Hope Cooke was 22 when she played out the ultimate adolescent fantasy, a hopelessly romantic Sarah Lawrence girl who became, to the sounding of cymbals and the explosion of flash bulbs, the consort of the crown prince of Sikkim in 1962."The only American girl to become a queen," one news story trumpeted.
She met him during a summer's idyll in Darjeeling. She was the scholarly, soft-spoken, dark-haired girl from the upper reaches of the New York social register. He was the earnest, widowed, socially-minded monarch, determined to pave his tiny mountain kingdom with progress and walk the political tightrope with diplomatic grace. He had two sons and a young daughter, and a bungalow of a palace set high in the hills. When he courted her, she felt like Wendy among the lost boys. When he married her, the press went bananas.
That's how the fairy tale began. This is how it ended: The queen comes down from the mountaintop in 1973 as the mountaintop crumbles beneath her, and takes up a life of single-parenting in New York City with her now teen-aged daughter and son, a warm web of friends from the old days and a recently completed autobiography. The king sits dethroned and alone in the kingdom of his memories, in the country that is a country no longer. By the time she left, there were articles being written about Hope Cooke that compared her to Marie Antoinette and the sweet tenor of her dreams had been drowned in the loud chorus of revolution.
"I think that disillusionment can be a good thing," says the ex-Gyalmo of the ex-sovereign nation of Sikkim in a soft and silvery voice. "It's a function of growing older, I think," she says, "that I'm more of a realist now."
She smiles, looks down at her small, unadorned hands, looks up winsomely from behind the soft wisps of her hair. "I'm feeling like an adult these days, I'm more balanced. I love being 40, I have a sense of boundaries now. I saw a performance of 'Hamlet' this fall, and realized that I was older than Hamlet, that I was old enough to be his mother."
Still, she says, it drives her nuts that she continues to be referred to as an ex-debutante, the title invoked as some talisman of her past. The sound of her celebrity still echoes in her ear -- she had, after all, enthralled the press and the public at a time when the competition in the story-book-romance field was stiff -- there were Steven Rockefeller and Anne-Marie Rasmussen walking off with top honors in the millionaire-and-the-maid category, and Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco coming up first in the world-class competition.
Perhaps it was a measure of just how tenuous the terrain beneath the institution of marriage had become that the metaphors for its success had to be found in such fabled places. "You know I've noticed," Cooke says, "how much less interested everyone is in Lisa Halaby [Queen Noor, wife of King Hussein of Jordan] than they were in me. I think they're much less interested in marriage in general."
A friend from her Sarah Lawrence days describes Cooke back then as "the complete romantic," an exotic who won over the dorm completely with what amounted in those days to guerrilla theater. Dressed in exotic costumes, tumbling down the stairs with a cadre of cohorts, "she made everything into an escapade," remembers the friend. "You didn't just go to the U.N. with Hope and attend the meetings there, you crept down the hallways and developed crushes on the diplomats. In some ways, Hope was like those English women who went off in the 19th century exploring strange places -- she was always attracted to things that were odd."
"I guess I needed the adventure, needed a plot line," Cooke says now. "Otherwise, there seemed to be no center to my life."
In the end, however, it isn't the oddness but the ordinariness of the day-to-day domesticity that she remembers most fondly -- "the days in our house, the fireplace in every room, the afternoon tea, the smell of laundry drying on radiators. It was the storybook house I never had."
From the beginning, though, it was the oddness that danced a dark shadow over her chances for happiness. Bad enough that her husband waltzed his other conquests in front of her on their wedding day, worse still was her sister-in-law, the elegantly beautiful, haughty Cocoola, who remarked on the eve of her wedding how inauspicious it would be if anything were to break, and then broke a saucer, scattering the millet seed it contained, a bad sign in itself. "Worse still," Cooke writes in her autobiography, "Time Change," "the more I look[ed] at the brocade pattern of my wedding dress, the more it seem[ed] that it had been stitched with the wrong side exposed. In Sikkim, a sign of death."
Still, she lit the butter lamps in front of the images of Buddha and Guru Padmasambhava and offered a long white scarf to her father-in-law while 12 ambassadors, including John Kenneth Galbraith, and half the world's press looked on. The wedding festivities lasted a week. When they ended, their life together began, and in the beginning, the description fit the pastorale the weekly magazines had painted it to be.
"My husband was a very appealing, very bright man, with a puckish sense of humor," she says. "We would play together -- in Sikkim, you had to entertain yourself most of the time." Together, they would plan pranks for April Fool's Day, once inviting the small diplomatic community to witness a formal, but ultimately fake, tree-planting ceremony in the middle of the football field while the Sikkimese Guard played a lugubrious air, and the team practiced all around them.
Time passed, and despite the son and daughter she bore the Chogyal, the days grew longer, the hours emptier and harder to fill. She read mystery after mystery, too depressed to read anything more substantive. She listened to her Joan Baez records incessantly, until her husband pitched the record player out the window. She played board games "ad infinitum. On Sunday mornings, all the government workers would run away from their telephones, knowing I would be calling to invite them for eight hours of Diplomacy."
In the end, diplomacy failed her, at least the way it is played among the passions and illusions of the floating world. There were demonstrations; a picture of her and her husband was burned in the public square. An article in Newsweek called her a "Himalayan Marie Antoinette," and described her marriage as "the classic tragedy of a dull man pushed beyond his depth by a scheming, ambitious woman." The article attributed the Sikkimese revolt in large part to the royal couple's "profligate spending" and to Cooke's monarchical affectations, particularly galling since she was the first foreigner to marry into the royal family in over 300 years.
The story made her angry, makes her angry still. "To see Sikkim go down the drain was like watching a small animal be killed slowly," she says. She brought her children, Palden, now 16, and Hope Leezum, 12, to New York, as "the troubles," as she euphemistically calls them, continued. India, anxious over the unrest in so strategic a border state, brought in troops to restore order. Eventually Sikkim lost its status as a semi-autonomous protectorate and the Chogyal was placed temporarily under house arrest. He lives there still, a private citizen now. Her children will visit him there in the summer.
She still has nightmares of those times, and in her dream, she is always surrounded, unable to escape. "I think it's a metaphor for what my life was like there," she says. "What in the beginning had shored me up, began closing me in." As a student, she says, her love of the East, the boundlessness of Buddhism that so enthralled her, had made her "really spacey. The flip side of it all was that I desperately needed an anchor, needed some sort of constraint."
The first few months back were spent "eating ice cream and watching TV" continuously, she says, and "stuffing myself, cramming myself full of everything that was going on in the city.We'd go to Indian corn festivals in Queens and Ukrainian church festivals on Seventh Avenue, anything and everything there was to do. There was a lot of catching up to do. I'm still constantly astonished by the chance for conversation, for exchanging ideas and seeing different images."
Hope Cooke's eyes grow wide, and, time having been kind to her, she looks for a moment as naive and slightly precious as the girl she once was, the one who wandered about unconscious of the clash she created in a culture unused to bighearted American girls living out their daydreams on borrowed time. She has no regrets, she says. "No, not really. I've never understood the concept of regret. I've had a lot sadder life than most, but the sadness gives me an enormous amount of gratefulness for the happiness in my life," she says, sounding her consonants like temple bells.
She wants now to raise her children, and to know when to let go, though she confesses to terror at the idea that either of them might do something similar to her decision to marry their father. She wants to "settle down," although "sadly," there is no one special in her life. "I'd like to put in a plug for men," Cooke says. "I think women have had the luxury to do the emotional work on themselves that men haven't had the chance to do."
Please put that in, she says. "Don't make it sound like I'm putting off a chance for Mr. Right."