The tunes played at most teenagers’ parties are of the recorded kind. Not at the bash 19-year-old actress Dolores Hart threw at her Sherman Oaks, Calif., home in 1957. Elvis Presley, then filming King Creole with Hart, made a surprise appearance. “He said, ‘How about if we sing a song,’ ” she recalls. Elvis launched into “Arrivederci Roma” and then, accompanied by Hart on her clarinet, crooned “Danny Boy.”
The girl who made music with Elvis—and appeared in 11 movies—has long been singing a different tune, and with a different King in mind. In a move that shocked Hollywood 35 years ago, the Grace Kelly look-alike abandoned the bright lights for life as a cloistered nun. Now known as Mother Dolores, the 59-year-old Benedictine nun is one of 28 from the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn., whose voices are heard on Women in Chant, a CD of Gregorian chants that hit No. 45 on Billboard’?, classical chart in January.
Ever since 1963, when Hart was dropped off at the front door of the abbey by an MGM limousine, her days have consisted of prayer, charity and manual labor. “Here I learned to love and to live in relationship, and therefore to possess love inclusively,” she says. “And if you learn to do that, then you know the spirit of God.”
Friends learned to respect her choice. “She’s a very devout woman,” says Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal. Even Don Robinson, the fiancé she left when she entered the convent, feels the power of her faith. “I’ve never regretted her decision,” he says. “She was being called by God.”
Hart was 3 years old in 1942 when her mother, Harriett, moved with her from Chicago to Hollywood to join her father, actor Bert Hicks, a former hotel usher who had been signed by 20th Century Fox. “He was very handsome,” says Hart. Hicks had some success in B movies, but his career—and marriage—foundered after he returned from the Army after World War II.
Her mother sent 6-year-old Dolores to Chicago to live with her maternal grandparents, who promptly enrolled the child in parochial school. Dolores, whose parents were nonreligious, converted to Catholicism when she was 9. At 10, she headed back to Hollywood to live with her mother and new stepfather. “I loved Hollywood and had a sense of really belonging there,” she says.
A drama scholarship took Hart to Marymount College in Los Angeles. Producer Hal B. Wallis soon gave her a screen test and signed her to a contract. At 18, she landed a movie role in Loving You, also starring Elvis. “I really didn’t know anything about Elvis Presley,” she says. “But when I went back to college and told the girls, they nearly died.”
Hart vehemently disavows an old rumor that she bore Elvis’s baby; she and the King, she insists, were never romantically involved. “There’s no truth to it, and let me tell you, I’m in a heck of a business to live a lie,” she told TV’s Inside Edition in February.
After Loving You, Hart made 10 movies in six years and snagged a Tony Award nomination for her Broadway performance in The Pleasure of His Company. Commanding $3,000 a week in the late ’50s, the blonde beauty seemed destined for stardom—and for marriage, given her 1962 engagement to Robinson, a 29-year-old moving-company owner.
But Hart had something else in mind. In 1957 she had begun visiting the abbey regularly. “I certainly wasn’t thinking about becoming a nun,” she says. “But subconsciously something was drawing me.”
In June 1963, while in New York City to promote the movie Come Fly with Me, Hart made her decision. “I was devastated,” says Robinson, now 65 and a Realtor in Beverly Hills, “but I totally believed in what she was doing.” Indeed, the two stay in touch; Robinson, who visits the abbey several times a year, has never married. “My love for Dolores is being lived through my love for the abbey,” he says. “You never know how God is going to work, but I’ve had a wonderful life.”
As for Hart, life follows the rigorous discipline set down in the 6th century by St. Benedict. Eight times a day, starting at 2 a.m., she and her fellow sisters chant prayers in Latin. She wears a full-length black habit even when doing chores like cooking, cleaning and woodworking (one exception: the sisters don blue denim habits for farm work). The day’s actions move in cycles that are heralded by the ringing of bells. “In the first years, it was a terrible shock,” Hart says. But she has no regrets. “I was always on the go, always on,” she says, “and I think that kind of temperament burns out.”
Hart’s glamorous past does give her one distinctly un-nunlike benefit. As a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she gets tapes of first-run movies, which she shares with her fellow nuns, and votes on the Oscars. “In a contemplative life,” she muses, “I’ve stayed more in touch with what is going on in the heart of our profession than I did when I was reading Variety only to find my own name.”
Anne Longley in Bethlehem