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They met in New York’s Plaza Hotel in 1970. Here’s what happened next

CNNIn 1969, Stefano Ripamonti was feeling good about life. He was in his late twenties, working a glamorous job at an Italian high fashion shoe firm. He’d recently married his childhood sweetheart and the newlyweds were settling into an apartment near the Vatican city walls in Rome, Italy.

While their new home had great potential, the couple wanted to renovate the space to their tastes, so they employed an interior architect-slash-designer. This architect subsequently spent a lot of time at the apartment with Stefano’s wife – reconfiguring spaces, suggesting paint colors and offering interior design insights.

Meanwhile, Stefano was regularly away on business trips.

One day, Stefano returned from a trip to Accra, Ghana, to find his wife standing in the half-decorated apartment, in tears.

“Apparently during my absence, she and the architect had fallen in love,” Stefano tells CNN Travel today.

“And just like that, she was out of my life, leaving me devastated.”

A trip to New York City

Heartbroken, Stefano buried himself in work, and he was subsequently offered a new job with a different Italian shoe company.

Not only did the new role pay “almost double,” the job also offered Stefano the chance to visit the US for the first time, to attend a shoe convention in New York City.

Stefano had been fascinated with the States since the day American tanks rolled into Rome to liberate the city from the Nazis. Young Stefano and his parents had joined the crowds lining the streets cheering, and then an American soldier jumped down from one of the Sherman tanks to present two-year-old Stefano with a small tin box containing chocolate. Printed on the front of the tin were the words: “Made by Curtiss Candy Co. Chicago.”

In the years that followed, Stefano treasured this candy box and daydreamed about Chicago – home of delicious candy that not only tasted good, but represented freedom.

“To this day, I still have that box,” says Stefano.

All of this meant that, for Stefano, nothing could dampen the excitement of his first trip to the US – not even a lingering heartbreak over a broken marriage.

The day after his arrival in the US in February 1970, Stefano dressed in his best suit and strolled into the lobby of New York City’s Plaza Hotel. He hoped to potentially meet some department store buyers, and to soak up the atmosphere of an American institution.

Stefano recalls making himself comfortable “on a long upholstered bench” in the marble hotel lobby.

As he sat there – people-watching and admiring the grandeur of the space – Stefano became gradually aware of the young woman sitting next to him, who was reading a copy of the New York Times.

When Stefano glanced her way, one word came to mind: “radiant.”

He wanted to say something, to introduce himself, but he couldn’t think of anything to say that didn’t seem “inane.”

Stefano didn’t want to bother her – and he was supposed to be networking. Eventually, figuring the elevators were probably a better place to spot potential buyers, Stefano decided to leave the lobby. He was just getting up when the woman lowered her newspaper and smiled at him.

“Excuse me, do you have the time?” she asked.

Taken aback, Stefano glanced at his watch and realized he still hadn’t adjusted it to Eastern Standard Time.

“Let’s see, I have Italian time on my watch,” said Stefano.

“Oh, are you from Italy?” asked the woman. “I was just there this past summer with my sister.”

She folded her newspaper to one side. Then, she held out her hand for Stefano to shake, still smiling.

“I’m Sally,” she said. “Sally Wilton.”

Sally Wilton was a 22-year-old recent college graduate working in Washington D.C. That weekend in February 1970, she’d decided to visit New York City on a spontaneous trip away.

“I just decided to go to New York on my own – I wanted to see a play,” Sally tells CNN Travel.

Unbeknownst to Stefano, Sally had noticed Stefano as soon as he sat down on the bench in the lobby. In fact, the whole time he’d been searching for an opportunity to introduce himself, she’d been doing the same.

“He was dressed impeccably, with a velveteen jacket. I remember it was kind of a dark gold color,” recalls Sally. “It looked so Italian and so well tailored. I was used to American boys that wore sweatshirts and jeans.”

During her college years, Sally had spent a year studying abroad in Leeds, England. This experience had opened her mind to travel and she loved meeting people from different countries and cultures.

Sally told Stefano this over a coffee in the Palm Court, the grand tearoom in the Plaza Hotel. And she mentioned, in passing, that she was born and raised in Chicago.

Stefano couldn’t believe his ears. The city had taken on almost mythical proportions in his mind. To be sitting opposite a woman from Chicago was surreal.

Then, Sally casually mentioned her father worked in the candy business.

While Sally’s father didn’t work for Curtiss Candy – that might have been too bizarre – to Stefano, this connection still felt like a huge coincidence. It felt like fate.

Coffee turned into lunch, which turned into Sally and Stefano spending the afternoon exploring New York together. They realized they shared a love of art, dipping into the Guggenheim and then the Museum of Modern Art.

The whole time, they couldn’t stop stealing glances at one another.

“Sally looked so radiant and American, with this big beautiful smile,” recalls Stefano. “She was beautiful, very attractive. But she was also extremely friendly, sparkling, bubbly.”

“Stefano was this very good-looking, kind of erudite guy,” says Sally. “It was enchanting for me.”

After just that one afternoon, Stefano felt like “they kind of fit together right away.”

“Even if our cultures were so different, the two cultures clashed together in a positive way,” he says.

Stefano was still married, albeit separated. And Sally had a boyfriend back in Washington D.C. But despite these other ties, that whole afternoon, there was something between them that was “difficult to identify,” as Stefano recalls it, but felt special.

Reluctantly, Sally and Stefano said their goodbyes at the end of the day.

“I had to go back to my job, and he was supposed to leave New York,” recalls Sally. “But he said, ‘If you could come back next week, I’ll manage to stay the whole week and wait for you.’ So I did. I went back. I worked all week. Then I flew back the next weekend.”

‘The best weekend of our life’

The next weekend was a whirlwind. Sally and Stefano hired a helicopter to fly them across the city. They went dancing at the glittering Rainbow Room, on the 65th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza at the Rockefeller Center. They drank cocktails at the Russian Tea Room. They marveled at the fact they’d crossed into each other’s lives.

“It was the best weekend of our life,” says Stefano. “We were in love.”

On Sunday night, Stefano had to return to Italy, and Sally had to go back to Washington D.C. But this distance – really any other complications – felt immaterial.

“It was a big spark that we felt, so everything changed,” says Sally.

Sitting in Trader Vic’s, a since-closed Tiki Bar at the Plaza Hotel, on their last night together, Stefano wrote a promise for Sally on the back of a beer mat: “Se sono rose, fioriranno,” an Italian phrase meaning “if they are roses, they will bloom.”

To Stefano, the words resonated – if he and Sally were meant to be together, they would be. Underneath he scribbled the location, “New York,” and the date: February 6, 1970.

When they said their goodbyes, Sally vowed to come to Rome as soon as she could. A week later, on Valentine’s Day, a telegram arrived for Stefano:

“My sweet friend stop I send you a Valentine kiss stop Arrive Roma in one or two weeks at most stop Details will follow soon.”

Moving across the world

The morning Sally arrived in Rome happened to be the day Stefano was in court finalizing his separation from his wife. There was no divorce in Italy back then – it only came into practice later in 1970 – but this day signaled the end of Stefano’s broken relationship, and the start of a new chapter.

After the court hearing, Sally and Stefano reunited outside Stefano’s apartment. They embraced in the middle of the street, Stefano lifting Sally up in the air and the two of them twirling together.

“We were so excited,” recalls Stefano. “We hugged and kissed for a while in the middle of the street.”

Then Stefano showed Sally his Rome apartment for the first time.

“The decorator that the wife had fallen in love with did a beautiful job,” says Sally. “The apartment was gorgeous.”

The apartment was situated above a little bar, and Stefano and Sally came to an arrangement with the owner.

“Every morning, they’d bring a tray upstairs to our bedroom with cappuccino, fresh fruit, orange juices,” says Stefano.

“He’d  put it right on the bed, every morning,” recalls Sally. “It was very romantic.”

For Sally, this wasn’t a quick trip to Rome. She planned to stay indefinitely. She’d quit her job in Washington D.C. and called her parents to tell them she’d met the love of her life.

“Unfortunately, the circumstances of our meeting sounded markedly less romantic when received over the phone from your daughter in Italy,” says Stefano.

Sally’s parents were concerned that Stefano was still married – and alarmed that Sally had packed up her life and moved to Rome on the basis of two brief encounters. They decided to fly from Chicago – not just her parents, but her sisters as well – to check in on Sally and suss out Stefano.

Stefano understood this visit had big stakes at play. He decided, as he puts it today, that he “needed to do something very impressive for these folks to demolish any suspicions about my character integrity.”

Stefano’s father worked for the Rome Metropolitan police, heading up the motorized vehicles unit. Stefano started wondering if his father could organize a personal police escort for Sally’s family upon their arrival at Rome Fiumicino Airport.

“My father, unsurprisingly, answered with a resounding no,” says Stefano. “But it happened that I personally knew a half-dozen motorcycle cops, having grown up with them since I was 12 years old. I talked to the two closest to me and I explained the situation.”

The two policemen agreed to Stefano’s plan – sort of.

“They said they would quote-on-quote ‘happen’ to be on location and they would do it,” recalls Stefano. “Nobody would ever know.”

So upon landing in Italy, Sally’s family zoomed through the Roman traffic, through red lights and busy streets, in a hired limousine, flanked by two policemen on motorcycles.

Stefano’s plan worked – Sally’s father was impressed.

“When we got to the hotel he jumped out of the limo and he hugged me saying it was the most exhilarating experience he could remember,” says Stefano.

This moment – teamed with the obvious fact of Sally’s happiness – was enough to quell her family’s worries.

“And then of course they met Stefano’s parents, who were wonderful, and his brother and sister,” says Sally. “It was a great weekend and they all went home happy.”

A life in Rome

With Sally’s family back in the US, Sally and Stefano started making a life for themselves in Rome. Sally adjusted to the late-night Italian dinner parties and tried to pick up the language – Sally wanted to learn Italian as quickly as possible. It frustrated her when she couldn’t fully participate in conversations with Stefano’s friends.

“The Vietnam War was still going on, I had very strong opinions about it,” recalls Sally. “We’d all start talking, but I didn’t have the words because my Italian was still very broken.”

Meanwhile, Sally and Stefano dined at Rome’s best restaurants most evenings, interspersed with dinners at Stefano’s parents’ house. Neither Sally nor Stefano knew how to cook back them.

One of their favorite restaurants was on the Piazza del Popolo and was also frequented by actor Marcello Mastroianni.

“He’d be sitting there with sunglasses on and it was very thrilling,” recalls Sally. “He was my favorite Italian actor.”

Sally quickly fell in love with life in Rome.

“We walked all over the Roman ruins. We went walking around the Colosseum, and Stefano was the best tour guide,” says Sally. “We didn’t have any responsibilities really – although he had his work.”

By then, Stefano had moved away from the fashion world and was entering the movie business. He’d started a company with an old friend, with the goal of helping distribute and promote American movies in the Italian market.

“We put together a little company in a beautiful office, and we signed up as clients 20th Century Fox, United Artists and Walt Disney,” says Stefano. “So we launched all their movies.”

Stefano and his business partner organized press conferences and ferried American actors across Italy. Stefano and Sally’s life soon involved hobnobbing with celebrities on the regular – at cocktail parties, premiers, showing actors around Rome.

“It was exciting,” says Stefano. “Exciting and glamorous.”

There were new developments in Sally and Stefano’s personal life too. They got married, a small church ceremony, with around 25 friends and family cheering them on. Sally took Stefano’s last name, becoming Sally Ripamonti.

“Afterwards we lunched at Domus Aurea, which overlooked the Colosseum,” says Sally, who calls the celebrations “very lovely and intimate.”

Sally and Stefano also welcomed their first child, a son.

Sally was excited to raise her child in Italy. Italy – at least Sally’s Italy – felt “more open and so much freer,” than the US. Sally and Stefano had a vast group of friends who were open-minded, liberal thinkers. Many of them were gay, and to Sally, there seemed to be more queer acceptance than in early 1970s America.

New opportunities

Sally and Stefano spent five years living in Italy, welcoming another son, before a job opportunity took the young family to the US.

In 1975, Stefano took the business helm at Halston, the forward-thinking American fashion design house whose avant garde designs were storming the fashion world in the 1970s.

“Halston is arguably considered still today the greatest fashion designer in the history of American Haute Couture,” says Stefano. “That association with him changed our life and launched me into an increasingly interesting, challenging and successful career path.”

In Chicago, the couple established a “rather glamorous social life,” to rival the one they’d enjoyed in Rome. They socialized with the big name 1970s artists, actors, musicians and fashion designers.

Meanwhile, Sally and Stefano went on to have two more children, and Sally balanced family life with her passion for painting.

Moving to the US was interesting because the couple saw the “tables turn” in many ways. When she first arrived in Italy, Sally was “sort of clueless” about how everything worked – from bills to grocery stores – so Stefano took the lead. In the US, Sally was familiar with the American system and the lifestyle. She started managing the family affairs.

There were other adjustments too.

“When it came to making friends – in Italy, I was the star – ‘l’Americana.’ Suddenly, I was just another American,” says Sally, laughing. “And he was the ‘Italiano’ – everybody wanted to meet Stefano.”

While Sally enjoyed being closer to her parents and sisters, she found she “missed a lot of things about Italy.” She and Stefano visited whenever they could.

“We went back and forth a million times with the kids,” says Sally. “They always knew the grandparents in both places.”

Sally and Stefano brought up their kids with a sense of openness, and instilled in them a thirst for travel. One of their sons now lives in Thailand, while another of their sons fell in love with his future wife during a period living in Japan. They’re now married and bringing up kids with Japanese, American and Italian heritage.

“They’re used to this bicultural idea,” says Sally of her children. “They’re very open. Our kids have a broad vision.”

Life as a ‘pinball machine’

Today, Sally, who is now in her late seventies, and Stefano, who is in his early eighties, live in San Francisco, California, in an apartment overlooking the bay.

Over the past few decades the couple have lived across the US – from New York City to Arizona to Las Vegas, where Stefano worked in the hospitality business.

Stefano retired in 2022, while Sally continues to paint. The couple’s life revolves around travel, time with family – including their four grandchildren – enjoying their hobbies and spending quality time together.

Stefano says when he looks back on his life, he finds himself thinking about a “pinball machine.” There’s a randomness to life, he says, you never know what might happen.

“Life, especially mine and Sally’s, ours, has been absolutely full of unexpected things,” he says.

“But life is made like that. Opportunities open up – and if you are creative, curious, you grab it and see where it goes.”

When Sally and Stefano look back on the moment they met, in the Plaza Hotel lobby in 1970, they’re still struck by the fortuity of their encounter – the idea that if Stefano had “gotten up from that bench at the Plaza one second before” life would be different, “nothing in this story would have happened,” as Stefano puts it.

But their overwhelming emotion is a feeling of gratitude, they’re glad they “took a huge leap,” as Sally describes, embarking on a life together.

They’re continuing this mantra into the future – later this year, Sally and Stefano plan to relocate back to Italy.

“At our age people say, ‘Are you crazy? You’re starting a whole new life,’’ says Sally. “We go ‘Yeah, we are crazy.’”

“It’s the pinball machine,” explains Stefano.

“Life is an adventure,” says Sally. “You have to be willing to always stay open to its challenges and rewards. Nothing much happens if you stay at home.”

“We both had a sixth sense we were right for each,” says Stefano. “And we would do it again.”

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