It was a vocation she did not necessarily want. Her only goal was to be an actress. But, God wanted more; he wanted her for himself.
Dolores Hart walked away from Hollywood stardom in 1963 to become a nun in rural Bethlehem, Conn.
She was a beautiful college student when she made her film debut with Elvis Presley in Paramount’s 1957 film, “Loving You.” She acted in nine more movies with stars such as Montgomery Clift, Anthony Quinn and Myrna Loy. She also gave a Tony-nominated performance in the Broadway play, “The Pleasure of His Company” and appeared in television shows, including “The Virginian and Playhouse 90.” Her life was transformed, however, while playing St. Clare in the movie “Francis of Assisi,” filmed in Italy.
In her recently released book, “The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows,” Mother Dolores, with co-author, Richard DeNeut, shares her life story.
Abbey taught her to forgive
For the first time, and after more than 50 years, the public learns of young Dolores Hicks’ complicated childhood in Chicago, her rise to Hollywood fame as Dolores Hart, her five-year courtship and engagement to Don Robinson, and her mystical journey toward God.
Surviving her parents’ unstable marriage, domestic abuse and her mother’s alcoholism, Mother Dolores harbors no ill will toward her parents, but credits her life in the abbey for opening her heart to forgiveness.
“Finding the abbey and coming to a context of spiritual life helped me to try to understand what they were going through,” she said in a telephone interview with your Catholic Herald. “It was probably a load they received from their parents as well as from genealogy, and it wasn’t something that occurred to me until I got a good footing in my monastic life. I really wasn’t forgiving in the beginning; in fact, I was angry for a long time and hid myself in school and business activities. I had to find something creative or positive to do, because living in that atmosphere, I was so sapped of energy and from my own identity.”
Lives separate from mainstream society
Immersed in the Connecticut countryside, Mother Dolores Hart is the Mother Prioress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis, a contemplative order of approximately 40 Benedictine nuns who live in an enclosure near the aptly named town of Bethlehem, separating them from mainstream society, literally and symbolically.
“I came to understand that God truly expressed himself through his beloved,” she said. “And through a mystery of great love, He broke through the extravagance of the motion picture industry to make my vocation known to me.”
Mother Dolores belongs to the traditional order founded by St. Benedict 1,500 years ago. Eight times a day, beginning at 1:50 a.m., the sisters chant Latin prayers. She and the other members of her order wear traditional black hoods and broad white collars.
After first visit, she was ‘home’
At the suggestion of a friend, Mother Dolores visited the abbey for a respite from Hollywood life in 1959.
“I walked on the grounds and knew it was home,” she said. “I kept coming back and once, I asked the Lady Abbess if she thought I had a calling or a vocation here, and she told me to go back to Hollywood to do my thing, because that was what I was supposed to do.”
Kiss with Elvis lasted 50 years
Probably most known for being the first person to kiss Elvis on film, Mother Dolores joked the kiss has lasted 50 years. While she refused his offer of a date, because she didn’t want to mix business and personal lives, she followed his career until his death.
“It was God’s gift that Elvis was the first person I kissed on screen,” she said. “He was an amazing and humble man; and often read Bible stories to me when I was with him. There was one time we were driving together in a limo and one girl yelled to him that he was the king. Elvis got out of the car and was so adamant in telling her that only the Lord Jesus Christ is our King and he said, ‘don’t put that on me.’”
Engaged to architect Don Robinson, and at the height of her career, she ended her engagement and left Hollywood trappings behind. She entered the abbey in secret, with only a couple of people knowing what was happening.
Boss, agent angry with decision
“When I first made communication to the abbess about what I wanted to do, she told me she didn’t want me to speak to anyone until I entered in June, and that was in December,” she said, adding. “This was because of the situation when June Haver left the Sisters of Charity and ended up marrying Fred MacMurry. She didn’t want me to be another statistic, but wanted me to think it over and not talk about it. I didn’t tell anyone except one dear friend to help me make the change and wrote to them afterwards. My boss and my agent were so angry – they thought I lost my mind. My agent wrote me a letter that said, ‘I think you just swallowed a razor blade, kid.’”
Her mother blamed herself for her daughter’s decision to become a nun, and felt she was running away because she hadn’t been there to be a role model.
“I kept telling her that it wasn’t her fault,” said Mother Dolores. “It was not at all how she saw it; you know when God calls you, he calls you.”
Leaving Hollywood as a popular actress was a contrast to entering the abbey in relative obscurity. While everyone in public life seemed to know Dolores Hart, the sisters viewed her as they did the other sisters.
“The contemplatives didn’t go to movies and they didn’t see TV, so anything they might have heard about me was hearsay,” she said. “Some of them were open to public life and knew this was what I was doing, but it wasn’t until after I entered and the people began to talk to us and talk to them about what was happening then, that they caught on.”
Mother Dolores recalled an incident with her prioress that has kept her grounded for 50 years.
“I remember asking Mother Abbess, who was the Prioress back then, if my collar was on straight, because the postulants wear dresses with white collars,” she said, laughing, “She looked at me and said, “Dolores, nobody really cares here.’”
Found peace, love in abbey
While she has found peace and love in the abbey, Mother Hart admitted there were times in the beginning when she wanted to run back to Hollywood.
“We don’t make final vows until we are in the abbey for seven years, and I think it is a very good plan, because it is like a marriage and we need time to work things out so we don’t go down the tube,” she said. “I think there were times I would wake up in the middle of the night saying that ‘I have done it, this is really it.’ The amazing thing is that the grace of God always got me somewhere and gave me a way to go.”
Living under strict rules of the abbey was difficult at first for Mother Dolores, who admitted she sometimes longed to jump in her convertible and drive along Pacific Highway One.
“Our human nature is so geared to what we want when we want it,” she said. “Somebody doesn’t answer a phone or letter at the right time, we get aggravated and build a fortress inside us. But we need to realize that we are here for another purpose and God is in this whole prospect. I loved to escape in the car and take a ride along the coast, and it was a long time before I realized that this source of an outlet wasn’t what I really wanted.”
Book was 10-year process
In deciding to the write the book, she consulted DeNeut, formerly of Globe Photos, who earlier, had helped her write a book on her longtime friend, actress Patricia Neal, who was buried at the abbey after her death in August 2010.
“Probably in about 2002, Dick said to me, ‘Don’t you think it is time to write your memoirs?’ and I said, ‘Oh Dick, why are you bringing this up now?’” she said. “He reminded me that I had saved everything all my life – all my letters, awards, photos, journals and that I should put (them) to use. When I told him that I didn’t think I could do it, he said that he would help me.”
Distance was a challenge since DeNeut lives in California and Mother Dolores in Connecticut, so the two began talking by phone.
According to DeNeut, they assembled materials in 2002 and spoke on the phone several times a week, but he realized, this would not be enough.
“For the first six to seven years, I traveled three times a year for a month at a time to work on the project,” he said. “We did the interviews and things started evolving and I ended up with 12 or so tapes, not all were with her. As we began to get to the end of the manuscript, the trips dwindled to two and the last couple of years, I took just one trip, but the visit was lengthy.”
The long visits were necessary to work around Mother Dolores’s schedule of prayer, responsibilities and her office duties, explained DeNeut. They worked a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon, and it took patience on both sides as the days melded into years. It took 10 years to complete “The Ear of the Heart.”
Religious life no surprise to former suitor
While the two had a brief, romantic relationship in her early career, DeNeut was not surprised when Mother Dolores entered religious life.
“She had not mentioned her trips to Regina Laudis when she came back from New York. I didn’t ignore the possibility of a long-term relationship with her, but I didn’t really have a major place in my thoughts about her,” he said. “She was very gracious and considerate and left secretly as the abbess insisted. But she called her press agent who I worked with a lot because he handled Hollywood people. He told me about her decision three days before the newspaper article came out. When I heard it, I wasn’t shocked, and remembered thinking that this was not a temporary situation – that it was permanent.”
The book’s title stemmed from St. Benedict’s quote to “Listen and attend with the ear of your heart.”
“All of a sudden praying together puts you right into focus and we are very fortunate to have that,” she said. “Through prayer, you learn to listen with the ear of your heart.”
Through her book, Mother Dolores hopes readers will trust in God’s voice and his creativity in them.
“I hope that they will believe that his gift of their body and soul is an eternal one,” she said. “Writing this book gave me a chance to remember my own life and to see precisely the continuity of gifts I was given and any tendency for a downer or lack of belief was ridiculous because the Lord was always there in the final analysis. I really had to understand that very same thing for myself; and I had to take hope in what I had been given and to write it out, and then I could really see God’s hand.”
Proceeds from the book will be used for building renovations at Regina Laudis Abbey.