[UPDATE] Cynthia Gibb Remembers Jean Donovan And “Salvador”

It was the worst audition of Cynthia Gibb’s career.

Just a few years after graduating with Staples High School’s Class of 1981, the actress — already known for her “Search for Tomorrow” and “Fame” TV roles — was searching for a movie project.

Her agent found a part in “Salvador.” Written by Oliver Stone — who would direct it too, as his 1st major film — the story was based on real-life political struggles in El Salvador.

The casting director gave Gibb the wrong material. She and star James Woods were, she says, “literally not on the same page.” She went home sobbing, horrified at having done so badly.

Cynthia Gibb

Cynthia Gibb

Her agent convinced her to go back. She got the role — and learned a great lesson about recovering from bad experiences. Gibb uses that incident today, back home in Westport. A voice and dance coach, she tells students not to be flustered by a bad performance (or audition).

But there’s much more about Westport to this story.

Gibb’s “Salvador” role was based on the real-life Jean Donovan. She was one of 4 lay missionaries beaten, raped, and murdered in 1980 by Salvadoran military men.

Donovan was also a Westporter. She attended Westport schools, and graduated from Staples in 1971 — exactly 10 years before Gibb.

Gibb did plenty of research — in leftist publications, because there was little in the mainstream press — to understand Donovan’s character. But she had no idea they shared the same hometown until midway through filming in Mexico, when Stone learned that Gibb was from Westport.

That spurred her even more. She became fascinated with the woman whose story — unknown to many, even here — she was telling.

salvador Gibb — who is not Catholic — dove into the kind of work the missionaries did. She learned Spanish, which Donovan had done before heading to El Salvador.

And Gibb read even more political writing. “I wanted to be as informed about US policy in Central America as Jean was,” Gibb says. “And I wanted to be as passionate about Third World countries.”

The film was released in 1986. In Los Angeles, Gibb honored Donovan and her fellow nuns, by volunteering for Central American organizations.

She was invited to El Salvador for 5 days. She met the handsome and charming right-wing military man in charge of death squads. She also saw dirt huts, and the church where an archbishop was gunned down.

“That film changed my life,” Gibb says. “I’d never been politically active before.”

Her career continued, mostly on TV.  She married, had 3 children and divorced. Gradually, “Salvador” faded from her mind.

Jean Donovan

Jean Donovan

After she moved back to Westport, however, she met John Suggs. The RTM member has dedicated years to keeping Donovan’s memory alive. He says that in progressive Catholic social justice networks, “Jean Donovan is considered a saint.”

Suggs is particularly active this time of year. The anniversary of Donovan’s death is December 2.

Gibb will be thinking of Donovan too. Years after the movie was released, the actress spotted a small story in the New York Times. It described the declassification of documents relating Central America during the Reagan years. Sure enough, the US provided financial assistance to death squads that were responsible for the rape and murder of the 4 women, and others, during the Carter and Reagan administrations.

“There were horrific people doing horrific things, with our backing,” Gibb says.

“Jean Donovan and those women were there to help people. Her death was so useless.”

Perhaps now is the time for Donovan to be remembered in Westport. Suggs is raising $3,600 for a plaque honoring her, to be hung either at Staples or Town Hall. Click here to donate.

Gibb is helping.


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25 responses to “[UPDATE] Cynthia Gibb Remembers Jean Donovan And “Salvador”

  1. Jacquie Marumoto

    Do you have info on how we can contribute toward the plaque?

  2. Where do you send a donation?

  3. There is a plaque in the entrance of Assuption Chuch in Westport, her home Paris. The church, I believe, considers her a martyr. She was engaged at the time of her death, and was planning her wedding at Assumption. The story made news all over the world at the time, and is known by Catholics all over the world. It would be commemorated locally in public. I have often thought that a hall in Town Hall should be Westport’s “hall of fame” for stories and Westporters like this. Westport has always been a hub for famous people and events. Let’s celebrate Jean’s memory.

  4. Thank you for writing this piece…I remember being in Coleytown jr., and at St Luke’s when I heard the news…she was very brave..where can we send for a donation for the plaque? Thanks

  5. “Years after the movie was released, the actress spotted a small story in the New York Times. It described the declassification of documents relating Central America during the Reagan years. Sure enough, the US provided financial assistance to death squads that were responsible for the rape and murder of the 4 women.” And let me guess, no one in the Reagan administration ever got punished for these deaths. If Donovan was a saint, what does that make Reagan?

    • Help me out here. It says in the story she was murdered in 1980. Reagan did not become President until 1981. So how was he complicit in her murder? Jimmy Carter was President when Donovan was murdered.

      • You are correct of course about the dates, Michael. The declassification of documents showed that both the Carter and Reagan administrations provided financial assistance to death squads that were responsible for those murders, and other human rights abuses, before and after 1980. The Reagan administration was adamant in suggesting that the murdered women were gun-runners — which is not true.

        • Thank you Dan. If the dates are correct, then Reagan was not complicit in Donovan’s murder.

          • It was bi-partisan meddling in foreign policy with disastrous consequences.

          • Michael – I had the exact same reaction when I read this passage: “It described the declassification of documents relating Central America during the Reagan years. Sure enough, the US provided financial assistance to death squads that were responsible for the rape and murder of the 4 women.”

            Like many people, the dates of Regan’s presidency (and Carter’s, and Clinton’s, and both Bushes) are pretty familiar to me, such that a heinous murder in 1980 cannot logically be attributed to Regan’s presidency. Politely, it was an error to do so.

  6. Valerie Smith-Malin

    It appears that both presidents funded death squads. Carter was responsible for her death and Reagan for others’. Since the Reagan administration insisted the 4 women were gun runners, they were responsible for defamation of character, of missionaries no less.

  7. Michael Calise

    When the band plays some manage to slide across the dance floor to a place they should not logically be

  8. Prill Plantinga Boyle '72

    I knew Jean personally. She was in my Algebra II class, and I remember her as being both kind and outspoken. She had a soft voice with a lot of power behind it and seemed very mature for her years. Does anyone else remember her from Staples? Do you, Dan?

  9. Kathleen Stuary

    Jean Donovan attended St. Luke’s Catholic School. On Long Lots Road until 8th grade
    I remember her as a sweet smiling young girl in the grade one year below me. Sad so sad she was brutally raped and murdered. my sister Susan was in her grade at St Luke’s and later joined the Peace Corp after college graduating from the University of Maine going guess where to SAN Salvador!! When Jean was murdered Susan was evacuated from the country!! Because of the terrprist threats to Americans!!

  10. Kathleen Stuart

    Jean Donovan attended St. Luke’s Catholic School. On Long Lots Road until 8th grade
    I remember her as a sweet smiling young girl in the grade one year below me. Sad so sad she was brutally raped and murdered. my sister Susan was in her grade at St Luke’s and later joined the Peace Corp after college graduating from the University of Maine going guess where to SAN Salvador!! When Jean was murdered Susan was evacuated from the country!! Because of the terrprist threats to Americans!!