Dolores Hart appeared in 10 movies in the late 1950s and early '60s, starring opposite some of the biggest stars of the era: Anthony Quinn, Myrna Loy, and Montgomery Clift. She was one of Elvis Presley's first onscreen kisses. At age 20, she earned a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in The Pleasure of His Company. She was an above-the-title star of 1960's spring-break romp Where the Boys Are, which led to an invitation to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
And then in June of 1963, the striking starlet with the dark blond hair and piercing blue eyes left it all behind. She packed a single suitcase and attended one last autograph-signing session in New York City for Come Fly With Me, an MGM comedy about three husband-hunting air hostesses. ''I remember I had makeup on from some photography that they were doing,'' she recalls. Then a man working for the studio approached her. ''He wanted to know if he could take me somewhere when it was over, so I said, 'It's a long way. You could just take me to the bus.''' But he insisted, and so he drove her just over two hours north of the city and deposited her at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn., where she has lived the quiet life of a cloistered Benedictine nun ever since.
It's not every nun who enters the convent in the back of a chauffeured limo, admits Mother Dolores Hart, now 72. ''Well, if that's in the script, then why not?''
There are 40 nuns at the abbey now, ranging in age from 29 to 90, but none has garnered as much notoriety or curiosity as the woman who gave up a lucrative and promising Hollywood career for God. On a recent snowy day in Connecticut, Mother Dolores gripped a visitor's hands with a strength somewhat surprising for a woman afflicted with peripheral neuropathy, a nerve disorder she's had since 1997. She's a slight woman, dressed in a black habit that drapes to her feet, with a black knit cardigan wrapped over it and an oversize beret perched rakishly atop the veil that frames her face.
Over the course of nearly half a century as a Roman Catholic nun, Mother Dolores has had many jobs: choir member, baker, and coffin maker. She's served as prioress, the convent's second in command, for nine years. But for the past two decades, she has spent a good deal of time each winter on another assignment that harks back to her earlier, pre-monastic life: Oscar voter.
Even after all these years, there's something about Hollywood that still carries an almost magnetic pull.
From the time she was a little girl, Dolores Hart wanted to act in movies like her father. Bert Hicks was a Clark Gable look-alike who'd been discovered while working as an usher at a Chicago movie theater, then moved his wife, Harriett, and his young daughter to L.A. to chase his dreams of stardust. He signed as a contract player at Twentieth Century Fox in the 1940s, playing small roles and never quite graduating to leading ones.
Growing up in Hollywood had its advantages. Mother Dolores remembers her father taking her on a film set to meet Vincent Price. Her father pulled her aside before the meeting and told her, ''I want you to know we did see his last picture, it was called Shock. Just between you and me, Dolores, I thought it stank.'' When they got on the set, she says, ''I was so excited to meet a real movie star. We get there, and Daddy said, 'Dolores, here is Mr. Price.' And I said, 'How do you do, Mr. Price? Daddy said that Shock stank.' It was a dead, dead moment in the room. And finally Mr. Price said, 'Well, you're not the first one to have said it.'''
Bert and Harriett divorced when Dolores was about 6, and Dolores was sent to live during the school year with her maternal grand-parents in Chicago. Though neither of her parents was Catholic, she attended St. Gregory elementary school in Chicago and converted to the faith under the watchful eyes of the nuns there. Her grand-father Fred was a movie projectionist, and she recalls spending many a day with him watching movies, typically with the sound off in the booth so he could nap between the times he had to change the reels. ''I saw hundreds of movies without sound,'' she says, ''but it was an amazing way of learning what actors do.''
By the time she was 12 her mother had remarried, and Dolores moved back to L.A. full-time. ''I went to high school in the Valley and got my first taste of acting,'' she says. She seldom saw her father anymore: ''He had married a couple of times, and his life had gone into many different ins and outs.'' Pursuing a Hollywood career was her attempt to forge a connection. ''I did have a great admiration for him even though he wasn't doting on me and I didn't see much of him,'' she says. ''He was very appealing and handsome. And every little girl has a desire to please her father.''