Leaving Hollywood for a Higher Calling

— Elvis Presley fans will be marking the 25th anniversary of the King's death this week. But before Elvis became a sexy, hip-swiveling idol, he was a somewhat shy young man who blushed in his first onscreen kiss. And Dolores Hart, the woman who gave Elvis that kiss, has an extraordinary story of her own.

In the late 1950s, Hart was one of the most visible and envied women in Hollywood. She was a beautiful young starlet billed as the next Grace Kelly.

She starred in films with Anthony Quinn, Robert Wagner, Jeff Chandler, and Montgomery Clift, and was the top-billed actress in MGM's highest-grossing movie of 1962: Where the Boys Are.

Today she is Mother Dolores. She lives at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in rural Connecticut, where she has been a cloistered nun for 37 years.

Through a special dispensation from the Abbey, ABCNEWS' Bob Brown was able to talk with her.

Baptized in Hollywood's Glow

Hart was a child of the silver screen — both of her parents were actors. Early on, Hart thought she too would have a career in the movies.

"I grew up on Mulholland Drive, watching the klieg lights, just enamored at the lights from Sunset Boulevard," she says. "You can imagine what that meant to me, as a 6-year-old, to suddenly find myself wandering around 20th Century Fox movie lots, thinking that was going to be my future."

Though her parents were not religious, they sent her to a parochial school in Chicago where she lived with her grandparents. Leaving Hollywood, however, was a brief diversion from her path to the silver screen.

Hart grew into a striking beauty and in 1957, at the age of 18, she signed a contract with famed movie producer Hal Wallis. That year she was catapulted to fame, starring opposite a 22-year-old Presley in the film Loving You.

Hart recalled that when she and Elvis were supposed to kiss, they blushed. "My ears started getting purple, and even his ears started getting purple," she recalls. "They brought everybody over to brush our ears down with, um, paint or whatever it is."

She has fond memories of working with Elvis: "If there is one thing that I am most grateful for, it's the privilege of being one of the few persons left to acknowledge his innocence."

Finding Peace in the Country

Despite her success and celebrity, however, Hart remembers her time in show business as filled with heartache.

As successful and talented as she was, Hart found that working on films was not unlike the breakup of her family. She found it emotionally difficult to separate from her colleagues after bonding with them while shooting a movie.

"You work intensely for maybe eight to 10 weeks. And then you break," she says. "And you never see the person again. It's terrible … I think that's one of the most anguishing parts of Hollywood."

During a period in which she worked in New York, starring in a Broadway play, Hart would often retreat to the country on her days off. On the suggestion of a friend, she took refuge in the guest house of a Connecticut convent, Abbey of Regina Laudis.

Hart was initially hesitant about the abbey, thinking back on her experience as a Catholic schoolgirl in Chicago. But unlike Hollywood, it offered community and continuity. Its members worked hard and stayed together.

Hart was hooked: "I felt that I was going to be back here sometime."

More than three years after the first of several visits to the convent, Hart was engaged to be married. But instead of becoming a wife, she says she had a spiritual calling and dedicated herself to the church and life at Regina Laudis.

For California businessman Don Robinson — Dolores Hart's fiancé — the news was devastating. "I actually broke down and cried," he recalled. "I couldn't believe it." Nonetheless, he supported Hart's decision — as well as her desire to keep that decision quiet.

A Limo Ride to the Convent

Hart's decision to enter the convent came as MGM was launching her next film Come Fly With Me. Knowing she was under a seven-year contract with the studio, she kept her decision quiet. When MGM asked Hart to promote the film on a publicity tour, she told them she wanted to visit friends. Following a publicity event, her limousine dropped her off at Regina Laudis. That was the end of Hart's life on the silver screen.

She found the transition into the sisterhood difficult. Her career in film left Hart ill-prepared for the discipline of cloistered life. Seven years passed, she says, before she felt completely comfortable with her decision to join the order.

Robinson still lives in Los Angeles and has never married. He continues to visit the woman he now knows as Mother Dolores each year. "We have grown together. Like we would have in our marriage," he says, "She's my life."

In recent years, Mother Dolores's health has declined. She suffers from a nerve condition that sometimes leaves her in extreme pain. And even though she is confident in that she made the right choice in joining the order, she says it was not a choice to abandon who she was.

"I have struggled with this call to vocation all my life," she says. "I can understand why people have doubts, because who understands God? I don't. When you are dealing with something at this level, you are dealing with mystery."

This story was originally broadcast March 23, 2001.

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