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

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.

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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."

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.

What movie have you seen recently that you liked?

I'd say Les Miserables -- it's the one I voted for. I think it was so beautifully and simply approached. They allowed the actors to sing using their own voices. That would never have happened back then. They would have some fancy person come in and re-dub you -- which was what happened fifty years ago. And it was so beautifully honest, and so delicately done, in a way that showed Hollywood's capacity to take the human mystery and dive into it, to understand who we are. What have you learned from going on this tour?

I've heard it said that America was facing a new dark age. And I have seen the darkness, and the fear in people -- in the midst of the most incredibly beautiful advancements. We never had these things when I was younger. But things don't erase the inner sense of "Why? What's the purpose?" The thought that you'd send your child to school and that the child would be killed by a rascal with a tommy gun -- those kind of things are terrible. But then you stop and say, "Well, ten years ago they said that kids couldn't pray in school anymore." So who's going to enter school but the bad spirit? What do you tell people who come to you about this darkness?

I tell them, what you've got to do is find a light in yourself. Because it's there. Every person who wants to do something, and loves something, will find a light. If you risk to love, you find the light. That doesn't mean to be promiscuous. It doesn't mean to sell yourself. It means to really love someone where you want to give that person a life, and you want to be with them, to help them. That's why I know our monastery works. I know that's why I stayed. Because there were people who cared enough to work through it with me. And I want to do that for the young people who come, to try to help them dig. In every person, there's a call, because we are created by God, we're not created by an evil spirit. The evil spirit is everything that wants to destroy the body.

What did you think of your stop in Denver?

I love the honesty and directness of the people in the West, in Colorado. I think it ties in with where I lived for many years, Los Angeles. There's this quality of, "Okay, let's do it." [Snaps fingers.] And I like that there's no talking around the bend. How long have you been away from the abbey on tour?

I've been away a week. It seems like a million years. Every day I call home. I have neuropathy, and your medication is what keeps you going. Something in me changes and says, "Okay, you can go." Because when I talk to the Abbess [Mother Abbess David Serna, the Mother Superior of Regina Laudis], my heart lightens, and my head stops churning. I'm her prioress, and we laughingly say in the abbey, "The prioress is the dog of the abbess."

Why is that?

Because you do whatever the abbess tells you! [Laughs.]

The Ear of the Heart: An Actress' Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows is now available in hardback and e-book from Ignatius Press.

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