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From the November 1983 issue of Connecticut Magazine, Mark Lambeck's "In Search of Dolores Hart" is the story of the writer's quixotic attempt to make contact with one of the most enigmatic figures in Hollywood history. As a film buff and a person of faith, Malbeck found himself fascinated by the story of the former actress, one of the hottest young starlets in the late 1950s and early '60s, who at the age of 24 simply decided to quit show business and devote herself to becoming nun, joining a small convent in rural Bethlehem and eventually taking the name Mother Dolores. Twenty years after Dolores Hart's movie career ended, Malbeck arranges to visit the convent, where he hopes to meet Mother Dolores in person and gain some insight into why she made her decision. 

As it turned out, though, the story didn't end there: Fast-forward another two decades, and Lambeck's and Mother Dolores' paths crossed again, as told in the writer's follow-up, "The Star Who Said No to Hollywood" (March 2004).

This article — and its sequel — are being posted to the web in November 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.


IN SEARCH OF DOLORES HART

A film aficionado sets out in quest of a golden young actress turned silent nun.

By Mark Lambeck

They told me to follow Route 6 and that the turnoff was clearly marked with a sign bearing the name of the abbey. Miles of countryside stretched out on either side as I passed through the farmlands of a part of Connecticut I had never visited before. I was feeling anxious about the weekend ahead, not only because I was a man infiltrating a controlled environment dominated by a very select group of women, but also, as a non-Catholic, I knew I'd encounter certain principles and practices I might not feel comfortable taking part in. My motives for being here were, after all, more human than spiritual—to share, for a few days, in the life of Mother Dolores, and to try to understand what had prompted a beautiful 24-year-old movie actress to give up her glamorous life and permanently commit herself to a convent 20 years before.

In Hollywood she had been known as Dolores Hart, a wholesome young starlet with one of the industry’s most promising careers. At 18 she made her film debut opposite teen-idol Elvis Presley; at 19 she was featured with Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani in the critically acclaimed Wild Is The Wind; at 20 she took Broadway by storm as the poor little rich girl in The Pleasure of His Company.

Montgomery Clift, Myrna Loy, Karl Malden, Connie Francis, Robert Wagner, Maureen Stapleton and Walter Matthau were just some of the stars who shared a marquee with Dolores in such films as King Creole, Lonelyhearts, Sail A Crooked Ship and Come Fly With Me. Gossip columnists linked her romantically with John Saxon, Earl Holliman and Hugh O’Brian. One critic labeled her “the June Allyson of the sixties” after her starring role in 1960 in her best-known film, Where The Boys Are.

Rarely had Hollywood welcomed a newcomer with such open arms. If luck had anything to do with success, Dolores was rolling straight sevens. Though not a box-office star, she made her mark in the movie capital playing such diverse roles as a coed, stewardess, frontier girl, Italian-American teenager and Jewish concentration camp survivor in a whirlwind career that sped toward the top over a mere six years.

But in 1963, her movie days came to a silencing halt. With the glitter, the excitement and the cameras behind her, Hollywood’s golden girl stepped out of the world of film and into a solemn life devoted to prayer when she entered the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Since 1970, she has been known simply as Mother Dolores. Not since Grace Kelly left Hollywood to become a storybook princess in a real-life fantasy had the film world been so shocked.

***

At first the abbey had denied me permission to visit. “We do not offer formal or private retreats,” Mother Eileen, who signed her letters Guest Mistress, wrote. Clearly, Mother Eileen had conferred with Mother Dolores, whom I had written to months earlier asking for an interview. In a series of letters we exchanged, Mother Dolores denied my request.

“If I were in a position to offer a ‘yes’ (to an interview) to you, I would be very pleased to meet you . . . but it would not be the thing for me to do at this time. I truly feel it is my place to hold to a contemplative witness, which is one of silence in prayer as far as this will communicate a very different side of things to a world quite adept at communication on one level,” Mother Dolores wrote. She offered this in explanation that her life was a “witness” to her faith in God. It was a life steeped in prayer—an austere existence profound in its simplicity and dedicated to a level of spirituality that attested to her faith.

She signed her letter, “With every blessing, Mother Dolores Hart, O.S.B.”

When I wrote back to her, I confessed my ignorance, explaining I did not fully comprehend the message she had sent me. “I believe you were telling me that I am part of a world which communicates on the level of words and is in touch with the tangible. Whereas, you live within an atmosphere where communication is achieved spiritually. If that is what you were trying to tell me, then that is precisely what I was hoping you would share.”

“Yes, you did understand fully, and I thank you for your kind letter,” came her reply. The note was shorter this time. In it she expressed her sadness at no longer being able to write. “It is not within me to do so,” she said. “You will be very much in our prayers.”

I continued to write to Mother Eileen, hoping to be allowed to visit the convent. Finally, she gave the clearance. I would be able to spend a weekend if I shared in the community’s daily life and routine.

My venture to the abbey was the final step in a search I had been conducting for more than a year. I had come across the fact that Mother Dolores was living in Connecticut quite by accident while browsing through a copy of Who's Who in Hollywood. I had remembered seeing her in Where The Boys Are, as a teenager. It was that chance reading that sent me on my investigation. The further I researched, the more intrigued I became.

***

She was born Dolores Hicks in Chicago, the only child of alcoholic parents who separated when she was four. Early on, it is recorded in film notes on her life, she had an acute awareness of religion and converted from Protestantism to Catholicism when she was 10 years old. As a child, she wanted to be an artist, and years later, when her acting career was flourishing, she started her own hand-drawn greeting cards business. Her interest in films developed during the hours she spent watching movies from a projection booth in a theater where her grandfather worked as a projectionist.

After a childhood of being shuffled around between her mother and grandparents, she won a drama scholarship to Marymount College in Los Angeles. Insecure about her talent and too shy to pursue her acting with any great enthusiasm, Dolores resigned herself to being a college girl and earning a bachelor’s degree. A friend, Don Barbeau, tried to persuade her that she should become a professional actress. With her beauty and talent, he reasoned, she deserved to be in movies. He put together a press release on her and sent it, along with her photograph, to several major producers. Within a few months, Dolores received a reply from Hal Wallis of Paramount Pictures asking her to come in for an interview. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Those years of struggle typically endured by upcoming hopefuls were conspicuously absent from Dolores’ career. She paid no such dues. “I had walked through the front door of Hollywood without having spent years knocking on the back door the way most people have to,” she once said. Dolores attributed the ease with which she established her career to “the will of God.”

She took the name Hart from a girlfriend who got married and “wouldn’t need it anymore,” and signed a seven-year contract with Paramount in late 1956. For her first film, Wallis gave her the choice role of Susan opposite Elvis Presley in Loving You, released in 1957.

“I was so out of touch then that I didn’t even know who Elvis was, except a nice boy who seemed as new and as nervous as I was,” she revealed in an article she wrote for Ladies Home Journal in 1961 at the height of her career.

George Cukor directed her next film, Wild Is The Wind, with Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani and Tony Franciosa. The part called for her to dye her blonde hair black and to learn Italian for some scenes with Magnani. Though she’d studied French and Spanish, they were of little help, so Dolores learned her lines phonetically, memorizing the sounds and delivering them like a native. Magnani, who at first had objected to casting the young, beautiful Dolores,threw her arms around the teenager and hugged her when the scene was completed.

Her film career in full swing, it appeared Dolores could do no wrong. After roles in Lonelyhearts and King Creole (also with Presley), Dolores took on the challenge of her career when she accepted the role of Cyril Ritchard’s daughter in the Broadway comedy, The Pleasure Of His Company. She soon learned that stage work was much more grueling than films. For one thing, there were no retakes. If a mistake was made, the audience knew it. During rehearsal she overheard director/co-star Ritchard saying, “If this divine little child doesn’t produce some voice tomorrow, we’ll just have to send her back to Paramount.” Needless to say, the remark did not do much for her confidence.

The bustle of the big city was somewhat overwhelming to the petite Midwestern girl. She adjusted to her year of city life with the help of Winnie Allen, her roommate, who was a stewardess she met on the flight to New York, and a poodle named Pogo, a gift from her mother. While other Broadway stars had autograph seekers and groupies at their doors, Dolores had Pogo, who remained in her dressing room to greet her after performances. The show, which co- starred George Peppard, Cornelia Otis Skintier and Charles Ruggles, opened on Broadway on October 22, 1958, just two days after her 20th birthday, and Dolores played in 364 performances.

Back in Hollywood the following year, Dolores found herself in a costume drama, Plunderers, opposite Jeff Chandler and John Saxon. She followed that in rapid succession with Where The Boys Are, Francis Of Assisi (in which she played St. Clare), Sail A Crooked Ship, and Lisa. She finished her final film, Come Fly With Me, shortly before she entered Regina Laudis in 1963.

***

Extreme as her decision seemed, it was not a hasty move on Dolores’ part. She had visited the Benedictine abbey at least twice a year for several years before entering as a postulant. And there were clues all along. In a 1961 magazine article, Dolores revealed, “I’m a worrywart and worry is a lonesome burden. Who else but God can be part of those lonesome hours when no human and material aids are enough?” Once, when asked what had been the greatest moment of joy in her life, she replied, “My baptism.”

Many who worked with her recognized there was something special about Dolores. Cyril Ritchard once said of her: “Dolores Hart has a quality that is rare—she shines from within. She has a tremendous dedication.” Actor Tony Franciosa, her co-star in Wild Is The Wind, recalls, “I remember her being a very quiet and very sweet girl. In a way, I was not that surprised that she became a nun. I was surprised only in the way I would be at hearing of any person I’ve known becoming a nun. But in retrospect, it all seemed rather inevitable. After the fact, it just seemed that . . . yeah, why not?”

Off the set, Dolores rarely wore makeup. Her usual outfit was a skirt, sweater and flat-heeled shoes. “She was a simple girl, not caught up in the glamor of Hollywood,” Franciosa says. “She wasn’t one kind of girl, who with success became another kind of girl. Dolores was a delightful, lovely, quiet person.”

Perhaps the glamor was missing because of the way she approached being an actress. “I was miserable watching my hair every second and checking my makeup constantly,” Dolores told a reporter during the filming of The Inspector, (released in 1962 as Lisa). For the role of Lisa, Dolores cut some two feet off her long, natural-blonde hair. “Everyone thought I’d be horrified to cut my hair. I’m glad to have it off . . . what nonsense I once went through to be ‘beautiful. ’ ” Yet it is for her beauty that she is best remembered. “I think the thing that struck me most about her was that she was a really beautiful girl,” recollects Frank Gorshin. The actor, who lives in Westport, appeared with Dolores in Where The Boys Are and Sail A Crooked Ship. “I didn’t have many scenes with her in my films so I don’t remember anything unusual about her. She was friendly, pleasant and considerate. She was never abusive to anybody, or temperamental.” When, several years ago, Gorshin heard that she had become a nun, he felt that “in a way it made sense. She was almost angelic.” He chuckles, “I thought it was good casting . . . . But seriously, the choices to her were

wide and varied. She had a very promising career going. Her decision has to be admired.” A reporter once asked Dolores what her “angle” was and she replied simply, “I don't have one. I don’t dress to the teeth. I don’t fall in love with my leading man . . . and I don't feel that because I’m an actress I have a greater mission in life than other people. In short, I don’t live in a make-believe world with make-believe people.”

The cloistered world she was to finally choose was the only real one to her. In her last known interview (which appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1971 and is the only interview she has ever given since entering Regina Laudis), Dolores admitted that her reasons for entering the convent were not easily understood. “The essential reason why I became a nun is that I wholeheartedly believed I had the vocation for a way of union in love that, to many, is unreasonable—a calling that is a response to God in faith,” she said.

The stereotypical thinking that women become nuns because they have been jilted in love or are running away from something never applied to Dolores. In Hollywood, she had ample opportunity for marriage—and a career destined for stardom. She was not running ‘away’ from something, she said, but was rather running ‘to’ something. Dolores was running to God.

“When someone asks ‘Why did you marry this particular man?’ all you can say is ‘Because he loved me and I loved him.’ Why am I a nun? Because He loved me, and I love Him.” It is an explanation that is as difficult to comprehend as it is to accept. Contemplative life is not easily explained, she said, and quoted the prologue to The Song Of Bernadette: “To those that believe, no explanation is necessary, and to those who don’t believe, no explanation is possible.”

***

My visit to the unassuming abbey in Bethlehem brought me at least a little closer to some understanding of Mother Dolores. Isolated and virtually self- sufficient, the abbey covers some 300 acres of prime farmland. The main building, a converted factory, sits behind the “enclosure,” a wooden wall with a gate that shuts in the cloistered inhabitants. The majority of Regina Laudis’ residents are “enclosed” —restricted not only to the abbey itself, but also to those areas inside the abbey that fall within the enclosure.

I arrived at the abbey just before six in the evening. Exhausted from a full week’s work and suffering with a toothache, I cut a rather suspicious figure as I walked up to the main building toting my overnight bag and smelling of Anbesol. I was greeted by Mother Rene, who stood behind a confessional-type grate and spurted something Latin at me. The phrase translated to something along the lines of “May the Lord be with you,” to which I was instructed to respond, in Latin, “And with you” whenever I was addressed.

Once inside the convent, visitors are transported back several centuries by the hum of Gregorian chants lulling in the background, the ringing of bells every few hours, and the purity of the environment. Maybe I was letting it all get to me, but there seemed a different texture to the air—a lightness that was invigorating and calm, the oxygen taking on an almost sweet taste. A pervasive smell of cloves permeated the buildings and there was the constant reassuring aroma of something cooking in the convent’s large kitchen.

With its own beef and dairy farms, chicken coops, vegetable and herb farm, laundry and bakery, the abbey is a self-contained community of about 50 nuns, 40 of whom are cloistered, living exclusively within the inner confines of the convent apart from all visitors. The nuns grow and process most of their own food, including milk and milk products from the abbey’s own dairy. Pottery is handmade and glazed at the abbey’s clay workshop; even some small pieces of furniture—end tables, chairs, bookcases— are handmade by the nuns at the abbey’s woodworking shop. It was at the carpentry shop that Mother Dolores was working during the time I visited the abbey, a fact I didn’t learn until just shortly before I left. But everywhere, I could feel her presence. The abbey tingled with a sense of her proximity.

Whereas life in Hollywood had demanded actress Dolores Hart to rise at five and go to the studio for makeup and costume before a day’s shooting, at Regina Laudis, the mothers and sisters arise for matins at two o’clock in the morning. This prayer is followed throughout the day by seven additional prayer sessions—Lauds and Prime at 6:15, Terce at 7:50, Holy Mass at 8:00 (followed by breakfast), Sext at noon, None at 2:00 p.m., Vespers at 5:00 and Compline around 7:45 p.m. While no worldly television, radios or newspapers are allowed, the mothers and sisters do participate in a “community report” session daily in which important news of the abbey as well as of the “outside” is shared.

***

At morning mass, I came the closest I was to come to meeting Mother Dolores. A wooden divider at the front of the small abbey chapel separates the congregation from the nuns. The solid part extends halfway up and the remainder, from the middle to the ceiling, is a wooden grate behind which the nuns are fairly visible. As each nun came up to an opening in the divider to receive communion from the priest, I strained to see her face. Suddenly, I saw Mother Dolores’ head bow through. The face has lost some of its roundness, but is as youthful as it appeared 20 years ago in film. She is unmistakably lovely.

***

As a visitor, most of my time at the abbey was spent cleaning out the pottery workshop with Sister Eternia, helping her deliver potato eyes for planting (she drove the abbey van), and setting up the potter’s wheel and kiln for future craft creations. Unable to resist, I finally asked Sister Eternia if I could meet Mother Dolores. “Why would you like to meet her?” she asked curtly. Then sweetly, she told me that Mother Dolores was a kind and gentle woman whose privacy needed to be respected. But, she said, there might be a chance to meet her since we had corresponded. At Sister Etemia’s suggestion, I wrote a note asking for a meeting and sent it up through the grate at the main house via Mother Rene.

The following morning, a sister handed me a message that I was to have a “parlor” —a private meeting in a confessional booth —with one of the nuns. I hoped that this meant I was going to meet Mother Dolores.

The confessionals are at the far end of a building attached to the chapel. I entered the confessional and looked expectantly through the wooden grate. But it was Mother Rita, a young nun who had been “assigned” to have a parlor with me, who spoke.

Mother Rita lived and worked closely with Mother Dolores, and though she was aware I had contacted Mother Dolores, she waited for me to bring up the subject. She questioned me as to why I had come to the abbey and I told her I came to share in their community. Eventually, I expressed my wish to meet with Mother Dolores and was told that no such parlor could be arranged. It was not Mother Dolores’ duty to conduct parlors, Mother Rita explained. The abbey did not want any publicity. She told me that many people had come seeking Dolores Hart over the years, but none had succeeded. Mother Dolores was kept under protective security. She was not to be exploited for her past worldly life. Hers was a very different existence now.

My months of research flashed through my head. Hours spent in libraries going over reviews of Dolores Hart’s films, reading articles written during the heyday of her stardom. Hours of telephone calls, writing letters, running into dead ends. When I contacted Henry Luhrman Associates, Connie Francis’ agent, to see if the singer would give me an anecdote about working with Dolores back in the ’60s, I was told Miss Francis was suffering from “exhaustion” and could not give me a comment. I discovered that Cyril Ritchard, one of the few people whom Mother Dolores remained in touch with from her acting days, lived in Connecticut. Then I learned he had died just months before I began my search.

I left the confessional dizzy with confusion and disappointment. I attended Vespers that afternoon and Mass the following morning, then returned to St. Joseph’s, the little lodge that had been converted into the men’s quarters, packed my bag and left before breakfast.

Driving home, I felt pangs of regret and an inexplicable sense of loss. Though I had been there briefly, I felt as if I were leaving a family. The abbey was a community wherein everyone worked for the benefit of the whole, where individuals were treated equally with respect, kindness and consideration.

It was a family. And for a short time, I had been part of that family. I realized Mother Dolores felt the same. She was living a life of inspired hope, integrity and personal triumph. She had not only found a permanent home at Regina Laudis but had also discovered her true mission in life.

Mark Lambeck is a freelance writer based in Stratford.

(Note, November 2021) Twenty years later Mark Lambeck and Mother Dolores finally met in person, and she told her story to Lambeck in "The Star Who Said No to Hollywood" (March 2004).