Why Did Gov. John Hickenlooper and First Lady Helen Thorpe Separate?

July 2012

Having spent most of last year embedded with Gov. John Hickenlooper and his administration to report “The Happy Shrewdness of John W. Hickenlooper,” in this month’s issue, I can tell you that I did not see this one coming. I witnessed nothing, heard nothing, which indicated that Hickenlooper and his wife, Helen Thorpe, would be legally separating, as they have announced today: “After years of marriage that have added tremendous love and depth to both of our lives, we have decided to separate. This decision is mutual and amicable.” Their joint statement also made a point of stating that neither had had an affair, and that the tragic events of the wildfires and Aurora massacre and, embedded therein, the governor’s public duties related to them, did not cause their split. Inevitably, of course, fairly or unfairly, this will lead people to wonder then, what did cause it?

One of the ground rules I’d agreed to before I embarked on the assignment was that my story would not be a story about Thorpe and their 10-year-old son, Teddy. (Which was fair enough, because in my mind it never would have been.) But I don’t think that agreement had much, if anything, to do with me not observing any tremors because, simply put, Thorpe was rarely around Governor Hickenlooper at the capitol in the first place. In all of the time that I was there, I saw Thorpe around the governor maybe on a half dozen occasions, if that. And there was nothing to be read as unusual in her absence either. If anything, that was normal for them. And this is something.

It’s no secret that Thorpe might have been the most reluctant First Lady in the history of First Ladies. She wasn’t crazy about the gig when her husband was the mayor. As if there were any doubt, she made that clear publicly in 2006. Only three years after Hickenlooper became mayor, Thorpe wrote a first-person essay, “Finding Motherland,” for this magazine. She opened the piece with an anecdote from when the couple were relatively newlyweds, with a two-month old, Teddy, and a new home, which, like their new lives together was very much just under construction. Within the first two paragraphs, she wrote, “When the baby was two months old, my husband, John, decided that it was the right time to run for political office.” It was Thorpe herself who suggested the title for that essay: “Finding Motherland: Journalist. Mother. Denver’s First Lady. In three short years, I lost the self I’d always known. Could I ever find my way back?”

While Thorpe embarked on an inherently private search for self, Hickenlooper successfully ran for his second term as mayor. Along the way, Thorpe wrote a best-selling book, Just Like Us, about four teenage Mexican-American girls whose parents were living in Colorado and in the United States illegally. The book was about the girls struggle to find their place, their identity. Thorpe related to this, as she told my colleague Natasha Gardner, who wrote a profile of Thorpe, pegged to the release of the book. In that book, Thorpe wrote:

“My husband had chosen to run for office, and now the public saw me as the mayor's wife. I still saw myself as a journalist, and could never accept that I would be defined by the actions of my spouse, just as the girls could never accept that they would be defined by the actions of their parents. The girls had to contend with a label that was toxic, while if anything the label I wore was insufferably positive.”

Then, of course, came the whole governor thing. Before deciding to run, Hickenlooper and Thorpe met with then lame duck Governor Ritter and his wife, Jeannie, at what was then Governor Ritter’s mansion. The First Lady offered to host them. As Hickenlooper told me, Jeannie Ritter wanted to make clear to the couple what a strain the governor’s office had put on their marriage. It was difficult for the First Lady and their children to live in the mansion, waiting for her husband to come home to a home that was not theirs, often late. It was difficult to sometimes return to a home filled with strangers lingering from a state affair at the mansion. It was hard, very hard, on a marriage, Hickenlooper and Thorpe heard. The counsel was duly noted and appreciated, and Hickenlooper forged ahead into the campaign, with Thorpe resigned to continue on, as lovingly, and as reluctantly as ever. Though they made a point of not moving into the mansion, and instead made their home at home, in Park Hill.

Thorpe contributed to her role as Colorado’s First Lady both ceremonially and, behind closed doors, politically. One of the times I saw her with her husband on the job was at the first retreat of the governor and his cabinet. In the meeting room that is the carriage house adjacent to the governor’s mansion, Thorpe engaged respectfully but passionately when the subject turned to immigration, as it was the overarching political topic of her book. However, I often sensed Thorpe wanting to say more, but refraining. At times she delicately put her hand over her mouth, as if literally holding it closed. It was not because she was afraid or intimidated: She was Helen Thorpe, journalist, and, by then, best-selling author, and yes, First Lady. Rather, it was because, enveloped by the Hickenlooper cabinet members, and that peculiar world, she seemed unsure of her place. She was surrounded but alone, still searching for which self she was to be in that moment: Journalist? Author? First Lady? Advocate? Advisor? All? None of the above?  

And then there was her husband, the unmistakably defined Governor Hickenlooper. As I wrote in this month’s piece, he told me that he wanted to be governor for the same reasons he liked being a pitcher in high school:

“What I loved about pitching is not being the center of attention,” he told me, “but that I was involved in each play. I was integrally involved in each play, each pitch. Whereas everyone else on the baseball diamond is standing around a lot of the time. So it wasn’t necessarily being the center of attention, as it was the center of the action.” When I suggested to him that there wasn’t much difference between the center of the action and the center of the attention. Hickenlooper smiled and said, “It’s true.”

On this pitcher’s mound, he was simultaneously learning and battling through his first year on the job of governor, occupied with a historic budget crisis, congressional redistricting, among myriad other issues, all with the stated goal of restoring the peoples’ faith in state government. One day, as the two of us talked, Hickenlooper said that decades ago he had been through two broken engagements. Self-diagnosing the second break-up he said, “I was ambitious. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was driven. All she wanted was me and a house and a dog and, at some point, kids.”

On this pitcher’s mound, as he was slogging through what seemed like a mind-numbing tsunami of issues, barely avoiding one special session and then himself triggering a special session in a stand-off over legalizing civil unions … another budget … then there were the wildfires … and then the Aurora massacre.

As “The Happy Shrewdness…” was about to go to press, some two weeks ago, before anyone had ever heard of "Suspect A," the governor called me to give me the news of the separation. The specific conversation was off the record, but his demeanor was somewhere between denial and devastation. I was stunned, but yet considering all of the aforementioned, I wasn’t surprised. I’ll readily admit that being a journalist was not high up on my own list of identities in that moment. I said I wished him, Helen, and Teddy, the very best of luck in navigating whatever it was they were, and would be, navigating.

Days later, in Paris, I sat with my wife and two sons together on a hotel bed, and watched the international news. The word “horrified,” of course, doesn’t seem to capture the feelings that we, and we all, everywhere, felt absorbing the news about the mass shooting in Aurora, and the thoughts of how those victims and their families must be feeling. Families. That word came up over and over again in discussions with our two boys, who are both right about Teddy Hickenlooper’s age. Families. We watched as the governor went from funeral to funeral. Six funerals thus far. He was going, I heard him say, on behalf of all Coloradans who want to be at each of the ceremonies but cannot. I couldn’t help but think, here was a guy trying to do what he could to heal the hurting, but also to distract himself from his own personal pain. On one radio program I heard Hickenlooper say that he found the will of the surviving family and friends “remarkable,” because "they were determined to figure out how this was going to make them stronger. Determined to seek joy as a tribute to whom they lost.” On an streaming internet feed of Colorado Public Radio's Colorado Matters, I heard host Ryan Warner refer to the governor as the "Consoler in Chief" and ask him what Hickenlooper thinks it is that people who are hurting in the state need from him now. “You’ve got me,” he said. He continued by saying that “when people have lost more than they ever dreamed they can lose” he figured most of what he could do was just “be there and listen.”

Another one of the times I saw Thorpe was during the preparations for the governor’s most recent State of the State. She’d been there during the days of speechwriting, contributing infrequently, but meaningfully, and then she was there the day of, one of the last, if not the last people to be by his side before he left his office to deliver the speech in the State House. I snapped a few pictures. In one of them, the governor is leaning down over the conference table in his office. Thorpe is standing by his side, not especially close, with her hand on his back. Clearly, they're trying. Just as clearly, in the space between them, coming through the window, there is daylight. 

—Image by Maximillian Potter