Monday, February 23, 2009

Sybil Burton - Disco Queen

The popular image of Sybil Burton (if there is such a thing) is of a wronged woman. She was, if you remember, the loyal but not especially beautiful wife of Richard Burton who was unceremoniously dumped the moment glamour puss Liz Taylor hoved into view. But Sybil, a miner’s daughter from Tylorstown, didn’t meekly disappear into obscurity - she instead became queen of America’s disco scene.

In May 1965, a little over a year after her divorce, Sybil opened a discotheque called Arthur on 54th Street. It would rapidly become the hottest nightclub in New York. Clearly a shrewd businesswoman Sybil raised the cash to set up the club by selling shares to showbiz pals at $1,000. These patrons included Roddy McDowell, Julie Andrews, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

The incredible success of Arthur was due in part to its fashionable mod aesthetic (see pic), which Burton had imported from such London hang outs as Ad Lib. The name Arthur is itself a jokey reference to one of the Beatles’ hairstyles. The democratic door policy also helped. Maybe her upbringing in a mining community had some influence here, for she was keen for young, hip, working people to attend her establishment. Not that this populism ever stopped the rich and famous turning up in their droves: Tennessee Williams, Princess Margaret, Lee Remick, Nureyev, Truman Capote and Andy Warhol were all regulars. In his book, Popism, Warhol reminisces about meeting Bette Davis, Sophia Loren and the astronaut Scott Carpenter there.

In some quarters Arthur has been viewed as Sybil Williams’s 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. She was featured in Time and Life magazines and opened up other establishments in LA, Dallas, Detroit and San Francisco. She even managed to shock everyone by marrying handsome Jordan Christopher, who was more than 10 years her junior, and the lead singer in Arthur’s house band the Wild Ones.

Arthur’s other claim to fame is that it is noted for being one of the first clubs to showcase the DJ. Terry Noel was no anonymous background figure spinning the discs but an important element in creating the club’s ambience. As in most nightclubs drugs could be purchased there - acid, coke, amphetamine and crystal meth were, apparently, the narcotics of choice, but trade was discreet and far from being Arthur’s raison d’etre. Unfortunately, toward the end of its existence, criminal elements began to move in on the scene and Arthur even witnessed a racially motivated shooting. Sybil sold the club in 1969.

Sybil Burton Christopher (as she is now known) is still very much alive and kicking and does a lot of work for charity.