Culver City was once home to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, old Hollywood style successes and has had its share of controversy, including the young actress who turned her back on Hollywood to join a convent.
Dolores Hart, the first to kiss Elvis Presley on the screen and the top-billing actress in MGM's highest grossing 1960 movie Where the Boys Are has come back to town, 50 years after her last movie.
The former starlet left behind the glitz and stardom to answer to a higher calling- that of a cloistered nun in the Benedictine women's monastery in Bethlehem, Conn.
Now known as Mother Dolores, the prioress of Regina Laudis monastery, has just published “The Ear of the Heart,” a memoir of her life on screen and behind the convent walls to explain her decision and share her life’s path.
“I never wrote the book with the intent of producing a message. It is
only in the amazing experience of doing a book tour that I realize indeed
people are receiving one,” said Mother Dolores Hart OSB.
“People tell me that because I have found meaning for my life amid the great problematic early years that I lived, and ultimately discovered a contemplative vocation out of the glamorous life of Hollywood that that is the paradox and my story gives them hope.”
Fans in the 60s reacted to Hart’s decision to become a cloistered nun with shock and dismay.
“One of my favorite movies as a teenager was “Where The Boys Are.” I remember hearing about Dolores giving up making movies. I never understood why a girl, who seemed to have the world at her feet, would leave it all behind to become a nun,” said Culver City resident Cheryl Lindsey.
Even close friends and family could not comprehend why this gorgeous young girl, who had her pick of acting jobs, would stow herself away in a nunnery for the rest of her life.
“Even my best friend, who was a priest, Father Doody, said, ‘You’re crazy. This is absolutely insane to do this,’ ” the prioress remembered in a recent interview, conducted 50 years after she entered the Order of Benedict.
Hart was at the top of her career. Her thoughts of departing Hollywood were complicated by the choice to also leave one of the loves of her life, her fiancé Don Robinson.
As Gary Cooper's Godfather, Robinson was a fixture of old Hollywood. He courted a number of starlets but after meeting Hart the two became inseparable.
“When he realized that (marriage) was not possible, he said all love relationships do not reach the altar. He was of course speaking of the altar of the bride and groom, but then he added, I will stay with you forever in what you have been called to do,” said Hart.
The pair remained close friends even after Hart entered the women’s monastery. He continued to visit her at the Abbey of Regina Laudis throughout his life.
“And he showed that promise was real in his heart as he visited me yearly at the Abbey and sent me whatever I truly needed. He never married and was faithful to his death. Don became a truly great friend showing that the greatest value in any marriage is the possibility of the two persons becoming real friends.”
Though the beautiful 20-something seemed to have it all, she felt dissatisfied with her Hollywood life. Instead of turning to drink or scandal as other young stars might have done, Hart surprised everyone by turning to religion instead.
Hart’s book tour will take her across the country and away from the place she has rarely left for 2 decades, 450 acres of farmland, barns and chapels in rural Connecticut — an abbey that, not coincidentally, includes a working theater.
Founded by Hart and the late actress Patricia Neal, the open-air theater seats 300 and stages both dramas and musicals at reasonable prices for people who could not otherwise enjoy live theater. And yes, they have produced “The Sound of Music,” Hart confirmed without having to be asked.
Hart made 10 Hollywood movies from 1957 to 1963, including two with Elvis.
She is most proud of her supporting role in the 1959 Broadway comedy, “The Pleasure of His Company,” for which she received a Tony Award nomination, and the film “Lisa,” (1962) in which she stars as a Jewish woman tortured in a Nazi concentration camp.
Hart was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of “Lisa.” Today, Hart is the only nun who is a voting member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Maria Cooper Janis, the daughter of Gary Cooper and one of Hart’s best friends, said Hart found a way “to keep a foot in Hollywood” while fully embracing Benedictine life, which keeps the nuns mostly isolated and on a strict schedule of prayer, study and manual labor.
A painful neurological disease, peripheral idiopathic neuropathy, now limits her physical activity, but for decades, Hart worked in the abbey laundry and in the woodshop building coffins.
She has carefully tended her friendships from her movie star days and made Regina Laudis a welcoming place for those who needed a spiritual break.
“It has always been my belief that hope will open persons to faith. I suppose that is my desire for the book; that it could be some vehicle to help readers find their own center of hope and through that possibly come to faith. I don't mean just faith in my church but first of all faith in themselves, in whom they have been called to be by their Creator.
Hart may be a cloistered nun, but is willing to use her gifts to benefit the world at large. She's used her Hollywood connections to help raise funds and awareness for community arts projects, and traveled to Washington to testify at a congressional hearing for peripheral idiopathic neuropathy, the disease from which she suffers.
She is also a cartoonist and will be illustrating a book about a city boy and his dog and the adventures they have spending time at his Aunt's farm in the country. And although she does miss aspects of her former life, her days are full, as her creator intended them to be.
“I had to discover that I would become an actress in the monastery. In a new way. Through the medium of prayer. In the singing of the Divine Office. I would discover my vocation as an actress in another and greater intensity.”