Wednesday, October 9, 2013

From Hollywood to the cloister

The Ear of the Heart, Mother Dolores Hart, OSB & Richard DeNeut

This is the October choice for one of my book groups, and a friend was kind enough to give me a copy.  I'm not sure I would have bought it for myself, I'd probably have waited out the library queue. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't quite what I expected, and I'll be interested to see what the group makes of it.

Dolores Hart was a rising young star in Hollywood in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  She became an instant celebrity with her first film, Loving You in 1957, where she kissed Elvis Presley - his first on-screen kiss (and hers as well, of course, though nobody paid much attention to that).  She had a successful and prestigious stage debut in 1958, in a play that ran for a year on Broadway, which earned her a Tony nomination.  She returned to a range of film roles, and an engagement.  But in June of 1963, she shocked people across the country by entering a small cloistered Benedictine monastery in rural Connecticut.  There she would spend her days as "Mother Dolores," in manual labor and chanted Latin prayers, beginning with Matins at 1:50 AM.  Public interest remained high over the years, and the media continued to cover her life as a nun, particularly at major celebrations like her reception of the nun's habit.  She was the subject of a 2011 HBO documentary that was nominated for an Oscar (she attended the awards and was naturally the only one on the red carpet in a full religious habit, wimple and all). 

Finally Mother Dolores decided that the time had come to tell her own story, after years of requests.  She chose to write it with an old friend, a former boyfriend in fact, Richard DeNeut.  They had met in Hollywood, where he worked in a photo agency, and she was one of the stars he handled. They have collaborated on other projects, including the autobiography of actress Patricia Neal, much of which was written at Mother Dolores' abbey.  When I saw "and Richard DeNeut" on the cover, I figured he was the ghostwriter.  Instead, the story alternates between his narration, generally third-person, and Mother Dolores' first-person.  His is in plain type, hers in italic, so it's always easy to tell who is talking, and the switch back and forth between narrators seemed to me to work well.  There are also frequent brief interjections, quotes from taped interviews inserted into the narratives, which liven up the stories.

I am a big fan of classic films, particularly those of the 1930s and 1940s, and I was fascinated reading about Dolores Hart's film career and her life as a young actress in Hollywood.  As a student at Marymount College in Los Angeles, she was drawn to the drama department.  While acting in a play about Joan of Arc, she came to the attention of the great producer Hal Wallis, then at Paramount, who had won his first Oscar for Casablanca.  He put her under contract, casting her first in the Elvis film.  I don't know much about the films of the 1950s, but I recognized plenty of names and titles.  Dolores was a favorite of costume designer Edith Head, who called her "Junior."  She worked with George Cukor and Michael Curtiz, with Myrna Loy and Maureen Stapleton.  Maria Cooper Janis, the daughter of Gary Cooper, is one of her closest friends, and Dolores stood as Gary's godmother when he was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church.  When she made her theater debut, it was in a Broadway play with Cornelia Otis Skinner.  Throughout her career, her Roman Catholic faith remained at the center of her life and her work.  With fellow Catholics like Rosalind Russell, Loretta Young, and Irene Dunne, she was active in church groups and charities.

The year that Dolores spent in New York with the play would be the catalyst for the great change in her life.  A friend suggested that she visit the Regina Laudis monastery, where she could relax away from the theater.  At first she resisted, thinking it was a bit too conservative for her.  But she was drawn there in spite of herself, and she kept finding her way back, even from Hollywood.  She had no intention of becoming a nun.  She was sure that her vocation was acting, and marriage - she was sure that was what she wanted.  Until she became engaged - and then suddenly she wasn't sure at all. Even after she decided that she was called to the monastic, contemplative life, she wasn't sure, but she went.  This chapters on her first years in the abbey, her formation as a Benedictine nun, reminded me so much of Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede, also about a cloistered Benedictine abbey.  The main character, Philippa, a successful career woman, has a very difficult adjustment to life as a nun - as did Dolores Hart, who cried herself to sleep every night for three years.  Yet she stayed, convinced that this was her call, her vocation, despite opposition and sometimes cruelty from her religious sisters.  On the day of her First Vows, as the traditional Kiss of Peace was exchanged, one of the older nuns whispered, "Why don't you leave?"  I cannot imagine how devastating that must have been.

The later chapters of the book deal with the changes that have come to the abbey in the past 40 years.  Mother Dolores entered a community founded from France (though by an American), based in a thousand years of Benedictine spirituality and a deep-rooted tradition of forming nuns.  From the beginning, she found things she thought could and should be changed, adapted, to better suit women of the late 20th century, while remaining faithful to the Benedictine Rule.  Changes came slowly and with great difficulty, but in the end they transformed the abbey and the community.  I found this section less interesting, in part because it becomes more the story of the abbey and less of Mother Dolores.  There is a lot of discussion of the governance of the abbey.  At least fifteen nuns are introduced, who entered after Mother Dolores did, with little biographies of each of them, which I found really distracting.

In the end, as I said, I did enjoy this book, and I admire the courage and determination of Mother Dolores, in following what she believed then and knows now was God's will for her life.  It is an interesting spiritual autobiography.  I'd also recommend the first half to anyone interested in film history, and the second half to those interested in Benedictine spirituality or the contemplative life.


  1. What an interesting life! I've been reading a lot of spiritual memoirs lately, but haven't encountered any with two such different halves.

  2. When I read that beginning I wasn't expecting that ending, and I am intrigued. This must be a unique memoir and I will be checking my library catalogue, though in hope not in expectation.

  3. elizabeth, it's interesting though that she sees the connections between - her faith was at the center of her career, and even as a nun, she still considers herself an actress.

    Jane, I've never read a memoir like it :) I wish you lived closer, I'd lend it to you.

  4. What an interesting life--I had never heard this story, but it is intriguing and it sounds like a wonderful memoir that really delves into what transforms a life.

    Great review.

  5. Jane, it's such a unique story. I knew a little about her, from seeing articles about her in old newspapers, and it was very interesting to get the whole story.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!