A Cloistered Life

Simon Sebag Montefiore's search for: a) Elvis's girlfriend; b) religion; c) himself.

I have two images if a monastery: one is a sinister place of dank corrieders, icy cells, and cold stone; the other a kind of medieval, Monty-Pythonesque farce. The Abbey of Regina Laudis n Bethlehem, Connecticut, where I stayed for several days as a guest of the Benedictine Order, is neither. Entering this world is like stepping back into a quaint, rustic paradise that existed long ago-- in the age of oxen-yoked plows and horse-drawn carriages. 

I visited the abbey--working with the nuns as they brought in their harvest--because it was the home of a romantic and true story of Hollywood, God, and Elvis that has mystified America for 30 years. In 1962, Dolores Hart was a 24-year-old movie star with Grace Kelly looks and 11 films already to her credit, including Where the Boys Are, Loving You, and King Creole. In the latter two she costarred with Elvis Presley. There were rumors of a love affair and, later, of a child born of the couple's supposed tryst. Then, in 1963, she gave it all up to become a nun--joining a cloistered monastery and disappearing from celebrityhood forever.

Ever since, Hart's exquisite beauty and her friendship with Elvis Presley in the fresh dawn of his fame have made her the subject of lurid legends. In a society that regards Hollywood fame as Heaven, we presume that someone who gives it all up must be either crazy, ungrateful, or tainted by some terrible scandal.

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Her religious vows have prevented Mother Dolores (as she is now known) from answering such questions as: Did she have a love affair with Elvis? Did she bear the King's child--a Dauphin of rock 'n' roll? What kind of life does she lead today and does she ever regret giving up her star's crown for a nun's halo? More generally, why give up the routines of the rat race for the rigors of the monastery?

When an ex-lion tamer named Philip Stanic from Gary, Indiana, changed his name to Elvis Presley, Jr., in 1990, began a career as an Elvis impersonator, and claimed he was the fruit of Elvis's passionate affair with Dolores Hart in 1961, the press leapt on the story. Mother Dolores, banned from formal interviews by the Archbishop of Hertford, could not answer the accusations against her. Despite the attempts of a series of investigative journalists, they could not speak with her, nor even confirm that it was her they had seen while attending services at the monastery's quaint chapel. But as it seemed to me that she would want the truth told, I began a personal quest to speak with her that was almost as weird but ultimately as satisfying as Hart's own spiritual journey.

A combination of talent and looks--that cherubic innocence mixed with feline sensuality--made Hart a star almost overnight. She survived her turbulent family (her parents were alcoholics) by converting to Catholicism at the age of 10. At 18, in 1956, Paramount signed her to a seven-year contract.

Thirty-seven years later I called the abbey for the first time and asked to speak to her. The nun at the gate took a message but warned me that Mother Dolores was unlikely to return the call. Minutes later, my phone rang. It was a woman named Barbara Simon, who said she was calling "on behalf of the abbey" to say that Dolores Hart would not speak but that the allegations of the young man calling himself Elvis Presley, Jr., were lies. When I asked her where she was calling from, the phone went dead.

Now fully intrigued, I set out to enlist the help of another classic character of the silver screen: Patricia Neal, the stunning, Oscar-winning star of Hud and Breakfast at Tiffany's. Once Roald Dahl's wife, once Gary Cooper's lover, she had been felled in her prime by a near-fatal stroke. She recovered, I knew, with the help of...the Abbey of Regina Laudis.

THE FORMIDABLE MISS NEAL--charming, gravelly, and outrageous, met me in a New York City diner and told me that it was Maria Cooper, daughter of Gary Cooper, who introduced both her and Dolores Hart to Regina Laudis. She and Dolores spoke often and perhaps, if I was a good boy, she purred, she would mention me to Mother Dolores. "If you're lucky," the old screen siren added raffishly.

Days passed without a word. Just when it seemed my quest was over, the phone call came. I recognized the voice on the telephone the moment I picked it up. Even if I did not remember its distinctive trill from all those films, it was possibly the softest and most graceful voice I had ever heard:

"My name is Mother Dolores. I know that you called for me."

At once I asked if we could meet, but she reminded me that they were a closed order at the abbey: "The only reason I am talking to you is out of courtesy to your relationship with Patricia." Afraid that our conversation might end as abruptly as the mysterious Ms. Simon's, I wasted no time in asking her about Elvis Presley. Mother Dolores denied she ever had any love affair with him, quaintly calling him "Mr. Presley."

"I had a very good and sound and clean relationship with Mr. Presley; we were good friends. Mr. Presley was one of the finest persons I ever worked with in Hollywood. So no one can spoil our association. During the time we worked on it, we were good friends on the set and we had a good working relationship. We liked each other but we were not...we were never romantically linked. I was never in that kind of association with him."

I asked about the ex-lion tamer who claimed to be her son.

"There is no truth in what that young man has said," she answered. "He has abused both my name and Mr. Presley's. My name is not nearly as interesting to the press, but it does make a good story. So it is not right for this young man to try to create such an atmosphere in order to further his career."

There was no reason to disbelieve her, since many of the nuns happily admit love affairs before taking holy orders--as well as temptations afterward. I asked her what kind of life she led there? Did she work or just pray?

"I do all sorts of work here. In fact, I would like to invite you to visit and stay at the abbey because you have certainly been gracious and kind to me. I would like to extend our hospitality. Monastic life is very simple. You'd have to come up and see. But I cannot promise you we would ever meet. Would you like to stay?"

THE FOLLOWING WEEKEND THE CROTCHETY, BESPECTACLED SISTER Mary Elisabeth picked me up at the bus station in a big, scarred station wagon and drove me toward the aptly named Bethlehem. Only seven of the 47 nuns ever leave the estate to do chores--such as collecting me. The rest spend the remainder of their lives there.

"I hope your cell's not too hot," said the sister. "We have no air-conditioning, and it's almost 100 degrees today. Hot for haymaking."

I stayed at a cottage for male visitors. My cell was tiny, hot, austere: exactly like the nuns' cells in their quarters. As I stood peering at the "enclosure"--a wall surrounding the sisters' living area--I heard the roar of a tractor as it whizzed by, just missing me by a hair--a determined and somewhat ancient nun at the wheel, driving at top speed.

Later, I heard bells ringing and saw a nun driving a chariot pulled by two oxen--my introduction to the bucolic pleasures of Mother Dolores' life after Hollywood.

WANDERING around the 400 acres, I found the most active nuns I could have imagined: Mother Stephen, head of the farm (she bears one of the abbey's splendid array of medieval titles: Land Master), was feeding cows, supervising strawberry picking, haymaking, and milking. She called each cow by its nickname and fed it by hand. When I asked her about Mother Dolores, she shrugged as she poured out the hay: "Everyone here is blessed with some special gift."

In between all this muscular activity, the nuns have a praying routine that fills up most of their days. They must also rise at 1:15 A.M. to sing Matins for an hour and then again at 6:15 A.M. for Laudins. Bells ring to summon them to prayer.

At 8 the next morning I attended Mass. The nuns were huddled on the other side of the altar, behind a wooden grille, singing like celestial canaries in incomprehensible Latin. I could not see whether Mother Dolores was there or not--the grille was too dense, the curtain too opaque.

By a rather bizarre coincidence that Mother Dolores would most likely call the "Will of God," Father-Abbot Matthew Stark's "early morning homily" (as the nuns call his sermon) began: "in a time when the word 'awesome' is used to describe a slice of pizza and it is said that Elvis lives while God is dead, it is easy to see how out of touch we are with the glory of the Lord."

After Mass I was summoned by the Guest Master (another medieval title), Mother Placid, who has been at the abbey since 1949. I walked to the edge of the enclosure wall and around the back of it to a little door. I knocked. A voice said "Enter.' There was another door on which a sign read SAINT PLACID. I knocked again and entered. The jolly and energetic nun sat on the other side of a wooden grill to enlighten me about the lives of the saints. It was so hot that both Mother Placid, who was 66 and of course wearing her full habit, and I were sweating profusely in the little parlor of Saint Placid.

She asked if I would like to work that day, and I told her I would like to help with the harvest. "Mother Stephen will be delighted," she smiled.

"And will I able to meet Mother Dolores?" I asked.

Mother Placid shrugged gaily. "She's very busy, but maybe you'll be lucky...."

THE SUN WAS BEATING down on the rich, golden fields. It was the hottest day of a record-breaking heat wave. Mother Stephen was driving a bale-making machine behind her tractor while I worked with some nuns and volunteers piling up the bales, throwing them onto trucks, and then unloading them into bales near the dairy cows. It was hard work. Mother Stephen insisted we drink every five minutes, and the nuns prepared huge vats of iced lemon juice to prevent us from getting heat stroke.

The scene was surreal if idyllic--something from another century. But the strangest part was that the nuns were harvesting in their black habits as if they were in chapel. Yet they worked very hard, sweating and laboring in the dust and heat as if they were farmers.

But there was still no sign of Mother Dolores.

I must admit that I had expected long, cold, stone corridors and nuns lamenting in Latin behind iron grilles--not this sort of rural paradise. These nuns were so muscular that they could throw bales of hay 10 feet in the air, to the very top of the stack. When I tried the same feat, I almost dislocated my arm. The nuns, their habits covered in hay stubble and earth, hooted with laughter at my lack of strength.

When I was summoned by Mother Placid a second time, it was the end of the day. I was tanned and aching from the work, and I was becoming anxious: Would I ever meet the enigmatic Mother Dolores? I knew it was unlikely but still, I hoped....

THE CELIBATE LIFE OF THE NUNS IS THE source of the most misunderstandings and humor about monastic life. I asked Mother Placid about the Benedictine Order's attitude toward female sexuality.

"Is that your favorite subject?" she chuckled. I blushed. It was the third time I had asked her about it.

"For us in the outside world, the celibacy is the most inexplicable part of your life. I mean, what's wrong with pleasure?"

"Outsiders think we're shocked by sex," she said. "We're not opposed to sexuality here, except when it is soulless and empty. Don't you ever feel empty inside if you have sex without the community of love and creation?"

Strangely enough, I admitted this had sometimes happened to me.

"There you are," she answered.

"But I'm not about to give it up. Don't you ever feel sexual desire here?"

"Of course. We are human. We also see the animals on the farm. We know temptation and sometimes it is a good test. But we have given up all selfish personal appetites. We have no property of our own. We don't say anyone else should live this life. Just that we have been selected to do so. Our vocation is to serve the Lord and devote all our energy to Him."

"What happens if you join and then feel you're missing out on sex?"

"That has happened. We've had nuns leave. Of course, it is hurtful and difficult. It is a great challenge and discipline. That is why we prefer our recruits to be at least 25, because we like them to know enough about life to make the decision to join us."

"Do you want them to be virgins? Can they know about love?" I was only partly thinking about Dolores.

"Of course they can. I was in love several times as a young girl. Why not? Besides, a couple of the nuns here are widows who joined when their husbands died. That's fine, too."

Then she smiled and asked: "Have you ever been in love?"

Since she had been honest, I saw no reason to lie. "No. I thought I was a couple of times, but when I look back, I'm not so sure I ever was."

Now she was asking the questions.

"You are an intelligent young man and I feel you have a lot of love to give. Do you have a girlfriend?"

"Not exactly a girlfriend. She's more like a lover," I answered.

"Never been in love," she muttered, almost to herself.

Silence.

Then there was a knock at the door on her side of the grille. Was it Dolores Hart at last? Was this the end of the quest? The door opened....

MOTHER DOLORES'S full-lipped face with its high cheekbones and retrousse nose is unchanged by her 54 years. She also possesses an extraordinary calmness in her cherubic expression and that most lilting of voices. Certainly the face was redder than it bad been 30 years ago--she has worked out on the farm, haying and baling as I had that afternoon--but it is still a face of undeniable beauty. Her hair is covered by her wimple, but other nuns told me later that it is still a luscious blonde. Thirty years on, this is still undeniably the face to launch a thousand ships.

We shook hands through the old wooden grille as Mother Placid looked on beneficently.

"Welcome," Dolores said angelically, her face close to the grille. "I hope you are enjoying your stay and seeing how we live."

"I hope the trouble with the young man called Elvis Presley, Jr., is over," I said.

They both looked rather shocked at the mention of Elvis and the son he never had.

"It's gone quiet now, mercifully. The young man's real mother is looking for him and actually called here. It's unfortunate, but the mother said he won't respond to her because she knows Elvis was not the father. I feel sorry for him."

Our meeting, said Mother Placid, was almost over. Dolores said she was sorry we could not meet face-to-face, or for longer. She is busy. It is harvest. There is also the ban of the Archbishop.

"Obedience and stability," explained Mother Placid, "are the foundations of our Order."

Mother Dolores bowed to me again; when I peered through the grille that divided us, she was already gone.

She had only stayed a minute or two. But it reminded me of our earlier phone conversation, when I asked if she had enjoyed her fame.

"Oh, by all means," she'd replied without any hint of regret.

"But how and why did you decide to leave Hollywood?"

"Only soul-searching brings a knowledge of what your life will be. It only sounds sudden when you announce it because people don't know what has gone on before."

"Don't you ever want to go back to being an actress?"

"There's always continuity. In the dimension of monastic life, there is a role in prayer that certainly keeps me very much a part of it. You see for me being a nun is being an actress."

That was when I understood that the answer to the riddle of Mother Dolores is as simple as this: You only have to experience the richness of the austere life at the abbey to understand how Dolores Hart gave up Hollywood to come here.

THAT NIGHT was my last at the abbey. I felt absolutely rejuvenated and sorry to leave after so short a stay. I retired to bed early after dinner as is the way there. My prickly, driven tension had been massaged into a generous goodwill towards the world that surprised me more than any one. I felt an intense calm.

Mother Dolores had neither said much nor stayed long, yet the riddle of why she left Hollywood was suddenly selfevident: The happiness of the nuns speaks for itself.

Like many others, I could not imagine how anyone could give up the pleasures of being a movie star to live and work in a monastery. Yet when Mother Placid talked to me about love, which she said she felt all around her, I could see that she experienced it in its most austere yet warmest sense. And she could see that while I was bathed in sensualism, I had quite forgotten about love.

I HAD GONE TO THE ABBEY TO SEARCH FOR Dolores Hart. But I did not discover any lurid secret about Hollywood or Elvis Presley. Instead, I discovered a warm and neglected part of myself.

I did not become religious. No one tried to convert me to anything. Looking back, I realized that when I left I took something with me and left something behind. Somewhere amongst the golden fields and the flying bales, the giggling nuns and the relentless embrace of the sun, I had left a bit of myself that will always be there. And when the reservoir of that simplest of happiness gets low again, I might go back and visit them.

If I ever do return, I am sure I will find it there again, untouched, just where I left it.

It is late at night. My tiny cell in the cottage called "Saint Joseph's" is stiflingly hot. I cannot sleep. I wait for the bell to ring for Matins.

The old-fashioned telephone begins to ring in the very still night. It makes an archaic "dring-dring" sound like a phone in an old Dolores Hart film from the Fifties.

I pick it up.

It is Mother Placid.

"You touched my heart when you said you had never been in love," she says. "Please could you tell me what is the name of the girl who is your lover. I know your name already. All I need is her first name."

"Her name is Nicola. Why do you ask?"

"So I can pray for you both," she says. "Good night."

ILLUSTRATION

PHOTOS (2): Elvis and Dolores Hart (NEAL PETERS COLLECTION)

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