Authors: Dolores Hart,Richard DeNeut
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #Spirituality, #Personal Memoirs, #Spiritual & Religion, #Biography & Autobiography, #Religious, #Biography
The Ear of the Heart
Mother Dolores Hart, OSB
An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows
IGNATIUS PRESS SAN FRANCISCO
Dolores Hart and Elvis Presley
, NBC Universal, Digital Media Distribution Group
Dolores Hart at Her Consecration
, Valerie Imbleau
Other cover photos from Dolores Hart Collection
Cover design by John Herreid
© 2013 by Richard DeNeut and the
Benedictine Congregation Regina Laudis of the Strict Observance
All rights reserved
Published 2013 by Ignatius Press, San Francisco
Library of Congress Control Number 2012933885
Printed in the United States of America
For the continual renewal of religious life in the Church
—Mother Dolores Hart, OSB
What can be sweeter to us, dearest brethren, than this voice of our Lord inviting us? Behold, in his loving mercy the Lord showeth the way of life
—Rule of Saint Benedict
Rule of Saint Benedict,
composed in the year 530, is justly celebrated as an unerring guide for those seeking to dedicate their lives to God. The Rule is followed by the women in the Community of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, which has been my home and my life for five decades
Regina Laudis was elevated to the status of an abbey in 1976, but when I entered in 1963, it was a small, enclosed monastery. There was a considerable fuss made in the press at the time of my entrance because I had enjoyed some success as an actress in the movies and on the New York stage. From time to time over the years, there were invitations to write a memoir, and I gave the undertaking some small consideration. I had ample material to draw upon—I had kept journals from an early age and was an entrenched saver of letters and articles concerning my life—and I had no problem seeing myself in the driver’s seat
On a Sunday morning in 1997, however, my life changed dramatically. When I awoke and put my feet on the floor, I was unable to walk. Subsequently and belatedly, I was diagnosed with peripheral sensory neuropathy, a neurological disease affecting the peripheral nerves and causing severe chronic pain. For the next several years I experienced a dark night of the soul, unable to find any real relief from the pain or any understanding of the cause of the disease. During this time my Community suggested again that I write the story of my life, which now seemed a total absurdity since I had no command of my arms, hands or feet and my mind was blistered with pain and anger. It was, I thought, impossible
In 1982, Dick DeNeut had come to my aid as I was wrestling with the prospect of helping Patricia Neal with twelve hundred pages of unmanageable notes for her autobiography
, As I Am,
which with Dick’s collaboration was published in 1988
Dick is a close friend and a trusted confidant. In his childhood, he had been one of the darlings of the
comedies, and when we met in 1957 he still had boyish good looks and the most infectious Maurice Chevalier smile. He shared his knowledge about films and theater, which educated and enlightened me, and I was constantly astounded to see what I considered the best in the business fall by the sword of his unyielding standards and acerbic wit. Early in my acting career, Dick and I had a romantic relationship, but my religious vocation has allowed Dick and me to reconnect and to find a way to be committed in love through a greater body, that of Regina Laudis
In 1970, when I pronounced my perpetual vows and was consecrated as a cloistered Benedictine nun, I invited Dick to hold my veil during the ceremony. I understood the extraordinary way in which he had “veiled” me throughout my professional life, making certain that my image was appropriately received by the press through his company, Globe Photos. In every professional context, he was there to inform and address the world at large that my person was to be kept within a virginal integrity, and he maintained that demand fiercely. Catholic or not, he is for me a Saint Joseph person
So when the Community asked me to write my story, I knew I needed Dick’s help to do it. Our work began within unusual and challenging limits. He lives in Los Angeles, California; I in a cloistered abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut. When Dick traveled to Regina Laudis, our meetings had to be conducted within the confines of the enclosure and during the few hours each day I had free from my duties as prioress and dean of education. This book represents a partnership that demanded not only honesty, integrity and trust, but professionalism of a high degree
At the beginning of
The Song of Bernadette,
a film I saw as a child and still love, are these words from the author Franz Werfel: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, no explanation is possible.” Nevertheless, I have presented in these pages the details of my life so far as a response to the question I have been asked countless times: How could I throw away a promising acting career for the monastic life of a cloistered nun
I left the world I knew in order to reenter it on a more profound level. Many people don’t understand the difference between a vocation and your own idea about something. A vocation is a call—one you don’t necessarily want. The only thing I ever wanted to be was an actress. But I was called by God
Mother Dolores Hart, OSB
“Do you think I have a responsibility to write my story?”
That is the question that Mother Dolores Hart, the new prioress of the cloistered Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis, asked me on a warm Connecticut afternoon in May of 2001. We were walking with the newly installed abbess, Reverend Mother David Serna, now called Mother Abbess. It was the day after her abbatial blessing, confirming her status as the second abbess of the Community founded by Reverend Mother Benedict Duss in 1948.
Mother Dolores and I had spoken of the possibility of her writing and my editing her autobiography several times over the past two decades, during and after our collaboration with Patricia Neal on her memoir, which was written at the abbey. Mother Dolores had been the subject of newspaper, television and magazine attention when, as young film and Broadway actress Dolores Hart, she abandoned a promising acting career for a life as a cloistered nun, a decision that was tagged “sudden” by the media and predicted to be of short duration.
The question she directed to me that day came almost forty years after that decision and her entrance into Regina Laudis. Mother Dolores and I had known each other for forty-four years.
In 1957, just out of the army, I went to work for the photo agency Globe Photos in Hollywood. Globe’s specialty was photojournalistic coverage of the film industry for domestic and international publications. In those days, Globe pictures were the mainstay of the movie fan magazines, now obsolete but in their heyday the most successful group of publications in the country. The editor of several of them, Bessie Little, assigned Globe Photos to shoot a layout on an ordinary girl caught up in the glamor of a night on the town in Hollywood. The girl was to be Bessie’s niece Susie Grobstein. Globe was asked to supply a fresh Hollywood couple to host the evening and a young bachelor to accompany Susie as her date.
Jim Stevens, a publicist at Paramount Pictures and my contact at the studio, suggested, as the Hollywood couple, up-and-coming Earl Holliman and the new contract actress Dolores Hart, who had just completed a film with Elvis Presley. I was the only young bachelor at Globe.
The layout, which included dinner at Trader Vic’s and Margaret Whiting’s opening at the Moulin Rouge, was pleasant enough. Everyone had a good time, and Bessie Little picked up the tab. Earl and Dolores made an attractive couple, and Susie couldn’t have been more starstruck. The young bachelor, for the first time in his life, was dazzled.
Not only was Dolores beautiful; she was bright and witty and very down-to-earth—a killer combination. Dolores didn’t have starlet glitter. She had a glow and an openness that put me in mind of happy college days. She could talk about something besides herself, and I was impressed with the way she related to Susie that night—as if they were high school confidantes. A big plus was her wicked sense of humor with well-placed zingers that found in me an especially appreciative audience.
A short while after that introduction, a relationship developed between us, and there has been no time since that we haven’t been in touch. She even invited me to participate in her Consecration in 1970.
But it wasn’t until 1979 that our potential grew beyond what I had envisioned in 1958. A close friend was very ill and had returned home to Louisiana to die. That September I flew to Monroe to say goodbye, and while there I called Mother Dolores to say I was halfway across the country and would like to see her. She said I had better get myself to Regina Laudis the very next weekend because it was the last weekend before the Community’s annual October retreat, when they did not have guests. I did just that.
Mother Dolores and I had a daylong reunion in one of the abbey’s parlors. At the end of that day, somehow, with only a one-semester course in film editing at UCLA behind me—we’re talking a gap of twenty-seven years—I agreed to edit a decade of 8 mm movie coverage of Regina Laudis into a film that would be the Community’s contribution to the Vatican celebration of Saint Benedict’s fifteen-hundredth anniversary. It would be the first of many ventures that would keep me close to Mother Dolores and Regina Laudis.
After the publication of Patricia Neal’s book, whenever the subject of Mother Dolores’ autobiography came up, I was afraid to commit, for fear I might not be as objective an editor as I would need to be. In truth, I was always secretly relieved when the subject was dropped, even though decades after her entrance into the cloister, press interest in Mother Dolores had not faded.
To this day, a month does not go by without some media request. Mother Dolores knows without a
when one of her films has aired on television because requests for visits to Regina Laudis increase overnight. She still receives what she jokingly refers to as “fan mail” from people around the world, admirers of long ago and young people who after seeing one of her movies for the first time investigate her on the Internet.
There have been invitations from movie producers to cooperate in a film of her life story, and in her forty-ninth year as a contemplative, she was named one of the ten most important Catholics by
Inside the Vatican
. In 2005 she was included in the exhibit
God’s Women: Nuns in America
at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC. Just last year, she was recognized by the Breukelein Institute, which honors men and women whose lives “have illumined the human experience”, and she was the subject of a documentary produced by Home Box Office that was nominated for an Oscar. This year, the Christophers presented her with their Life Achievement Award at their sixty-third annual ceremony.
With each request, each tribute, thoughts of a book would be revived. So it came as no surprise that, on that May afternoon, she was being forced to consider again that possibility. I just wished she hadn’t asked it that way: “Do you think I have a
to write my story?”
Of course she did. She is the only person who can tell what drew her to a life of monastic enclosure so strongly that she could sacrifice the realization of the dream she had since childhood and, more importantly, what has kept her steadfast and devoted for half a century. Additionally, her story can reach out to young people who find themselves living a contradiction between their inner truth and the values of the world around them.