NEW YORK — Patricia Nell Warren, whose 1974 novel, “The Front Runner,” was one of the first widely popular books to feature an open romantic relationship between two men, becoming a literary touchstone for many, died Feb. 9 in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 82.
Gregory Zanfardino, a friend and the executor of her estate, said the cause was lung cancer.
“The Front Runner,” which has sold millions of copies, is the story of the love that blossoms between Harlan Brown, a conservative track coach at a Northeastern liberal arts college, and Billy Sive, one of his athletes.
After Billy graduates, they become a committed couple but face a backlash from the amateur sports world. Billy qualifies for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, where he wins a gold medal in the 10,000-meter race, but then tragedy strikes.
In contrast to earlier fiction about same-sex relationships, which tended to depict them as necessarily secretive, “The Front Runner” spoke to a younger generation by presenting the relationship in a forthright way; Ms. Warren’s depictions of gay sex are explicit.
The novel is also vivid in depicting the hardships and triumphs of running, all of which was grounded in her own experience. The novel germinated in the late 1960s while Ms. Warren was developing into a long-distance runner in Westchester County, N.Y. She was also slowly acknowledging her homosexuality and concluding that her marriage to a man was a sham.
Running introduced her to other gay people who did the same.
“I kept thinking to myself, ‘There are other people like me out here,’ ” Ms. Warren wrote in an essay. “ ‘There must be hundreds of us in sports. Why has nobody ever talked about this?’ ”
She said the idea for “The Front Runner” came to her in 1972 after a competitive runner told her that he was gay and that he had agonized over whether to come out for fear it would hurt his running career.
At the time, she was an editor at Reader’s Digest in Chappaqua, N.Y., and, under a pseudonym, Patricia Kilina, had published a novel, “The Last Centennial” (1971), a modern western.
Ms. Warren began to write “The Front Runner” on her lunch breaks and at home when her husband was not around. One of her goals, she told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1996, was to show “essentially ordinary,” contemporary gay men, not just those “tied into the artistic, bohemian or cafe society.”
“These stereotypes were still in use when I was writing the book,” she added. “All gay men were like Oscar Wilde.”
William Morrow & Co. bought the manuscript in 1973, and Ms. Warren divorced her husband and came out as gay soon after.
“The Front Runner” found a following. In 1996, Frank Siano, then on the board of governors of the Human Rights Campaign, a national lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights organization, told The Post-Dispatch that the book had been “passed down to people who were coming out.”
“It was a way of showing people who were struggling with sexuality that there was something positive, some hope of a normal, idealistic life,” Siano said.