The countess of Monte Cristo: Sally Pavetti leaves a vital O'Neill-based legacy

In a 1985 interview with The Day, Monte Cristo Cottage curator Sally Pavetti — who died last week — recalled how she initially became involved with the life, writings and legacy of Eugene O’Neill.

It happened in the early 1960s, as George White was founding the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford. White was looking for someone to research the Nobel- and Pulitzer-winning playwright and to interview people who knew him when he lived in New London. White asked Fran Pavetti, who was serving as the nascent center’s attorney, if his wife Sally, who had been a history teacher, might be interested.

Sally recalled her reaction when Fran broached the subject: “I’d had two theatrical experiences in my life. I said to Fran, ‘Tell George White I’ve read nothing by Eugene O’Neill but ‘Desire Under the Elms’ and I didn’t like it.’”

Oh, but how things changed. Pavetti became an absolute O’Neill devotee. She led the effort to turn the Monte Cristo Cottage, O’Neill’s boyhood home in New London, into a National Historic Landmark, and she helped it become a magnet for theater professionals and scholars.

O’Neill, his life and his work “just intrigued her as she dug in deeper ... She really became an O’Neill fan,” Fran Pavetti says.

Sally Pavetti died May 16 at the age of 79 after battling Alzheimer’s disease, and friends, co-workers and family are remembering her vibrant personality and her enthusiastic O’Neill-based work.

She and associate curator Lois McDonald developed the Monte Cristo Cottage, which was purchased by the O'Neill Center in 1974, as a site recognized for its significance.

“The O’Neill and Connecticut owe her and Lois a great debt for making that cottage what it’s become,” White says. He adds that they understood well “its importance to both the memory of O’Neill and the American theater.”

McDonald reminisces about the various phases in their work at the cottage, starting with the restoration (“Researching the cottage was not easy because there was very little information about it,” she says) and what they had to do for it to become a Registered National Landmark. Sally had to research, for instance, the type of wallpaper and curtains that would have been used in the early 1900s, Fran Pavetti remembers.

“You had to make sure everything you put in, you could document, so it was quite a project. She was very good at that. You almost had to be an archaeologist,” McDonald says.

And she had to deal so often with the city building inspector that he took to calling her the Countess of Monte Cristo. (O’Neill’s father, James, starred in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” which gave the cottage its name.)

Pavetti grew up in Riverhead, N.Y., and she earned her undergraduate degree at Wellesley and her master’s degree in American history from Yale.

She taught for a year at Glastonbury High School before Fran, to whom she was then married, got a job in southeastern Connecticut. So they moved here, and Sally taught history and Spanish for three years; she left teaching when their daughter, Leah, was born in 1964.

Then, she discovered O’Neill.

She told The Day in 1985, “I think O’Neill is unique. It’s not only his own life that intrigues me. It’s his father, and his family — the history of family ghosts goes from one generation to another. The alcoholism, the drug addiction ... you’re not just talking about one man. It’s his whole, haunted family. I don’t think there’s another playwright like him.”

During their time with the cottage, Pavetti and McDonald gave countless tours not only to local folks and to tourists but also to famous actors who were gearing up to act in an O’Neill play. In 2003, for instance, Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard visited the Monte Cristo Cottage as they prepared for their Broadway run of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece that was set in the cottage.

Sometimes, actors would use the cottage as a rehearsal space of sorts. McDonald recalls Jason Robards reading aloud James Tyrone’s speech about what it was like to grow up in a poor Irish family. Fran Pavetti notes that Sally became friends with Robards.

Actors, too, came to the cottage just to soak up the atmosphere.

“Sally harnessed that very well and was a very good hostess for these people,” White says.

White says Pavetti “became almost identified with the Monte Cristo Cottage as a person. People went partially for the experience of being with Sally as well as the experience of the collection.”

Describing that Sally experience, White points to “her humor and her way of presenting O’Neill. Everybody loved that.”

The cottage, he says, “was like Sally’s home, her place.”

Indeed, when Pavetti received (along with McDonald, White and former society president and UConn professor Brenda Murphy) the Medallion Award from the Eugene O’Neill Society in 2014, Steven Bloom, chair of the society’s governing board, said during the award ceremony that Pavetti and McDonald would welcome people to the cottage like visitors to their own homes. He also said, “From the first time I met Sally, I recognized there were few founts of knowledge about O’Neill as rich and personal as Sally.”

White recalls, back at the start, introducing Pavetti to George Freedley, who taught a course in theater collections at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts. Freedly took to Pavetti, White says, and offered to give her a scholarship to the class.

Taking that class “really turned her on to the possibility of what she could become,” White says.

Over the years, Pavetti and McDonald did everything from running summer programs for teachers at the Monte Cristo Cottage, to visiting schools to talk to students, to bringing an O’Neill exhibit to Russia.

McDonald became good friends with Pavetti and says, “Sally was great fun, over and above everything. She was an interesting combination of many different things. She was very bright, very articulate and lots of fun. ... We had a great time.”

Preston Whiteway, who is now the O’Neill Center’s executive director, came to the O’Neill fresh out of school in 2004 to be the general manager. There were some raised eyebrows at this “kid” coming into a significant role at the center, he says, but not from Pavetti.

“Sally never batted an eye,” says Whiteway, whose initial projects included the cottage’s renovation and addition. “I belonged there in her eyes, and I was a valuable member of the team. I think she remembered being a young person herself and how the O’Neill thrived from the energy of early-career individuals, and so she welcomed me.”

And, he notes, her contributions to the Monte Cristo Cottage and to O’Neill are tremendous.

“The American theater and the O’Neill Center owe her a debt of gratitude,” Whiteway says. “Her energy and joy of life in preserving O’Neill’s legacy will be in that house forever.”

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