BETHLEHEM, Conn. – Hollywood legend Betty Hutton once told priests she met in Rhode Island, “All the stars are in trouble.... It’s a nightmare out there! It hurts, what we do in our private lives.”
Author Mary Claire Kendall writes in Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends that “Hollywood has just the right siren calls to lead stars astray.” Some stars lash themselves to the mast and, like Ulysses, resist temptation; others follow the siren calls and get lost at sea; a few find safe haven by converting – or reverting – to the Catholic faith. It is this last group that Ms. Kendall writes about in Oasis.
A devout Catholic living near the nation’s capital, Ms. Kendall has written extensively about Hollywood for a variety of magazines and newspapers. In 2006, she wrote about Betty Hutton’s conversion story for Our Sunday Visitor. Then she wrote about actress Jane Wyman’s conversion. In 2008, the author’s mother suggested she compile a book profiling these and other celebrities in their faith journeys.
One of the first celebrities she contacted was Mother Dolores Hart, prioress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn., and former Hollywood actress famous for co-starring twice with Elvis Presley. Ms. Kendall interviewed Mother Dolores but decided to save that story for a sequel. Mother Dolores wrote in a foreword to Oasis, “I can not only encourage you to read Mary Claire’s book, I can recommend it from the heart as a beautiful journal of people I have loved and respected.”
“She was very helpful,” Ms. Kendall said of Mother Dolores in a telephone interview with the Transcript. “While I was writing the book, my mom got sick out of the blue and was dead within a month.” Mother Dolores helped the author through her grief and assured her in an email that “your mother is not only HERE, she worked on making this book a winner.”
Oasis focuses on 12 people who have undergone journeys of faith, including Alfred Hitchcock, Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, Mary Astor, John Wayne, Ann Sothern, Jane Wyman, Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Betty Hutton, Ann Miller and Patricia Neal.
The inspiring riches-to-rags-to-conversion Betty Hutton story has elements typical of the other stories. During her early stage career in the 1930’s, the future “Annie Get Your Gun” star (MGM, 1950) “never went on stage without praying,” she said in an interview with Mike Douglas in 1977. But she fell away from religion when she got to Hollywood. Like Judy Garland, she got hooked on stimulants and depressants and tried suicide several times.
At rock bottom in the 1970’s, the star who had once been worth $10 million was deeply in debt, living on the street or in seedy hotels. Then she met Father Peter McGuire, pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Portsmouth, R.I., who gave her an attic room in the rectory and pulled her back from the brink. She eventually converted.
Miss Hutton told an interviewer, “When I became a Catholic, it was so great because as I walk down the aisle and I know I’m going to receive Christ, I would sob so because this brought something out of me I never knew was in there. That’s my heart. Christ is my heart.”
Ms. Kendall wrote a conversion story about Patricia Neal in 2011, the year after she died, and it was published in the National Catholic Register. The final chapter in Oasis is based on that profile. Known for her roles in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) and “Hud” (Best Actress 1963), Ms. Neal had ups and downs in her marriage to writer Roald Dahl and endured the death of one child and serious injury of another. Ms. Neal suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms in 1965 and was in a coma for three months. She underwent extensive therapy and recovered, stunning the world with a remarkable film comeback as the lead in “The Subject Was Roses” (1968), which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
When her marriage ended badly, she spent much time at the Abbey of Regina Laudis as a guest of her friend Mother Dolores, who helped her write her 1988 memoir, As I Am. A day before she died in 2010, Patricia Neal converted to Catholicism. She is buried at the abbey.
In a statement to the Transcript, Mother Dolores said, “The witness of people seen in films or theater who have been able to turn their lives around are sometimes more important than Biblical stories because they are personal to us. They are people we have loved in their human nature and experience. They are like friends. When we see them open in faith to the realities of life and death, we are taken by their submission in a very personal, human way, which touches us in love, and love is the secret of any conversion. It gives us hope, which we all need.”
Ms. Kendall said all the people she profiled in Oasis shared more than a Hollywood career and a Catholic conversion. “They all hit a crisis point,” she said. “And they all were fortunate enough to come in contact or have the intervention of a priest, a good friend, a spouse. They just had the good fortune that somebody or something intervened in their lives and they were receptive; God had prepared their souls so that they had that disposition of soul.”
Page after page, Oasis will inspire readers with stories so uplifting they seem like a series of redemptive movie scripts from Hollywood’s Golden Age. But they are more than “based on actual events” – these are true stories of true redemption.
Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends (Franciscan Media, 2015, 208 pages) is available at bookstores or online, in paper, electronic or audio format. For more about the author, visit www.maryclairecinema.com/aboutauthor.html.