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The Front Runner is still in the lead

Patricia Nell Warren’s 1974 New York Times best-seller is a love story for the gay ages

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Patricia Nell Warren’s breakthrough novel, The Front Runner, changed the course of LGBT rights around the world and inspired a global out sports movement.

In 1974, not many people would have expected a novel about the same-sex romance between a college track coach and his star runner to attract much of an audience.

Thanks to Stonewall, the so-called “gay liberation” movement was enjoying a newfound visibility and millions who had previously been hidden in the closet began a generations long struggle for equality that continues to this day. But in 1974, as in 2017, visibility is not the same thing as acceptance, and nobody expected a book like “The Front Runner” to be embraced by  readers outside the “niche” market of the “gay”community.  

Yet embraced it was and resoundingly so.  

Patricia Nell Warren’s “The Front Runner” became a crossover sensation, drawing rave reviews and becoming the first “gay-themed” book to land on the New York Times’ prestigious Top Ten Bestsellers list.  It eventually sold over 10 million copies, yielded two successful sequels (with another on the way), and has never been out of print since.

For those unfamiliar, this landmark novel tells the story of Harlan, a former marine who now coaches track at a small New England college, and Billy a young runner who joins his program after being kicked out of a larger school for being gay.  Harlan, though gay, has always lived a closeted life; Billy has an openness about his sexuality that reflects the younger generation to which he belongs.  Their relationship blossoms, and the book details their love story over the course of several years, culminating in Billy’s triumphant – and tragic – journey to the Beijing Olympics.

The impact of Warren’s book, aside from its historic place as a breakthrough of gay culture into the straight mainstream, lies in the resonance it found with so many of its LGBT readers.  Its characters were not just gay, they were gay athletes, like millions of other men and women out there.  Forced to hide who they were in order to participate in the deeply homophobic culture of sports, they found Harlan and Billy not only imminently relatable, but inspirational.

The result was the birth of the “Frontrunners” club, an organization for LGBT runners that was started in San Francisco and has since grown into a worldwide network.  This group has been instrumental in fostering a movement of support and acceptance for “out” athletes, which in turn led to the creation of the Gay Games- which, in 2013, awarded Warren its Medal of Honor for writing the book that, in many ways, started it all.

So how did a novel about two men in love manage to defy seventies-era social taboos and become a national bestseller?  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Warren, a gay woman, chose to write a love story about gay men – a fact which, at the time, generated substantial controversy.  

The author herself is still amused by that today. “Patricia broke the rules” she chuckles, echoing the words of her long-ago critics.  “She wrote about men instead of writing about women.”

She goes on to explain why breaking those rules may have been the key to her novel’s success.  “There might be a tendency to look at it and think that it’s a men’s story, but one of the things about the book that I always appreciated is that it was read by as many women as men.  I know that in the book business there’s a lot of talk about targeting to demographics, but I think it’s important to appeal on a broader plane than that, so that we understand these are human things.  Those kinds of stories can inspire, and bind us together as a human race instead of dividing us into different demographics.  This story has done that, and I think it still does that.”

She also says this core humanity has allowed the book to continue reaching across boundaries throughout the years.  “I am always hearing from people who are reading it for the first time.  There’s been quite a raft of readers that have come in from the Spanish edition of the book, and it’s reaching a lot of people in South and Central America.  They’re reading it for the first time and that’s the way they’re approaching the story, as a human story.”

What about younger readers, those who are now growing up in a very different world than the one in which “The Front Runner” is set?  Does it still have relevance for them?

Warren certainly believes so.  

“The story deals with young people.  I think that the most important thing for young people today is what they encounter in the schools, which I think has certainly gotten a lot worse than in the 1970s.  There’s a lot of standing up that’s going on right now in our schools, by our kids, and fighting for change.  The schools have become major battlegrounds, not just for gay issues but other issues as well, and I think that’s part of the arc for today that our country has to figure out.  I hope that our kids have the heart for this fight, because it’s a really important one, and important for them to be involved.  They will see some of this in the story, because that was all starting in the 1970s.”

Longtime fans of the book, of course, have one particularly burning question: what has become of the long-awaited film version of “The Front Runner?”  The film rights were sold shortly the book’s publication, with none other than Paul Newman signed on as producer, but – unsurprisingly – Hollywood financiers balked at the risk of making a movie about gay men, so funding never came.  The subsequent years saw the project shuttled through an array of different would-be developers, but every attempt fell through.  After years in court, Warren regained the rights in 2002, and has held them ever since, waiting for the right offer to come along.

“I’m still hopeful,” she says.  “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.  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.  People approach me about it all the time.  I’m hoping for the people to come along who are the right fit for the story.  The question is, are they able to get the kind of job done that I would hope to see done, the story and the casting and so forth, and so that’s the important thing.  I think that’s what a lot of people want, and I think that willingness to attend the movie, when it’s finally out, is going to be based on if they feel that justice has been done to the story that they love so much, so I think it’s important to protect that.”

Hopefully, the right people will come along soon.  In the meantime, fans of “The Front Runner” and its two sequels can look forward to a fourth and final book in the saga, which Warren refers to as a “post-Millennial finale.”  She says she’s about halfway done and that it’s “going along very nicely.”  

Keep writing, Patricia.  We can’t wait to read more.  

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Garbo: ubiquitous yet mysterious

An illuminating biography of screen icon and her time

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(Book cover image courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Decades before Cher, Garbo became known by just her last name. “Garbo Talks!” said the ads for her first talking picture “Anna Christie.” “Garbo Laughs!” shouted the ads for her 1939 comedy “Ninotchka.”

Yet, 31 years after her death in 1990, Garbo, remains, as she was during her life, enveloped in mystery.

“Garbo,” by Robert Gottlieb, a former editor of The New Yorker, is a fascinating biography of the movie legend. Gottlieb, a critic, understands that much of Garbo’s life (her sexuality, her inner thoughts) remains mysterious.

Yet Gottlieb, a former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief and former head of Alfred A. Knopf, pens an illuminating portrait of Garbo and her time.

An extensive array of photos and movie stills add to the beauty of the book. A selection of articles by critics and contemporaries enhances our picture of Garbo.

Garbo was born (with the name Greta Lovisa Gustafsson) in 1905 in a poor neighborhood in Stockholm, Sweden.

Garbo was only in Hollywood for 16 years, and 24 movies, Gottlieb writes.

At just 36 years old, and still adored by her fans, Garbo suddenly retired from Hollywood. She didn’t give her public a very insightful reason for why she stopped making movies.

“I have made enough faces,” Garbo told actor David Niven when he asked her about it, Gottlieb reports.
After leaving Tinseltown, Garbo lived for nearly half a century, mainly in New York City, until she died in 1990.

Garbo wasn’t as popular as Charlie Chaplin or Mary Pickford, Gottlieb tells us in “Why Garbo,” his lively introduction to the bio, “yet the impact she had on the world was as great as theirs.”

The mystery of why Garbo lived in “self-imposed seclusion” after retiring from Hollywood was irresistible, but “almost a distraction,” Gottlieb writes.

Many of her movies were “cliched or worse,” Gottlieb points out. At first, MGM presented Garbo as a vamp, “luring men on with her vampish ways,” Gottlieb reports, “but she hated that.”

Eventually, Garbo became an icon. “But none of that goes to explain,” Gottlieb writes, “why more than any other star she invaded the subconscious of the audience:”

Wherever you look in the period between 1925 and 1941, Gottlieb adds, “Garbo is in people’s minds, hearts, and dreams.”

Garbo is referenced in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and in the letters of poet Marianne Moore. More recently, allusions of Garbo have appeared in the song “Bette Davis Eyes” and even in “The Simpsons.”

Her Hollywood peers loved Garbo as much as movie audiences. “Other Hollywood stars … were as eager to meet her,” Gottlieb writes, “or just get a glimpse of her as your ordinary fan.”

Her work is “pure witchcraft,” Bette Davis said of Garbo. “I cannot analyze this woman’s acting.”
While Gottlieb is respectful of and fascinated by Garbo, his biography isn’t hagiography.

Garbo, who grew up in poverty as a child, could be cheap. In New York, she was known for being stingy with tips and salaries for people who worked for her and shopkeepers.

Perhaps, due to shyness or to her lack of education (she had to leave school at 14 to help support her family), she wasn’t a great conversationalist.

She had relationships with men and women – from actor John Gilbert to queer fashion photographer Cecil Beaton to writer Mercedes de Acosta. But the extent to which (or if) these relationships were sexual isn’t known, Gottlieb reports.

It is known that Garbo, offscreen, dressed in men’s pants, shirts, and shoes. “How ironic if ‘the Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ really would rather have been a man,” Gottlieb writes.

Reading “Garbo” is like sipping whiskey (or ginger ale) with the iconic star. Drink up!

‘Garbo′
By Robert Gottlieb
c.2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$40/448 pages

Few icons are more ubiquitous in the cultural landscape, yet more mysterious than queer icon Greta Garbo.

Even if you’ve never seen “Grand Hotel,” you likely know that in this 1932 film, Garbo famously said, “I want to be alone.”

Even the most fervent teetotaler would savor watching Garbo say, in the 1930 movie “Anna Christie,” “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!”

Decades before Cher, Garbo became known by just her last name. “Garbo Talks!” said the ads for her first talking picture “Anna Christie.” “Garbo Laughs!” shouted the ads for her 1939 comedy “Ninotchka.”
Yet, 31 years after her death in 1990, Garbo, remains, as she was during her life, enveloped in mystery.

“Garbo,” by Robert Gottlieb, a former editor of The New Yorker, is a fascinating biography of the movie legend. Gottlieb, a critic, understands that much of Garbo’s life (her sexuality, her inner thoughts) remains mysterious.

Yet Gottlieb, a former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief and former head of Alfred A. Knopf, pens an illuminating portrait of Garbo and her time.

An extensive array of photos and movie stills add to the beauty of the book. A selection of articles by critics and contemporaries enhances our picture of Garbo.

Garbo was born (with the name Greta Lovisa Gustafsson) in 1905 in a poor neighborhood in Stockholm, Sweden.

Garbo was only in Hollywood for 16 years, and 24 movies, Gottlieb writes.

At just 36 years old, and still adored by her fans, Garbo suddenly retired from Hollywood. She didn’t give her public a very insightful reason for why she stopped making movies.

“I have made enough faces,” Garbo told actor David Niven when he asked her about it, Gottlieb reports.

After leaving Tinseltown, Garbo lived for nearly half a century, mainly in New York City, until she died in 1990.

Garbo wasn’t as popular as Charlie Chaplin or Mary Pickford, Gottlieb tells us in “Why Garbo,” his lively introduction to the bio, “yet the impact she had on the world was as great as theirs.”

The mystery of why Garbo lived in “self-imposed seclusion” after retiring from Hollywood was irresistible, but “almost a distraction,” Gottlieb writes.

Many of her movies were “cliched or worse,” Gottlieb points out. At first, MGM presented Garbo as a vamp, “luring men on with her vampish ways,” Gottlieb reports, “but she hated that.”

Eventually, Garbo became an icon. “But none of that goes to explain,” Gottlieb writes, “why more than any other star she invaded the subconscious of the audience:”

Wherever you look in the period between 1925 and 1941, Gottlieb adds, “Garbo is in people’s minds, hearts, and dreams.”

Garbo is referenced in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and in the letters of poet Marianne Moore. More recently, allusions of Garbo have appeared in the song “Bette Davis Eyes” and even in “The Simpsons.”

Her Hollywood peers loved Garbo as much as movie audiences. “Other Hollywood stars … were as eager to meet her,” Gottlieb writes, “or just get a glimpse of her as your ordinary fan.”

Her work is “pure witchcraft,” Bette Davis said of Garbo. “I cannot analyze this woman’s acting.”

While Gottlieb is respectful of and fascinated by Garbo, his biography isn’t hagiography.

Garbo, who grew up in poverty as a child, could be cheap. In New York, she was known for being stingy with tips and salaries for people who worked for her and shopkeepers.

Perhaps, due to shyness or to her lack of education (she had to leave school at 14 to help support her family), she wasn’t a great conversationalist.

She had relationships with men and women – from actor John Gilbert to queer fashion photographer Cecil Beaton to writer Mercedes de Acosta. But the extent to which (or if) these relationships were sexual isn’t known, Gottlieb reports.

It is known that Garbo, offscreen, dressed in men’s pants, shirts, and shoes. “How ironic if ‘the Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ really would rather have been a man,” Gottlieb writes.

Reading “Garbo” is like sipping whiskey (or ginger ale) with the iconic star. Drink up!

Continue Reading

Books

After 1,000 pages, you’ll hunger for more Highsmith

Acclaimed queer novelist revealed in new tome of diaries

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(Book cover photo courtesy of Liveright)

‘Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995′
Edited by Anna Von Planta
c.2020, Liveright
$39.95/1,024 pages

“The unfortunate truth is that art sometimes thrives on unhappiness,” queer novelist Patricia Highsmith, who lived from 1921 to 1995, wrote in her journals.

Fortunately, for aficionados of charming murderers, Hitchcock and queer folk on the cultural scene decades before Stonewall, this was true for Highsmith.

The creative process will always remain mysterious. Yet, in “Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995,” brilliantly edited by Anna Von Planta, we gain insight into how Highsmith made art while living a hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-loving life. Along with gossip and fascinating glimpses of Highsmith’s travels.

But fair warning: seeing how literary sausage is made isn’t always pretty.

Highsmith lived an often unhappy, misanthropic life. As she got older, she came to prefer snails to people and dedicated one of her books to her cat.

Yet, Highsmith created more art than most of us could even dream of.

Over half a century, Highsmith wrote numerous short stories and 22 novels. Some of her best-known works are embedded in the cultural landscape.

Her novel “Strangers on a Train” was made into an unforgettable movie with the same name by Alfred Hitchcock. If you can sleep soundly after watching the amusement park scene in “Strangers,” you’re a more intrepid movie fan than I.

Her 1952 novel “The Price of Salt” (later reissued as “Carol”) is one of the first novels to feature lesbian characters with a happy ending. (The characters don’t die or go to prison.) In 2015, “Carol” was made into a movie by Todd Haynes.

Her Ripley novels featuring the captivating murderer Tom Ripley have also been adapted into movies.

If you’re entranced by murder, you’re likely a Highsmith fan. And, you’re in good company. Gore Vidal called Highsmith “one of our great modernist writers.” Graham Greene dubbed her “the poet of apprehension.”

Sometimes an iconic writer’s work stops being relatable. Not so with Highsmith.

Her novels, in which murderers routinely disguise themselves and identities shift, are more timely than ever in this age of avatars and catfishing.

A film adaptation of HIghsmith’s novel “Deep Water,” starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, is forthcoming in 2022.

Yet, despite her popularity, during her lifetime, Highsmith hid much of her private life.

Born in Texas, she went to Barnard College and lived in Greenwich Village in New York in the 1940s. After that, she lived in Europe.

Her last home in Switzerland, her friends said, was “practically windowless.” They likened it to “Hitler’s bunker.”

It’s not surprising that Anna Von Planta has said that it took 25 years to edit Highsmith’s diaries and notebooks.

At some 1,000 pages, the volume is a lot to read. Yet, after Highsmith died, 8,000 pages of diaries and notebooks were found.

Unless you’re an indefatigable, insatiable scholar or fan, you wouldn’t want to read Highsmith’s diaries and notebooks in one sitting. It would be like eating five holiday feasts without a break. No matter how delicious, the food would be too filling, and, boring, by the fifth go-around.

These journals and notebooks are meant to be dipped into and savored morsel by morsel.

In her diary entries, Highsmith recorded the events of her life – the gossip, the sex, the drinking, the break-ups – the parties.

“Why can’t I go to a resort, pick up a girl, have a whirl, and drop her?” Highsmith writes in her diary in June 1950.

Highsmith’s notebook entries contained her thoughts on writing and writers. “Why writers drink: they must change their identities a million times in their writing,” Highsmith writes in a August 1951 notebook entry. “This is tiring, but drinking does it automatically for them. One minute they are a king, the next a murderer, a jaded dilettante, a passionate and forsaken lover.”

In her journals, Highsmith is witty, observant, bitter, narcissistic and bigoted (as, when, as she aged, she became increasingly anti-Semitic). But, she is, always, alive.

“I am ravenously hungry for a woman” she writes in her diary in 1950.

Long after reading Highsmith’s last journal entry, where she writes “death’s more like life, unpredictable,” you’ll hunger for more Highsmith.

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Books

‘Capote’s Women’ is catnip to older pop culture fans

Revisiting iconic author’s seven ‘swans’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Putnam)

Capote’s Women
By Laurence Leamer
C.2021, Putnam $28/356 pages

Her lips are locked tight.

Your best friend knows all your secrets, and she’s keeping them; you told her things you had to tell somebody, and she’s telling nobody. You always knew you could trust her; if you couldn’t, she wouldn’t be your BFF. But as in the new book “Capote’s Women” by Laurence Leamer, what kind of a friend are you?

For months, Truman Capote had been promising a blockbuster.

Following his success with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” he was “one of the most famous authors in the world” but he needed a career-booster. The novel he was writing, he teased, would be about “his swans,” seven wealthy, fashionable women who quite personified “beauty, taste, and manners.”

His first swan was Barbara “Babe” Paley, whom he’d met on a trip with the David Selznicks to Jamaica. For Capote, “Babe was the epitome of class,” simply “perfect” in every way; it helped that the famously gay writer was no threat to Paley’s “madly jealous” husband.

Babe’s “dearest friend” was Nancy “Slim” Keith, who quickly learned that if a lady wanted her confidences kept, she didn’t tell Capote anything. She shouldn’t have trusted Babe, either: When Slim left for a European trip, Babe asked if Slim’s husband could accompany Babe’s friend, Pamela Hayward, to a play.

Slim was aware of Pamela’s predatory reputation, but what could she say?

Of course, Pamela, another of Truman’s swans, stole Slim’s man, a scandal that Capote loved.

Gloria Guinness was highly intelligent, possibly enough to be a spy in Nazi Germany. Lucy “C.Z.” Guest was an upper-crust “elitist” with a “magical aura.” Marella Agnelli “was born an Italian princess”; Lee Radziwill, of course, was Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister.

Through the late 1960s, Capote claimed to be writing his masterpiece, his tour de force based on his swans, but several deadlines passed for it. He was sure Answered Prayers “would turn him once again into the most talked-about author in America.”

Instead, when an excerpt from it was published, his swans got very ruffled feathers.

Every time you stand in line for groceries, the tabloids scream at you with so much drama that you either love it or hate it. Or, in the case of “Capote’s Women,” you cultivate it.

And that’s infinitely fun, as told by author Laurence Leamer.

Happily, though, Leamer doesn’t embellish or disrespect these women or Capote; he tells their tales in order, gently allowing readers’ heads to spin with the wild, globe-hopping goings-on but not to the point that it’s overdone. While most of this book is about these seven beautiful, wealthy, and serially married women – the Kardashians of their time, if you will – Capote is Leamer’s glue, and Truman gets his due, as well.

Readers who devour this book will be sure that the writer would’ve been very happy about that.

“Capote’s Women” should be like catnip to celeb-watchers of a Certain Age but even if you’re not, find it. If you’re a Hollywood fan, you’ll want to get a lock on it.

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