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Dolores Hart: How a movie actress left Hollywood for a contract with God

Former actress recalls her decision to become a nun

Wednesday, April 08, 1998

By Barbara Cloud, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

She was so pretty. And so talented.

In 1960, while working in Rome on the movie "Francis of Assisi," actress Dolores Hart did a sketch of a statue of the saint.

Her name was Dolores Hart, and her movie file is bulging with typical studio promotion pictures with actors like George Hamilton, Stephen Boyd and Jeff Chandler.

It was back in the early '60s, and she was headed for stardom when, abruptly, it ended.

Why it ended is a touching story that came to mind when I was watching "Entertainment Tonight" a few weeks ago.

They were going to interview the young woman who had given Elvis Presley his first movie kiss in "King Creole." The year was 1958.

The actress was Dolores Hart.

The question she always got in interviews during her movie career (and, afterwards, on "ET" it would seem) was "What is it like kissing Elvis?"

Was it embarrassing to be asked such a question? Was that to be her legacy?

She was amused when I asked her recently, and not the least bit shy.

"I think the limit for a screen kiss back then was something like 15 seconds. That one has lasted 40 years."

And she chuckled a bit at the memory.

There is far more to this beautiful woman than that kiss, believe me.

I wrote her after seeing her that night on "ET." My letter simply stated how good it was to see her looking so well and, obviously, expressing delight that her decision to leave the movies, a difficult one to be sure, had turned out so well. She was happy. It had been the right thing to do.

How could she give up her dream of being an actress?

Her answer was simple. "How could I not?"

She calls me a friend, but we had not been in touch for 35 years. Our connection was through my job as a reporter for The Pittsburgh Press. She came here twice, the first time in 1960 to promote the film "Where the Boys Are," and each time it was a pleasant meeting, and I felt very comfortable talking to her.

But on her second promotion tour to Pittsburgh in 1963 she was a different person, distracted and introspective. I noticed the change but didn't think much of it, until I read a few weeks later she had left the film industry to enter the monastic life at Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn.

Four years later, in 1967, I heard from her again. She explained why she had seemed pensive and withdrawn during our last meeting, although by then I knew. I wanted to do a story about her new life, but she wasn't ready for that.

"It wasn't that I didn't like the media. I found it stimulating. And I wasn't running from it. But when you decide to do this you must give all of yourself, just as I gave all of myself when I was an actress."

The letter she wrote to me as Sister Judith, before her final vows, detailed to some extent the anguish she was experiencing at that time.

"It was really a nightmare," she wrote, "in that I was so absorbed in coming here at the time, my heart was hardly able to contain anything else. Naturally it was also the one thing I could not speak about, so my memory fails in recalling much about that era."

I more or less forgot about Dolores Hart after that, but now she was on the phone, still showing the gracious manner she had as an actress, but more than that, willing to answer all my questions, friend to friend.

There is a reason she is suddenly "out there" and it has to do with a CD called "Women in Chant," which features the choir of Benedictine nuns at Regina Laudis singing Gregorian chants. Sales benefit the work of the abbey.

Mother Dolores Hart, O.S.B., is credited with the cover photo of the night-blooming cereus (as ethereal as Georgia O'Keeffe's two jimson weeds in oil to my eyes), and she is also part of the choir, although she never considered herself a singer.

For that matter, she never saw herself as a nun.

"It was not a lifelong dream," she said. "I did not grow up wanting to be a nun. I wanted to be an actress. If it had ever been suggested I would one day be a nun, it would have been the last thing on my mind. It was a million to one shot I would ever be a nun."

She was an only child, and she was not raised Catholic. An omen toward her future might have been her own request to convert to Catholicism when she was 10. Or a photo from a film she did in 1960 in which the statue of St. Francis of Assisi in Rome loomed behind her, arms outstretched.

She did not know at that time, but the lure of the religious life had begun.

"As a child I was precocious," she said. "My parents married when they were 16 and 17 and both were beautiful people. Moss Hart offered my mother, Harriett, a contract but by then they had me and my father, Bert Hicks, a bit player, definitely a Clark Gable type, had movie offers so we moved from Chicago to Hollywood. I was a Hollywood brat. We lived in Beverly Hills and I used to visit the lots with him. He had a bit part in 'Forever Amber.' I always wanted to be part of that life."

She realized a new direction in her life, she said, began while she was appearing on Broadway in 1958 in "The Pleasure of His Company" with such renowned actors as Cyril Ritchard, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Charles Ruggles, Walter Abel and a former Carnegie Tech student, George Peppard.

She had already been asked to re-create her role in the film version of the play and she was very excited about that. Then, one night Debbie Reynolds came to see the play and she was taking notes during the performance. Dolores Hart realized she was not going to be in the movie and it was a big blow to her.

But other things were also happening.

"A friend suggested visiting this very tranquil place in Connecticut one weekend and it was Regina Laudis Abbey," she said. "After that, whenever I was on the East Coast, I would go there. I began to notice each time I went it was becoming harder and harder to leave. I had this feeling. I was home."

A few years passed and she continued doing movies until one titled "Lisa," which dealt with the Holocaust and experiments done on prisoners at Auschwitz, sparked something inside her.

"It affected me so deeply and more and more I found myself drawn to the abbey, almost like magnetism."

When she entered the abbey Sister Judith was selected as her name because she was, after all, starting a new life. A new name seemed appropriate, but when she made her final vows she changed it to Sister Dolores. It was also a wish from her mother, to keep the name Dolores.

"Hal Wallis wanted to call me Susan when I started my movie career," she recalled, "but I was under age and my mother would not hear of it. She wanted me to be Dolores."

Mother Dolores calls her life as a Benedictine nun "an island of enclosure." It is a monastic life that includes prayers at several hours of the day, including 2 a.m. It is a structured life with little time for much else than handling chores on the farm and woodlands involving 359 acres. The land maintains the community, the group of 40 women of various professional backgrounds

Friends send movies to the abbey and she watches more than many of the other nuns because of her background, but there usually isn't time to see many. She watched "Titanic" and she had hoped Dame Judi Dench would win the Oscar for "Mrs. Brown."

Would Hollywood ever see her return?

The odds, she says, are a million to one.

But those were the same odds she would ever become a nun.

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