Sybil Christopher: Actress, theatre producer and first wife of Richard Burton

 

Sybil Christopher became the wife of Richard Burton at the age of just 20 and was married to him for fourteen years. During that time she experienced the entire gamut of emotions, from pleasure to pain and back again, that being married to the great and complex actor could bring. 

But overall it was the positive aspects of the marriage she would remember and cherish. In a later interview she said of the time with him "It was very clear to me that I wasn't making a sacrifice. I knew that Richard would have an exciting career and that it would be fun, two Welsh kids on the Queen Mary, travelling first class." adding that "In retrospect, that is what I would like to preserve, that nice warm feeling I had on the boat. I had the 23 year old, the best ...I had the golden boy."

She was born Sybil Williams in Tylorstown, Rhondda Valley, in 1929. Her father was an official at the coal mine and her mother was a seamstress, who died when she was 10. When her father died five years later and she became an orphan, she went to Northampton to live with her older sister Elsie. Christopher trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA) and met Richard Burton while on the set of his first film, Women of Dolwyn (1949), in which she was an extra. He was playing Gareth, one of the two sons of Merri. They were married within a matter of months.

Four years later she played the role of the sweet-shop keeper Myfanwy Price in the celebrated BBC recording of Dylan Thomas'Under Milk Wood, in which Burton is remembered for his vocal performance as the "First Voice". The play had its radio premier in January 1954, just two months after Thomas' death.

As Burton's career thrived, the couple relocated to Switzerland, buying a villa at Céligny on Lake Geneva, which they jokingly namedPays de Galles (Wales). She devoted her time to their infant daughters, Kate and Jessica.

It was in 1962 whilst filming on the set of Cleopatra that Burton met Elizabeth Taylor and began the romance for which he and his co-star were best known. The news of the affair sparked a media frenzy over the coming months and the opprobium of many, including the Vatican. This was not the first time that Burton had been unfaithful: Tom Rubython, author of the biography And God Created Burton(2011), says "...in Burton’s heyday - between 1947 and 1975 - he made love to at least one new woman every other day, with the total tally reaching around 2,500." 

Christopher filed for divorce in 1963, claiming "abandonment and cruel and inhumane treatment". She won a settlement of one million dollars and custody of their two daughters. Burton then went on to marry Taylor, for the first time, the following year.

In May 1965 Christopher opened a nightclub on 54th Street, New York City, after securing funding through the sale of shares to friends in film and theatre, including Julie Andrews and Roddy McDowell. She called the club Arthur, in a nod to the name of George Harrison's hairstyle in A Hard Day's Night (1964).

For the next four years Arthur was the New York hotspot, hosting stars including Roger Daltrey, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol and Princess Margaret. The musician David Gross, who frequented the club at the time, commented "In some quarters Arthur has been viewed as Sybil Williams' ultimate revenge on the 'Burton and Taylor' franchise. Her elevation in status to NY's top nightclub hostess certainly gave her a glamour and power that as mousey Mrs Burton she had never previously enjoyed."

It was at Arthur that she met Jordan Christopher, lead singer of the club's house band, The Wild Ones, the first to record Wild Thing, a song which went on to be a hit for The Troggs. The couple married in 1966. When the club closed, she was actively involved in the running of the New Theatre, also on 54th Street, which hosted productions including The Knack, directed by Mike Nichols, and The Mad Show, written by Mary Rodgers.

In 1991 Christopher, together with Emma Walton and Stephen Hamilton, bought an old warehouse in Sag Harbor, New York State. They established the Bay Street Theatre, fulfilling a long-held dream. Initially just a seasonal project, the 300-seat hall soon became a permanent and popular venue. Christopher was Artistic Director and had only given up the role in the past year, after 21 seasons.

Christopher's daughter, Kate Burton, who worked with her at the theatre on a number of productions, said that she "didn't like being on stage but loved watching theater people do their work" and recalled that her "favorite kind of actors were the ones who listened. She loved actors who really listened."

Marcus Williamson

Sybil Williams, actress, nightclub owner and theatre producer: born Tylorstown, Wales 27 March 1929; married 1949 Richard Burton (divorced 1963; two daughters), 1965 Jordan Christopher (died 1996; one daughter, and one stepdaughter); died 7 March 

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