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?
In 1999, after five years at the magazine, Thorpe left Texas Monthly to freelance. The timing was ideal. George W. Bush was running for president from Austin, and her first years of writing were blessed: Almost every story she pitched was published. She wrote a story on Bush Jr. for John F. Kennedy Jr.'s magazine, George, and she gained a behind-the-scenes vantage point on the most divisive presidential race in recent memory. But by 2001, the frenzy of the election was over and Thorpe published almost nothing. It was a setback professionally, but it was during that year that a six-foot-one distraction walked into her life.
For more than a decade, Thorpe had defined herself as an independent journalist, and as she neared the age of 40 she was comfortable with her career being the priority in her life. Then the wedding, the move, the birth of her son, the campaign—it all took over. She gave up writing temporarily, but once Hickenlooper started directing the city's business, Thorpe started to redefine her career—and herself.
She wrote essays about her new roles as a mother and first lady in Glamour and this magazine. She also looked for a project that she could report and write in Denver (so she could stay close to her son) that would have national appeal. She was curious about what it was like to come of age illegally in the United States—something very different from her own immigrant experience. The project would require gaining access to the Denver Public Schools system, and her connections certainly didn't hurt as she asked to visit schools and talk to students. She reported an article for Westword about a DPS student who was an illegal immigrant, but she kept searching for new subjects until a friend of a friend introduced her to four girls.
They were all seniors with good grades scrambling to find funds for college—a task that was even more difficult for the two who were living in the United States illegally. They'd crossed the border in their parents' arms, or when they were too young to know the difference, and had lived in Denver most of their lives. As her husband settled into his new position, Thorpe began to follow the girls and watched as they got ready for prom, danced with them at a nightclub, and observed them in their school rooms. "I had started out writing a book that felt to me very independent of what my husband was doing," Thorpe says. "It felt like my own project, in keeping with the journalism that I had been doing."
That changed when Hickenlooper's phone rang on the morning of May 10, 2005. The caller, Michael Bennet, then Hickenlooper's chief of staff, asked Thorpe to get the mayor out of the shower. Days earlier, Bennet said, Raúl Gómez García had shot two police officers, killing one. When Thorpe discovered that one of the girls she was following had plans to be at the banquet hall the night of the shooting, the tenuous line that separated her role as the mayor's wife and an independent journalist vanished.
She mulled over the situation with old friends and editors. Mostly, she worried about harming someone—especially her husband. By late 2005, Hickenlooper was considering a run for governor, and immigration had become a controversial touchstone topic in the Centennial State. Some politicians, like Tom Tancredo, took up a battering ram, but most played an artful game of dodging the issue. If Denver was the middle ground between the People's Republic in Boulder and the Focus on the Family folks in Colorado Springs, Hickenlooper would have to, somehow, appeal to all. He wrestled with the decision, and even prepared two speeches: one announcing a run and the other announcing his decision to step out of the race before it began.