“The Fairytale Turned Nightmare?” reads the headline of the New York Times from May 1981 referencing to a lesser known American woman who married into a royal family. That woman was Hope Cooke. It was based on her autobiography.
It spoke about how the American media was enamoured with an American marrying Crown Prince Palden Thondup Namgyal of Sikkim in 1963. The press always heavily followed any trips of theirs to the United States. Vogue wanted to know her beauty secrets. What the media did not know was that this so-called fairy tale was anything but.
Hope Cooke was born on 24 June 1940 in San Francisco, California to John J. Cooke and Hope Noyes. When Hope was not yet two, her mother died in a single person plane crash in 1942. Her father then moved her and her sister, Harriet, to New York City with him to an apartment that was across the hall from their maternal grandparents (who Hope claimed were aloof and refused to talk about her mother). Hope and Harriet were raised by governesses; one beat the future royal with a coat hanger when she could not remember the Lord’s Prayer. Their grandfather died when Hope was 12, and their grandmother passed away just three years later when Hope was 15.
From then, Hope and Harriet lived with their maternal aunt and uncle; the latter was the former US Ambassador to Iran and Peru. Hope studied at both the Chaplin School in New York and the Madeira School in Virginia. She completed her high school education in Iran.
She chose to continue her studies and head to university. She enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College in 1959 where she majored in Asian Studies. One summer she travelled to India with her later recalling, “I’ve never been so happy … India! My heart explodes … The East is my home…” It was in Darjeeling that she met the recently widowed Palden Thondup Namgyal, Crown Prince of Sikkim.
They became engaged two years later, in 1961, after bonding over what the New York Times called the “similar isolation of their childhoods.” The couple did not marry until 1963 due to astrologers claiming 1962 was a bad year for marriages.
The Crown Prince and Hope wed after the latter had renounced her American citizenship, in a Buddhist monastery on 20 March 1963; their ceremony was officiated by 14 lamas – the title for a high priest in Tibetian Buddhism. Although the wedding was a Buddhist ceremony, Hope never converted from Christianity. However, she was known to have practised Buddhism from an early age.
Together, they had two children: Prince Palden Gyurmed Namgyal and Princess Hope Leezum Namgyal. Hope gained three stepchildren (Prince Tenzing Kunzang Jigme Namgyal, Prince Tobgyal Wangchuk Tenzing Namgyal and Princess Yangchen Dolma Namgyal) from the union who she adored. She vowed that her children would know happiness and not grow up with the sad family life like both their parents.
Just two years after their nuptials, the Crown Prince was proclaimed Sikkim’s monarch (Chogyal or King) on 4 April 1965. His reign would be short, as he was deposed ten years later on 10 April 1975. He was put under house arrest in the palace. Not long after, Hope and Palden separated with Hope returning with their two children to the United States.
Hope later described her ex-husband as a heavy-drinker, sexist and philanderer. He continued his affair that started before he married Hope with a Belgian woman during their marriage. However, she was not innocent as she was also having an affair with an American man.
Her popularity waned with Newsweek even calling her the Himalayan Marie-Antoinette after Sikkim was annexed into India. A US Representative and US Senator co-sponsored a bill to give Hope her American citizenship back, but the bill would not pass until the language was altered to only give her permanent residence status. President Ford signed it in 1976. She and the Chogyal divorced in 1980. He died just two years later of cancer.
In 1983, she married for a second time to Mike Wallace, but this union did not last. She resided in London for a time, but she eventually returned to the United States. Hope now works as a writer and lecturer and lives in Brooklyn, New York.