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?
"I don't think it was all easy," says Helen's sister, Lorna Thorpe. "There was this bright spot: She was newly married, and she was newly pregnant. So that was all great, and then suddenly she was heavily pregnant, and John was entering the mayoral race, and Helen didn't have her extensive friend network. Fast-forward, and she was at home and not working, and I think that was really hard on her identity."
Hickenlooper had never run for political office, and with the help of a part-time nanny the new family learned how to campaign and care for an infant—changing diapers, preparing bottles—all at the same time. Thorpe stopped working as a journalist to care for Teddy, but she would participate in the "kitchen cabinet calls" with advisers. Hickenlooper sang Bonnie Raitt lullabies to the baby, and the newlyweds pored over policy papers on topics such as homelessness and education, which Thorpe helped write.
Early in the campaign, Hickenlooper was at four percent in the polls and adviser Chris Romer, now a state senator, explained that Thorpe's journalism experience would be an asset. "He said, 'You're going to be the next mayor because you have the best pillow talk,' " Hickenlooper says. " 'When you're relaxing before you go to sleep, when you're having breakfast or dinner, you are going to discuss things and you're going to get feedback at a very sophisticated level.' " Hickenlooper rose fast in the polls as the mayor's race turned into a good-guy contest; in Denver, Hickenlooper was the ultimate good guy. He easily beat city auditor Donald Mares and captured nearly 65 percent of the vote. Overnight, Thorpe became a public figure.
The morning after the election, Denver's first lady-elect was walking home from a massage when newly elected city auditor Dennis Gallagher spotted her on the street and grabbed her for a celebratory hug. Along with him came a reporter and photographer from the Denver Post, and as Gallagher hugged Thorpe, the photographer snapped some shots. Thorpe asked the photographer to stop and grabbed at what she says she thought was his business card, but she ended up ripping a camera accessory. Within days the Post ran a column chiding Thorpe's reaction. It was a wake-up call: Helen Thorpe was no longer an anonymous reporter scratching notes and observing. She was Denver's first lady. She was the news.
It was odd luck that Thorpe came to America. Her Irish parents, Marie and Laurence "Larry" Thorpe, were living in London when Helen was born in 1965; Larry had a job as an engineer for the BBC, and Marie was a nurse. But when one of Larry's colleague's told him RCA was hiring, Larry interviewed and landed a job in the United States. With one-year-old Helen in tow, the couple headed across the pond.
Thorpe's childhood in southern Medford, New Jersey, was pure Americana, complete with canoe carnivals and summer camps. As Larry moved up the ranks at RCA, Marie balanced raising the kids—a set of twins, Lorna and Brian, were born stateside—with her career as a nurse and teacher. Thorpe took after her dad, inheriting his Irish looks, his self-motivation, and his flashes of temper.
Thorpe's teenage years at Shawnee High School brought the normal adolescent ups and downs. Nonetheless, Thorpe was an exceptional student and a budding poet who was more inclined to get lost in a book than to lose her way. When it came time to choose a college, she applied early and was accepted to Princeton University.