Patricia Nell Warren, Author of ‘The Front Runner,’ Dies at 82

Patricia Nell Warren: Via Facebook

Patricia Nell Warren was noticeable anywhere.

That shock of curly white hair crowning the famous Montana-born lesbian was a beacon for nervously thrilled gay men to find the writer holding court at whatever event she attended.  

“You saved my life,” they told “The Front Runner” author over and over until the day before her death, according to her close friend Gregory Zanfardino. He and his best friend Darryl Davis were with Warren when she died on Saturday, Feb. 9 at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica after an almost three year struggle with lung cancer.

Warren was 82.

“She was an amazing friend. There’s nothing we wouldn’t do for her,” Zanfardino told the Los Angeles Blade by phone. “Up until her last moments, she was very clear. And she was constantly getting emails all the time from young people and older people who literally told her ‘The Front Runner’ saved their lives. That book still, to this day, inspires people.”

“The Front Runner” was a landmark gay novel published in 1974, five years after the Stonewall riots, one year before California officially decriminalized homosexuality; the first to print the word “gay” on the cover and the first to make the New York Times bestseller list.

But while it is often tagged as a “gay love story of Coach Harlan Brown and his Olympic runner Billy Sive” in the 1970s, as publisher William Morrow first framed it, Warren intended it to be broader in scope.

“The Front Runner” is really about how closeted, masculine, conservative Vietnam Marine veteran Harlan Brown, 39, gave up his own dream of running in the Olympics, of coaching prospective Olympic athletes at a prestigious college, of quelling his own humanity out of fear of being exposed as gay. When he and gay distance runner Billy Sive, 22, fall in love at a small New England college, the world of sports rears up against Sive representing the U.S. in the Olympic, where he meets with a horrific end.

“[T]he book’s prose had to be the voice of a conservative ex-Marine veteran who is at war with himself.  He knows he’s gay and attracted to men, but he refuses to let himself feel, to let himself be that person he knows he is, because of his repressive Bible-taught family upbringing and military background,” Warren wrote for TheFrontRunnerMovie.com. “When Harlan finds himself falling secretly in love with Billy Sive, the conflict only intensifies and almost drives him mad, until he is finally “human” enough to give in and let himself be in love.” 

After Billy is murdered in a hate crime on live TV, how can Harlan Brown go on? What becomes of him?

“One big reason why I wanted to paint the story so broadly, yet so personally, was that I hoped non-gay people would read the book as well as gay people,” Warren wrote.  “When the book was written, as well as today, stereotypes of gay males as limp-wristed liberals is embedded in people’s minds. Harlan is a crusty gay ex-Marine, a drill-sergeant kind of guy.  I wanted to confront readers with the inner reality of such a man because I know they exist.”

In fact, Zanfardino tells the Los Angeles Blade, Warren’s wish came true. Shortly before her death, Warren received an email from a straight woman who told her homophobic husband to read the book from beginning to end. Afterwards, he confessed that he never realized how people like him can hurt people. The book was a glimpse into the lives of two men who only wanted to love each other and do sports.

“The book touched hearts,” says Zanfardino.

In 2011, Warren told The Bay Area Reporter that Sive was “inspired in part by distance runner Steve Prefontaine, as well as a few closeted runners that I got to know while being involved in open distance running myself.”

Prefontaine, who was straight, helped inspire the “running boom” of the 1970s. He died tragically in a car accident when he was 24. A movie about his life starred Jared Leto, who one critic suggested is “almost too pretty an actor to play the masculine, cocky runner.”

“I loved “The Front Runner,” Proteus Spann told the Los Angeles Blade during a discussion about his effort to get E. Lynn Harris’ “Invisible Life” made into a movie, noting that E. Lynn’s most famous character, Basil, was a professional football player.

Were all humans until society or we put up our flags and put a name on it. I knew of a former NFL player who frequented the Dupont Circle bars in DC. He was outed by a journalist in the early 90’s. He was cut from the team and this guy was massively masculine, great football player, star running back,” Spann said. “Was he still not a man even though he was gay? I think we get confused on the issue of masculinity and sexual identity.”

While Warren’s legacy is “The Front Runner” and the power of presenting gay men as masculine athletes and former fighting Marines, Warren’s life was more than just that book. In fact, she was her own version of an activist.

Patricia Nell Warren was born in 1936 and grew up on the Grant Kohrs cattle ranch near Deer Lodge, Montana. She started writing professionally in her teens in the 1950s, moving to New York in 1955 to attend Manhattanville College. She worked first as a copy editor, then a book editor at Reader’s Digest from 1959-1980. She married a Ukrainian emigre writer in 1960 and wrote four books of Ukranian poetry while stationed in Spain. She also wrote her first gay novel about a Spanish bullfighter’s relationship with a peasant under Franco’s fascism. “The Wild Man” would be published in in 2001 with an opening set in the gay West Hollywood bar, Numbers. Warren divorced her husband in 1973, according to a summary accompanying her papers at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives.

Warren started jogging while in Spain. “For me, at age 32 in 1968, distance running started out as a personal female challenge. Indeed, the runner’s need to reach deep inside and ‘find more’ spurred my self-discovery as a woman and my consciousness-raising concerning women’s rights,” she wrote in The Advocate in Aug. 1998. 

“Only then, through running, could I finally catch up with those long-festering questions about sexual orientation. It dawned on me that sports are a major arena in which American society hard-wires ‘traditional’ notions about gender roles and orientation into its citizens,” she wrote. 

Warren took that consciousness-raising seriously. In 1969, she and 11 other women “outlaws crashed the Boston Marathon and ran the race without numbers, another fist was raised” in protest in the “athletes’ rights movement” that was “battling antiquated and hypocritical rules that still ran U.S. sports,” she wrote.

Warren was part of a cadre of women athletes and distance runners intent on forcing the Amateur Athletics Union to change the discriminatory rules under which women were permitted to run.

“Women had been barred from road races since 1961, as experts claimed distance running was damaging to their health and femininity. Some officials infamously warned that a woman’s uterus might fall out should she attempt to run such distances,” according to a story in the New York Times about the women runners who broke and changed the rules.

This was around the same time when proudly sexist 55-year old Bobby Riggs challenged 29-year old tennis star Billie Jean King to a nationally televised tennis match at the Houston Astrodome in 1973 known as “The Battle of the Sexes.” When King won, suddenly women athletes were taken more seriously—though King’s main issue of pay equity was still a battle.

Warren fought battles off the running course, as well. She was the plaintiffs’ spokesperson for Susan Smith v. Reader’s Digest, a landmark case that resulted in a class-action victory for women.

“I was one of 18 women who filed Title VII charges against the Reader’s Digest,” Warren told Gay Today in 2003. “It was one of several major lawsuits against the media in the 1970’s. The media were full of talented and ambitious women who had been blatantly discriminated against—the very media that kept America informed on news from the civil-rights movement!”

The Digest tried to dismiss the class-action aspect of the case. “But the federal judge – who was a woman! – didn’t buy their arguments. If the Digest had succeeded, it would have set a disastrous precedent for class actions,” she said.

Warren also worked on behalf of LGBT youth.

In 1994, she volunteered as a teacher at the West Hollywood-based EAGLES Center, a program for at-risk LGBT high school students. In 1996, she served on the LAUSD’s school Gay & Lesbian Education Commission and then in 1999, joined the Human Relations Education Commission. As a commissioner, she supported Project 10 and helped organize Youth Lobby Day, which became key in pressuring legislators during the knock-down fight for State Senator Sheila Kuehl’s AB222, the Dignity for All Students Act.

“I didn’t have a close relationship with her,” Project 10 founder Dr. Virginia Uribe tells the Los Angeles Blade. “But I admired what she did. ‘The Front Runner’ was a big influence on a lot of young people. When it came things like that, she was definitely a pioneer.”

Gail Rolf, Uribe’s wife and the Education Director for the non-profit arm of Project 10, tells of how “The Front Runner” saved a student’s life.

Rolf was teaching at Alexander Hamilton High School and leading a Project 10 support group when she got word of a special education 12th grader who had attempted suicide just before Spring Break.

“He was very sweet and very conflicted about his sexuality. We sent him to see someone at Didi Hirsch (Mental Health Services) and then he came to the Project 10 support group,” Rolf says. “I had ‘The Front Runner’ paperback on the shelf so I gave it to him and told him to read it and keep the book as long as needed and then we’d talk about it. He came back weeks later with the pages folded—the book was ruined. He said, ‘This is the most fabulous book I’ve ever read. This book saved my life!”

He graduated and two years later came back to Models of Pride to say he’d come out and he was happy, Rolf says.

We’ve lost an important voice for LGBT youth with the passing of Patricia Nell Warren. She was a fierce advocate for our youth. Her novels and many of her other work reflected that advocacy. Her writing also explored the complexity of youthful LGBT sexuality,” says Terry DeCrescenzo, former founder and executive director of Gay & Lesbian Adolescent Social Services (GLASS). “Her death silences an important voice.”

“When I came out as a gay man in 1990, my aunt gave me a copy of the Front Runner & I immediately read it. It was so influential for me & was part of my transition to fully embracing who I am. Patricia Nell Warren’s contribution to our community is a permanent one,” tweeted State Sen. Scott Wiener after Warren’s death was announced.

“It was one of the earliest books I read as a young lesbian. It was hard to find anything reflecting positively LGBTQ relationships when I came out in 1980-81. This was a jewel. Godspeed to Patricia Nell Warren,” State Sen. Toni Atkins tweeted.

Warren and Wildcat Press, the small publishing house she operated with then-business partner Tyler St. Mark, joined other plaintiffs in ACLU v. Reno and ACLU v. Reno II against the Justice Department “over right-wing federal legislation designed to promote censorship on the Internet and impede the online sale of gay and lesbian content,” her longtime friend Lance Webster says.

Webster and Warren worked with Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco to write and pass SB1796, the Political Expression Protection Act to protect the rights of peaceful, non-violent protesters, based on an article she wrote entitled “Just Dissent.” Though the State Legislature overwhelmingly passed the bill, it was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis.

During this time Warren not only continued to write articles, columns and books but she also joined the national LGBT site Bilerico as a blogger.

“When Patricia and I talked about our plans, she quickly volunteered to be our first new contributor. She was excited at the idea of speaking to a younger audience she didn’t know already and on issues that weren’t solely related to sports,” Bilerico co-founder Bil Browning tells the Los Angeles Blade, noting that her involvement enticed other contributors.

“Without her quiet voice of guidance and reassurance, I surely wouldn’t have been able to handle all of the responsibilities and attention that came with running a large site,” he says. “Her biggest commandment was to always respond to fan mail because it would make both the reader and the writer connect a little more closely.”

In 2007, Warren ran for a seat on the West Hollywood City Council. Though it was a long shot, she nonetheless did the due diligence producing astute policy analysis. That included a white paper on developing a true, single-payer comprehensive Universal Healthcare Coverage plan, as published by Smart Voter.

In it, she scrutinized the progressive healthcare system created by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom—which she compared unfavorably to SB 840, legislation proposed by out Sen. Sheila Kuehl, Chair of the Senate Health Committee.

Warren also had an impact on her fellow writers. Anne Stockwell, former editor in chief of The Advocate and a cancer activist, visited Warren in a Glendale rehab facility a few months ago.

“She also told me she had cancer but didn’t make a big deal of that. She was sitting up in bed with her laptop, typing away on her fourth novel in ‘The Front Runner’ series—which she apparently finished a couple weeks ago,” Stockwell says.

“Patricia really lived the values of her Montana childhood,” Stockwell adds. “She didn’t wait for permission to create or publish or act. She took the heat and led. She was an extraordinary American—we say that about a lot of people, but in her case it was true—and her vision of proud gay love helped to save a lot of lives, including mine.”

Steven Reigns, West Hollywood’s first official Poet Laureate, was also impacted by Warren.

“There is still a struggle for LGBTQ representation and it was especially acute in 1974 when Warren published The Front Runner,” Reigns tells the Los Angeles Blade, who discovered the book at the St. Louis public library in 1994. “I was far from athletic and yet I identified and empathized with Billy. It also felt subversive to read this gay novel by a lesbian who, at one point, edited my mother’s favorite publications—Reader’s Digest.  The book illuminated for me that we were everywhere.”

 And, he noted, “Though her imagination, she gave us mainstream representation and modeling,” including the creation of “Frontrunners” clubs worldwide. 

One of the disappointments of Warren’s life was not having “The Front Runner” made into a movie. There have been so many rumors about the ups and downs of that endeavor—especially around actor Paul Newman as the first to option the work in 1975—that Warren and Zanfardino created a website devoted  to the story, the history of the movie project and the prospect of having it finally produced in the near future.

The final entry on the movie history timeline reads: “2019 – February 9th, Patricia Warren loses her battle with cancer. Literary rights (print, film and television) of all her books are now handled by her estate and are available for option, sale and production.  Interested parties should contact the executor of her estate Gregory Zanfardino PatriciaNellWThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Making the movie was very much an imperative when Warren spoke with the Los Angeles Blade in Aug. 2017.

“I think it’s a good moment for a movie like that; the way the country is going, probably the timing is better than ever,” Warren said. “I’m really concerned about all the negativity about LGBT people that is going forward in the country right now, and that certainly will rebound into what we do in sports, so, I’m still hoping that it will happen.”


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