Growing up in the belly of the Hollywood film industry, Prudence Farrow learned early on that meeting stars in the flesh usually led to disappointment. But her fateful encounter with the Beatles at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Rishikesh ashram in early 1968 left her pleasantly surprised. It also left John Lennon with a song that ended up as the White Album’s second track “Dear Prudence,” which he wrote to coax her out of the room where she retreated for endless hours while seeking solitude and transcendence.
Prudence Farrow Bruns returns to Berkeley, where she spent years studying at Cal, and eventually earned a PhD in South Asian Studies, to talk about her recent memoir Tuesday at Northbrae Community Church at 7 p.m. Titled (what else?) Dear Prudence: The Story Behind the Song, the self-published book details how and why she ended up in India at the height of the tumultuous ‘60s, starting with her family life as the fifth of seven children by Irish-born MGM star Maureen O’Sullivan and Australian-born film director John Farrow.
“At seven I was crazy about Mario Lanza and had all of his records,” says Bruns, 67, her voice a dead ringer for her older sister, Mia Farrow. “My mother took me to spend a whole day with him and his family and he was a drinker. Starting from that day, I never wanted to meet anyone I admired. So I was not looking forward to meeting the Beatles, and I was pleasantly surprised.”
She didn’t see the Fab Four as celebrities so much as generational stand-ins, “because they were going through what a lot of us were doing,” she says. “They got into the same stuff at the same time. But fame corrupts people and I didn’t want to be around the same scene where people take themselves so seriously. But they were very genuine human beings, which was really refreshing and quite a shock. John was really there because he admired George. John was more there for the high, taking another trip to see what magical stuff was going to happen. Ringo and Paul only came by for short visits. I saw it as my salvation.”
Bruns talks about her journey with a light, often gently self-mocking tone. She survived a largely unsupervised adolescence following the death of her father in 1963, which led her to a spiritual crisis. While her mother worked on Broadway, she and her siblings lived in Westport, Conn., where they ran riot over the governess hired to watch over them. She fell in with a local crowd of teenagers, plunged into the drug culture and eventually dropped out of high school.
“I got into all of that,” she says. “School was irrelevant. I couldn’t figure out the purpose of going to school. I thought I knew everything.”
Back in Los Angeles a few years later she became interested in Transcendental Meditation and yoga, which led to her involvement with the Maharishi and the trip to India with her older sister. She ended up in Berkeley in the mid-1970s when her husband, Albert Bruns, became enthralled with Sanskrit. Still living seat-of-the-pants, they moved to the East Bay with their two children, before Bruns was even accepted into the program.
“That’s the way we did things,” she says, noting that they settled in family student housing in Albany Village. “He started sitting in on Sanskrit courses and eventually he got into the department. I was working at the Macy’s that had just opened at the Hilltop Mall. I managed the bookstore, which had about 25 books. I decided I wanted to go back school, and I got into Laney. When I transferred to UC Berkeley after a few years I took classes in the South Asian Department, which was small but growing with really good people like George Hart and Robert Goldman.”
She had almost completed her undergraduate degree and was planning to do graduate work in Tamil when they moved back to New York City. Berkeley represented a golden time in her life, and, while she pursued various endeavors, teaching TM, producing indie films and writing, she never lost her desire to continue South Asian studies. In the late 1990s, while visiting her son in Berkeley, she got encouragement to finish her BA from long-time Cal professor Frits Staal.
“I got back in the department and then they encouraged me to get an MA and a PhD,” she says, referring to her doctoral dissertation on pulse diagnosis, Nadivijnana, the Crest-Jewel of Ayurveda: A Translation of Six Central Texts and an Examination of the Sources, Influences and Development of Indian Pulse-Diagnosis. “I loved every second. I loved learning the language and the culture and being able to read the texts.”
Through the decades, she came to see her connection with the Beatles more as a burden than a gift. Often regaled with wild stories about what “Dear Prudence” was really about she wished that Lennon had never put pen to paper. But her perspective started to change when her grandson started to show her off to his friends, who were duly impressed by her status as a Beatles muse.
“I was like this superstar, and they knew every song the Beatles had done,” she says, her voice filled with wonder. “They were asking about world peace, and what the Beatles stood for. I realized that I was part of the history now for young people, and that they needed to hear the real story. Everybody has written about the music and politics of the ‘60s, but not the spiritual part, and that’s what I wanted to share in the book.”
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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