everyone would call right back.”
At Bay Street, her artistic direction contributed to a roster of plays by Terrence McNally, Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, Christopher Durang, Joe Pintauro, and Jon-Robin Baitz, performed by equally accomplished actors such as Alec Baldwin, Mercedes Ruehl, Richard Dreyfuss, and Dana Ivey. She left her position in December, due to failing health, and moved to New York City full-time.
Ms. Christopher was born in Wales to a coalmining official and a singer on March 27, 1929, and was orphaned by the time she was 15. She moved to Northampton to live with a half sister.
“I worked in a dress shop at the time,” she told The Star, and would go to the community theater with her family every week — “52 plays a year.” Ms. Christopher, who performed in church plays as a child, caught the acting bug early and moved to London at the age of 18 to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.
There, she was given a choice, use her Welsh accent or lose it. She chose the former and was cast in plays such as “Harvey,” in which she played an American nurse with a Welsh accent, and later in 1951 as the Welsh princess in a Stratford-on-Avon production of “Henry IV, Part II,” with Richard Burton.
She had married the fellow actor, who was also from a mining family in Wales, when she was 19. They met on the film set of “The Last Days of Dolwyn” in 1947.
Her acting career slowed after her daughters were born, Kate in 1957 and Jessica in 1959. “I was always interested in being part of the theater,” she told The Star, “but I was not necessarily so ambitious.” She filed for divorce in 1963. She married Mr. Christopher, the leader of her nightclub’s house band, the Wild Ones. Their daughter, Amy, was born in 1967. He died in 1996. Her daughters survive her.
The Waltons, who used to host her when she rented out her house for the summer, remembered her seductive and hearty laugh and her observation that “she liked to do something new every 25 years. When she was not at full speed on a new ambitious scheme, she would be a little mole, tucked away in her room, reading,” Ms. LeRoy-Walton said.
As per her request, there was no funeral or memorial service. Her ashes will be scattered in Wales.