The Two Lives of Helen Thorpe
When her first book, Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, was released last month, the mayor's wife realized a lifelong dream. But will Denver's first lady ever be able to step out from her husband's shadow?
Thorpe checks her iPhone with calculated regularity. Her seven-year-old son, Theodore "Teddy" Hickenlooper, is on a play date, and she has a 4 p.m. meeting with a writers' group, an eclectic assembly of local authors ranging from journalist Peter Heller to novelist Janis Hallowell. They are some of her closest friends in Denver, people who see her as someone more than the Mayor's Wife. To them, she is the "other" Helen: the friend, mother, and writer who's about to publish her first book, Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America (Scribner). They know that Thorpe changes outfits almost as often as she shifts gears between the different, and in some ways opposing, parts of her life.
She was a career journalist who had covered political figures and current issues. Then, in 2003, she became Denver's first lady and had to deal with all of the expectations and obligations that came along with that role. Her predecessor as first lady, power broker and former legislator Wilma Webb, had embraced the title, but Thorpe made it clear from the beginning that she had no intention of doing the same. Hickenlooper didn't mind and told her to do what felt comfortable. But how could she act like a thoughtful, analytical, probing journalist when she was in bed with the type of politician she used to profile?
It had been a whirlwind courtship. "In affairs of the heart, Helen fell fast and furious," says her mother, Marie Thorpe. "She had great judgment in everything else, but not always in affairs of the heart." Hickenlooper, though, was at a different stage in life. He had a bookish charm mixed with a gregarious, albeit distracted, personality. The man just couldn't seem to sit still; he served on a dozen nonprofit boards and serially launched new businesses.
With the help of investors, the out-of-work geologist had turned a crumbling warehouse full of pigeons in a rundown section of downtown Denver into the Wynkoop Brewing Company, which opened in 1988. His brewpub launched a local trend, and he helped turn LoDo into a destination where he reigned as the unofficial mayor.
During most of his 40s, Hickenlooper's dating life was as famous as his suds. After jokingly offering a $5,000 bounty to anyone who'd introduce him to his future wife, he wound up explaining the contest on Phil Donahue's show. He had his pick of blind dates afterward but was intrigued when a friend from his college days at Connecticut's Wesleyan University told him about a freelance journalist named Helen Thorpe who lived in Austin, Texas. The 48-year-old bachelor concocted a plan: He was going to crash Thorpe's 37th birthday party.
Hickenlooper showed up bearing Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong CDs for Thorpe and the host. "It seemed like such a sweet gesture," says Thorpe. "He wasn't on his turf—he was in this new town—and he was kind of hanging back and floating around the party." Hickenlooper used the celebration to do his due diligence. "She was cute; she was flip," he told me recently. "I got to ask a bunch of her old friends, 'How do you know Helen?' and I heard the devotion that these friends had toward her. I heard four different people say, 'Helen's my best friend,' and I just thought, 'Huh. That's pretty interesting.' "
That might have been the end of it, but Thorpe had an excuse to travel to Colorado a few weeks later, and they set up a date that turned into more dates. That year, Hickenlooper took 11 weeks of vacation and spent more and more time in Austin. The new couple jetted off for trips to London, St. Barts, and Italy. "He's characteristically someone who really throws himself into his work, whether it's his job, or his business, or being mayor," Thorpe says. "That year, I think he just threw himself into courtship."
Nine months after showing up at Thorpe's birthday party, in October of 2001, Hickenlooper proposed after an event at the Denver Art Museum and handed Thorpe a diamond once worn by his mother. On January 26, 2002, Thorpe and Hickenlooper married in a Quaker ceremony in Austin. The couple had barely moved into a loft in LoDo when their first son, Teddy, was born on July 5.