Bay Street Theatre co-founder Sybil Christopher was born under a happy sun in the coal-mining Rhondda Valley of South Wales. Her laugh was infectious, endless and ever optimistic — despite the unpredictable hands that life regularly dealt her.
The longtime Sag Harbor resident was resilient, constantly reinventing herself with a gleam in her eye. And she never looked back. Always forward.
On Thursday, March 7, Ms. Christopher died of complications arising from heart disease at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. She was surrounded by her daughters, Katherine Burton and Amy Christopher, stepdaughter Jodi Janowiak, and longtime friend Murphy Davis. She was 83.
“I feel very, very fortunate to have been able to love her out of this world on to the next whatever’s out there. She was one of my best friends from the moment we met back in 1992,” Mr. Davis, the artistic director at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, said on Tuesday. “Sybil was one of a kind. I have truly never met another person who had her taste and her talent and her sense of loving life. She was a survivor. It was just something that was deeply rooted in her: how to get through life and how to get through life with style.”
That strength came at an early age. Born Sybil Williams, her mother, father and 6-year-old brother died by the time she was 14, and she moved in with her older sister, Elsie, in the Midlands outside of London. It was there where she discovered theater, Katherine Burton said, and so began her love affair with the stage. The budding actress saw 52 plays a year from age 15 to 18, and later began acting.
“For my mom, who lost both her parents, to go into the theater and see all these actors telling stories — it’s a world you want to be in,” Ms. Burton said on Monday from her home in Los Angeles. “Because you can rewrite your own narrative. For her, it was a wonderful world you could get caught up in. And I think she realized she had some affinity for it.”
She attended the London Academy of Dramatic Arts and met fellow Welsh actor Richard Burton while they were making the British film “The Last Days of Dolwyn” — her first and only appearance on the silver screen. They married in 1948, and she withdrew from acting.
When the young couple splashed on the Los Angeles scene, Ms. Christopher was swept up by the success of her celebrity husband, according to lifelong friend and Springs resident Bridget LeRoy, and often found herself out of her depth at fancy parties. She was not gregarious, and oftentimes shy.
“She was so not Hollywood, coming from a coal mining family in South Wales,” Ms. LeRoy recalled on Monday. “She told me, in that great Welsh accent, ‘Darling, I was only 22, I didn’t know anything.’”
At one such party, she spotted a chubby young boy with glasses sitting alone on an enormous staircase. “Darling, he was not much younger than me,” Ms. Christopher had told Ms. LeRoy. And so she sat down next to him and they began to chat. “And, you see, it was my dad, Warner LeRoy,” said the daughter of the former owner of Tavern on the Green and the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan. “She has not only been a part of my entire life, but when my father was the age my son is now, she was kind to him and sat with him and talked to him, because she felt so awkward there herself.”
In 1963, Mr. Burton left Ms. Christopher for actress Elizabeth Taylor after months of gossip about their affair on the set of “Cleopatra.” At the time, it was the hottest scandal in Hollywood.
Ms. Christopher turned that fire into fame. She moved to Manhattan and founded Arthur, one of the city’s most popular clubs in the 1960s, which drew the likes of Tennessee Williams, Princess Margaret, Lee Remick, Truman Capote and Andy Warhol.
She married Jordan Christopher in 1966 and moved to Sagaponack in 1991. Soon after, they amicably divorced, and Ms. Christopher reinvented herself yet again as co-founder of Bay Street Theatre, alongside Stephen Hamilton and Emma Walton Hamilton, the daughter of her good friend Julie Andrews.
As co-artistic director with Mr. Murphy, she brought her wisdom to the 299-seat theater, Ms. Hamilton said on Monday, not to mention her strength and her pure joy.
“She had a great many ups and downs in her life,” Ms. Hamilton said, “and she always managed to bounce back with humor and that sparkle in her eye. She was so incredibly resilient.”
After a fundraising event for the theater in the early 1990s, all of the staff took a rosebud from the remaining flower arrangements back to their desks. A week later, Mr. and Ms. Hamilton were touring the office after hours when they noticed something peculiar. Every rose had wilted — except for Ms. Christopher’s.
“It was standing straight upright and wide open and happily blooming away. We stood there scratching our heads,” Ms. Hamilton said. “We decided it was because Sybil sat at her desk and laughed all day long. That was good for roses, we said, and it was responding in kind.”
Around 2000, Ms. Christopher moved into the “sweetest little cottage” in Sag Harbor, her daughter said, and drove around the village in a big blue van. In September, she stepped down as artistic director of Bay Street and moved back to Manhattan four months later.
“Before she left her house, somebody said to her, ‘Do you want a photograph taken of you out in front?’” Ms. Burton said. “And she was, like, ‘No, thanks.’ And that was Mom. That was my mom. It was like, ‘I had a great time. It was an incredible ride, and … moving on.’”
Her health began to wane soon after. That fall, she made it back to South Wales one last time. Her cremated remains will return there this summer in a vase that was once a gift to Ms. Christopher from Mr. LeRoy.
“She was so wonderful to him on that staircase. Now, she’s going to be spending time with him again in the form of something he owned,” Ms. LeRoy said. “That’s a really nice way for me to think of it.”
Ms. Christopher’s ashes will be scattered across her parents’ graves in the Rhondda Valley, Ms. Burton said. And she will be home.
As published in the Southampton Press