Once upon a time, there was an American socialite named Hope Cooke who longed to travel to distant lands. She was a lonely girl, orphaned by her young, romantic mother and abandoned by her ne’er-do-well father.
The young woman lived a glamorous life in Manhattan with her wealthy grandparents, doing socialite things like visiting Long Island and attending Miss Madeira’s boarding school for girls. Then, just shy of her sixteenth birthday, her elderly guardians died within a week of each other, and she was set adrift again.
Young Hope was sent to live with her maternal aunt and ambassador uncle in Tehran, where she became intoxicated by the sounds, sights, and smells of the Shah’s Iran. When Hope turned seventeen, her aunt, who had noticed her niece’s love of Central Asia, took her to India for a short holiday.
Hope fell in love with everything she saw and vowed to come back soon—without the shackles of a fifty-five-year-old aunt interested only in touristy highlights. “Before I returned to Tehran, I was planning—no, scheming—how to get back to see the entire subcontinent,” Hope wrote in a 1963 McCall’s article.
And that’s just what she did. When she returned to Sarah Lawrence College in New York that fall, she set about concocting a plan with her best girlfriend. They would sign up for a college-led trip to the USSR, but then they would continue on to India unchaperoned. The two girls made up a fictitious itinerary, and Hope’s aunt and uncle fell for the ruse.
Which is how Hope ended up at the Windamere Hotel Bar in Darjeeling one evening, where she met a prince. It was the summer of 1959 and love was in the air. Hope sported a dirndl, made popular by the recent release of The Sound of Music; while the Crown Prince Thondup Namgyal, thirteen years her senior, looked dashing in his traditional high-collared, ankle-length Bakku with a crimson sash.
The two were instantly drawn to one another, and Hope found herself hanging on the prince’s every word when he joined her at the bar. They spent the next few days in a whirlwind romance, and Hope left Sikkim floating on a pink cloud.
She thought about the prince every day, even though she had no further communication with him. In fact, it wasn’t until 1961 that Hope the hopeless romantic returned to India to find out if “I was egging on fate or whether fate was dogging me.” She retraced her steps to the Windamere Hotel, where the prince (she claims she doesn’t know how) found her sitting in the parlor nibbling a cookie with a cup of tea.
It was a romantic reunion, and Prince Thondup wasted no time in asking the twenty-year-old American to marry him. He then whisked her away to his family’s humble palace in the clouds, where Hope immediately fell in love with the fairytale setting.
And so the two were married in 1963. Two years later, the crown prince became king. And Hope Cooke became Queen Consort of Sikkim.
One could say they lived happily ever after—except that many villagers thought Hope was a CIA spy, India overthrew the royalty in 1975, the deposed king became a disillusioned alcoholic who overdosed on barbiturates, and Hope took to alleviating her loneliness and anxiety with beer for breakfast, followed by Valium, whiskey, and cigarettes the rest of the day.
The couple, who had two children together and three from the king’s first marriage, divorced in 1980. Thondup died of cancer two years later at the age of fifty-eight. Hope, who with their children had escaped house arrest at the Gangtok palace, returned to Manhattan in 1975 and penned her autobiography, Time Change. Nowadays she spends her time leading walking tours of the city and lecturing on Asian and Asian-American literature.
The king and queen’s marriage may not have had a fairytale ending, but the media attention it received helped put Sikkim on the map—before it was absorbed into obscurity by India.
As for me, Chris, Nidup, and Dustin, we were on our way to Yumthang Valley, where a tiny kingdom once bordered Tibet.