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At first, Grace was confined to mundane tasks such as answering the phones, sorting the newspapers, farming out assignments to freelance reporters, and helping the bureau’s five correspondents find local sources. But she soon began pressing the bureau chief, Jonathan Hull, for her own reporting assignments. In February 1994, Grace succeeded in publishing her first big Time story, a wrenching tale about children found living in a single squalid apartment on Chicago’s West Side.
Headlined “Calcutta, Illinois,” the story read in part: “There were 19 in all. Lying two deep on a pair of dirty mattresses. Or sprawled on the apartment’s cold floor amid food scraps, cigarette butts and human excrement. Most were in dirty diapers or underwear; one boy . . . wore bruises, belt marks and cigarette burns on his body.” For the magazine, it was a solid, if standard-issue, two-page dispatch from one of its many national bureaus. For Julie Grace, the 900-word story-under the newsmagazine system, written by a New York–based editor but reported by her-was a gratifying victory.
Extroverted and possessing a radiant smile, Grace proved to be a natural, even gifted, reporter. An early story about an 11-year-old gang member, one she remained proud of years later, displayed the kind of meticulously observed and vivid details that would become her trademark: “Few others in the crime-ridden, gang-infested Roseland community would have called Robert (‘Yummy’) Sandifer a baby. The 4-ft., 8-in., 68-lb. runt of a child, whose nickname came from his love of cookies and junk food, ran with a gang called the Black Disciples. Pedaling through the streets on his seatless black bike, in high-price tennis shoes and big, baggy clothes, Sandifer-coifed in what neighbors described as his ‘nappy’ hair style-intimidated the neighborhood with his use of knives, fire and guns.”
Although Grace’s job was primarily administrative, she pleaded for more editorial work and got it, mostly by stepping up for tough urban crime stories that others in the bureau weren’t thrilled to cover. And she was good at them. “She could convey a certain compassion for people in pain that opened doors for her,” recalls James Graff, Time’s bureau chief from 1995 to 1998. Wendy Cole, a fellow Time correspondent in Chicago, puts it this way: “She would use a combination of persistence and charm and sympathy to get access to people in their most troubled, vulnerable times.” During Graff’s tenure, Grace prospered. She interviewed Ted Kaczynski’s mother, Wanda, for Time’s book about the Unabomber. She knocked on doors up and down the Gold Coast searching for local witnesses after Andrew Cunanan was suspected of killing real estate developer Lee Miglin. She was sent to cover the school shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky. Her work attracted the attention of Time’s editors in New York, and they began to ask specifically for her reporting.
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Even as Grace was exceeding expectations at work, her social drinking apparently became an addiction. She had always been a drinker: girly drinks with umbrellas, at first; then Chambord with Champagne and a lemon twist; and, later, wine. When she was right out of college, says Jan Norway, a friend, she wasn’t even a particularly enthusiastic drinker. “She could nurse a drink for hours,” Norway recalls. But friends suspect that over time Grace’s love of socializing led her often to bars, where reporters and politicians like to gather. “She was part of two professions-journalism and government-where alcohol plays a larger role in the culture than it does in others,” says Wade Nelson, who hired Grace as an intern in Alan J. Dixon’s office in 1983 and ran into her often over the next two decades. “She was around liquor a lot and she drank her share.” Her friend Mark Williams says, “Julie, like many people, enjoyed going out and having a good time. . . . Drinking was a part of that.”
By the end of his tenure in the bureau, Graff remembers, Grace’s behavior had turned erratic. “Sometimes she’d come in late. Or she felt bad,” he says. “There would be periods where she was easily wounded; very, very sensitive. She was usually extremely well put together, and then there were times when she’d come to work in sweatpants.” Graff says that it eventually dawned on him that Grace might be struggling with a drinking problem, having seen her get “too drunk” on a couple of occasions at Time functions. One of her coworkers recalls: “When there was an office party and everybody’s having a drink or two or three, she’s having a lot more than that and [is] clearly unable to keep it together.”
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