LOS ANGELES — It’s a very rare Beverly Hills doyenne who can say that The Beatles wrote a song about her, but Nancy Cooke de Herrera is just that kind of grande dame. True, she has a faithful housekeeper of 39 years, named Mercedes, and she lunches with Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale. But, as a friend of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, de Herrera instructs those seeking strength through spirituality in Transcendental Meditation, including such notables as Greta Garbo and Madonna.
De Herrera’s book, “All You Need Is Love,” due out April 11, chronicles the spread of spirituality from India to the Western world, for which de Herrera herself was partly responsible 40 years ago.
“Mantra and guru — those words were not in our dictionary back then,” she explains over tea at her Beverly Hills home of 41 years.
Born across the bay from San Francisco, in Piedmont, Calif., de Herrera left Stanford after three years to marry naval officer Dick Cooke, the scion of one of Hawaii’s oldest missionary families. The couple lived in the islands for nine years during World War II, where de Herrera played hostess to Admirals Nimitz, Halsey and Towers. When she and Cooke divorced, in her late 20s, de Herrera returned to California. Then, during a trip to New York she met “the love of my life,” Argentine racecar driver and golf champion Luis de Herrera. Sadly, after a whirlwind romance and barely two years of bliss in Buenos Aries, de Herrera lost her second husband to leukemia.
To console her, B.K. Nehru, former Indian Ambassador to the U.S., gave de Herrera a copy of Paramhansa Yoganda’s “The Autobiography of a Yogi,” and in 1962, she arrived in India wearing four-inch heels, and journeyed for weeks to meet the Maharishi. She quickly became a devotee.
Of course, when de Herrera returned to California dressed in Punjabi tunics and leggings — she never wears saris, claiming Westerners don’t look good in them — friends said she had lost her mind.
“So many people thought, ‘Oh come on, you’re just being taken,’” she says.
This story first appeared in the April 1, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Still, de Herrera facilitated Maharishi’s entree into America with the help of her influential friends, including society columnist Cobina Wright, and soon everyone from The Beatles to Donovan to Mia Farrow was seeking salvation at the yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh.
“It was great fun taking The Beatles shopping,” says de Herrera. “Nobody knew who they were.”
It was there The Beatles penned a song, “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” in honor of de Herrera and her son, Rik, a National Geographic photographer. “It’s about my son and me shooting tigers on a hunt,” she says of the White Album anthem. “The Beatles had just arrived at the ashram when Rik was telling Maharishi the story.”
Memories of Farrow are less pleasant. “She claimed Maharishi made a pass at her when he was trying to bestow a spiritual blessing,” says de Herrera. “Mia has a very vivid imagination and I won’t forgive her for that.”
Still, de Herrera gives the star, who had outfits made by the “ashram couturier,” credit for being the first groovy Westerner to adopt Punjabi dress. The Fab Four followed. “The tailor made clothes for The Beatles that changed fashion more than Givenchy or Dior or anyone,” she says.
De Herrera should know. She met the Maharishi during the 12 years she traveled the world as the official U.S. “Ambassadress to Fashion,” a role she first landed after winning a slogan contest for a hosiery company, though her winning entry — “Hosiery is the best cosmetic for the legs” — was ghostwritten by Burt Bacharach. The State Department later turned her gig into a permanent position.
“They were looking for the perfect American housewife, and I fit the bill,” she says. “I was blonde, I had raised four children and I knew a little about cooking.”
Of course, along the way, de Herrera amassed an incredible collection of clothing. The closets of her house, and those in the two cottages on her property, are stuffed with gold-threaded and intricately beaded gowns. “The wonderful thing about ethnic clothing is it never goes out of style,” she marvels.
Never one to idle, de Herrera has already written her next book, “Never Tango With a Stranger,” about her life in Argentina within Eva Perón’s circle, and the coup that followed her death.
De Herrera’s life is nothing if not full of surprises. “I never thought I’d do a lot of things,” she says, “including write a book.”