Sybil Christopher, remembered by daughter Kate Burton

Sybil Christopher, who died last week in New York at 83, was a noted theater producer and the founder of Arthur, a Manhattan hot spot that attracted a ritzy celebrity clientele during the 1960s. Even if she hadn’t become famous as the first wife, and later, ex-wife, of actor Richard Burton, Christopher would still have occupied an important seat in New York high society and culture.

“She was very hands on -- as hands on a mother as she was a producer.” said Kate Burton, her eldest daughter. The actress, speaking by phone from her home in Los Angeles, said she was with her mother in New York when she died on last Thursday following an illness.

“As a producer you always knew how she felt. If she didn’t like something, oh boy, you were going to hear about it.”


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Burton recounted her mother’s irascibility with affection and humor. She described her mother as “having more influence on me than anybody.”

Christopher -- nee Sybil Williams -- was a founder and artistic director of the Bay Street Theatre on Long Island. The company, which opened in 1991, took advantage of the high density of famous writers living on the eastern part of the island to produce challenging and innovative plays.

Bay Street Theatre has produced works by Christopher Durang, Craig Lucas, Terrence McNally, Jon Robin Baitz and many more. Christopher stepped down as artistic director early last year.

Burton said she worked with her mother at the company on several occasions, including a production of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” that transferred to Broadway in 2001 and earned Burton a Tony Award nomination.

The actress said her mother’s life was incredibly varied and that she was glad the obituaries have focused on “more than that single event in 1962.”

The event she is referring to is the on-set affair between Burton and Elizabeth Taylor during the making of “Cleopatra,” which ended his first marriage. The tabloid maelstrom had at least one positive outcome -- it propelled Christopher to New York where she re-invented herself as the nightclub doyenne at Arthur.

Christopher began her career as an actress but gave it up after marrying Burton. She returned to the world of theater by working for the New Theater in New York as a casting director.

Burton said her mother “didn’t like being on stage but loved watching theater people do their work.”

She recalled her mother’s “favorite kind of actors were the ones who listened [to their co-stars.] She loved actors who really listened.”

After her divorce from Burton, Christopher was married to Jordan Christopher.

Burton is married to Michael Ritchie, the artistic director of Center Theatre Group in L.A. About the time her mother died, the actress was working on a production of the musical “Carousel” with the New York Philharmonic, as well as a television pilot project.

Burton said her mother did not want a funeral or memorial service. She said her mother’s ashes will be scattered at a chosen spot in her native Wales.

[Updated: A previous version of this post stated that Christopher’s marriage to Jordan Christopher was brief. Their marriage in fact lasted until the latter’s death in 1996.]


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