Starlet who kissed Elvis and then became a nun
OPINION:HOW DO you marry God after you’ve kissed the King? Easy. Just ask Dolores Hart. The 73-year-old Benedictine nun plans to attend the Oscars next Sunday. She will be a lot more covered up than she was the last time she went to the ceremony – in 1959, as a presenter and a gorgeous starlet who had given a blushing Elvis his first screen kiss.
Grace Kelly deserted Hollywood at 26 to become the bride of a prince. Hart, dubbed “the next Grace Kelly”, deserted at 24 to become a bride of Christ.
That stunning spiritual elopement is the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary called God Is Bigger Than Elvis, a rare look behind the walls of the cloistered abbey in rural Connecticut where Hart has lived for half a century. (It will be shown on HBO in April).
“God was the vehicle,” she said of her odyssey. “He was the bigger Elvis.”
Nuns in the United States are a dying breed, and the church’s antediluvian male hierarchy gets more worked up about allowing Catholic women contraceptives than investigating sexual abuse of children by priests.
But Hart soldiers on at the bucolic Abbey of Regina Laudis, a Benedictine monastery and working farm in Bethlehem, Connecticut, which observes three periods of silence a day.
She is a mother prioress and spiritual guide to 38 other nuns (and she is the only nun who is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).
Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman played luminous nuns in movies but Hart was the luminous beauty who, in real life, cut her hair and put on the habit.
When I was little, we would watch her old movies on TV – especially King Creole, Where The Boys Are and Come Fly With Me– and puzzle over why anyone would leave sparkly Hollywood for a nunnery.
The British tabloids considered it such lunacy that they kept trying to scout out the “real” reason, reporting on a rumour that Hart had scurried off to the convent in shame after bearing Elvis’ love child.
“If anybody knew me, I mean, I was just too Catholic,” she said, denying the gossip to ABC’s 20/20in 2002.
The documentary begins with Hollywood publicity shots and clips showing Hart – with her big blue eyes, creamy voice and lithe figure – draped in furs, gowns and men.
Flash forward to the senior citizen in her old-school habit, leavened with a jaunty black beret decorated with three bird pins.
As you watch her playing cancan music for a pet parrot, you wonder: could she be the only woman who starred in movies who has never had any cosmetic enhancements?
Hart became a star effortlessly, praying for roles and receiving daily communion. But in 1958, while on Broadway in The Pleasure of His Company,she felt fatigued.
A friend suggested taking a break at the abbey’s guest cottage.
“And I said: ‘Nuns? I don’t want to go anyplace where there’s nuns’,” she recalled. Her friend replied: “Oh, don’t be so stiff. Just try it. They’re contemplative and they won’t talk.”
She arrived once in a studio limo yet loved the simplicity, feeling she “could find my inner certitude”.
She confessed to the mother superior that she was worried “that it was wrong, as a Catholic, to be in the movies because sexually you could be aroused by boys and you could get involved sexually with men. And my leading star was Elvis.”
She said: “Well, why not? You’re a girl. Chastity doesn’t mean that you don’t appreciate what God created. Chastity says use it well’.”
She was preparing for her wedding to Don Robinson, a Los Angeles architect, with a dress designed by Edith Head and a home designed by her fiancé, when it hit her that she was in love with God. She wore a bridal dress and lace veil when she entered the monastery, but it was a rocky honeymoon. The other women considered her, as one put it, “a lightweight”.
“The first night,” Sister Dolores recalled, “I felt like I had jumped off a 20-storey building and landed flat on my butt. I had no idea that it was going to mean singing seven times a day, working in the garden, 10 people in one bathroom, the sternness.” She compared it to being skinned alive.
Robinson never married. “I never found a love like Dolores,” he told the documentarians. He went to visit his old love for 47 years until he died in November.
In the last scene, on one of their final walks, the pair hold hands. Afterwards, by herself, Sister Dolores’ eyes fill with tears as she makes the sign of the cross.