To calm a case of the jitters on her wedding day, the bride popped Valium. After the honeymoon, her husband complained the refrigerator wasn’t cleaned and threw her record player out the window. She carped about his mistress, then had a brief affair herself. After the inevitable split, he demanded more time with the kids, and she bemoaned the scarcity of interesting single men. It just goes on like that.
Were the couple not Hope (née Cooke) and Palden Thondup Namgyal, former queen and king of Sikkim, their story would be simply banal. But their fairytale wedding made news around the world in 1963. He was an exotic widower and she an American debutante. The elaborate, four-hour marriage featured chanting Buddhist lamas and colorful folk dances. When the couple settled in his palace on a Himalayan mountaintop, there seemed just one natural ending to the story—happily ever after.
Alas, it was not to be. The sorry tale of the Namgyals’ life together is recounted in Hope Cooke’s autobiography, Time Change, published this month by Simon and Schuster ($14.95). Four years in the writing, Cooke’s report is at times candid, at times as obscure as the tiny Himalayan kingdom she abandoned in 1973. She treads cautiously, for example, over the political turmoil that led to her husband’s dethronement in 1975 and to India’s takeover of Sikkim. But on the personal level, she tells more than enough. For example, she discloses that during her marriage Palden was having an affair with an American-born woman of the world. “I told him I hated her, that I couldn’t stand it,” she writes. But later she apologized for the outburst. “Don’t feel badly,” Palden told her. “In many ways, it showed your love for me and that you’re a real woman.” Why did she tolerate it? “I was so young and flaky then,” recalls Hope, now 40. “I wasn’t inept, but it took me a long time to be a responsible adult.”
Cooke’s road to Sikkim began in the drawing rooms of upper-crust New York. Her mother, an amateur aviatrix, died when she crashed a small plane two years after Hope was born. “My mother probably killed herself,” she writes. Her father, John Cooke, a flying instructor, was rarely heard from again. Hope and her older half sister had their own apartment across the hall from their wealthy but aloof grandparents, and they were raised by a succession of nannies. “I had no real family to separate from,” she says. “If I had, I wouldn’t have been looking so much for an anchor.”
Later, at Sarah Lawrence (she shared an apartment with actress Jane Alexander), she drifted into Eastern religion and existentialism—and made frequent ventures into a New York she had never seen. “The money from my grandparents’ trust fund allowed me to check into hotels near Grand Central Station, alone among noisy crowds, anonymous, unreal,” she says.
One summer she ventured farther, setting up residence in a Darjeeling hotel where she met Palden Namgyal, then 36 and crown prince. Four years later, at 23, Hope was a queen, listening to her Joan Baez records in the palace of Sikkim. “It seems amazing what people will do,” she says. “We didn’t ever talk through getting married. I suppose there was a real physical compulsion.”
By 1973 Shangri-la had gotten old. She’d had an affair by then with an old American friend, and the ties that bind were chafing. “In Sikkim at first I loved the constraints,” she says. “They held me together. But then it became like any woman’s story. Once you learn to live within the constraints, you outgrow them and want more.” At that the queen fled to New York with her two children.
Since then she, son Palden, 17, and daughter Hope Leezum, 13, have settled in a Manhattan apartment furnished with covered mattresses for sofas and a wooden coffee table propped on piles of bricks. The child support she gets from Namgyal and money from her trust fund are enough to let Hope live a leisurely life of jogging, painting, museum-hopping, once-weekly psychotherapy and frequent lunching with women friends. “I’d like to be settled with a man again, but there aren’t very many interesting ones around,” sighs Hope, whose divorce became final last summer. “I think I’m a feminist, but I really love men.”
Does she ever miss her fairytale kingdom? “I’m a different person now,” she reflects. “If I’d had a sense of myself when I married, I wouldn’t have lost my boundaries in Asia.” Though her children visit their father (who still lives in the palace but is now an ordinary citizen) each year, Hope swears she will never go back to Sikkim. “No, no,” she says softly. “It would be too painful.”