Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Dolores Hart was a young, beautiful and talented actress who had starred alongside the likes of Elvis Presley (Loving You, King Creole), Anthony Quinn (Wild is the Wind) and Montgomery Clift (Lonelyhearts). By the time she made 1963’s Come Fly with Me (with Hugh O’Brian and Karl Malden), it seemed accurate to say that the sky was the limit for her Hollywood career. Then, she made a shocking decision that would make her role in 1961’s Francis of Assisi (in which she played aristocratic woman who gives up everything for God) seem downright prophetic. Dolores Hart entered a contemplative monastery to become a Benedictine nun.
Now, 50 years later, on the heels of an Oscar-nominated documentary about her life (God is the Bigger Elvis), the public is rediscovering the woman now known as Mother Dolores. I met up with her recently at a rustic wooden church on the grounds of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. The abbey has been her home since leaving Hollywood. She’s served as its prioress since 2001. We talked about her life which she recounts in vivid detail in The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows, the new book she co-authored with her lifelong friend Richard DeNeut which is due out tomorrow (Tuesday, May 7).
The Ear of the Heart tells the story how Dolores Hicks, born in 1938 to non-Catholic parents who divorced when she was three, grew up to be a movie star and, in a plot twist worth of, well, Hollywood, became a cloistered nun of the Catholic Church. And, while she’s known for kissing Elvis, the man she truly loved was the not-so-famous architect Don Robinson. It’s their five-year romance, ending with Dolores’ fateful decision, which is apt to leave readers with the proverbial lump in the throat. In the end, The Ear of the Heart is a love story with Dolores’ ultimate leading man being Jesus.
When I sat down with Mother Dolores, I didn’t quite know what to expect. At 74, she still radiates beauty and her eyes are as awesomely blue as they were in 1957 when she burst onto the movie scene in Loving You. I was a bit surprised to see her traditional nun’s habit topped by an artist’s beret with a parrot-shaped pin attached. More on both the hat and the pin later. I was also surprised — quite happily — by her down-to-earth manner and her keen sense of humor. In other words, I was in the presence of a nice and witty woman with a genuinely fascinating life story.
JWK: I enjoyed the book.
MOTHER DOLORES: Thank you. That’s a good way to begin.
JWK: When did you realize that you needed to write it?
MOTHER DOLORES: Well, this might seem strange but when I was a child my father was an actor and my grandfather was a projectionist in the theater. He always had me come watch the movies up in the booth with him. He would give me a nickel every time I would wake him up when we had to change the reel. So, I started out pretty young thinking this is going to be my job one day. I had a little book which I kept (from when I was) about ten years old in which I began to write down memoirs because I had read (that) an old movie actress said “You always keep a memoir — for a memoir — if you’re going to be an actor.” So, I thought I’d better start now. So, I have that diary and it’s really amusing because what it says is that every Monday night I watched Lucy. There was nothing staggering about it except I kept names, places (and) dates of things and I kept doing this all the way through to the time that I was a teenager.
So, when this point of the book came up, I was talking to my friend Dick DeNeut who was a buddy of mine since I went to Hollywood in 1957 and I was just laughing with him about the fact that I had all this. And he said “Well, let’s do the book!” I said “Oh, Dick, you don’t have the time for that.” And he said “Well, I’ve made time for you plenty of times. Let’s try it.” And we just began to talk. He would ask questions and I would answer. He said “You know, this would be a good basis for doing the book. It would be a talk and people, when they read it, would have the feeling that they’re being communicated with. So, really, it was Dick who got me into it.
JWK: You didn’t grow up Catholic, did you?
MOTHER DOLORES: Well, actually, I had been sent to Catholic school by my grandparents because they didn’t want me to cross the streetcar tracks. So, they sent me to the local Catholic school…We had the custom in those days where you had to fast from midnight and I was so jealous of the kids that got the sweet rolls and chocolate milk. I had to eat at home a breakfast beforehand. So, one day I said to the teacher “I really would love to take the bread with the children.” And she said “Really?!”, thinking what I meant was that I wanted the Eucharist. So, she told the priest “I think the little girl would like to be a Catholic.” (Then) she said “Well, if you want the bread with the children, you have to take the course and until you understand the faith.” So, I went home and said to Granny “If I take the Catholic course I can have the sweet rolls!”
JWK: You’re parents were divorced.
MOTHER DOLORES: Yes.
JWK: You describe a somewhat less than perfect relationship between them. Did growing up in that situation help you develop empathy for others whose family situations may also fall short of an Ozzie and Harriet-type ideal?
MOTHER DOLORES: Well, I loved both of my parents very much. As a little girl I was an only child and so I was privy to a lot of the inside things that were problems in marriages because I could hear it and see it. It’s absolutely true that because I went through that situation I never had a judgmental attitude toward people being separated or divorced because I knew it was because they were trying to work something out and, in life, it’s not that easy. People don’t just (say) “Oh, yes, I understand you.”
My parents were very different. I couldn’t imagine why both of them didn’t totally adore one another because I did. They had problems. My father was a struggling actor…He was only 20. He didn’t have that much of a basis for understanding what the needs of a family were. He was thinking about himself (and) becoming a big star.
JWK: And, when you went to Hollywood, you wanted to be a star.
MOTHER DOLORES: Well, of course, because I thought that was how you did it.
JWK: Can you tell me about your first experience in Hollywood?
MOTHER DOLORES: Well, actually, I went to Hollywood first with my mother when I was three years old. My grandmother did not want us to go. So, that was a secret trip that Mommy had planned. She said “We’re going to leave in the middle of the night.” So, we snuck out at three in the morning to go on our venture. I remember getting on the train and seeing nothing but guys with different colored pants on because that’s how tall I was…She took me to the beach. She had a little car with the top down…My memories of Hollywood at that age were of a great fun, little city. And, of course, it was in 1942. It wasn’t a big town then.
JWK: What was your first audition like?
MOTHER DOLORES: Well, I wanted to play the part of St. Joan in a school play. I was in Marymount College at that time. Loyola was the boy college that was in relationship (with Marymount). So, I was permitted to take the part in the Loyola play. My boyfriend said “I think I’ll take some pictures of you and send them around town to different studios.” I thought he was a little bit crazy to think that anybody (in the movie business) was going to come to the school play. But, actually, Paramount and Hal Wallis did send one of their talent scouts. So, they called me at Marymount…I thought it was one of the kids playing a joke on me. I went to the phone and this man said “I’d like to have you come in for an interview for a film.” I said “Who is this?!” And he gave me his name. I said “Come on, that’s not really your name! Where are you in school?!” And he said “You know, I went through this with your mother a few minutes ago. She thought I was a crackpot too. I’m telling you, I’m for real!” Well, I was so embarrassed. I said “Yes, of course, I’ll come.”
So, Don Barbeau, who I was going out with, he had an old hearse which he drove and we drove through the Paramount gates. I was in my Marymount sweater. We went in for the interview and they said they wanted to make a screen test. It was near the end of the midterms so the teacher in school told me “You can’t do it because that’s the same day as the midterm exams and, if you’re not at the exams, I will have to fail you.” I was such a wreck. I went up to my room. I was just crying, Then the head of the school came to me and said “Dolores, every kid in this place is looking for this kind of an opportunity. Try it. Take it. If she fails you and you don’t get the screen test, I’ll bring you back in on an English mode.” So, I was really set free. I took the (screen) test and they called and said they wanted me for the film.
JWK: Who was the director?
MOTHER DOLORES (CON’T): They wanted me to come and meet the cast. I did not know Mr. Presley because I had never kept up with music. I was in school. So, when I went into Mr. Kanter’s office and Liz Scott was there, who I did know was a big movie actress, I was very impressed by her. Wendell Corey was also there. And then Mr. Presley. When they introduced him, he jumped to his feet and walked over and took my hand and said “How do you do? My name is…Elvis.” I said “How do you do? I’m very glad to meet you. I hope we are friends.” He said “That would be nice.”
JWK: You liked him.
MOTHER DOLORES: I did. He was very generous and very loving. As we got onto the film and we did the film, he always came with a bunch of boys and they kidded around on the set. But, whenever he talked to me, he always called me “Miss Dolores.” Nobody else in Hollywood ever did that except Gary Cooper, years later. But he was extremely, I’d say, well-trained. I knew he had a good mother because he in no way was intrusive or difficult. He would take me by the hand if we were on the set and there was stuff around. He was very cordial as a young man.
JWK: He asked you out on a date.
MOTHER DOLORES: He did. He asked me to go out. I did not think you should do that while you were working. So, I said “I think we should wait until after the film.” And he said “Okay.” (laughs) But he never asked me after the film.
JWK: Was Loving You his first film as well?
MOTHER DOLORES: It was his second film.
JWK: I understand your friends with Priscilla Presley, his former wife.
MOTHER DOLORES: Yes.
JWK: How did that friendship come about?
MOTHER DOLORES: It wasn’t then. It was only a couple of years ago when I was (in) Hollywood for God is the Bigger Elvis. She called me to ask for (a) meeting and I couldn’t because I was at the airport ready to come home. So, (we talked and) the phone conversation went on for about an hour because we really did have good rapport. And we said “Well, I hope we meet again.” And so, when I learned I was going to be taking on a (book) tour, I called her. I just had the number…and I said “Priscilla, I might be coming to Tennessee. Perhaps I can see you there.” And she said “Oh, anything I can do help you I will.”… So, we had another wonderful phone conversation in which she said that she would help with the book tour when I got up there. So, I’m looking forward to that very much.
JWK: So, this is an ongoing friendship?
MOTHER DOLORES: I think once you make a friend, if it’s real, you try to find ways to keep it going.
JWK: So, your movie career was going well. You even appeared on Broadway in The Pleasure of His Company. Things were going great for you professionally. When did you realize you had this other calling?
MOTHER DOLORES: When I was doing the stage play a friend of mine told me, when I was feeling rather tired and worn out from the work of the play, why don’t you go to a place up in Connecticut? I think you’ll get a rest there. So, I went up to Regina Laudis and I really responded to it. When I was there I happened to meet Lady Abbess who was the foundress and something just came to my mind. I said “Do you think, Lady Abbess, that I should ever think about coming here to join?” She said “Oh, no, Dolores! That’s ridiculous! You’ve got a good career. Stay in that. You’ll do lot for the Church, dear. Don’t think about that.” Well, I was so relieved. (I thought) “Oh, good!” and I put it out of my mind. But, then about five years later, really my career had taken off in an amazing way and I also met someone — Don Robinson — who asked me to marry him. So, this now began to set up a sense of “Well, what do you want in the future?”
JWK: Were you in love with Don?
MOTHER DOLORES: Yes. He was a wonderful man — a very good opportunity for any girl to marry because he was straight as an arrow, a good Catholic guy making good money. He was an architect…So, I said to Don “I don’t think we should get really seriously engaged but let’s go together and think about this for a few months.” Well, of course, (our tentative engagement) immediately got out to everyone and, before I knew it, Edith Head offered me a wedding dress (and) Don was looking at houses. We went to a party. It was a gift from one of my friends to celebrate our engagement and on the way home Don stopped the car right dead in the middle of the street. He said “Dolores, you’ve got to tell me if you love me, if you really want to do this!” And I said “Don, this is crazy! We’re in the middle of the road!” He said “Right now!” I said “Don, take me back to the apartment. I’ve got to think.” I went into the apartment and (thought) “I’ve got to go to Regina Laudis and see if this is real.” This is 1962. So, I told Don “I’m going back to Connecticut for a short visit.” And when I got here and talked to Mother Abbess…something in me just knew it was real. I knew God was calling me.
Don Robinson on a visit with Mother Dolores. He died in 2011.
JWK: It must have been scary.
MOTHER DOLORES: It was terrifying. It was just terrifying because I was being offered a renewal of my contract and a renewal that would put me up with three different studios. I thought “Whew! Wait until I tell my agent!” And, when I did, it was after I had come in because the Abbess said to me “Don’t talk about this because you’ll be taken right out of here.”…I think June Haver had just gone in and left and she said “I don’t want you to be another…” whatever. Whatever she thought of June was not favorable but I told her I would not talk about it.
So, after I (went in) the following June, I had the obligation to sit and write to all these persons and explain…My, oh, my, they were angry.
JWK: Who was angry?
MOTHER DOLORES: My boss. He said “Don’t leave there because you’ll never work in this town again!” He was so mad. It took him ten years before we got to be friends again. And my agent sent me a note saying “I think you just swallowed a razor blade, Dolores.”
JWK: You must have, at some level, been worried that you made the wrong decision.
MOTHER DOLORES: I was, believe me.
MOTHER DOLORES: It was Dick’s idea. He had read that and he said I think that it would be a great title. Well, I fought it in the beginning. I said “Dick, they’re gonna think it’s a medical journal.” And he said “No, no.”…And then (I thought about it). The first words in there “Listen, O my child, to the precepts of the Master and incline the ear of thy heart.” That’s pretty strong.
JWK: Reflecting on that, you say in your book that “I found it a simple commentary about the dignity of being human. We are meant to serve God with the gifts He has given us. Sin is not so much doing something wrong; sin is not being true to who we are. That someone would have that light in the fifth century was a discovery for me.” Would you care to expound on that?
MOTHER DOLORES: Well, I think it really said to me that religious life has to become an expression of the gifts of the person. (You don’t) simply throw away your personality, your giftedness and leave everything at the gate and go in and expect to find Jesus. I just couldn’t integrate it that way…Lady Abbess, who was the foundress, she was so open to that way of a person being in a religious community. And, in the course of my life in the community, I have tried every way I know how to enable young sisters who enter to bring their goodness, their giftedness and allow that as a way of serving the life of the community. I think that has helped a great deal to inspire young people who want to enter here.
JWK: Have you ever had any moments of regret about your decision?
MOTHER DOLORES: I don’t think seriously. I think there’s always moments in your life where…
JWK: Your still a member of the Motion Picture Academy.
MOTHER DOLORES: Yes.
JWK: Do you ever look at movies and imagine how you would have played a certain role?
MOTHER DOLORES: Oh, sure. I don’t think an actress stops being an actress. But being a member of the Academy has been such an enormous gift and, actually, Lady Abbess…said “Stay in the Academy but I don’t think it’s necessary to see all the films and vote on them.” (I thought) “At least, she’s allowing me to keep my membership.” But, after I was in the community 25 years, on my anniversary of vows Karl Malden, who was a friend and also the head of the Academy, reached out to me and said “Don’t you think it’s time that you came back as a full member?” So, I then went back (to) Mother Abbess who said “(After 25 years) we can trust you.” So, that’s when I started working again as a full member (and) receiving the films to vote (on) — which was a tremendous gift.
JWK: You enjoy viewing them.
MOTHER DOLORES: Well, you see in the films the life of our country, of people. They reflect the changes happening in society and you also understand the people who come here. You know how to relate to them better because you see the world — and how the secular world is suffering.
JWK: What movies do you like this year?
MOTHER DOLORES: I thought Les Misérables was extraordinary. It thought it was a brilliant execution of that play and the acting…was amazing. They didn’t get singers to do their songs. They did them themselves which was wonderful. I would love to have done that.
JWK: What do you see as the mission of the media — particularly movies and television?
MOTHER DOLORES: I think the mission of the media is to reflect the community to itself, to give the people a vision of who they are, what they’re doing, what they want, what they need. I think motion pictures have been an incredible gift to humanity. I can’t imagine living in a world without them. I did for a long, long time.
JWK: You’ve remained friends with a lot of people from Hollywood.
MOTHER DOLORES: Yes.
JWK: You appeared in an episode of the 1960’s TV series The Virginian starring James Drury. His endorsement of your book — and of you — appears on the back cover. He calls Ear of the Heart “A story of courage, sacrifice, dedication and fulfillment” and says “The book will lift your heart and mind in dedication.” Your still friends with him.
MOTHER DOLORES: I’m still friends with him. I enjoy him. It’s more a sense of camaraderie. He sent me the entire collection of all of the TV plays. So, in our common room we have James Drury on one whole long shelf.
JWK: That was a long-running show.
MOTHER DOLORES: Yes.
JWK: Paula Prentiss and her husband Dick Benjamin are your friends too and also have blurbs on the back of your book. Paula says “Read now for some lively insights from the girl who kissed Elvis in the movies to the Mother Superior who gets the last laugh in real life.” He calls your story a “courageous adventure.” So, they’re fans. What’s your friendship with them like?
MOTHER DOLORES: Paula has come to the monastery and it’s a friendship in which we share with one another the things that are important in our lives. I think Paula has brought up her children (very well). Paula, herself, has gone through personal struggles and it’s been important to be able to talk together of the needs of the family. Also, Dick is a very brilliant and resourceful man himself in filmmaking.
JWK: You were also friends with Gary Cooper. What was he like?
MOTHER DOLORES: I met Gary when (I was invited to his house). I went to this beautiful place in Beverly Hills (with) a long, long, long front yard. I didn’t know which door to go in and I saw the gardener out in the front doing something. I walked over and this gentleman was on his knees digging up the roots. So, I said “Excuse me. Can you tell me…which door to enter?” The fellow stood up and looked down at me. He said “Oh, you’re Miss Dolores. aren’t you!” And I looked and it was, indeed, Gary Cooper. I said “I’m sorry. I thought you were the gardener.” And he said “I am!”
JWK: He was a nice person?
MOTHER DOLORES: A very, very good man. I knew him all the way up until his death. In fact, when he was dying…I went in to say my farewells and Gary looked up at me and said “You working?” And I said “No, I don’t have a job now.” He (humorously) said “I want to hear from you when you got a job. An actress isn’t worth much without a job.”…This was long before I entered the monastery.
JWK: What do you say to people who view Hollywood as anti-religion? Do you subscribe to that view?
MOTHER DOLORES: I think it’s the government or whoever (that wants) God not be mentioned in schools. I think Hollywood reflects what’s going on in the people and I think this is a very dark period in our country and in faith. And I’m not saying faith to be a Catholic but faith in God…When you teach children in school not to refer to God, the next thing you know an evil spirit’s going to come in those schools and say “I can take over better than God now.” And that’s what’s happened.
JWK: Do you feel Hollywood merely reflects what is happening or can it guide in any way? Or should it?
MOTHER DOLORES: I think a number of films that were made this year have shown that there’s suffering. The film about the tsunami with Naomi Watts (The Impossible) was just brilliant (in) showing how a family can get through this tragedy and stay together because they love one another. You would never have thought after his kind of enormous tragedy that people would still find one another but that family did. And, without saying “What religion are you?,” they (told a story) about the meaning of religion which is to love one another.
JWK: What’s your all-time favorite film?
MOTHER DOLORES: Well, I loved (All About Eve) with Bette Davis years ago.
JWK: Do you see a movie in Ear of the Heart?
MOTHER DOLORES: Oh, yeah. I think it would be a good film!
JWK: Who would play you?
MOTHER DOLORES: Well, a lot of people have made suggestions and, you know, I don’t know the young women well enough now to really know. Judith, do you have any idea who would play me in the movie?
MOTHER DOLORES: I was thinking that. I couldn’t think of her name. It would be very interesting.
JWK: What would you like people to take from your story?
MOTHER DOLORES: I would hope people would in reading this one story of one life, and a life that went through all the different possibilities in life, that they would see that out of loving one another you can find faith in God because the Lord said this is the way that you know Him — is to love one another. So, you’re not gonna have a vision of God coming down. I don’t believe that’s the way it works. I think the way it works is that when you see someone else, you get to know them and you love them and serve their life, that to me is what brings you to the reality of Jesus Christ.
JWK: With a new pope, do you feel the Church is on the right path after some troublesome times?
MOTHER DOLORES: I think the Church is always in trouble because the Church walks into the trouble in which mankind is trying to resolve itself. There are a lot of areas that need to be addressed. If we were perfect we wouldn’t be the Church. I think it’s the imperfections that allow people to trust that you’re working (toward) something.
JWK: I can’t help but notice your beret with a parrot pin. It’s an interesting accessory for a nun. Is there a story there?
MOTHER DOLORES: We cut our hair very short and my head was cold. Somebody gave me their tam and said “Try this. It’ll help.” And so I’ve worn it really just because it’s been a very happy, healthy friend. And then I have a parrot (named Toby) who I love very much. He’ll be 22 years old.
JWK: Wow! How long do parrots live?
MOTHER DOLORES: Well, this brand is supposed to go anywhere up to 50 years.
JUDITH PINCO: I think they can live to be as old as 75.
MOTHER DOLORES: 75? He was given to me by Don Robinson. It was a marvelous story because Don won a bet. He lived next door to Madonna who had her lawyer call (to say) “Your brush is ruining my enclosure.” And Don said “Madonna is talking about her enclosure — and me! This is crazy!” He said “I’m going to take this on!” I said “Don, you’ll never win.” And he said “If I win, I’ll share it with you.” Well, he won the case. So, the very day that he called me I had seen it in the local news in Bethlehem that they were trying to find a home for a baby parrot and they needed a place that could offer continuity and longevity. I said “Oh, I would love that bird!” but I never could afford it. So, when Don called I said “Don, would you buy me a bird?”
JWK: How long have you had the bird now?
MOTHER DOLORES: I got him in 1990.
JWK: So, you’re an animal lover.
MOTHER DOLORES: Yes — parrots particularly. And I also have a gorgeous dog who is a year old.
JWK: Animals do have the ability to love, don’t they?
MOTHER DOLORES: Absolutely. I mean Toby (the parrot) has a crush on my assistant. (They watch TV together.)
JUDITH PINCO: I show him parrot movies.
JUDITH PINCO: He loves them! He also plays a little teeny harmonica.
(It was with that glimpse of everyday life at the Abbey of Regina Laudis that our conversation began drawing to a close. When I was getting ready to leave, Mother Dolores smiled invited me back to visit some time. It’s an invitation I certainly hope to follow up on.)
Closing notes: As for everyday life at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, the Benedictine women (several of whom, I’m informed, left successful secular careers) spend their days giving praise to God through prayer and work. The nuns chant the Mass and full Divine Office daily. They also express their commitment to service through physical labor that includes environmentally-conscious efforts to maintain the sustainability of the land to which they’ve been endowed. They maintain vegetable gardens, a dairy and even a herd of grass-fed cattle. They also run a working blacksmith shop, make candles and engage in art. I, for instance, had the pleasure of meeting Mother Praxedes Baxter, a very friendly and humorous woman who is known for her bronze and steel sculptures, as well as her work with stained glass and carved marble.
And Mother Dolores , herself, was the force behind The Gary-The Olivia Theater, an open-air venue that was built on Regina Laudis land in 1982 as a means to maintain the historic connection between drama and the monastic life. It’s open to the public and seats about 300 people. Its productions are reviewed by major Connecticut media outlets and parts are played by both acting veterans and newcomers. Anyone can audition for a role. This summer’s productions will include The Pitmen Painters (June 14-June 23) which is based on a true story of a group of British miners who became celebrated artists and Fiorello! (August 1 through August 11), the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical about the legendary New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
Founded in 1947, the mission of the Abbey of Regina Laudis symbolized by its motto “Non recedat laus” which means “Let praise never cease!”
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11