She was 19 years old and taking a course in typing in Darjeeling, India, when she met the man she was going to marry. He was 36, a widower with three children. They met in the lobby of the Windamere Hotel and bonded over growing up isolated — she, an American by birth, had lost her mother at a young age, then the grandparents who’d helped to raise her. “I just fell in love with his sad, sad eyes,” she later told the press. They were engaged two years later, in 1961, and married in March of 1963. Two years after that, they were crowned king and queen.
The story of Hope Cooke, a student at Sarah Lawrence College, and Palden Thondup Namgyal, the crown prince of Sikkim — which was then an independent monarchy; it became a part of India in 1975 — made the world’s media pay attention to a kingdom less than half the size of Connecticut, nestled in the Himalayas. But Cooke arrived at a tumultuous time for the country in which she was both stranger and ruler.
The fairy-tale story was complicated by the geopolitical realities of the continent. Sikkim, under a treaty then only a decade old, maintained administrative autonomy but was under India’s protection. However, it shared a border with China, and found itself embroiled in 1962’s Sino-Indian border war, which stemmed from the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet to India in 1959.
When Cooke and Namgyal married in 1963, having been told 1962 was an astrologically inauspicious year for unions, the populace had questions about the gaps between them in terms of culture and age. But to some international observers, their marriage portended more serious strategic alliances. “China had taken over Tibet, and Tibet had close links historically with Sikkim,” explains Sangmu Thendup, assistant professor of history at Sikkim University. “It looked like America had teamed up with Sikkim and India on one side with China and Russia on the other side.”
The 1950s had Grace Kelly, the Hollywood star who married Prince Rainier of European microstate Monaco. The 1960s, however, had Hope Cooke: Her royal wedding entailed months of preparation. She swiftly gave up her U.S. citizenship and declared to one magazine that she would never again put on Western-style gowns. When the couple visited the U.S., they received wall-to-wall coverage. Namgyal began to rule in 1964, upon the death of his father, but he and Cooke were officially crowned as monarchs the following year, by which time she had given birth to their son.
Namgyal was the scion of the Buddhist royal family. She was an American who was trying to adjust to a new life. In spite of her efforts, she would sometimes feel lonely, she confessed later in her own autobiography, Time Change, and bound by royal etiquette that had been entirely absent for the first two decades of her life. Their son was shortly followed by a daughter, and she had three stepchildren from Namgyal’s previous marriage to raise as well. “These children will be happy,” she wrote. “The wheel of unhappiness that both my husband and I grew up on will not go to this generation.”
Meanwhile, tensions between China and India made Sikkim a pawn during the 1960s and ’70s. Despite having renounced her U.S. ties, Cooke was suspected by some of being a CIA agent. All this disturbed the domestic peace at home, as did Namgyal’s ongoing affair with a married Belgian woman.
On a trip to the U.S., she had an affair with an American man. As her marriage was on the brink, so was the kingdom: Sikkim was also facing international pressure to do away with the monarchy altogether. By the early 1970s, Delhi was lobbying hard for Sikkim to join India as a state, and Cooke was habitually taking Valium and drinking whiskey in the palace.
The royal family was all but trapped in a hilltop palace when Cooke escaped, in 1973, with her two children and one stepdaughter to New York, where she was now an immigrant. In her book, she explains that she planned to enroll her children in school and return to her husband in Sikkim, but she never went back. In New York, she lived in a nearly empty apartment, with “no furnishings other than a small orange carpet from Sikkim, many mattresses, a TV and later some rough two-by-four bookcases.” No longer a U.S. citizen, she overstayed her visa — but deportation proceedings were halted and President Gerald Ford granted her a green card.
Back in Sikkim, the king was under pressure from the pro-India Sikkim National Party, which came to power in 1974 and sought integration with India. In 1975, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi brought the fairy tale to an end, sending troops to surround the palace and depose the king. A referendum — since questioned by critics — showed that 98 percent of Sikkimese supported joining India. On May 16, Sikkim became India’s 22nd state.
Namgyal, bereft of his kingdom, was placed under house arrest for a time, unable to leave the country or speak to the press. In 1978, his firstborn son, the Crown Prince of Sikkim, died in a car accident — the same year Namgyal and Cooke officially separated. Two years later, they were divorced, and two years after that Namgyal died of cancer.
The following year, Cooke remarried. She still lives in New York, but as recently as 2013 explained in a video produced by Yale University: “I’ve internalized Sikkim as my home,” she says, pointing to her heart, “here.”
Correction: The original version of this article did not specify that Prince Namgyal’s period of house arrest was not indefinite.
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