Dolores Hart was one of Hollywood’s top ingenues, giving Elvis Presley his first screen kiss in 1957’s “Loving You” and then reuniting with him a year later in “King Creole.” She worked with such legends as Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani in 1957’s “Wild Is the Wind” and Robert Ryan and Montgomery Clift in 1958’s “Lonelyhearts,” then earned a Tony Award nomination in 1959 for her first play, the romantic comedy “The Pleasure of His Company.”
A devout Catholic since the age of 10, she broke off her engagement to Don Robinson in 1963 and entered the cloistered Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn., where as Mother Dolores Hart she has lead a life of contemplation and hospitality. She has become a mother prioress and the abbey is flourishing, with a professional theater group performing in the summer, internships and several new postulants.
Now Mother Dolores is somewhat of a public figure again. Last year, she attended the Academy Awards when the HBO documentary “God Is the Bigger Elvis,” which chronicled the day-to-day life of the nuns in the abbey, was a nominee, and she is just finishing the first leg of a book tour for her autobiography, “The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey From Hollywood to Holy Vows,” which she wrote with her longtime friend, Richard DeNeut.
Relaxing in a lounge at a convent in Culver City, Mother Dolores, 74, is friendly and a bit of a character. A Mac aficionado, she keeps her iPhone in the pocket of her habit and her digital camera handy, snapping photographs of everyone she meets so she can share them with members of the abbey.
You were born Baptist but converted to Catholicism when you were 10 years old, when you were a student at Catholic school. I loved the story you tell in the book that it was your desire for sweet rolls that help lead to the conversion.
If you recall, in those years you had to fast from midnight on before you had Communion in the morning. The children who took Communion had sweet rolls and chocolate doughnuts afterwards. I had Shredded Wheat and cornflakes at home with Granny. So one day I said to one of the sisters, “I really would love to have the bread with the children.” I was talking about the sweet rolls.
But she thought you meant the Communion wafer.
Yes. She went to the priest and said, ‘I think the girl would like to be Catholic. She showed interest in the Holy Eucharist.’ I went to Granny and said, “I can have sweet rolls and chocolate milk with the kids; all I have to do is go to Catholic lessons.” She said, “I don’t care what you do in your life, it’s OK with me.” So I started going to lessons and became very intrigued by it. That’s how I got into the church!
You played the daughter of the legendary Italian actress Anna Magnani in “Wild Is the Wind,” but you got off to a rough start.
She took one look at me and said [to director George Cukor], “She is too naive and American with blue eyes and blond hair. She is supposed to be my daughter.” George said, “We will dye her hair and have dark makeup put on her. She will know the scene in Italian by 2 p.m.” I said, “George!”
He got a lady that coached Anna [to teach me Italian]. She came into the dressing room and said, “This is the scene; repeat after me.” I never forgot those lines.
We got on very well because the next day after she saw the rushes, Anna came over and grabbed both of my ears and shook me like I was a puppy dog. George assured me that it was a sign of affection.
You didn’t have an easy time for several years at the abbey dealing with the cloistered life, and some of the nuns didn’t take you seriously because you had been an actress.
It was earth-shaking in a way because I really didn’t have much of an idea of what I was getting into. I didn’t know I was going to sing the Office [certain psalms, prayers, hymns and biblical readings to be recited at fixed hours] six times a day and once in the middle of the night in Latin. That didn’t occur to me that was part of the deal.
You mean they never told you?
I think I probably was told, but I don’t think I understood what it meant. I mean, to sing with the same person next to you every day — especially if you don’t get voices that work too well together!
A lot of your fellow postulants didn’t make it during those first three years. Was it your faith that got you through those early years?
Well, I think that part of it was my nature, which is always ready to take on the hardest thing and do it. It is much more fun to go through something that’s demanding than just be a [wimp].
One of your earliest adversaries, Mother David, became one of your best friends.
She was one of my first, should I say, nemeses. We had these little white collars that we wore as postulants. I said one day, “Can you tell me, is my collar on right?” She said, “Nobody cares what you look like in here, dearie. So don’t worry about your collar.” But in the long run she became the one person who helped more than anyone.