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“Front Runner” Author Patricia Nell Warren Dies at 82

The novelist penned one of the first prominent gay fiction books

Patricia Nell Warren, center, smiles while standing behind her books in 2013.
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Patricia Nell Warren, a journalist, poet, and author best known for her 1974 New York Times bestselling book “The Front Runner,” passed away on Saturday at the age of 82.

Born in Helena, Montana, in 1936, Warren moved on to work for Reader’s Digest for 21 years and wrote several novels beginning in the 1970s. “The Front Runner,” her second novel, told the story of a gay college track coach, Harlan, who recruited three runners expelled from the University of Oregon because they were gay. The coach fell in love with one of the students, Billy, and the pair went on to form a relationship.

Billy later qualified for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and nabbed a gold medal there. But the characters in the story often were forced to navigate the homophobic sporting realm, and that culminated at a tragedy-marred Olympics.

“The Front Runner” was a massive hit in an era when LGBTQ representation in mainstream books, films, and popular culture was nearly nonexistent. Queer folks had fewer resources through which they could relate to others who were like them, and that book offered a much-needed glimpse into gay life.

The novel sold more than 10 million copies in 11 languages, according to her estate. At the time of her death, Warren was finalizing the fourth in a series begun by “The Front Runner.” It will be published posthumously.

Despite the popularity of the novel, even the involvement of Paul Newman could not persuade Hollywood to take a chance on a gay love story in the mid-1970s.

The book’s focus on running likely stemmed from Warren’s own interest in running. She pushed for women to have equal opportunities to participate in the Boston Marathon, and she became one of the first women to participate in the race, according to Outsports.

Warren departed Reader’s Digest in 1980 to dedicate her time to writing. After she subsequently moved to the West Coast, she continued to write novels but also became more immersed in the local LGBTQ community.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, she volunteered with the Los Angeles Unified School District, serving as a commissioner of education and on the Human Resource Education Commission. She ran unsuccessfully for City Council in West Hollywood, California in 2006.

Warren is survived by her brother, Conrad Warren, and several nieces and cousins.

Updated 11:00 am, February 15, 2019
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