Interview with Mother Dolores Hart


BY BARBARA MIDDLETON

Recently you have become a spokeswoman for Neuropathy Association and testified before the House of Representatives Subcommittee in Washington D.C., on March 30, 2006. Why did you decide to speak out on this disease?
"Well, Barbara, the reason I decided to do this is because I got this disease in 1997. I was stricken with neuropathy and I have a long history of this. Here is an account?"

"If you have not heard of neuropathy, you are not alone. Neither had I, until 1997, when I had a root canal from hell. The fact that I was not able to eat after the procedure certainly came as no surprise. What alarmed me was that, two days later, I was not able to walk either! I could not put any weight on my feet when I tried to stand. That was just the beginning. My pain became so constant that I developed TMJ from clenching my teeth all of the time. At times my feet felt like they were on fire, then freezing. I developed chronic pain in my ankles and legs. As time passed the pain spread with no observable pattern, or waning. It also, attacked my hips, back, bladder, and face and caused incessant ringing in my ears. I went from physician to physician with no results. Some offered medications for diseases which I didn't have. One suggested it was all in my mind. Several mistaken diagnoses led to serious complications, which sent me to the Emergency Room where it nearly proved fatal. Eight months later, I was diagnosed with Idiopathic Sensory Peripheral Neuropathy. I subsequently receive invaluable treatments from Dr. Latov, which, although not curing the disease, allowed me to live with its effects. He got me out of the wheelchair. When they asked me to be the spokesperson for the Neuropathy Association, Mother Abbess said, "By all means! She felt that was the least that I could do for them. That was in 1994."

On April 3, 2006 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA a fundraising dinner was held for Neuropathy and you were honored. What was it like to come back to Hollywood after forty years of absence?

"I felt very much like I was coming back home because I grew up three blocks from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel at 153 S. Reeves Drive which is, if I'm not incorrect, east of the hotel. I was a child of six or seven years old when I lived there with my mother. I often used to play in the backyard of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel before it became the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. My mother used to work at the Pig & Whistle Restaurant which is no longer there. That neighborhood was very familiar to me and it was very moving to find myself in this same area now that I was a grown up person."

Did you go back to visit your home when you were in California?

"There wasn't time to visit, just, to go by it and acknowledge the wonder of being there."

For me (Barbara Middleton) it was a grace-filled evening, attending the event. What were your thoughts throughout the evening?

"I was moving so quickly person to person, I was mainly trying to absorb the incredible presence of persons like my 7th grade schoolteacher Madame Anthony, and Marilyn Fix, who was a classmate, and all of a sudden to see in person those you haven't seen in 58 years and continuously the evening was like that. The whole evening was like that. I saw Ralph Leo. He was a grip, whom I haven't seen since the 1960s. I met, him, on the film "St. Francis of Assisi" in Rome. It was a playing-out of faces and persons that, was really, I just had to think, "This is really an experience of the Body of Christ!"

Did you attend Good Shepherd Catholic Church, since you lived so close?

"I did. I was not a member of the parish, but often attended the Church."

In 1963 you loved your work and the people you worked with in Hollywood, but a call to the religious life brought you to the Abbey of Regina Laudis. Can you explain the call to the monastic life?

“I don't know if it's easy or possible to explain a vocation. People have tried to explain it for centuries. The easiest way to explain it is to say: 'Falling in love. One falls in love with the Lord.' When you fall in love, you know you can't change your mind, you can't go anywhere else and you can't renege. You have to go with the person you love, no matter what the consequences are, you know that is the case, there is no changing. That was, for me, what the call to monastic life was like."

That evening at the Beverly Wilshire the event was filled with glitter and glamour with lots of celebrities, in the room. Mariette Hartley thanked you for saving her in some difficult times during her personal life and career. Can you tell us about your friendship with Mariette and how it influenced her so deeply?

"Mariette was supposed to be in the film: 'Come Fly With Me.' Eventually, Lois Nettleton ended up playing in it, because Mariette got very ill and couldn't take part. That was very serious for her, not only losing the part, but being so very ill. It influenced Mariette to the point that, when I entered the monastery, she felt close enough to me, to come, and speak to me about her own suffering; exploring what had happened to her in her own personal life, think when you are hit with something like that in your personal life, and when you're are doing a show together, it becomes a shared moment that you wouldn't normally talk about if you are just doing a show, if you know what I mean. Then Mariette did come to my Abbey and was able to speak to me about the serious issues alluded to in her book, and I think that probably brought us closer. We both had alcoholic parents and suffered that problem growing up. She felt free to talk to me about what affected her in that crisis, because I wasn't speaking down to her but as a sister that had also gone through that same problem. She talked to me as a friend, not, as somebody who knew all the answers."

It was a beautiful witness that she gave.

"Yes."

You portrayed St. Clare in the movie "Francis of Assisi", and Bradford Dillman played St. Francis; Bradford was the co-emcee for the evening. When you visited the convent of St. Clare in Assisi, you were taken inside to view her holy body behind the enclosure. That's never permitted to the outside world. What were you thinking at that time?

"I was very moved, of course, by this experience. I was wrestling with the idea of a vocation already at that time, and was wondering what it would be like to live within an enclosure; wondering what were the indications at that time, trying to pray to St. Clare for insight and understanding of the enclosed life, because she did live with the Benedictines before she became a. Franciscan. She knew both aspects of the life. I was also thinking about the beautiful hair that she had and was wondering how I could keep my hair without getting it cut!"

(both laughing!)

Earl Holliman sang your praises at the dinner and mentioned visiting the Vatican with you and meeting the Holy Father. Can you tell us about that meeting?

Oh that meeting was really extraordinary, because Monsignor Carew got us into that meeting with Pope John XXIII. When I went to meet Pope John, he was so kind. When they announced to him that I would play St. Clare, he said; "Ohhhh, You are St. Clare." and I said "No, No, Your Holiness, my name is Dolores Hart, an actress" and he said, "No, no I DO understand, but for YOU, YOU are St. Clare." I stopped him again, "Sorry your Holiness, I am Dolores Hart." He insisted, "yes yes I understand, but for you it is Clare." I bowed my had and asked for his blessing and nearly died."

Paul Prentiss and Richard Benjamin attended the dinner. Paula was in the movie, "Where the Boys Are." with you and she, too, was thanking you for your friendship and her return to Catholicism. Are you aware how God uses you to deepen the faith in others?

"I am always shocked, Barbara! I was that night. It was the first time I realized that anything like that had happened."

It truly was a night of grace.

"It really was."

Lois Nettleton came to the dinner and was in the last movie that you made, "Come fly With Me." Karl Malden was also in that movie. Have you seen Karl Malden?

"Yes, I saw Karl Malden the night before we left California. He was just wonderful. It was one of the high points of the visit to the West Coast because he is a patriarch for me-- a man in the industry whom I look up to as being one of the most beautiful and finest persons in the industry. Everything he tells me I absorb like from a brother and I go away and can't remember because it was ALL so important. He is so gifted. You just absorb his presence."

Patricia Neal the Academy Award winning actress thrilled us with a reading from Helen Keller. Can you share with us your love for Patricia Neal, a valiant woman?

"Patricia is the MOST faithful friend anyone could ever ask for. Patricia flew all the way to California to be with me for that dinner. Nearly knocked me out. I just wept when she told me she was coming. To do that for me just after having surgery. I can't imagine. She would do this for any one of her friends that she cares deeply about. She did it for me and that's all I can say. I would trust Patricia with my life."

Father Robert Lawton, President of Loyola Marymount University presented an Honorary Doctorate to you. I heard you comment, "The Lord Has the Last Laugh," Can you explain that statement?

"The funny part is, I lost my scholarship to Marymount because my scholarship was in acting, and I went to take a screen test with Paul Nathan at Paramount the very same day that they had final exams in drama at Marymount. Ms. Barnell, who was my drama teacher at Marymount told me that if I didn't show up for the tests, she couldn't pass me. She warned me. If you go and take that screen test, I couldn't pass you. She said, "Everyone here wants to go off to Hollywood, but you have to be here in person to pass your exams."

I went upstairs in the dorm and wept my heart out. The dean (Mother Gabriel) said to me, "Oh honey, listen..Go and take the screen tests. If you fail them, come back next year and I'll start you out as an English major. Every girl here wants to go to Hollywood. You have to TRY your best and don't worry about it." So I went to Paramount. At that time, I was in a play at our school, Loyola, playing the part of St. Joan. One of the boys sent my picture around to the movie studios. Hal Wallis got a hold of it and he sent a talent scout to our play and that's how I got invited to the screen test. I went to the screen test, and lo and behold I got an "F" in drama on my report card, lost my scholarship and had to leave school. By the end of the week I was sobbing my heart out. All of a sudden, my life changed overnight when I got a call from Paul Nathan's office that I was going to be in the movie! The ironic part, I thought it was one of my friend's kidding me and I hung up! Paul Nathan had to call me back and tell me it was a real call and not to hang up on him again! He said, Please come. We want to talk to you, I said, "I will be there. He said to come over within an hour, so Don Barbeau picked me up in a 1938 hearse which he drove. I had my school letter sweater on and white "bucks" we used to wear and I jumped into the car with Don to go over to Paramount and I met in with Paul Nathan, Hal Kanter, the director, and Elvis Presley for the movie, 'Loving You.' It was wonderful."

All the guests at the Neuropathy dinner received a gift from the Abbey, the 'Women in Chant' CD. Most Benedictine monasteries dropped the chant and have gone over to the vernacular and you have guarded the chant as a precious jewel. Tell us what the Gregorian chant means to you.

"Well, Gregorian Chant is our first language. Lady Abbess brought the chant from Jouarre, the women's Abbey where she entered in 1936. Dr. Theodore Marier taught us the chant since the 1960's. He was an ace. He knew chant from the greatest masters of its time. He taught us for 40 years from the originals. Not just any way that it could be sung, but the authentic originals from the earliest centuries. You can find these recorded from the earliest journals of the masters. Regina Laudis wants to be in line with History."

Carol Burnett sat next to you during the dinner along with Army Archard. What was it like being surrounded by your friends?

"They were wonderful. Army has been a friend for years. Army is like talking to my Father. I feel like I can tell him anything."

After the dinner you had the opportunity to visit with Dolores Hope. She's been an ongoing sponsor of the Neuropathy Association. How is she?

"She was just so wonderful, Barbara. She looked marvelous and strong. She met us at the door. You wouldn't believe she is in her 90s. So erect and so beautiful in her desire to be there for us. She said, the most wonderful thing. When asked about her own previous career, she answered, "My career was being the wife to Bob Hope."

How did you think Ty Herndon sounded when he sang to you, the No. 1 hit, 'What Mattered Most' and also, 'How Great Thou Art?'

"I thought he reminded me of, and sounded like, a young Elvis Presley."

I asked Dick Denoit, when will the book be ready on Mother Dolores Hart. He answered, "This is the Last Chapter," and walked away. What did he mean?

"It means that he is going to conclude it with this, my last trip home to Hollywood."

Would you like to add something for a closing.

"I'd like to add this, When I spoke to Bob Thomas in California, I told him that I never had my name above the titles in any film. Well, that was a very stupid remark on my account, and was a great disfavor to my agent, Harry Bernsen, who worked his tail off to get my name with Monty Clift and Myrna Loy and Robert Ryan in the very film that Bob was telling me about with 'Lonely Hearts.' It was the 3rd film that I was in. I had my name over the titles and on the basis of that film, he was able to ask if I could be a member of the Academy. Harry continued to ask for this billing for the rest of my career. It's not that this is so important to others, but it is important for people to know what he did for me as my agent. It was just an unwitting kind of thing to say as an artist. Harry Bernsen was such a hardworking agent for me. I hear from him often. I just didn't want to let something like that go. Does that make sense? Harry deserves a great credit for what he did for me in my career. He made a beautiful career for me. It was not happenstance. It was star studded. People like Harry made it happen. He fought for it."

Barbara Middleton
Holy Trinity Apostolate