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?
The Sunday before his press conference, Hickenlooper and Thorpe took a long walk in the Central Platte Valley—the western frontier of LoDo, the valley that spans from the birthplace of Denver at Confluence Park north to the rundown rail yards that might just be its future. The couple weighed the options and talked for hours. When Hickenlooper finally reached a decision, Thorpe suggested he sleep on it. In early February 2006, Hickenlooper read the second speech and announced that he would not run. The decision altered the terrain of Thorpe's professional work, and shortly thereafter she began to work on a book proposal. If Hickenlooper had run, she says today, "I think this book wouldn't exist."
Thorpe set about writing a story that was as complex and sometimes awkward as her life. In Just Like Us she frequently uses the first-person pronoun "I" and writes about her struggle to be a journalist and a wife. The process was uncomfortable but also liberating, because she felt few expectations to act like the mayor's wife around her subjects. She even writes about how they each had labels imposed on them by loved ones. "My husband had chosen to run for office, and now the public saw me as the mayor's wife," she writes. "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. Yet both kinds of labels served to hide, rather than reveal."
On a balmy summer day, Helen Thorpe is staring out the window at the Tattered Cover on Colfax Avenue. She seems tired, even frazzled, as she contemplates her lengthy to-do list before the family heads to New Hampshire for a two-week vacation. It's Hickenlooper's first long trip since he took office and, while he's bringing a laptop, Thorpe hopes the vacation will be a break for all of them. They'll celebrate Teddy's seventh birthday, get into water fights on Squam Lake, hike, play cards, sleep. Thorpe plans to read and look for inspiration for another project. A few days before, she'd mused on her upcoming book tour and what would come next. "It does leave a huge hole in my life," she admits. "This was how I found meaning in my world for many years now."
For the first time since coming to Denver, she doesn't have an all-consuming, life-changing event on the horizon. No pregnancy. No campaign. No book. Her days are busy as she shuttles Teddy to summer camp and play dates, drops by the occasional event as first lady, and serves on youth-focused nonprofit boards like the Colorado Children's Campaign and Clayton Early Learning. More often than not, she wants to go unnoticed. "She's been a very quiet, behind-the-scenes supporter," says Charlotte Brantley, Clayton's president and CEO. "In her own quiet way, she gets a lot done. But she's not your typical first lady."
That doesn't mean she's not influential. "She's been an incredible cheerleader for the mayor and a sounding board," says Anthony Aragon, director of the Denver Office of Aging. "She's been a major influence for him." The one-time scheduler for Hickenlooper also remembers meeting with the couple-elect for the first time and how Thorpe struggled to grasp the enormity of what had just happened and how their lives were going to change. He reminded her that she could maintain a somewhat normal family life, but she'd still have to make compromises.
And so Thorpe established a compromise between her social husband and her introverted personality. Hickenlooper manages most of the big events alone. She keeps her son out of the press and continues to manage her self-defined first lady role. Sometimes she's out front, and at other functions she sits in the crowd—like at Project C.U.R.E.'s annual first lady luncheon fund-raiser. Jeannie Ritter cries as she retells a tale from her missionary days, and former first lady Wilma Webb introduces a video. And Thorpe? She's sitting at table 30, halfway across the room from the dignitaries. There will be no speech and no recognition for her; she prefers it that way. It's a typical role for Thorpe. Part of her seems drawn to the spotlight, but another shies away and tries to remain the observant bystander.
It must be odd knowing that, despite her own impressive resume, most people shake her hand because of the man she's married to. That's part of the reason settling down in Denver has taken longer than it did in Austin or New York. She only had a year before her husband became a candidate, and then a mayor, and then a name—a brand—bandied about for high-profile national gigs. That year of relative anonymity became vital. "It was a blessing, because it was during that year that I met my friends, my close friends," Thorpe says. "I've made friends with two people since John was elected." While Thorpe had always adapted, Denver was different. Just Like Us became her campaign, and instead of changing with the landscape, she tried to mold a new terra firma on which to stand.