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Behind Her Smile

After climbing through the ranks at Time magazine, Julie Grace fell into trouble. In May she was found dead. Now her friends are asking how they could have saved her.

(page 6 of 7)

 

Soon after Grace left the magazine, she went into an alcohol rehabilitation program at Chicago Lakeshore Hospital. Susana McLellan, who was in rehab with her, says that though her new friend dutifully attended meetings, she continued to drink. “She knew what she had to do,” says McLellan, who has been sober for two years. But even as Grace apparently was neglecting her own worsening condition, she reached out to others in need: She invited her friends from rehab to her condo for small parties, serving pizza and soda pop, and gave away old clothing and her sofa.

Grace’s agreement with Time, according to a close friend, included a financial settlement and continuing medical benefits. Jobless but financially secure, she seemed oddly unfazed about being unemployed, her friends remember, and optimistic that she would soon find work. But her constant drinking was taking its toll on this once-vibrant, health-conscious woman, who had finished the Chicago Marathon in 1997. Grace’s friend Mark Williams says there was a “dramatic shift” in the last couple of years, and he remembers feeling alarmed at how she looked. “She’d lost a lot of weight,” he says. “She was still pretty but too thin.”

In May 2002, Grace returned to rehab at Lakeshore Hospital. There she met an ironworker named George Thompson. He was a nice-looking guy, she told friends. She found him interesting and said they shared a bond. Perhaps the bond was recovery; perhaps it was drinking. Soon after, Grace and Thompson flew south to visit her parents, who had moved to central Florida, and his parents in Charleston, South Carolina, where Thompson had grown up.

To her parents, Grace and Thompson appeared sober. In the evenings, the couple prayed and read Alcoholics Anonymous materials together. Still, Grace’s parents were taken aback: Here was their daughter, a college-educated writer who had dated professional men, bringing home someone who described himself as a “troublemaker” in his youth. When Ruth Grace asked him “what his problem was,” expecting to find out which substance he was trying to kick in rehab, he told her, “It’s an anger problem. But I have it under control.”

The “anger problem” evidently was not under control. Shortly after returning from the trip, Thompson lost his job at a Joliet construction firm. Thompson told Chicago, from jail, that he was “let go” after getting into a fight with another worker on a job site. (His former boss did not return two phone calls.) Now, with both of them out of work, Thompson and Grace fell back into drinking. “I don’t know what happened, but after we got back from that trip we started drinking again,” he says.

Thompson insists that he and Grace were like “husband and wife” for a time. “I would go to work. She would make me lunch,” he says. But then things deteriorated quickly and they became “two drunks living together,” he says, falling into a tag-team routine in which he would go on a bender and then she would, each of them drunk for days at a stretch. “We validated each other’s bullshit,” Thompson says.

Around this time, Ruth Grace received a panicked call from her daughter. “I heard this guy yelling and glass shattering. I didn’t know what the heck was going on at first until I realized that Julie was beside herself,” she says. “I told her, ‘Julie, you run like hell. You get out of there!’” Ruth says her daughter later told her that Thompson had thrown a barstool through one of the windows in Grace’s condo and it fell 20 floors to the street below.

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