Mother Dolores Hart, "The nun who kissed Elvis," on fame and loving Les Miserables

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Mother Prioress Dolores Hart may be the most famous nun in America. Born Dolores Hicks, her effortless good looks and girl-next-door charm won her a part -- as Dolores Hart -- alongside Elvis in 1957's Loving You. And as the cool-headed leader of a gaggle of thrill-seeking co-eds in the 1960 hit Where the Boys Are, she nabbed a star-making role -- and a voting membership in the Academy of Motion Pictures.

But as Hart describes in her new memoir published by Catholic publishers Ignatius Press, The Ear of the Heart: An Actress' Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows, her faith never stopped calling her. In 1963, Hart joined the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, forsaking the entertainment world for good. But the entertainment world hasn't given up on heart: She was featured in the HBO documentary God Is the Bigger Elvis, and is now on a cross-country book tour. Hart recently stopped by the Westword offices after speaking at the Catholic Media Conference to discuss her book, the challenges that her abbey faces, and her vote for Best Picture. And she did it with the grace of a movie star, even at 74.

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Westword: When people found out about your story, it caused quite a commotion. How have you dealt with the publicity these past couple years?

Mother Dolores Hart: Actually, the publicity doesn't affect us much, because we're an enclosed monastery. But part of our work is hospitality, meeting people. So we're not as hidden away as folks might think. But we do meet people in a particular room, and we do hold the custom of the grille. And it helps people for some reason: They relax, and they feel they can say anything.

So you've been talking to a lot of people, and a lot of reporters. What's the question you get asked the most often?

"What was it like to work with Elvis?" [Laughs.] And why not? I probably wouldn't have all this attention if it wasn't for him.

Tell me about your relationship with Dick DeNeut, your co-author on this book.

Dick was with Globe Photos, which was a photo syndicate that made movie magazines and did all kinds of publicity for people in show business at that time. I dated Dick for a while, and we would often go to parties together, and he would prime me on where I was going, who I was going to see and why. Long story short, Dick and I became friends, even after I entered the monastery. He helped do a book on the life of Patricia Neal, a friend and a frequent guest at our monastery. A few years ago he said to me, "When are you going to do your memoirs? You're going to be too old to remember anything!" So I said, "Well, if you're not too old to help me, we can do it."

He said, "All we have do is talk on the phone for an hour or so each day, because we don't have a deadline. We'll just talk it through, take down your memories, and I'll edit them."
So we started -- let's see, 2003? And we finished and sent the manuscript to Ignatius Press. Dick wanted a secular press, but I said, "I think, being Catholic, they're going to understand where I come from."

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Dolores and her co-author. Dick DeNeut, at the beginning of their fifty-plus year friendship.

What was it like dredging up your whole life, and then working with Dick to put it on paper?

It seemed very normal. Because I have seen many of my sisters who have come to the end of their life, and God asks you to remember. God asks, in some shape or form, for you to evaluate your life. I'm not sure how He could have done better for me.

Tell us about the renovations happening at the abbey.

A couple of years ago, we wanted to build something for our bakery. The fire department came and said, "Look... we haven't said this for a number of years, but you are way under code. We can't let you build until you've fixed up a few things." Well, the fixing up of a few things... is to the tune of a million dollars. So we had to dig, and we had to ask for grants, and to go for funds in every way that was possible. But then we find out that the whole reformation of the abbey, to make it look right, is going to be another three million. So we've got about ten more years of hustling.

Wow. So what's your plan? What are you going to do in the near future?

I think we'll probably do the same as we have: we'll ask for help, we'll seek different grants, and we'll try to find new ways. Nobody would ever have allowed me to go on a book tour a few years ago, but right now the archbishop said, "Do what you need to do."

You're a member of the academy, you keep up with the movies. How has the place of religion in popular culture changed since you entered the abbey?

You know, they're still trying to make horror movies, and still trying to make sex movies. All of that was worse before I came in -- in the '30s, there was no code. I think there's always that element, where something has a value to really do good, to come in and wipe it out. It happens everywhere. Certainly, the films have gotten better since I was in them. The way they photograph the films, the digital quality, it's a fantastic advance from the kind of things they used when I was in the industry. Like Les Miserables, I don't think they could have done a story like that when I was young. Just the capacity to photograph that was astonishing.

Continue for more from Mother Dolores.

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