Spotlight: Nancy Veitch Cooke de Herrera, '43
Courtesy Nancy Cooke de Herrera
By Wendy Jalonen Fawthrop
The well-coifed owner of an antique-filled house perched high in Beverly Hills is telling how she participated in a seminal episode of '60s counterculture. Her life—in which Nancy Cooke de Herrera becomes an ambassador of transcendental meditation to the celebrity subculture of California—seems like a prototype of Eat, Pray, Love.
"I've never been a flower child," de Herrera says. "I don't know anything about rock 'n' roll. But I do know about meditation."
De Herrera was in Rishikesh, India, studying with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968 when the Beatles arrived. She decorated their rooms and became their liaison to the Maharishi. In YouTube videos, she strolls the ashram as the Beatles strum guitars along with the marigold-bedecked Mia Farrow, Beach Boy Mike Love and singer Donovan. Her son, Rik, was visiting her at the time. John Lennon wrote "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" about the day Rik shot a tiger.
De Herrera, then 44, had already lived a couple of lifetimes. Having grown up in Piedmont, Calif., Nancy Veitch studied bacteriology at Stanford but put to more use what she'd learned in speech and drama classes. Leaving college before her senior year to marry into a prominent family in Hawaii, she became a hostess to Pacific Fleet admirals and a performer in shows for the troops. Later she would travel to 15 countries presenting American fashion. "There," she says, "is all my training on the stage at Stanford."
She met the Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan. She went on a camel trek with Sir Edmund Hillary, discussed yeti lore with the Dalai Lama and posed, in a bathing suit, with Esther Williams. She had three sons (including Starr Cooke, '69). She divorced, met and married race-car driver Luis de Herrera, moved with him to Argentina and had a daughter. Luis de Herrera died in 1955 of leukemia. On vacation 20 months earlier, they had been in an area in southern Utah downwind during an atomic test.
His death sent de Herrera searching for life's meaning. She found it in transcendental meditation—a path to inner peace through a repeated mantra. But she balked at the asceticism many teachers demanded. "I just love my Western life," she told them. "I really don't want to give up anything."
The Maharishi took such students, and de Herrera became his spiritual devotee, making 38 trips to India and escorting him at times as he traveled in South America to spread the word on TM. Over the years de Herrera has provided lessons on meditation to Greta Garbo, Madonna, Sheryl Crow, Rosie O'Donnell and Lenny Kravitz, among others. She says that when rocker clients learn to meditate, she notices their lyrics shift to more peaceful language and images.
"I teach that there is no such thing as a coincidence," de Herrera says. "What's going to happen will happen." And for her, it all has.
WENDY JALONEN FAWTHROP, ’78, is a senior copy editor at The Orange County Register.
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