The nun who kissed Elvis: Extraordinary story of a starlet who turned her back on Hollywood to live in a convent
Looking back: Dolores Hart and Elvis Presley promoting Loving You; Hart went on to become a nun
The speculation will continue until the last minute about the fashion parade in store for us at the Oscars this weekend, but we can be sure that at least one of the actresses trooping into Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre will be wearing black — the black habit of the Benedictine order of nuns.
The last time Dolores Hart walked the Academy Awards red carpet — in 1962 — she was the blushing starlet who had given Elvis Presley his first screen kiss.
After a whirlwind rise to stardom, the 23-year-old beauty had secured a $1 million contract and roles opposite some of Hollywood’s leading men.
But then she gave it all up — disappearing from public life so completely she might have been a figment of some movie mogul’s imagination.
But this Sunday she will finally return as the woman she chose to become — Mother Dolores, prioress of a cloistered nunnery in rural Connecticut, a Benedictine nun who has spent the past 50 years living a life of hard manual work, contemplation and prayer.
Now 73, she has agreed to make a rare foray from her isolated life at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in order to celebrate an Oscar-nominated documentary, God Is The Bigger Elvis, which has been made about her life.
She says she is enormously excited about the biggest night in the showbusiness calendar — even if she has to go up on stage.
And while the Oscars may not be used to people who dress in plain clothes and walk with a stick, this is a woman who’s already experienced the sort of movie star adulation about which many of today’s preening, pouting actresses in their megabucks designer gowns can only dream.
Mother Dolores still has the piercing blue eyes and demure, flawless beauty that once made Grace Kelly comparisons inevitable.
She was just 18 when she made her screen debut, co-starring with a young Elvis in Loving You. The 1957 film was only his second movie, and his lingering kiss with Dolores Hart made her the envy of women everywhere.
She is still asked what it was like and her unexciting, if rather sweet, answer is that they both blushed so much that filming had to be stopped while their purple ears were swathed in make-up. ‘If there is anything I am most grateful for it is the privilege of being one of the few people left to acknowledge he was an innocent,’ she said of Presley ten years ago.
Devoted: Actress turned Benedictine cloistered nun, Mother Delores standing on the grounds of the Abbey of Regina Laudis
The film made her name and she swiftly made two more, starring alongside Montgomery Clift and Anthony Quinn, before teaming up again with Elvis in King Creole in 1958.
She was to pack in nine films in five years, including the cult comedy Where The Boys Are with George Hamilton. All the time, she remained a devout Roman Catholic, getting up at 6am for Mass each day and praying before every audition. In what was to be her last film, 1963’s Come Fly With Me, she played a beautiful airline stewardess looking for romance and excitement.
But in real life she was gravitating towards something very different. The only child of two good-looking, bit-part Hollywood actors who separated when she was young, her lonely, unsettled childhood was split between the glamour of Los Angeles and a Catholic school in Chicago, where she lived for some of the year with her grandparents.
After she left school, she moved to Hollywood, and in 1957 was signed up, aged 18. Fame came quickly, but she found the emotional side of film-making unsatisfying. ‘You worked intensely for maybe ten weeks, and then you break and you never see the person again,’ she said later.
Flawless beauty: Dolores Hart with George Hamilton in Where The Boys Are
While starring in a Broadway play, a friend suggested she take a break and stay at a guest cottage in the grounds of a Catholic abbey in Connecticut. But she had unhappy memories of school. ‘I said: “Oh, I don’t want to go to see more nuns,”’ she says. ‘My friend said: “Just try it — they’re contemplative and they won’t talk.”’
Sure enough, Dolores instantly found peace — and the close-knit community she had been craving since childhood. She talked about becoming a nun there and then, but she was only 21 and the abbess considered her too immature.
Dolores certainly sounded surprisingly unworldly for someone who had already spent a few years in Hollywood, telling the abbess she was worried that a Catholic girl like her shouldn’t be making films with Elvis, because she could be ‘aroused by the boys’. It took three years and several more visits to the abbey before the nuns agreed she was ready to take holy orders — but by then she was engaged.
Don Robinson, a successful Los Angeles architect, had been courting her for five years. But as they returned from their engagement party, she admitted to him that she wanted to become a nun.
Ceremonial: Things could have been different and Dolores could have been a fixture at the Oscars… but her life took a very different direction
Robinson was devastated at first but, as a Catholic himself, brought himself to accept it as God’s will.
In the years that followed, he went out with other women, but never found one he wanted to marry. Devoted to the woman he could never have as his wife, he continued to visit Mother Dolores in her nunnery at Christmas and Easter every year until his death just three months ago.
‘I never got over Dolores,’ said Mr Robinson shortly before he died. ‘I have the same thoughts [about her] today as I did 52 years ago.’
But if Don Robinson showed great understanding of Dolores’s desire to serve God, her studio was furious.
When studio MGM asked her to promote Come Fly With Me, Dolores said she wanted to visit ‘friends in the country’. The studio drove her to the abbey in a limousine, unaware she was never coming back. She became a novice nun that day.
If the studio executives were angry at what they saw as a betrayal of their trust, everyone else — including her family — was incredulous. The Press even pounced on a rumour that she had retreated to a nunnery after having Elvis’s love child. ‘It was hurtful and aggravating because ours was really such a fine relationship,’ she said years later.
Her early days as a nun were difficult as she came to realise that being a pampered star was no preparation for the hard life in the nunnery.
‘The first night I felt like I had jumped off a 20-storey building and landed flat on my bottom,’ she says in the new documentary. ‘I had no idea it was going to mean working in the garden, ten people sharing one bathroom, the sternness.’
'I can understand why people have doubts. Because who understands God I don't.'
On top of the physical labour, each day Dolores had to keep three periods of silence and sing Latin chants seven times. The outside world and her fellow nuns expected she would soon be pounding on the abbey doors to get out. Dolores admitted she had grave doubts herself. ‘The first few years were a very, very difficult transition,’ she says.
Even in her cloistered world, she was not cut off from her past. She became a close friend of the actress Patricia Neal in the Eighties after a mutual friend suggested Neal stay at the abbey to recover from the end of her turbulent marriage to Roald Dahl. The nuns calmed her down and Neal ended up staying at the nunnery for nearly a year. She later converted to Catholicism and is buried in the abbey grounds.
Mother Dolores has also remained an Oscars voter, watching DVDs of nominated films sent by the Academy in her office. ‘Watching films tells me what’s happening in civilisation and how much people are suffering,’ she says.
She has suffered herself in recent years, her health blighted by a neurological disorder. But as the documentary’s director, Rebecca Cammisa, told me, the nun still has much of the actress in her. ‘I think she sees returning to the Oscars as a sort of homecoming,’ says Cammisa.
‘If she had stayed in the film business, she would have been this huge star. It just shows you how strong her calling [to be a nun] must have been.’
So as she walks into the Kodak Theatre on Sunday, it’s hard not to think Dolores Hart won’t feel a twinge of regret for what might have been. She admits she has ‘struggled’ with her vocation all her life.
‘I can understand why people have doubts,’ says Mother Dolores.
‘Because who understands God I don’t.’