On November 26, the last princess of Korea — a Caucasian woman originally from the U.S. — died at the age of 94 in Hawaii.
Julia Mullock was all by herself in her final moments, according to Lee Nam-ju, a former professor at Seoul’s Sungshin Women’s University and a close friend. “Mullock died so lonely on the hospital bed. She was so sick and weak that she was not able to use her mobile phone before she died,” Lee told The Seoul Times.
Born in Pennsylvania to a Ukrainian-American family, Mullock became a member of the Korean Imperial Household, also known as the House of Yi, when she became the de facto wife of Prince Yi Gu of the Joseon Dynasty.
Mullock was working at IM Pei, a New York-based architecture company, when she met Yi in the late 1950s. Yi had recently graduated with a degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Love eventually blossomed between the pair; Mullock was said to be “deeply moved” by Yi when he spoke the few clumsy Ukrainian phrases he knew in an attempt to impress her. Apparently, it worked — on October 25, 1959, they married at Ukrainian St. George’s Church in New York City; Mullock, 35, and Yi, 27. However, they were never legally married under Korean custom. Mullock was not included in the Yi family registry, which complicated her application to divorce Yi in the 1980s.
Nonetheless, Mullock earned the title Her Imperial Highness Princess Julia Lee of Korea and assumed royal duties, which she continued even after the divorce.
Lee, a distant niece of the late Prince Yi, recalled:
“Mullock fulfilled her duty as the princess of Korea’s last royal family, helping the needy and poor, particularly the handicapped people.
“The orphans and crippled Koreans who she helped highly respected Mullock even calling her as their ‘mother.’ Mullock opened a clothing shop to help finance her charity activities even after her divorce.”
It must be noted that Mullock’s decision to divorce Yi was not entirely her own, as she was forced to by the royal family when they learned that she was unable to produce an heir. She also struggled for their recognition during her time as princess, as they refused to acknowledge a blue-eyed woman as an official member of the Imperial Household.
Writing for The Korea Times, Nam Sang-so, who worked with the prince for more than a decade, said:
“Prince Yi Gu had no child with his wife Julia Lee, or anyone else. I knew as I had worked with him side by side over 10 years.
“They wanted to have at least one baby boy, hopefully two, though they would accept a girl, by Prince Yi before too late. They said they gave up the last hope of producing Korea’s monarchy blood by Mrs. Julia Lee, who was, the clan elders decided, sterile.
“These royalist Lee clan elders were desperate that ‘the last choice available now was that the royal descendant should come from out of wedlock and with a fine, healthy Korean woman,’ they whispered to me in unison.”
The couple’s happiest time in their marriage was spent in Hawaii in the early 1960s. Mullock had always been there for her husband. “Mullock played the role of a mother figure for the late Last Prince Yi Gu, who was wandering lonely overseas. She was comforting Yi Gu a lot,” Lee said.
Mullock missed her former husband a lot and waited for his letters after they parted, Lee said. Yi died from a heart attack in Japan on July 16, 2005. Uninvited to his funeral, Mullock watched from a distance and visited his tomb when everyone else was gone.
We could only wonder what went through Mullock’s mind at the time of her death. She may not be Korean by blood, but it appears the last princess tried her best to be the part.