For a few years in the 1950s and '60s, Dolores Hart was one of Hollywood's hottest young stars. She was the lead in 1960's Where the Boys Are, and in other films shared the screen with such stars as Elvis Presley, Montgomery Clift and Myrna Loy. Then one day she abruptly, and inexplicably (to everyone but herself, at least), ended her brief movie career, turning her back on the fame and glamour for a life of quiet and secluded devotion as a nun in a remote convent in Bethlehem, Connecticut.
Writer Mark Lambeck first wrote about his fascination with Mother Dolores (her name in the convent), and his attempts to interview her and to understand her decision, for Connecticut Magazine in November 1983's "In Search of Dolores Hart." He did not get to meet or speak to her directly at that time, but the two maintained a steady if distant contact over the next two decades. Finally Lambeck made one more request to speak to Hart, and this time, unexpectedly, the answer was yes — Mother Dolores was finally ready to tell him her story.
This article won a First Place, Feature award from the Society of Professional Journalists. It and Lambeck's previous article are being posted to the web in November 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
The Star Who Said No to Hollywood
Dolores Hart was a movie star on the rise when she turned her back on her career and found a new calling at The Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem. Forty years later, a writer needs to ask her why.
By Mark Lambeck
“Hello, Mark Lambeck, this is Mother Dolores,” began the hesitant, slightly tremulous message on my voice mail. “I’m so glad to be in touch with you again after so many years.” My reaction was immediate: I burst out crying. I’m not usually a weeper, but I had waited 20 years to hear that voice.
In 1983, I began a journey. It started with library research (this was pre-Internet), expanded to a fair amount of 1950s and ’60s film viewing, heightened with interviews with several actors, and culminated with a visit to The Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn. I was on a quest to to unravel the mystery of why Dolores Hart, a beautiful 24- year-old actress, would leave Hollywood for life as a cloistered nun. Mine was a personal journey originally motivated by curiosity (okay, fascination). But as a person of faith myself, I was also searching for an understanding of one person’s choice to devote her life to prayer and God. In November 1983, I shared my mission in “In Search of Dolores Hart,” an article I wrote for this magazine.
Forty years ago, Hart left a promising movie career—starring opposite Elvis Presley, Montgomery Clift, Walter Matthau, Maureen Stapleton, Robert Wagner, Anthony Quinn and others—to join The Abbey of Regina Laudis.
Today, a generation or two of movie fans don’t know who Dolores Hart was. Though her most famous film, Where the Boys Are, developed a cult following (particularly after a poor ’80s remake renewed interest in the original), most remember that movie only as a Connie Francis vehicle about college kids. Few could recall the name of the gorgeous blonde who got top billing.
For me, Dolores Hart was unquestionably the star of the film. She played a character whose strength and wisdom held together four friends on spring break in Fort Lauderdale. And as Paula Prentiss pursued the goofy beach bum played by Jim Hutton, Yvette Mimieux got drunk and loose with a boy she barely knew and Connie Francis figured out how to eat on a student budget, they all turned to Merritt, Hart’s character, for advice and guidance.
She was smart. She was pretty. She was the object of George Hamilton’s affection, and it was easy to understand why. Her ability to project a nurturing warmth in that film was not part of her acting craft, it was in her personality. As she told me later, one of her roles as the prioress of Regina Laudis is as a counselor of sorts. She meets with the sisters to listen to their concerns, discuss issues that affect running the nearly 600- acre property and consider questions that impact the community at large.
And while she claims no training as a counselor, she embodies the qualities that make an excellent listener—the same qualities that make her an outstanding friend. In 1983, I never would have believed that my friendship with this movie star turned nun was even possible, But now, after 20 years of exchanging holiday cards, I felt it was time we actually met. I called the abbey and was told to “leave your number so that Mother Dolores can decide whether to call you back.” And then she did. She invited me to the abbey, and I anticipated the event with more than a little trepidation. After all, two decades before I had made numerous attempts, all for naught.
I had made a nuisance of myself— written and called for weeks trying to get a face-to-face interview. Meanwhile, I tracked down a couple of her co-stars. Anthony Franciosa, who starred with her in Wild is the Wind, her second film, remembered her as a quiet and poised young woman who seemed intimidated by fiery star Anna Magnani. Franciosa was not surprised to learn she had become a nun. Frank Gorshin, who appeared with her in Where the Boys Are and Sail A Crooked Ship, remembered Hart as quiet and friendly and also felt that her becoming a nun “made sense— she was almost angelic. Her decision has to be admired.” Both enjoyed working with the shapely blonde dubbed the “June Allyson of her generation.” But their recollections weren’t enough—I still hadn’t met her.
Over the years, the community of Regina Laudis had shielded her from the media. And while the loyalty of her fellow sisters had frustrated me during my pursuit so many years before, a part of me not only understood the impulse to protect her, but had had it tested firsthand. In 1987, I was contacted by a promoter who managed an Elvis impersonator and had tracked me down through my Connecticut Magazine article. He asked for my help in proving that his client, who had been born in the Midwest in late 1961, was the love child of Elvis Presley and Dolores Hart. Alarms went off in my head.
The promoter reasoned that the birth of her illegitimate child—his client—had driven her into hiding in a convent. I told him his theory made no sense. In late 1961, Dolores Hart was traveling around Europe shooting Lisa, a film in which she played the concentration-camp victim of the title. I wrote to Mother Dolores to warn her someone was trying to exploit her past. She jotted me a note thanking me for the warning. But as she would tell me later during our meeting, we had both underestimated this fellow’s tenacity.
The promoter had shown up at the abbey one day, insisting on seeing her. Naturally, the sisters kept him at bay. When he didn’t gain access, he left, but not before taking photos and leaving some money for her (which she promptly donated to a community organization). Not long afterward, a tabloid ran his story claiming not only that Mother Dolores was his client’s biological parent but that he (the client) was supporting her. It was this kind of sensationalism that had prompted the abbey to regard strangers with suspicion.
My own instincts to safeguard this gentle, gracious woman grew out of respect for someone who had taken a risk and made a choice that radically, and permanently, changed her life. Despite my failed efforts to reach her before, I had accepted her explanation that she hadn’t chosen “it” but rather that “it chose me.” Yet it was not until we met in the parlor at the abbey—she on one side of the wooden divider, I on the other side—that I truly understood how and why she had arrived at her decision.
Despite my painstaking detective work 20 years before, I had missed a critical clue that pointed her down the path she ultimately chose.
She was born Dolores Hicks on Oct. 20, 1938, and movies were a part of her life from the start. Her father, Bert Hicks (born Edmond Lyhan), was an extra and bit player whose most prominent roles were a few lines in the 1947 Linda Darnell- Cornell Wilde melodrama, Forever Amber, and the 1949 Robert Montgomery comedy, Once More, My Darling. He appeared in more than a dozen films from the early ’40s to early ’50s, usually uncredited.
Though his daughter was aware of his work growing up, she didn’t follow his career. “There really was nothing to follow—they were all bit parts,” she told me. Hicks gained notoriety by association after he introduced his sister, Betty, to an Army buddy, an aspiring opera singer. In 1945, Betty married that aspiring tenor, who became known as Mario Lanza. “My mother was very close to my Aunt Betty—I used to baby-sit for the Lanza girls,” Mother Dolores said. She remained close to her father’s family even as he drifted away from her and her mother.
“Both my parents were actors,” she said, “but my mother never performed professionally.” Instead, Harriett Pittman was an artist, seamstress, and eventual restaurant hostess. Dolores was born to the couple when they were still teenagers and by the time she was 5, they had married and divorced twice. She spent her childhood shuttling back and forth between her native California, where she spent summers with her mother, and Chicago, where she lived with her grandparents during the school year (“My mother thought it would be a better situation for me”) and developed a close relationship with her grandfather.
It was actually he who got her hooked on movies. “My grandfather was a projectionist in the local movie theater,” she explained. “I used to sit in the booth with him and he would talk about the movies—not only the actors, but the camera angles, the lighting, the direction. We couldn’t hear the soundtrack in the booth. I must have seen hundreds of films without ever hearing what the actors said.”
Her grandfather also had an impact on her career, though at the time she didn’t know it. While shooting her first film, Loving You, she made her mark every time, sensing where the camera was and how to move to capitalize on the lighting and the angle. When a cameraman asked where she’d gotten her technical knowledge, she said she didn’t know. But “years later in the convent,” she related, “I had a dream. My grandfather came to me and asked why I hadn’t told the cameraman it was he who taught me about the movies. I was just a child at the time and didn’t realize how much I had learned from him. In my dream, I told him I was sorry for not giving him the credit he deserved.”
Living with her grandparents also planted the seed for the second phase of her life. They sent her to the local Catholic school, not because they wanted her to get a Catholic education (they were nonpracticing Protestants), but because it was nearby and she would not have to cross the streetcar tracks to get there. “Their decision was based on my safety,” she explained.
She attended that school from age 5 to age 11, praying with the other children in the morning, then breaking bread with them. “The children were bonded by their prayers and ritual,” she said. “They had a great deal of solidarity.” With her splintered family life, Catholicism offered stability, structure and a sense of belonging. “There was a presence in the Church that was quite special to me,” she said. In her desire for acceptance, she studied Catholicism and, with her mother’s consent, converted at age 11.
Religion gave her what every child wants from a parent—love, pride, approval. Those fundamental feelings would resonate with her again as an adult. Thirteen years later, when she entered Regina Laudis, she would declare, “It felt like I had come home.”
Shortly after her daughter’s conversion, Harriett married Al Gordon, a Los Angeles- based restaurateur, and Dolores was once again uprooted. She returned to California to live with her mother and new stepfather, bringing her faith with her. With the dual passions of a love for the movies and a growing devotion to God, she began to travel two paths at once. For a while, she was able to pursue her acting—in Wild Is the Wind with Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani, King Creole with Elvis and Vic Morrow, Lonelyhearts with Montgomery Clift and Myrna Loy, and The Plunderers with Jeff Chandler —and her devotion to Catholicism. Eventually, she felt she had to choose, and she made the transition from actress Dolores Hart to a postulant called Sister Judith, and ultimately to life as Mother Dolores.
“My mother was supportive of my choice but insisted I be called Dolores,” she said, explaining why she abandoned the name “Judith” with her final vows. Harriett had taken a similar position when her daughter signed a six-year contract with Paramount in 1957. Producer Hal Wallis had wanted her to change her name to Susan (her character in Loving You), believing it had more marquee value. But Harriett was adamant about keeping “Dolores.” The actress learned she’d been named after one of her mother’s favorite aunts, a nun who had taken the name Sister Dolores Marie. The new last name came from Sheila Hart, a friend at Los Angeles’ Marymount College who “had gotten married and didn’t need the name anymore.”
The issue of her name was not the only one over which her two worlds converged. In 1961, she was cast as St. Clare with Bradford Dillman and Stuart Whitman in Francis of Assisi. “I took that role with the idea of it becoming a vehicle for me to enter the monastery,” she admitted, adding that the Franciscan order “has a very different spirit than what we are about here at Regina Laudis.” Still, “l wanted to bring everything I had to that role,” she said, acknowledging the parallels to her later life.
Her mind made up, on June 13, 1963, after completing a promotional tour for Come Fly with Me (in which she played a stewardess opposite Hugh O’Brian and Lois Nettleton), she had her limousine drop her off at The Abbey of Regina Laudis, which she had visited several times over the years. Along with Hollywood she left behind a broken engagement to Don Robinson, a Los Angeles businessman who broke down and cried when she told him of her decision. Never married, he has kept in touch with her to this day. During the next seven years, she struggled with her faith but knew deep down that she was destined for the religious life.
Yet even as she turned over her “civilian” clothes to friend Jan Shepard (who had played Elvis’ sister in King Creole) during her final rite of passage into the Benedictine life in 1970, she kept a part of herself connected to Hollywood. “I’m very certain our lives are never completely cut off,” she said—an unusual statement, I thought, from a women who has spent the better part of her life in a convent. But she added, “Life is a continuum of experiences that connect. What you do in one phase has an impact on who you are later in life.”
She cited a recent call from a Graceland fan club with the news that King Creole had been voted the most popular Elvis film. “I was astounded. None of those people were even born when we made that film,” she said. When she explained that as an enclosed nun she could not come to Memphis for the award ceremony, they decided to send a film crew to tape her statement. The crew arrived just a few days after my visit. “If you are patient enough and allow your life to inform itself,” she said, “you discover that God has a pattern not to destroy anything but to continually build upon it.”
That’s why she retains her membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and votes for the Oscars each year. “They send me the tapes and a ballot,” she said. “I watch them all.” Her voice had a girlish excitement when she talked about the movies, but she stopped short of revealing her votes. “I’d love to tell you just for the fun of it,” she said, “but it’s against the rules.”
Movies and acting are still close to her heart. Beyond films and TV, she starred on Broadway in The Pleasure of His Company opposite George Peppard in 1959, and was nominated for a Tony. And her roots in theater have had an impact on the abbey. In 1982, funds were raised to build The Gary- The Olivia Theater on abbey grounds, named for the late actor Gary Cooper and actress Patricia Neal’s daughter, Olivia, who died at age 7. A few years earlier, Neal, a supporter of the abbey, had performed an outdoor reading there. When it started to rain, everyone ran for cover and she proclaimed, “What you need here is a theater.” With her help, the theater was built and opened in 1983.
A 200-seat, open-air structure with a cathedral-ceiling roof and a covered stage, it’s been thriving under Mother Dolores’ tutelage. She serves as an artistic director, reviewing scripts and helping choose productions (The Pleasure of His Company was performed in 1997). Over the years, dozens of reading and full productions have been mounted, often featuring professionals—for example, Love Letters, which starred Neal opposite James Douglas.
Her connection to the performing arts hasn’t stopped with theater. She sings in the abbey choir, which released its third CD, A Gregorian Chant: Master Class, last summer. The disk comes with a book by the late Dr. Theodore Marier, who collaborated with the abbey for more than 30 years.
Over the years, she has worked in just about every aspect of the abbey, from the farm to the carpentry and pottery sheds. At 65, she suffers from neuropathy, a painful condition brought on by an infection after a root canal in the late ’90s. That accounts for her tremulous voice, limits her walking and has damaged nerve endings so she can no longer handle the eight-time-daily prayer schedule. “I’m grateful that there are others who can do that now,” she said.
Twenty years ago, when she wrote to me that she had “a calling” to the contemplative life, I struggled to understand. Now I asked her why, after all this time, she had agreed to see me. “The day you called, I was cleaning up and found the issue of Connecticut Magazine you had sent me,” she said. “I was holding it when they gave me your message”—a sign, she felt, that this was the right time.
How could I have missed what was so obvious when I researched her life 20 years ago, the choice between a career that she felt was practically handed to her or a life devoted to prayer and God? Back in 1983, I had come across an article detailing how a male friend, who thought she was so beautiful she should “be in pictures,” had sent her photo and re'sume' to Paramount Pictures. That simple photo led to a career that she once said “came too easily to me.”
But her commitment to faith was not so easy. When she entered Regina Laudis, she was questioned, scrutinized, tested. The Catholicism of her girlhood laid the foundation but she had to prove she was suited to the monastic life before she could take her final vows in 1970. She found the strength, which she later explained in terms of love. “How can you explain love? It’s something you feel.”
As I got up to leave, she leaned over and extended her hand. “Don’t let another 20 years go by before you come to see me again, Mark,” she said. There was calm and joy in her clear blue eyes. And no longer any need for explanation.