Helen Thorpe (1965–) is a Denver-based journalist and former first lady of Colorado. After spending the 1990s writing for the New York Observer, New Yorker, and Texas Monthly, she met and married Denver brewery owner John Hickenlooper just before he launched his political career. She served throughout the 2000s and early 2010s as first lady of Denver and then first lady of Colorado before the couple separated and eventually divorced in 2015. Meanwhile, Thorpe started writing critically acclaimed nonfiction books about topics such as immigration and women in the military, two of which—Just Like Us and The Newcomers—won Colorado Book Awards for creative nonfiction.
Helen Thorpe was born on January 23, 1965, to Marie and Laurence Thorpe, an Irish couple then living in London. An engineer at the British Broadcasting Company, Laurence soon moved the family to Medford, New Jersey, when he got a job at Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Helen had a Green Card until she became a naturalized US citizen at age twenty-one, while her younger twin siblings, who were born in the United States, were citizens from birth. The Thorpes frequently returned to Ireland to visit family. These circumstances influenced Thorpe’s later decision to focus her work on “young people in America” who “come from another country originally” and are “trying to figure out their place in our society.”
After graduating from Princeton University in 1987, Thorpe spent a year in Boston gaining her first experience in journalism as an intern at the Atlantic Monthly and Boston Phoenix. She then enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University, studying English literature. After receiving her master’s degree in 1989, she decided to return to journalism rather than pursue a PhD. Starting as an assistant at the New York Observer, she quickly worked her way up to writing the newspaper’s media column. New Yorker editor Tina Brown noticed Thorpe’s work and hired her as a writer for the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” section. Her one-year contract was not renewed, however, and like many other aspiring writers, she found herself as an unemployed freelancer struggling to pay the rent in Brooklyn.
In 1994 Thorpe moved to Austin to start writing about business, culture, and politics for Texas Monthly. As her sister Lorna recalled the move, “Helen went from wearing all black and dark lipstick to having longer hair and wearing overalls and having a dog.” After five years at the magazine, Thorpe left in 1999 to become a freelancer again, this time on her own terms. Her timing was perfect; as a Texas-based political reporter in the run-up to a presidential election featuring Texas governor George W. Bush, she had her pick of publishing venues.
Thorpe’s writing slowed after the 2000 election wrapped up, but her personal life entered a period of rapid change. After meeting Denver brewery owner John Hickenlooper at her birthday party in 2001, the couple married in Austin on January 26, 2002. Thorpe moved to Denver and gave birth to their son, Theodore, that summer. Within months, Hickenlooper launched a bid for mayor. Thorpe, who was used to reporting on campaigns, now helped write policy papers and gave advice about ads. Hickenlooper won the election in 2003, making Thorpe the first lady of Denver.
Thorpe was often described as “a reluctant political spouse,” but she went along as Hickenlooper served two terms as Denver mayor and then became governor of Colorado in 2011. Soon, however, the strain became too much, and the couple separated in 2012 before finalizing their divorce in 2015.
As Hickenlooper’s political career took off, Thorpe continued to work when she could, around the edges of politics. In a 2006 essay called “Finding Motherland,” she described herself as “a part-time everything: part-time stay-at-home mom, part-time professional journalist, and part-time political spouse.” To make that combination work, she gave up tight magazine deadlines and searched for a long-term topic that she could research locally in Denver but that would have national relevance. Settling on young immigrants to the United States, she started to follow four high school seniors whose parents had all come to the country illegally from Mexico. Two of the students were US citizens and two were not, allowing Thorpe to explore how that affected their obstacles and options. The resulting book, Just Like Us (2009), was Thorpe’s first. It won the Colorado Book Award for creative nonfiction and was named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
Thorpe’s next book, Soldier Girls (2014), followed three women who enlisted in the Indiana National Guard just before September 11, 2001. Not originally expecting to see combat, the women found themselves in lengthy deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq before working to settle back into life at home. Acclaimed as “a moving portrait of both the toll that the chaos of wartime military life takes and the numbing realities of being female and poor in this country,” Soldier Girls was named Time magazine’s best nonfiction book of the year.
Thorpe then spent the 2015–16 school year embedded in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver’s South High School, which educates refugees from around the world. Using fourteen translators to interview students and their families, Thorpe followed the class during a tumultuous year when Donald Trump came to political prominence and ultimately won the presidency with a campaign based on anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. The Newcomers (2017) won Thorpe her second Colorado Book Award for creative nonfiction.
Thorpe has been a strong supporter of the Denver literary community. She does events at local bookstores such as Tattered Cover and BookBar, writes for local publications such as Westword and 5280, and has taught nonfiction at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop and Regis University. In 2019 she was one of the inaugural inductees into the Colorado Authors’ Hall of Fame. Her most recent book, Finding Motherland (2020), is an essay collection that she assembled during the coronavirus pandemic and made available as an e-book or audiobook that local bookstores could easily sell even when customers couldn’t come to them in person.