“REAL” FRONT RUNNER STORYLINE
By Patricia Nell Warren
When people sum up the Front Runner story line,
especially when they’re talking about a film adaptation,
they want to frame it as the “gay love story of Coach
Harlan Brown and his Olympic runner Billy Sive.”
Indeed, when the book was first published in
1974, publisher William Morrow log-lined it in that way.
When I wrote the novel, I didn’t think of it as a “gay
love story” or a “gay” anything.
The story came to me as something broader and
deeper and more personal – and I think this something is
what’s missing as, once again, people talk about the
Front Runner movie.
What came to me right in the beginning, in late 1972, as
I realized I wanted to write a novel about LGBT people
embattled in the sports world, was a story with
one central character – one man, a track coach named
Harlan Brown. It
had to be his story, told in first person.
phrase that Harlan uses in the book, to describe this
arc he lives through, is “the humanization of Coach
When I started
writing the book, I had been reading some first-person
celebrity biographies of the time, at the Reader’s
Digest, where I was working as a book editor. I wanted
my novel to have that same kind of urgent personal voice, as if a real-life Harlan Brown had finally (some years
after the events in the book would have taken place)
been persuaded by some publisher offering a lot of
money, to write about
what really happened, from beginning to end.
So the 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.
When Harlan’s 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.
The story does not “end” with what happened to Billy.
Harlan’s story in the book continues on after that.
He has spent most of his life wishing he could
let himself love someone.
Finally he had the courage to do that and
suddenly that love is torn away from him in the most
horrendous way – on live TV in front of millions of
“human” brings Harlan to one more challenge – letting
himself feel grief for the first time in his life.
So what does Harlan do with his grief?
Does he give up?
Does he regroup, take that hill like the
Marine that he still is?
Does he decide to go on having a life?
A life that mysteriously and wonderfully still
embraces the memory and spirit of the person he loved?
is the final drama that unfolds in The Front Runner, not
Billy’s death on the track in Montreal. “The Front
Runner” is actually the story of Harlan’s life –
including his own abortive career as a runner, and how,
after Billy’s death, he finally has his own victory.
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.
Hopefully the story of Harlan’s inner battle, his
defeats and his victories, would spark the sympathies of
as many people as possible.
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.