From storied acting career to cloistered life
While Pope Francis is scheduled to visit New York City on Sept. 24 and 25, St. Joseph’s College will be hosting a spiritual celebrity of its own. Mother Dolores Hart, the beautiful film star who acted with greats like Elvis Presley, will discuss her transition from Hollywood actress to contemplative nun at Regina Laudis Abbey in Bethlehem, Conn., as well as her autobiography written with friend Richard DeNeut, “The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey From Hollywood to Holy Vows.”
Her talk will take place on Friday, Sep. 25 at 3 p.m. at St. Joseph’s College Auditorium.
Dolores Hart was a fresh face on the screen who, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, had already starred in 10 successful films with well-known actors such as Anthony Quinn, Montgomery Clift and Myrna Loy. She also appeared on Broadway in “The Pleasure of His Company” (1958-59 season), as well as in television shows. In 1963, after breaking off an engagement to Los Angeles architect Don Robinson, she joined the contemplative monastery Regina Laudis Abbey in Bethlehem, Conn., where she is currently dean of education at the abbey.
The Islip Bulletin spoke with Mother Dolores by phone.
IB: What were the defining moments in your decision to leave your acting life?
MOTHER DOLORES: I was in the play “The Pleasure of His Company” for a year [it debuted in October 1958] and we had come to 10 months in the run. Being new at this, I was getting tired. [There were no performances on Sundays and Mondays then.] Friends of mine suggested going to an abbey in Connecticut. I’d never heard of it. I was told the nuns couldn’t talk and that they were contemplative and that it would just be a beautiful rest. When I got here, they did talk. I didn’t at that time think about entering the monastery. But when I met Mother Abbess, I asked, ‘do you think I could belong to something like this?’ and she said, ‘you have to go back and do your movie thing.’ I concluded the Broadway run, but the stay did plant a seed. I visited the monastery when I came to the East Coast and to Hollywood. But one of the most amazing moments was when I met Pope John XXIII [while on location starring as Saint Clare in “Francis of Assisi”]. Monsignor Carew, who invited me, escorted me for an audience with him [with other people]. The Holy Father laughed at an incident that happened when one of his slippers fell off and Monsignor Carew said this is the moment to go and see him. He looked at me and said in Italian, ‘Clare.’ I said, ‘no, Holy Father, I’m Dolores Hart.’ And he answered, ‘no, you are Clare.’ Then we spoke. It must have been no more than 10 minutes.
IB: Tell us about your visits with your dad on the Hollywood lots and what made you want to be part of that life. Also, your grandfather was influential.
MOTHER DOLORES: My dad [Bert Hicks] was discovered by a talent scout when he was an usher in a theater in Chicago. They were putting out “Gone With the Wind” and he looked so much like Clark Gable they asked him if he wanted to go to Hollywood and take his chances. My mom went with him thinking she’d never see him again if he went on his own. My grandmother joked, ‘the baby belongs to me,’ so they laughed and thought it was a good idea I not go. My grandfather worked as a projectionist in the movie theater and by the time I got to be 6 or 7, I used to go to the theater with him to see the movies. He never wanted me to turn on the sound. [He would nap.] When the reel ended, I woke him up and he’d give me money. From my standpoint, I looked for my dad in the movies, but I got to see the Cole Porter movies and Lucille Ball in her early days and others, so I was well grounded in movie making. Much later when I got my first film part, Hal Wallis [Hollywood producer of “Casablanca” and “True Grit”] asked me, ‘where did you get your movie skills, who taught you?’ I answered, ‘I guess it just came to me.’ That night my grandfather came to me in a dream and said, ‘I heard what you said and you are a brat.’ All kinds of things you learn in an unknown way.
IB: It sounds a bit like Cinema Paradiso.
MOTHER DOLORES: Yes, it was.
IB: You had roles with George Hamilton, Robert Wagner and Elvis Presley as well as Myrna Loy and Patricia Neal. Who were your favorites?
MOTHER DOLORES: I think I would probably start with Tony Quinn; he was so dear and helpful to me. In “Wild is the Wind,” he played my father in the movie and he was only 35 years old, but he put on gray hair and makeup for the role. We were in Reno and he said, ‘let’s look at a gambling casino’ and he showed me the handle and how to play the slot machines. If you get all the apples you get the money and he handed me a silver dollar. Well, four or five apples showed up and money poured out on the floor and the chief director congratulated me. Then he asked, ‘how old are you?’ I told him I just I had my 17th birthday. Then he told me, ‘you can’t do this until you’re 21.’ Tony looked at me and said, ‘you’re such a stupid kid. You can lie.’ I thought my relationship with him was over. [Mother Dolores laughed.] He got over it. Then I would also like to say Stephen Boyd, who I played with in “Lisa.” He had just finished a magnificent role in “Ben Hur.” He turned out to be one of the nicest guys. We had dinner every night and talked about the next day’s scene and I think at that point I wasn’t engaged and hadn’t come to any ideas of entering the monastery and hoped something would advance with him. He dropped me off where I lived one night and I asked him, ‘would you like to come in?’ And he said, ‘no, Dolores.’ I said, ‘no?’ And he said, ‘nothing is wrong. You’re marked.’ He turned away and I walked into the apartment alone. Years later when he visited me at the abbey, he said, ‘I told you a couple of years ago, you were marked.’
IB: Give me an example of the activities at the abbey.
MOTHER DOLORES: There’s an inside and an outside. For the abbey, the divine office, we sing everyday chants eight times a day. It’s regular and it never changes except for the feasts. What happens and the life streams every day are different. We have our own farm and at this point it’s 400 acres. We don’t farm all of that, but do have a great deal; we work with hay to be taken in and bundled for animals and the garden with crops like corn and rhubarb and there is a smaller garden. We have cows, a beef herd, dairy, sheep, llama, chickens, sheep and we have house cats and two dogs, a parrot, a number of finches and a dove. That all takes care and maintenance.
IB: How many sisters do you oversee and give me an example of their backgrounds.
MOTHER DOLORES: A number of them had professional lives. One was an intestinal doctor, two were lawyers and one was going to run for office. Because we had a lot to do here, Mother Benedict sent three of them to get doctorates, in wheat and animal husbandry and how to make cheese, and the various necessities and understanding of microbiology to create the proper cheese mold. One has created a tremendous reputation in her creation of a gorgeous cheese, Bethlehem cheese. She is known as the cheese nun. There are 39 sisters. Our boss is the one in Rome.
IB: I understand you were engaged to architect Don Robinson when you decided to join the cloistered life. He continued to visit you after your decision, never married and contributed to the abbey regularly before he died.
MOTHER DOLORES: Yes to all of this. The call to Christ is the same love response. You can’t turn away from a relationship in love when you know it’s absolutely right. When you’re apart you want to return to what centers you. I understood Regina Laudis was that place in Christ’s love. If I turned away and tried to make my life work through another way of making movies, I’d be constantly seeking and would be unhappy.
IB: Now you’re developing an open-air theater and arts program for the Bethlehem community. What did you present this year? What would you like to see as far as equipment needs?
MOTHER DOLORES: This year we presented “Man of La Mancha” and for the other play, “Trip to Bountiful.” Sally and Tom Cam, dancers, came to us in the 1980s and it was through them we built the theater with Patricia Neal. Every year they find the talent and decide the play. They go to New York to get professional actors and there are open parts to local people who have worked in the theater over the years. We can get over 300 people. We have a stage, lighting and acoustics. Paul Newman gave us the roof before he died. But we have to get new chairs. We don’t have chairs comfortable enough.
IB: Will you get to see Pope Francis while he’s in New York?
MOTHER DOLORES: I think we probably will not leave the monastery. We’ll probably see him on television. If God pulls a surprise, it would be nice.
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