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?
She graduated magna cum laude, but floundered for a year in Boston after leaving the cloistered world of Princeton. At night, she waitressed to pay the rent, and she dabbled for the first time in journalism by taking unpaid internships reading the fiction slush pile at the Atlantic Monthly and getting short clips at the Boston Phoenix.
Going to grad school seemed like a logical next step, and Thorpe headed to New York City, where, in 1989, she completed a master's degree in English literature at Columbia University. The typical track would have been to go on to get a Ph.D., but Thorpe couldn't stop thinking about becoming a journalist. She eventually accepted a $16,000-a-year job at the New York Observer opening mail, answering phones, and delivering packages.
Soon, she was also writing and working her way up the paper's masthead. After a year she took over the paper's media column, "Off the Record." "I was too young and naïve to really appreciate that if you were writing about the media in New York City, everyone in the media in New York City was reading you," Thorpe says. "It was an unusually prominent platform."
The high-profile gig caught the attention of editor Tina Brown, who brought Thorpe to the iconic New Yorker in 1992 to write "Talk of the Town" pieces. As the magazine's new editor, Brown tinkered with just about every element of the weekly, which had changed little since it was first released in 1925. The tumult, while a business success, left behind casualties, and Thorpe, who had come to the publication with so much promise, was one of them. Her contract was not renewed after her first year at the title.
Just as quickly as she'd climbed to the pinnacle of New York's publishing scene, Thorpe was just another unemployed writer in the Big Apple. She tried her hand at freelancing, but she didn't have experience writing the Big Stories, the ones that would make a name for her and command a big paycheck, and eking out a living writing short articles wasn't paying the rent on her Brooklyn apartment. She started searching for another opportunity and even considered moving away from New York.
In 1994, although she'd never been to Texas, Thorpe landed a job at Texas Monthly in Austin. "Helen went from wearing all black and dark lipstick to having longer hair and wearing overalls and having a dog," says Lorna, Thorpe's sister. "She changed with the landscape."
On her first day of house hunting, Thorpe bumped into an eclectic group of musicians, painters, and writers that became her social network. They'd while away long days by sitting on a porch, drinking beer, and listening to music. She helped form a book group, bought a house in the artsy Barton Heights neighborhood in south Austin, and got a tattoo—a harp, a symbol of storytelling and Ireland—on her lower back.
Her writing transformed with the landscape as well. "Texas Monthly had a phenomenally freewheeling attitude toward writers," Thorpe says. "We didn't really have beats or boxes they put us into. It was more: 'Go, explore the world, and come back and tell us what you find.'" She covered business, culture, and politicians like Bob Lanier, Houston's beloved mayor, by poking at cracks in his too-perfect political veneer, and Garry Mauro, a Democratic challenger to governor George W. Bush's reelection who barely registered in the polls.