In 1957, Dolores Hart made her feature film debut alongside none other than Elvis Presley. That movie kickstarted what could have been a glittering career, but Hart ultimately wasn’t destined to be a silver screen icon. In fact, after just ten films, including a second with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, she disappeared from the spotlight. But Hart had a reason for going AWOL, as she was taking her life in a completely different direction — one that’s practically as far away from Hollywood as you can get.
Initially, though, that illustrious beginning in Loving You seemed to set the tone for Hart’s career trajectory. After that picture was a hit, she went on to play the beautiful love interest in movies such as Lonelyhearts and Where the Boys Are. And as Hart’s popularity grew, so did her list of leading men.
Yes, from 1957 to 1963, Hart would share the screen with many of the era’s biggest male stars, including George Hamilton, Montgomery Clift and Stephen Boyd. But the up-and-coming actress didn’t just appear in movie theaters during that period.
Hart also made a number of TV appearances during her career, with roles on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Playhouse 90 introducing her to the audiences watching her at home. And the parts seemingly just kept coming. There was a second movie with Elvis, for one, as Hart and the musical icon joined forces once again for 1958’s King Creole.
A very personal role
However, after starring in Where the Boys Are in 1960, Hart made a significant career move. Up until that point, she had portrayed somewhat frivolous characters on the big screen; now, though, she decided to take on a part that had considerably more weight. And playing St. Clare in 1961’s Francis of Assisi may well have had an effect on Hart. For while the film was both a critical and box-office flop, it nonetheless appears to have made the young star take stock of her life.
It should be noted, though, that the failure of Francis of Assisi didn’t stop Hart from getting meaty roles. The Golden Globe-nominated The Inspector, for example, saw the young actress acclaimed for her performance as a Holocaust survivor. But just over 12 months on from the release of that movie, Hart made her last appearance on the big screen. Then, almost without a word, she disappeared from Hollywood. And the reason why may very well surprise you.
To find out why Hart left Tinseltown behind, however, we need to understand her earliest struggles. Then known as Dolores Hicks, she entered the world in October 1938 as the only child of teenagers Harriet and Bert. And although the couple did marry, the relationship didn’t last; ultimately, Hart’s mom and dad split up when she was only three years old.
Following the separation, the young Hart then moved to Chicago to live with her grandparents. And as it happens, it was while she was in the city that she first came into contact with Roman Catholicism. You see, Hart attended a local Catholic school called St. Gregory – although that institution was chosen simply because it was near her relatives’ home. And Hart would further explain the decision when talking to the Hartford Courant in 2008, saying, “My grandparents didn’t want me to get run over by streetcars.”
But even though Hart lived away from her parents, Bert and Harriet still stayed in touch with their daughter. Then, within time, Bert — who was an aspiring actor himself — moved to Hollywood to pursue a movie career. It appears, too, that her dad’s relocation had an influence on Hart. In a 1998 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the star revealed, “[My father] lived in Beverly Hills, and I used to visit lots with him. I was a Hollywood brat. I always wanted to be part of that life.”
Her father's footsteps
What’s more, when Bob landed a role in 1947’s Forever Amber, he brought his daughter along for the ride. Before she’d even reached her tenth birthday, in fact, Hart had already appeared in a Hollywood movie. And while the role was uncredited, it was nevertheless a start.
After Hart had made her modest Hollywood debut, though, it seems that she went back to school. It was also around this time that she officially converted to Catholicism. Then, after moving to Los Angeles with her mother in 1949, Hart attended high school in California before taking up a place at the state’s Marymount College – another Catholic institution. And it was while studying at the university that Hart would get the news that would change her life.
An embarrassing introduction
Hart herself explained this moment further in a 2018 speech at the Women’s Morning of Spirituality event in Tennessee. “I was told by the fellow that I dated, who said he was my agent… that I might get a phone call,” she remarked. And when that call came, it brought incredible news: Paramount wanted her to audition for a role in an Elvis Presley movie. Still, there was just one hitch, though. You see, Hart had no idea who Elvis was. And after bagging the part, the young actress proved her naivety when first meeting the King. She told her audience in Tennessee, “I said [to Elvis], ‘I’m so glad to meet you. What do you do?’”
"I'm a singer"
Elvis, ever the gentleman, simply replied, “Well, I’m a singer.” Loving You, in fact, was his second ever movie and provided his first leading-man role. Hart – at this point using her stage name – portrays Elvis’ girlfriend on screen, and at one point she even kisses the musical icon. The former star is still asked what smooching Elvis was like, too, leading her to once quip, “I think the limit for a screen kiss back then was 15 seconds. That one has lasted 40 years.” But that embrace wasn’t the only thing that the two shared.
Hart had denied that there was any romance between her and Elvis, although she has admitted that the pair studied Bible verses together. At one point, the legendary singer even asked her out – an offer that Hart ultimately rejected. And while the actress did suggest that the two of them meet up after the shoot ended, that date never materialized. Even so, Hart and Elvis did work together a second time – just one year later – on King Creole.
The two stars once again played romantic roles in the drama, which went on to break into the top five at the U.S. box office. But as it happens, the flick almost didn’t get made. You see, the musical icon was due to begin his military service during production, although he was finally allowed to delay this for two months in order to complete the picture. And the King may have made the right choice, too. While one critic disliked the movie’s portrayal of women, another praised Elvis for giving his “best acting performance to date.”
Then, following Hart’s initial success, she signed a seven-year Hollywood contract. Working almost continuously for the next few years, the actress was well on her way to becoming a star. In 1958 she even made her Broadway debut in The Pleasure of His Company – a play in which she’d appear for over a year. But during the show’s run, extreme fatigue began to creep up on Hart. So, she turned to a friend, and they ended up giving her some unusual advice.
Expanding her horizons
Specifically, Hart’s buddy recommended that she take a couple of days off and visit the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. That site housed a Benedictine monastery where the nuns lived in devotion to God. The actress took those words on board, too, and was ultimately glad that she did. Hart later explained to the New England Historical Society (NEHS), “I went and loved it. It was peaceful, and I found inner certitude.” And while she was there, the star had an interesting chat with the Mother Superior.
During Hart’s talk with the senior nun, she expressed concern that her Hollywood career didn’t fit with Catholic values. “I was worried,” she later told the NEHS, “because you could be sexually aroused by boys and get involved with men.” But the nun, as it happens, had a rather surprising answer.
“Well, why not?” the other woman reportedly said. “Chastity doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate what God created. Chastity says, ‘Use it well.’” The Mother Superior also advised the actress not to give up her day job. “Go back and do your movie thing,” she replied when Hart asked about her religious vocation.
Taking the Mother Superior’s advice, Hart did exactly that, going on to star in Lonelyhearts that same year and Where the Boys Are in 1960. And along the way, she met Don Robinson – an architect from California who seemingly fell quickly for the actress. Later, Hart told her audience in Tennessee, “[Don and I] went out a couple of times, and he said, ‘Would you marry me?’” She refused, however — on that occasion, anyway.
Meeting the Pope
Then Hart and Robinson dated for a few years, and, eventually, she accepted his proposal. But while both Hart’s career and personal life looked to be going well, all was not as it appeared. You see, after having taken on the role of St. Clare in Francis of Assisi, the actress subsequently met Pope John XXIII. The pontiff praised her work, too, telling Hart, “You are Clare.” And it’s said that this meeting had a profound effect on the young star.
That effect became evident when, just two years later, Hart disappeared from Hollywood completely. Yes, after having secretly visited the abbey on several further occasions, the star made an incredible decision: she gave away everything she owned and joined the monastery as a novice nun. And both Hollywood and Robinson were shocked.
Breaking the engagement
Not long after the couple’s engagement party, Hart had come clean to Robinson. The architect had originally feared that she had met someone else, in fact, but was more relieved to hear the truth. And although Hart would claim that she did love her fiancé, she explained that her calling to the monastery was “an affair of the heart.” Then, following that meeting, the soon-to-be-nun drove to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to begin her training.
In 1963 Hart made her final on-screen appearances. At the movies, she bowed out in the British flight attendant comedy Come Fly with Me; on TV, meanwhile, her swansong came in an episode of The Virginian, where, in an eerie foreshadowing of her real life, she played a Catholic missionary. And with that, Hart left Tinseltown for good and made her way to the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis.
At a crossroads
The Abbey of Regina Laudis was originally founded in 1947, although it almost wound up in a completely different part of the country. Yes, according to Hart, the original Mother Superior was actually heading to Pennsylvania, but somehow wound up in New England. And it’s lucky that the nun did, as a local Connecticut businessman made her an interesting proposition.
A new facility
Indeed, when factory owner Robert Leather heard of the Mother Superior’s purpose, he donated part of one of his buildings to the cause. Then, over the years, the site expanded to include more land that had been bequeathed to the abbey. Now sprawling over a whopping 400 acres, the grounds house 37 nuns.
The nun lifestyle
In service to God, the abbey’s nuns dedicate their lives to prayer and hard work. This includes performing Gregorian chants each day in praise of the Lord; there’s even a CD available of the monastery’s melodical daily worship. But regular singing wasn’t the only thing to which Hart had to quickly acclimatize.
Hart had to adapt to manual labor, too, as the sisters are expected to pitch in and make everything themselves where possible. The erstwhile star also had to share a bathroom with at least ten other women. And then there’s the small matter of the dividing petition between the nuns and their visitors.
Separated from society
Indeed, although the abbey’s nuns have not vowed to be silent, they aren’t necessarily allowed to mingle willy-nilly with the general public. As such, large, ornate metal grilles separate the sisters from the guests. And as Hart recalled during that 2018 talk, her family took a while to adjust to this new state of affairs. “I refuse to call this a grille,” Hart’s mother apparently said of the screen. “[These] are just lovely places for vines to grow up.”
Then, in 1970, Hart took her final vows and officially became Sister Dolores, after which she has spent the rest of her life in dedication to God. But the nun didn’t quite leave everything behind when she joined the monastery. One particular friend stuck around for 50 years, in fact, despite his broken heart. Yes, Robinson – the former star’s ex-fiancé – stayed in touch.
Staying in touch
That contact didn’t run to the odd letter or phone call, either; instead, Robinson visited Hart at least twice a year until his death in 2011. After his engagement ended, you see, the architect reportedly told his former partner that “every love doesn’t have to wind up at the altar.” And with nearly 50 years of devoted sojourns to Connecticut under his belt, he seems to have meant every word.
A fateful meeting
Plus, although Hart left Hollywood behind in 1963, she has admitted that she wouldn’t be where she was without her experiences in California. During that 2018 talk, the nun even confessed, “If it hadn’t been for getting into my film career, I would never have known [the abbey]. I did not leave Hollywood because it was a scam.” And perhaps for those reasons, fellow actors have supported the monastery over the years.
Paul Newman and Patricia Neal both helped, for instance, when the monastery needed a theater and lighting grid for the site. The abbey has a thriving community arts program, too, with Hart at the middle of this thanks to her unrivaled previous experience. And when it came to raising cash – whether for those artistic activities or an expansion to the grounds — the former actress once again took center stage.
Saving her home
Yes, when fire hazard issues threatened to close the abbey in 2011, Hart shifted her fundraising into high gear to save her home. Using her fame to raise awareness — and money — the actress-turned-nun completed a speaking tour and gave lots of press interviews. She also published an autobiography that delved into detail about her Hollywood career, her vocation and, of course, Elvis.
Pen to paper
The book, Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows, came out in 2013, and as of 2015 was on its third print run. Hart has also lent her artistic talents to a children’s book, for which she provided the illustrations. And in 2012 the erstwhile screen star found herself once again appearing in a movie.
Back on the silver screen
That starring role came about when a documentary team decided to make a film about Hart. Entitled God Is the Bigger Elvis, the 37-minute-long feature earned rave reviews as well as a nomination for the Best Documentary (Short Subject) Oscar. And, incredibly, Hart actually attended the award ceremony in Los Angeles.
A singular honor
Yet while God Is the Bigger Elvis didn’t end up winning its category, Hart still has one very special accolade under her belt. Owing to the nominations of that movie and The Inspector back in 1960, Hart joined the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And as such, she remains the only nun to be an active, voting academy member in its entire history.
Better than ever
So, after having spent over 50 years in a religious order, Hart is thriving — as is the abbey, with the now Mother Dolores’ involvement in the site’s expansion continuing apace. And even though Hart is now in her 80s, she carries on working. But if an actress-turned-nun-turned-documentary-star doesn’t carry enough interest for you, there’s another sister that may catch your attention.
The Cheese Nun
You see, the Abbey of Regina Laudis also boasts an artisanal cheese-making member. Sister Noella Marcellino, who possesses a Ph.D. in microbiology, specializes in studying — and producing — the delicious foodstuff. And she, too, has appeared in her own documentary: a PBS film called, you guessed it, The Cheese Nun. Mind you, that nickname is one that Marcellino really didn’t like until Hart gave her some excellent advice.
Hart told her sister to accept the moniker, as cheese sounds a lot more appealing than fungus. And she’s definitely not wrong. So, did the one-time screen star make the right choice to leave her film career behind? Well, it seems that she thinks so. During a 2017 appearance at New York City’s The Leo House, Hart said, “I never felt I was walking away from Hollywood. I felt I was walking into something more significant. And by [doing] that, I took Hollywood with me.”
The King connection
Yes, Hart’s story and her connection to Elvis are as beautiful as they are unexpected. And while there's no way to know exactly what Presley thought about her career shift, the two shared a common bond in their devotion to a bigger cause than their own stardom. In fact, the rocker risked it all when he stepped away from the stage in favor of a far less glamorous setting.
The King’s enduring success is all the more remarkable for the fact that his career was interrupted for two years early on by military service. The U.S. Army drafted the star in March 1958 at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, as a private. ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, Elvis’ infamous manager, ensured that he got as much publicity out of the occasion as possible.
No special treatment
Parker hired a photographer to capture every moment of Elvis’ induction for prosperity. This included the star’s early-morning trip from his Graceland home dressed in a sports coat, open-collar shirt and dark slacks. Elvis looked surprisingly chipper at the time. And despite being a global icon, he insisted that he did not want any special treatment.
Hair today, gone tomorrow
Indeed, the star’s famous locks met the same fate as the other new recruits’, being unceremoniously sheared off by an army barber. The sight of Elvis getting his haircut was enjoyed by hundreds of locals as well as a media scrum. It was here where the King uttered his famous words, “Hair today, gone tomorrow.”
Sticking to his word
Elvis also turned down the opportunity to make his army life that little bit more comfortable. The star was given the option to form an eponymous company consisting of his pals back home. He could also have skipped any kind of combat duty to instead serve as a recruiting model.
Of course, Elvis’ military career should actually have begun a little earlier. In 1953 and on his 18th birthday the music icon took to the Selective Service System to get his name registered and ensure he was draft-eligible. At the time, Korea was in the midst of a civil war.
However, Elvis avoided conscription during the final months of this conflict thanks to a student deferment. The star was still attending Memphis’ L.C. Humes High School when he turned 18. But it wasn’t long before Elvis was called up for duty. Only on this occasion, his reason for deferring was very different.
His time had come
In 1957 Elvis was a musical superstar adored by millions across the world. He was also a big-screen regular and was due to shoot King Creole, his third Hollywood feature, when his draft number was called up. This was deemed a good enough excuse, yet just a year later Elvis was left with no option but to join the military.
Following his early training, Elvis was granted furlough and subsequently enjoyed a brief return to his Memphis hometown. He even found the time to hit the recording studio for another session. But in June 1958 he traveled back to Fort Hood for some more advanced training. This time around, Elvis lived off-base with his parents, who had also moved to Texas to support their son.
Elvis’ personal life would also change dramatically during his time in the U.S. Army. In 1958 just weeks after learning she had contracted hepatitis, his mother, Gladys, passed away from heart failure at the age of 46. But in September the next year, the star met the then-14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu in Germany. Almost a decade later, the New York City-born woman became his wife and, subsequently, the mother of his only child, Lisa Marie.
Hooked on pills
Less happily, it was allegedly during his military service that Elvis developed a love of amphetamines. The star became something of an advocate for the stimulant after being introduced to the drug by a sergeant. Indeed, according to army pal Rex Mansfield, the singer was all too keen to extol their virtues to his buddies.
In an interview with Peter Guralnick, author of Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, Mansfield revealed, “Elvis would say, ‘These little pills will give you more strength and energy than you can imagine.’ It was better to take the pill with coffee, Elvis would say. Because the hot coffee and caffeine would tend to make the pill work a lot quicker.”
Getting into karate
However, the army also inspired Elvis to take up a physically healthier pursuit: karate. Famously, the singer would often incorporate martial arts moves into his performances after coaching from German karate legend Jürgen Seydel. Elvis also once spent nine consecutive days training with Japan’s Tetsugio Murakami during his paid leave.
After completing his training at Fort Hood in Texas, Elvis was posted to Friedburg, Germany as part of the 3rd Armored Division. Perhaps much to the ire of his manager, The King was deemed strictly off-limits to the press. But his producers at RCA ensured he didn’t become a case of out of sight, out of mind back home by gradually releasing various unreleased songs over the two years he spent in Europe.
Hard times abroad
Elvis would later admit that he initially found his time in Friedburg challenging. At a press conference staged in the wake of his military exit, the star said, “I was in a strange land and the outfit I was in, we had quite a bit of field duty. We stayed in a field for six months out of the year and it gets cold in Germany. It was pretty hard to adjust to.”
Missing show business
And there was one change that Elvis found more difficult than anything else. At the same press conference the star revealed that his biggest challenge was “being away from the fans and just being away from show business altogether… It wasn’t the army, it wasn’t the other men, it was that. It stayed on my mind.”
Little light comedy
Remarkably, Elvis somehow found the opportunity to add to his filmography while stationed in Freiburg. Several scenes from 1960’s G.I. Blues were shot during his stint in the German city and approximately 100 of his division members served as extras. The film was described by military newspaper Stars and Stripes at the time as “a comedy on the light side dealing with 3d Armored Division soldiers.”
One man who certainly didn’t appreciate the extra attention that Elvis brought with him was officer Capt. Russell. The King had initially been deployed as his truck driver. However, fed up with 15 bags of fan mail and hordes of local girls who attempted to get a glimpse of the star, Russell soon had him transferred to another position.
And the man leading the scout platoon to which Elvis was transferred was certainly not an individual to be taken lightly. Lieutenant William Taylor told the BBC, “Sgt. Jones didn’t take any junk from anybody. If he wanted to keep the media away from Presley, he’s the guy who could do it.”
Just a regular soldier
Just like he did in Fort Hood, Elvis brought several family members with him while stationed in Germany. Both his father and grandmother were allowed to stay off-base with the star and several of his friends also made the trip across the Atlantic. However, Elvis was still treated very much like any other soldier while serving.
Above and beyond
In fact, some believe that Elvis actually did more than his fair share. For the King was apparently keen to quash any speculation that he was abusing his star power. As an example, he traveled near to the Czech border with his unit for tests in weapons proficiency and for more field training.
Work hard, play hard
Elvis also adhered to the work hard, play hard lifestyle while serving in the army. The singer and his military pals would often paint the nearest town red after a tough day’s graft. And Elvis wasn’t afraid to defend his buddies whenever they found themselves in a spot of trouble.
On one particular occasion, Elvis’ friend Mansfield got into a scuffle with a local. “He was a great big German guy, much bigger than me,” Mansfield recalled to the BBC. “He hit me first. Elvis actually knocked the guy out. He slid down the wall. He deserved to get whipped, and he did.”
Elvis’ dedication to military life didn’t go unrewarded, as he was soon promoted to the rank of sergeant. However, in late January 1960, the star was honorably discharged from the army and given a mustering-out check worth nearly $110. And Elvis certainly seemed proud of what he had achieved during his military stint.
Proving them wrong
“People were expecting me to mess up, to goof up in one way or another,” he said in a press conference at the time. “They thought I couldn’t take it, and so forth. And I was determined to go to any limits to prove otherwise, not only to the people who were wondering, but to myself.”
And Elvis also claimed that his time in the military had been a largely positive one. He said, “I suppose the biggest thing is that I did make it. I tried to play it straight like everybody else. I made a lot of friends that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. All in all, it’s been a pretty good experience.”
Elvis’ military stint is particularly well documented at Graceland. On the 60th anniversary of the star’s recruitment, the exhibit titled “Private Presley” was expanded to give fans a further insight into the King’s army life. Items on display included his mother’s induction ceremony dress, his footlocker and memorabilia from the Welcome Home, Elvis special screened on ABC.
A hero's welcome
And Elvis sure received a hero’s welcome on his return to U.S. soil in March 1960, with fans mobbing the train which transported the King to his hometown in Tennessee. He also received the Army Good Conduct Medal for his service, having achieved qualifications as a skilled marksman. Nonetheless, it was the star’s generosity which impressed his fellow military men the most.
In a BBC Radio 4 documentary about Elvis’ military career broadcast in March 2018, many of his compatriots recalled the star’s inherent kindness with affection. One former G.I. remembered how the King had once paid $15,000 from his own pocket so that three buddies could join him for a 14-day furlough. The group then enjoyed the rock-’n’-roll party lifestyle for the entire two weeks.
Spreading the wealth
And, reportedly, his generosity during his time in the U.S. military did not end there. Indeed, it’s said that the star gave all of his army wages to charity. On another occasion, Elvis stumped up $1,500 on the Q.T. to help with funeral expenses for a fellow private who’d lost his entire immediate family. In addition, the singer purchased televisions for his military base and ensured that all his fellow soldiers at the facility had an extra set of fatigues.
Elvis continued to share his wealth on resuming his showbiz career, but sometimes on a more high-profile basis. After famously buying the FDR presidential yacht in 1964, he promptly gave it away to a children’s medical research hospital. The King’s “Aloha from Hawaii” show in 1973 raised more than $75,000 for cancer research, while he performed a benefit gig two years later for tornado victims in his Mississippi birthplace.
However, alongside all the grand gestures, Elvis also made countless smaller donations to charitable organizations across the country. In fact, he surreptitiously gave individual sums of $1,000 to more than 50 Tennessee charities each and every year. The singer also settled sundry medical bills, debts and mortgage payments for numerous acquaintances, all without any media fanfare whatsoever.
Buying real estate
And Elvis was just as generous with his nearest and dearest. He ensured that his close family never wanted for anything. He once paid for the construction of a brand-new home for his dad, Vernon, and stepmother, Dee. The King also forked out thousands of dollars to buy houses for his good buddies, Joe Esposito and Jerry Schilling.
Sadly, Elvis became more renowned for his ill health and rumored drug misuse than his generosity during his later years. By the mid-1970s, the singer had been diagnosed with everything from liver damage and high blood pressure to glaucoma. The King had also become highly erratic on stage, with one critic describing him in 1977 as a “grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self.”
Tragically, Elvis’ lifeless body was found in the bathroom of his Graceland home in August that year. Cardiac arrest was initially announced as the 42-year-old’s cause of death. The original medical examiner claimed that drugs had played no part in the King’s downfall. However, other reports suggested that the star had 14 toxic substances in his system at the time of his demise.
Continuing his legacy
Nonetheless, Elvis’ giving nature lived on in the form of two major charities. In 1984 Graceland/Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. founded the Elvis Presley Charitable Foundation to honor the King’s memory. And in 2007 his daughter Lisa Marie formed a philanthropic non-profit organization known as The Presley Charitable Foundation. In his later years, Elvis scored a massive hit with “An American Trilogy,” which quoted from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with the line, “His truth is marching on…”