In January of 1968, a then-20-year-old Prudence Farrow finally fulfilled a dream of hers that had been in the making for two years: to study meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India. Accompanied by her sister, actress Mia, Farrow was later joined at the Maharishi’s retreat by none other than the members of the Beatles and their significant others. The Fab Four’s stay in India has been well-documented — aside from seeking spiritual enlightenment through the Maharishi, they wrote songs that later ended up on their self-titled two-record set, better known as the White Album, released later that year.
But Farrow didn’t get caught up in the buzz surrounding the Beatles’ presence at the retreat. Rather, she was more preoccupied with meditating for long hours in her room. Her single-minded devotion to meditation inspired John Lennon to compose “Dear Prudence” (number 63 on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Beatles Songs), which later appeared on the White Album. Discussing the song in an interview with Playboy, published posthumously in 1981, Lennon remarked that Farrow “wouldn’t come out of the little hut we were living in… We got her out of the house — she’d been locked in for three weeks and wouldn’t come out. She was trying to find God quicker than anyone else. That was the competition in Maharishi’s camp: who was going to get cosmic first.”
The daughter of director-screenwriter John Farrow and actress Maureen O’Sullivan, Prudence Farrow led a tumultuous life during her teen years; her desire to seek spiritual meaning eventually led her to meditation and the Maharishi. Now married with children and a teacher of transcendental meditation in Florida, Prudence Farrow Bruns recently published her memoir, Dear Prudence: The Story Behind the Song, which covers her Hollywood childhood through the visit to India. She talked to Rolling Stone about her memories of the Beatles at the retreat, the first time she heard “Dear Prudence” and what the song has meant to her over the past half-century.
What made you decide to write the book?
My grandson invited me to his high school to meet his friends. I forgot about “Dear Prudence,” and I thought, “Why does he want me in his high school?” So I went. The kids wanted my autographs; they wanted stories. And I was amazed how well versed they were in the Beatles music and history. As a result of that, I went on to the middle school and lower school where there was also an interest to meet me.
I think besides being great musicians, [the Beatles] really resonated on the level that they were going through and saying what we were all feeling, so they were kind of a voice [for] a lot of us. So the fact that all these young kids now were interested in the Beatles meant that to me that voice was still resonating and still being heard.
Your life has been guided by this sense of searching for meaning and spirituality going back to your Catholic-school education. Then, during your teen years, you went through a rebellious phase that included drinking and getting high.
That’s what the nuns would tell me: “You were trying to get attention.” It really reached the critical point when we came back to the United States [from Europe], especially in high school when Mia blossomed into a real beauty, and I was still comparing myself to her. But the comparison was rather I felt on the meager and pathetic side. I was getting more outrageous, but at the same time, disliking myself even more because of what I was doing.
It was after a scary LSD trip that you vowed to stop taking drugs, and you later gravitated towards meditation.
At that point, I was looking inward… I was reading all about meditations. But it was when I went to visit my brother [Patrick] in Malibu, his friend had come back from India. It was at that meeting with him that I felt it was more than just someone telling me about something that I had been looking for — it was actually what I was looking for.
Why did you feel it was imperative to meet the Maharishi?
I had to meet him because he was the one who brought this meditation out. He was the source and the only one who really could explain it. When I met him, I did not expect my reaction because it had been almost two years after wanting to study with him. When I felt that tremendous peace and silence — which I had felt in my own experience when I meditated, but not to that degree — it was phenomenal. I just fell on the ground and wept.
Did you have any inkling the Beatles were also going to India? They arrived at the retreat in Rishikesh shortly after you and Mia traveled there.
I did. I had been trying to go to India, and Mia called me and she said she wanted to go, but she had heard the Beatles were going. The Beatles at that point had started meditation in the summer of ’67. The publicity they got was huge… and this whole concept of gurus, India and mantras just hit the airwaves — it was news. I was so preoccupied with my own self — it was part of what was happening around me but not my focus.
What was your interaction with the Beatles during that time at the retreat, especially with John and George who stayed longer there?
I liked them because they were on the same wavelength in many ways. They went through a lot of what we all were going through, and they were saying the same stuff. They were very real, all four of them. I think I said in the book that Maharishi wanted to put them in their own dining room because he didn’t want them to be disturbed. And they said, “No, we want to be with everybody else and be treated the same.”
You were very dedicated to meditation. You were doing it for eight hours a day in your room.
It was more than that. I had been doing five days straight. I hadn’t gone to the bathroom, I hadn’t slept, and I hadn’t eaten. After that, Maharishi realized what he was dealing with. The older people on the course, they were sleeping; they were sunbathing on top of the roof; they would go for walks. I was one of many [who were] just maybe a little more extreme because I had no parental controls on me, so I could go all the way.
It was your strong devotion to meditation that led John to write the song “Dear Prudence.”
That is true. In the beginning, he probably did write the song after that event or right before it. Right from the start, all I cared about was getting the job done, clearing out whatever darkness I had inside me, and becoming healthy and being able to live a real life. I knew meditation could do it for me — I didn’t understand how.
Were you privy to the music that the Beatles were writing and performing during their stay?
Yes, I heard John practicing and tinkering with different notes and melodies on his guitar every afternoon for a couple of hours or so. I think it was just John and George (and not Paul) that came into my room one evening and played “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” for me.
You wrote that you had wanted to move to another room. Was it because their presence was distracting?
Yes, all the other course participants were in puris (cottages) that were very quiet and conducive for meditation. Our puri was considered the “celebrity block,” which meant that not only the Beatles but all other celebrities and celebrity-related people would stay in this block. In the evenings, John and George (and Paul while he was there) would jam with others in the patio outside our front doors.
Why weren’t you starstruck by meeting the Beatles?
I had been around famous people, but it had not been so interesting. The Beatles being there — I can honestly say — did not mean anything to me. But those two people that I met, John and George, I really liked them, and they were very much up my alley. They were musicians; they had other interests — whereas I really only had one interest, which was to be [at the retreat] and get the maximum I could from that time. I was so much more extreme.
“The Beatles being there — I can honestly say — did not mean anything to me. But those two people that I met, John and George, I really liked them, and they were very much up my alley.”
John and George left the retreat without the finishing the course. It’s been widely reported that there was a schism between them and the Maharishi. What is your take on what happened?
I was sad that they left because it was very, very sudden. They had been doing eight hours a day of meditation for two months. It was sad and disturbing to see. I can’t speak on what went on — I sort of know, but I don’t want to speculate on things that I don’t really know. I was there when John was saying to Maharishi that he had to leave.
Later, when you were in the States, you heard the song “Dear Prudence” through your mother, who had a copy of the White Album at her New York City apartment, where the family gathered to play a game called “killer.”
It’s kind of like a psychological game. The person winks at you, and then you wait, and you have to sort of gauge who it is. But you never want to catch everybody’s eyes because they could wink at you and you’re dead. It was the perfect opportunity for [my mother] to go and “kill” everybody. So she went around to everybody saying this song is coming up next. She put it on, and she went around preparing everybody, but she was “killing” them. She came to me while the song was playing. She said, “Isn’t it beautiful?” I looked up, and she gave me a wink.
You were initially concerned on how John would depict you in the song.
He was very brilliant and extremely funny. He was very astute in terms of sizing people up. So how do I know what he would write? I didn’t know. He could have written anything. What was nice was my privacy — he respected it to a great extent.
What do you think of the song today?
It epitomized what the Sixties were about in many ways. What it’s saying is very beautiful; it’s very positive. I think it’s an important song. I thought it was one their least popular and more obscure songs. I feel that it does capture that essence of the course, that slightly exotic part of being in India where we went through that silence and meditation.