Sikkim: A Queen Revisited

Friday, Jan. 03, 1969 Reference:- Time in partnership with CNN www.

Trim and lithe, her rich brown hair flowing over her shoulders, America's only working queen strides the hilly lanes of her capital, Gangtok. As she passes by, the Sikkimese smile, nod and stop to chat, all formality forgotten. Hope Cooke, the shy Sarah Lawrence student married five years to the King of Sikkim, finds herself very much at home in the tiny Himalayan country. "The mountains," she says, "give me such a secure feeling. I don't feel vulnerable here."
Five years ago, during the elaborate ceremonies marking her marriage to Palden Thondup Namgyal, court musicians sang that "a flower of the West blossoms among us." Today it is clear that at 28 the whispery-voiced Gyalmo (Queen) has not only blossomed but put down sturdy roots as well. Her two children, Prince Palden, 4, and Princess Hope Leezum, 18 months, are thriving, and the Gyalmo almost singlehanded has succeeded in reviving Sikkim's long-dormant cottage industry. Sikkim now exports to the world, and two chic Manhattan stores carry deep-pile rugs and gold and silver jewelry painstakingly made by native craftsmen.
Royal Household. Hope's days are full. She rises at about 8 a.m., breakfasts on tea and fruit, and browses through the foreign newspapers and magazines to which the palace subscribes. At 10 a.m., her secretary enters, and the four hours until lunch are spent writing letters, devising menus and supervising the palace's 15 servants, who work in two shifts. She also keeps an eye on the family budget: the King's annual income is $42,000, and fixed expenses of $27,000 leave the royal household only a $15,000 margin. After lunch, palace chores and social work keep her busy until about 4 p.m., when she breaks away for her daily stroll through Gangtok or perhaps a set of tennis. Evenings are usually filled with official functions, or private parties, and the royal family has a wide circle of Sikkimese friends. She likes a Scotch and soda before dinner—or "even after dinner," she confides—but managed to give up smoking two years ago. Her husband, the Chogyal (King), does not smoke either—he prefers to chew betel nut. Droll, fluent in English and forward-looking, he appears years younger than his age (45).
In the five years since he took control of the country, the King has concentrated on electrification and education, carrying forward many of his father's ideas. Under their leadership, the literacy rate has risen from 25% to 40%, and the number of Sikkimese children in school has quadrupled in the past decade. Government revenues have doubled, road mileage has tripled, and average per-capita income has risen by a third, to $100 a year. This fall, however, monsoon rains set off heavy floods and landslides, causing $28 million in damage—14 times the kingdom's annual budget.
Palden and Hope spent a month surveying the damage, trekking across the mountainous landscape by Jeep and horseback. "It was an arduous month," she remembers, "but we had to see how bad it was and what we could do." Palden's policy is to visit each village in the kingdom at least once every three years, and Hope goes with him whenever possible, even visiting areas close to hostile Communist China.

Where Are They Now? American Queen Hope Cooke

About Hope Cooke the only American Queen who married the King of Sikkim, history and biography of her then and now.
Headline--1963: HOPE COOKE
At the Peak: It seemed to be a real-life fairy tale back in the early 1960s when Hope Cooke, a shy 22-year-old New York debutante, won the heart of the crown prince of Sikkim, a fabled Shangri-la principality astride the Himalaya.
They called Hope "the Grace Kelly of the East" in those days, and the public was bombarded with details of her exotic romance. We learned how the bride, an orphan who'd been raised by the former U.S. ambassador to Iran, had been wooed by her Prince Charming, a handsome widower whom she'd met in India in 1958.
After many consultations by the Buddhist astrologers, the wedding was set for March of 1963, and the public was treated to rhapsodic descriptions of the two-hour ceremony, replete with throbbing Tibetan horns, bejeweled altars, clanging cymbals, and classical chants by imperial lamas. Then the couple was supposed to live happily ever after in a palace nestled in the shadows of Mt. Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain (which the groom happened to own).
Alas, however, the fairy tale soon crumbled for the only American woman ever to become a queen. Political upheavals racked the mountain kingdom on the Tibet-India border in the early 1970s, and a feud developed between the king and wealthy landowners who sought to reduce his power. The crisis deepened, and Hope's foreign background became a major issue.
And Today: Hope Cooke is back in New York, having been forced to flee Sikkim in 1973, when mobs roamed the streets and, in her words, "the harmony of the beautifully woven society was slashed to pieces."
Fourteen years after she became a queen, the soft-spoken, raven-haired mother of two lives quietly in a modest apartment and appears only occasionally at society functions. Her husband, stripped of his powers, remains under house arrest in his palace.
"I often recall the beauty of the relationship we once shared and the land we lived in," she says. "But in the end, he had to stay and I had to go."