Patricia Nell Warren, groundbreaking author of “The Front Runner,” dies

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Patricia Nell Warren, author of the international bestseller “The Front Runner,” died after a battle with lung cancer Feb. 9 in Santa Monica, CA. She was 82.

Warren’s 1974 novel is credited with changing the tone of gay romances from closeted and tragic to open and embracing of overt gay sexuality.

“The Front Runner” opens with a Penn State University coach and includes the 1976 Montreal Olympics as it follows the romance between an openly gay runner and his coach. Warren’s novel was the first modern gay novel to make the coveted New York Times bestseller list. “The Front Runner” sold more than 11 million copies and was translated into 10 languages.

A Montana native, Warren was an author, editor, publisher, activist, runner and much-beloved friend to many. She grew up on her family’s 6,000-acre cattle ranch and trained to be a rancher. She was also a distance runner — a sport that would become her entre into her most important work, and her own coming out after an early marriage to a man.

Warren began her career as a writer at 18. She moved to New York from Montana where she worked as a copy editor and then as an editor from 1959 to 1980 for “Reader’s Digest”  — the magazine and the condensed book club at.

In 1957, Warren married Yuriy Tarnawsky, a Ukrainian writer and linguist. Through Tarnawsky, Warren learned Ukrainian and went on to publish Ukranian poetry. She spent four years in Spain with Tarnawsky and while there wrote about life for LGBT people under Franco.

Warren wrote “The Front Runner” during her time at “Reader’s Digest.” After William Morrow & Company bought her manuscript, Warren divorced her husband and came out as a lesbian.

In a 2000 interview, Warren said that if it hadn’t been for physically running, she might not have written “The Front Runner” nor come out as a lesbian. It was her own involvement in the sport that introduced her to other gay and lesbian runners. Initially she intended to make “The Front Runner” a lesbian love story, but said there was too little track and field for women at that time and the coaches were all male.

Changing the genders made history

In a 1998 essay for “The Advocate,” Warren wrote, “For me, at age 32 in 1968, distance running started out as a personal female challenge … Through running, I could 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.”

Warren also wrote about how she and other women broke into the previously all-male marathon system. “In 1969, the year that I and 11 other female outlaws crashed the Boston Marathon and ran the race without numbers, was the year of Stonewall. Closeted college jocks of both genders were electrified by that dual challenge — coming out and long-distance running.”

The book has been credited with inspiring the creation of more than 100 gay-and-lesbian amateur running clubs, now collectively known as the International Front Runners.

Warren wrote other books over her long career, among them “The Fancy Dancer,” “The Beauty Queen” and “The Wild Man.”

Greg Herren, former editor of Lambda Literary and author of several gay male mystery series, knew Warren. He told PGN, “Patricia and her work meant so much to so many gay men of my generation, and she was just as warm and lovely as her books were groundbreaking.” 

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Victoria A. Brownworth
Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.