Grace’s fall from the heights of her career to the depths of alcoholism in the last few years of her life has left her friends and family puzzled, bereft, and asking what could have been done to save her. “It was just so painful to see a person with so much charisma get lost like that,” says Steve Adams, a friend since high school.
Taylorville, where Julie Ruth Grace grew up, seems farther removed from Chicago than its distance, 200 miles south, would suggest. A small, rural town with a quaint, if slightly dilapidated, Main Street, Taylorville had its heyday in the 1960s when its coal-mining industry and a large local paper mill were thriving. The Graces moved there in 1968 when Julie and her older brother, Glenn, were in grade school after their father, a school psychologist, got a job testing children for placement into special education.
Cheerful and high-spirited, Grace found many outlets for her restless energy: She was an able student; she volunteered at the local hospital; she swam competitively; and, in her senior year of high school, she went out for the girls’ basketball team. Though tall and lanky, Grace was not an especially talented ballplayer, according to David Hixenbaugh, her coach and now the assistant superintendent of Taylorville’s public schools. But she practiced hard and “never, ever complained” about the hours of shooting and wind sprints or the fact that she didn’t get much court time during games.
Grace left for college in 1980. After completing three years at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, she moved to Washington, D.C., and finished up her credits in part by working on Capitol Hill, first as an intern for Senator Alan J. Dixon, and later as a paid administrative staffer for then Congressman Paul Simon. Though at first attracted more to liberal causes than to the political process, Grace was soon hooked. She put in a stint on Walter Mondale’s disastrous 1984 campaign for the presidency, then took an entry-level job at Jasculca/Terman and Associates, a Chicago-based political consulting firm. “I think she would have loved to have been press secretary for the White House,” says Mark Williams, an attorney who dated Grace briefly and then became a close friend. “That would have been her dream.”
Socializing and swapping war stories over drinks in the higher-end bars along Rush Street served a double purpose for Grace: It was fun, to be sure, but it was also work. Before long, Grace became a recognizable fixture in the city’s insular political scene. “Julie had a sixth sense about where the political action was,” says Thom Serafin, a political public relations consultant and her friend since 1986. “She went to all the fundraising events and so she met a lot of people that way. Those she didn’t meet she called up and made an appointment for lunch.”
But by the end of the 1980s, friends say, she was burned out and looking for an escape from what she increasingly considered a dead-end career in politics. According to Williams, she had poured her “heart and soul” into her work for local Democrats such as Neil Hartigan, Jim Burns, Ted Lechowicz, and Al Ronan, and slogged through two years cranking out press releases for the state of Illinois tourism office. “She felt people were not reciprocating her hard work and effort,” Williams says.
Hoping to get into journalism, Grace appealed in 1990 to Thomas Hardy, then a Chicago Tribune political columnist, for career advice. Hardy remembers telling her to get some real reporting and writing experience before applying to the city’s biggest newspaper for a job. “She knew reporters because she dealt with them in campaigns and in her [tourism] job,” Hardy says. But, he remembers thinking, “the first stop isn’t the Tribune.” The next year, by way of an introduction through Thom Serafin, Grace landed at Time, the nation’s oldest weekly newsmagazine, with a circulation of four million readers.
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.”
The next bureau chief, Ron Stodghill, who arrived in September 1998, saw Grace’s personal problems hamper her work. Ironically, around this time she was finally promoted. She became a writer-reporter, a title that freed her from her old administrative duties but still placed her a couple of notches below full correspondent. Grace was not considered a strong writer, but, Stodghill says, “she was a magnificent reporter, . . . arguably the best street reporter the magazine had.”
He was particularly impressed with her work on a 1998 story about Ryan Harris, an 11-year-old girl who was at first believed to have been raped and murdered by a seven- and an eight-year-old. Stodghill describes the scene as “a madhouse,” with reporters crawling all over Chicago’s Englewood district. “It was not only rough, but there was little access,” he adds. Stodghill, assigned to write the story with Grace’s reporting, went to the neighborhood to get a look for himself. “I got out of a car and [Julie] saw me. She said, ‘Ron, come over here.’ There was an old woman sitting on a porch, an African American woman, who was calling Julie her adopted granddaughter.” The woman filled Grace’s notebook with quotes and insights that other reporters never got.
Grace’s parents, Ruth and Duard, now believe the “gory-type stories” that became Grace’s specialty triggered her descent into alcoholism. “It all started with the school shootings,” Ruth Grace says. Grace covered West Paducah in 1997 and Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1998. And in 1999, when word of the Columbine shooting spree broke, Julie Grace was dispatched to Littleton, Colorado.
Facing a pack of competing reporters never intimidated Grace. Nor, it seemed, did the gruesome nature of crime reporting. In fact, her Time colleagues remember that Grace would get excited when news broke and clamor to get the assignment. Dirk Johnson, Newsweek‘s current bureau chief in Chicago, remembers running into Grace while he was reporting the Jonesboro school shooting for The New York Times.
“Everybody was searching for family members of the little boys who had shot up the school. I found out that the grandfather of one of the boys lived back in the woods,” Johnson says. “It seemed like a big coup and seemingly there was no one there.” As he walked up to the house in a rural part of Arkansas, he remembers, “out came Julie Grace with a big smile on her face.” She crowed, “I got here before The New York Times!”
Columbine was a different story. According to her parents, Grace was reluctant to go: She told them she was running a fever, but flew out anyway. The scene in Littleton was chaos. Hundreds of reporters had descended on the small town, all chasing the same targets: the students; eyewitnesses; the parents of the shooters; anyone, really, with a terrible tale to tell. Her parents say that Grace was so distraught by what she encountered that she called her doctor for a prescription because she couldn’t sleep. During the day, Grace drove around Littleton, interviewing kids and “crying along with them,” says her father, Duard. At night, Grace struggled. She called her dad one evening from her hotel room, telling him she “couldn’t concentrate on doing her story.” After Columbine, he said, “she started drinking heavily.”
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Shortly after returning from Colorado, Grace’s romantic relationship with a young opera singer named David Cangelosi erupted in violence. On June 26, 1999, Grace was arrested on charges of battery against Cangelosi. The charges were later dropped, but the incident resulted in a restraining order against Grace. According to the case report, Cangelosi had broken up with Grace that night. She later returned to his apartment and began “violently” banging on the door. Cangelosi opened it, she entered, and the verbal fight “quickly became a physical one, with [Grace] hitting [him] about the face and back leaving a deep scratch in [his] back.” Grace was “intoxicated,” the report says. Cangelosi declined to be interviewed for this story but confirmed in an e-mail that from 1996 to 2000 he and Grace had a relationship that ended “as a result of Julie’s constant challenges with alcohol.” Grace’s friend Thom Serafin remembers her relationship with Cangelosi as “on-again, off-again” and “volatile.” “They argued with each other loudly,” he says.
By now, her boss was concerned. “There was clearly something amiss,” Stodghill says. “Sometimes she went out on a story and you couldn’t find her. A lot of times my phone would ring from the news desk in New York at 11, 12 at night, maybe 1 in the morning. They’d say, ‘Hey, we haven’t heard from Julie yet,'” says Stodghill, who left Time in 2002. “She’d reappear late. She’d have some kind of excuse. Maybe she was still out reporting. Maybe her cell battery ran out. Maybe she had computer problems. I wanted to trust her but I worried that one day she wouldn’t come through.”
One Saturday morning in 2000, Stodghill confronted Grace. Once again, she had failed to file a story. The news desk had been trying to track her down all night and had been leaving him messages; it was Friday night, a critical deadline for newsweeklies. The next morning, Grace called Stodghill at home. She told him she had simply frozen up. To Stodghill, it sounded like another excuse. “I prodded and prodded and prodded,” he remembers. “Finally she agreed to get help.” But, he says, it may already have been too late. Word had gotten around. Some editors in New York had stopped asking for her.
Over the summer, Grace took David Cangelosi to Taylorville for her 20th high school class reunion. Her former basketball coach, David Hixenbaugh, remembers she was a kind of celebrity among her peers. “People thought, Gosh, here’s one of us who went to Chicago and did really well,” he recalls. She spoke wistfully to him about small-town life, perhaps wishing for the sunnier days of her childhood. But inwardly, behind the smile, Grace knew that her seemingly glamorous life back in Chicago was in shambles.
By March 2001, she had been fired, according to Karen Conti, the lawyer who negotiated a settlement agreement between Grace and Time.
In an e-mail statement, the magazine’s managing editor, Jim Kelly, declined to comment except to say that Julie Grace “did some amazing work for us, and we still mourn her.”
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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.
Grace phoned her friend Mark Williams on several occasions, sometimes in the middle of the night, to tell him that she and Thompson had fought, violently. Williams exhorted Grace to break up with him, but to little effect. “She’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s done,’ when it really wasn’t done,” Williams recalls. Grace’s high school friend Steve Adams says that he and many others begged her to leave Thompson. “I just don’t know what she was able to hear,” he says. Grace’s parents say she felt sorry for him. “She said, ‘Mom, if I throw him out, he doesn’t have anyone,'” Ruth Grace says.
Late last fall, Grace visited her parents in Florida. While there, she looked at real estate to buy and talked seriously about selling her condo and leaving the city. Soon after, on November 28th, Ruth Grace says, Thompson flew into another violent rage. “I barely got away,” Julie told her mother afterward. “I thought I was going to die.” Thompson was arrested and convicted of domestic battery; he was sentenced to 18 months of probation. A judge also granted Grace a restraining order against Thompson, requiring him to stay away until June 2004. He did not.
On March 8, 2003, two months before she died, Grace phoned her college roommate Mary O’Brien and told her Thompson had beaten her up the night before. He had been arrested, and she planned to bail him out of jail, Grace said, because it was his birthday on March 10th.
O’Brien asked her friend what she liked about this man and remembers that Grace replied by saying “he wasn’t a bad guy” and that she wanted to help him overcome his problems. Grace mentioned that he was kind to animals. “I said, ‘He beats the crap out of you, but he’s kind to animals?'” O’Brien recalls. “She said, ‘Oh, Mary . . . ‘” And then she had to go.
Thompson again was convicted of domestic battery. Although he was given a 90-day jail sentence, he never served the time because the sentence was postponed until June. In May, he was arrested and charged with Grace’s murder.
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Sometime on May 17th, Thompson and Grace ended up together in her condominium. According to reported accounts, the prosecutor in the case, assistant state’s attorney Patricia Sudendorf, told the judge at a bond hearing that Thompson had hit Grace many times and pushed her, causing her to strike her head on a dresser. He allegedly then watched her slip in and out of consciousness, convulsing with seizures and vomiting blood, for three days. Thompson finally called paramedics.
Thompson told Chicago magazine that the prosecutor’s account was “an exaggeration” and said what had happened to Julie Grace was “an accident.” He would not otherwise talk about the events leading up to Grace’s death on May 20th. Behind the bulletproof glass window of the visiting room at the Cook County Jail’s maximum security facility, where he is awaiting trial, Thompson is polite and soft-spoken. He listens attentively, leaning in. He has penetrating, light-colored eyes and clean, trimmed fingernails. When asked to describe Grace’s behavior while drinking, he says, “I don’t want to say nothing bad about Julie. I loved her, you know?”
Thompson’s defense attorney, Tom Breen, says: “Under no circumstances do I anticipate George Thompson being found guilty of anything. There is a great deal of information that has not come out as of yet and will only be able to be brought out in the course of the trial.”
Word of Grace’s death traveled quickly. Camera crews from the local TV stations showed up at the Time bureau. Elizabeth Taylor, who once worked with Grace at Time and is now an editor at the Chicago Tribune, was pulled out of a meeting and, upon hearing the news, burst into tears. “My first thought was, ‘I should have done more for her,'” Taylor says. Others who knew Grace say they were shocked and saddened, but not surprised.
Julie Grace almost made it out. Her parents say that three weeks before her body was found, Grace told them she was ready to move to Florida, a sentiment she repeated to a neighbor four days before she died. She wanted to be near her parents, to get a fresh start. She probably imagined sitting out in the sun, no longer needing to bronze her skin at tanning salons during long Chicago winters. Grace once was quoted in a Tribune story about the city’s tanning fanatics. “I envision sunny,” she told the reporter. “I take a deep breath, sigh and find comfort in the warmth on my face.”