When her first book, Just Like Us, was released last month, mayor John Hickenlooper's wife realized a lifelong dream. But will Denver's first lady ever be able to step out from her famous husband's shadow?
What was going through her head? No one could know for sure as Denver's first lady, Helen Thorpe, stood before the courtroom. Her pale, freckled face was drained of all color; her thin lips were drawn flat. She stared forward intently, almost squinting, as if she were trying to bring the room into focus. Her right hand rested delicately, frozen, above her heart as the judge admonished her.
It was September 7, 2006, and Raúl Gómez García was being tried on a second-degree murder charge for shooting and killing a Denver police officer outside Salon Ocampo, a banquet hall in southwest Denver. A cop's murder always upsets the equilibrium of a city, but this trial was about more than the death of a police officer. Gómez García was in the United States illegally, and the uproar over immigration had engulfed the state.
Even Thorpe's husband, mayor John Hickenlooper, had been pushed into the fray: Hickenlooper was a part owner of the Cherry Cricket, which briefly employed Gómez García as both a dishwasher and busboy. The Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post hounded the mayor, printing headlines like, "Slaying suspect worked at Hickenlooper eatery," even though Hickenlooper's assets had been in a blind trust at the time Gómez García worked at the Cricket. The immigration debate worked its way, noisily, all the way to the Capitol. During a special session in the summer of 2006, state legislators crafted what were touted as the "toughest" immigration laws in the country.
After all that, you might think that the mayor's wife would want to distance herself from the political hot potato of immigration; that she would want to stay away from an issue that had chipped away at her husband's popularity with the citizens of the city. But Thorpe was an immigrant herself, who'd moved to this country from London when she was one year old. She was a journalist, with more than a decade of experience writing for publications like the New Yorker and Texas Monthly. And she couldn't stay away.
Thorpe had started researching a story on four Mexican girls—two American citizens, two illegal immigrants—growing into adulthood in Denver. At the time, the project seemed like it was independent of Hickenooper's political life. But when Gómez García pulled the trigger, everything changed. Thorpe discussed the story with her friends and colleagues, and even considered dropping the project altogether. And then, after about a year, she decided to move forward. This time, the story would be different: It would be not only about the four girls, but also about her husband, and herself, and the messiness of the policy and politics surrounding the immigration debate.
So there she was, setting out her digital tape recorder—which was forbidden—during the second day of Gómez García's trial and observing the proceedings. Just before 3 p.m., the judge asked the jury to leave the room and demanded that the person who had been recording the session stand. No one moved. It was only after the judge asked the deputy sheriff to identify the party that Thorpe finally rose. She apologized to the court for the mistake and said, simply, "I didn't know."
The fallout was plastered across the local papers the next day as both the Post and the Rocky wrote about Thorpe's faux pas. It was not the first time the compartmentalized roles of her life—first lady, wife, mother, journalist—had collided. Nor would it be the last.
On a warm summer afternoon in Denver, Helen Thorpe lies in the grass underneath a tree in a Park Hill playground and stretches her arms above her head. The 44-year-old smiles as the leaves and afternoon sun cast shadows on her face. Peeking out of black sandals, her toes are painted with a hot-pink nail polish that has long since flaked and chipped. Her shoulder-length brown hair is graying, and she's wearing a pair of funky, lavender and yellow glasses. Everything about Helen Thorpe's appearance seems a bit haphazard, a little unplanned.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
Yet the ground will constantly be shifting if her husband's career continues on its current trajectory. Last year's Democratic National Convention catapulted Denver onto the national stage, and since then Hickenlooper's name continues to come up in conversations about the Next Step, which might even include a move to Washington, D.C. When Ken Salazar joined Barack Obama's cabinet and vacated his Senate seat, Hickenlooper's name was tossed around as a leading contender to fill the spot, a promotion he wanted. (Governor Ritter selected Michael Bennet, Hickenlooper's old chief of staff, for the post.) Even if her husband runs and is reelected in 2011, he'll have to step down in 2015 because of term limits, but it appears unlikely that he'll drop out of public life. He'll still be one of the most recognizable faces in Colorado. That's how, at her first public appearance for Just Like Us, Hickenlooper accidentally steals the spotlight.
It's mid-June and Thorpe is an honoree at the American Immigration Lawyers Association's annual Immigrant Liberty Awards. The event has all the trappings of a fund-raiser: balloons stuffed with gift certificates, silent-auction tables, and a booze line. Thorpe slips in quietly with her date, her dad, Larry. Hickenlooper's not there—he's got two other events that night—but he'll arrive soon. Thorpe's dressed in a boxy black suit with blue and green glasses perched on her nose. After filling her plate with taco makings, she chats up fellow nominee and Olympic gymnast Alexander Artemev from Highlands Ranch and his girlfriend, oohs over his bronze medal, and asks questions about his workout routine. When Hickenlooper ambles in a few minutes later, the whole room turns. The Olympian's girlfriend punches him in the arm and, screeching and whispering all at once, asks, "Is that...?"
When Hickenlooper sits down, Thorpe leans over to whisper, smiling, in his ear before heading up to the stage to give her speech. She's standing next to a giant screen that flashes her picture and a list of accomplishments. "I'm not the member of our family who excels at speeches," she blurts into the microphone. "They give me heart palpitations." Thorpe shyly continues and peppers her speech with anecdotes and jokes that elicit laughs. Hickenlooper listens intently for a minute before his e-mail and the silent-auction list grab his attention. He distractedly flips through the list as Thorpe tells the crowd of attorneys and benefactors what growing up with a green card meant to her.
When she's done, Hickenlooper's attention is back, and his clapping is deafening. Thorpe's alone up front, frozen in camera flashes, until event organizers wave Hickenlooper over for a photo op. "Go on, she's all alone up there," Larry says. Hickenlooper pauses, then quips, "She's fine," before joining her for a few photos.
In the minutes after the speech, Thorpe sneaks away from the hoopla and takes refuge in the quiet of a bathroom stall to wind down. When she returns, she joins her husband as person after person vies for his attention. He stands with an arm around her, gently massaging her lower back. Thorpe plays with his tie idly, smiling and leaning into his embrace. It's just a few minutes in a busy day, and just as quickly Hickenlooper is off to play figurehead at another event. Denver's first lady walks out to the parking lot without him.
Natasha Gardner is 5280's assistant editor. E-mail her at email@example.com.