E. Lynn Harris, 54; Author Told of African American Life on the 'Down-Low'

E. Lynn Harris's books shed light on the world of gay or bisexual African American men leading secret lives.
E. Lynn Harris's books shed light on the world of gay or bisexual African American men leading secret lives. (2008 Photo By John Bazemore -- Associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 25, 2009

E. Lynn Harris, 54, a best-selling novelist who opened a door on a hidden side of African American life, writing about outwardly heterosexual men leading secret gay lives, died July 23 after collapsing at a Beverly Hills hotel during a book tour. The cause of death was not immediately determined, and an autopsy is expected to be performed next week.

His taboo-breaking books about black gay life "on the down-low" made Mr. Harris a star literary figure after an inauspicious beginning to his career. In 1991, he had used the last of his savings to self-publish his first book, "Invisible Life," about a married lawyer's double life. He drove all over Atlanta, selling his novel from the trunk of his car to beauty parlors, bookstores and reading groups.

Essence magazine named "Invisible Life" one of the 10 best books of the year, and it drew comparisons with Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and James Baldwin's "Another Country." Mr. Harris sold 10,000 copies on his own before the book was picked up by a New York publisher in 1994.

Seven years later, he signed a three-book contract said to be worth as much as $8 million, and he eventually sold more than 4 million copies of his books. Ten of his 11 novels reached the New York Times bestseller list.

Most of Mr. Harris's central characters were gay or bisexual black men, and his novels were typically set in the upper echelons of black society, including sports, churches and the law. His most dedicated readers were black women, who flocked to his readings across the country by the hundreds, often bringing him flowers and food.

Mr. Harris, who began his career as a computer salesman, remained somewhat mystified by his success, since his provocative subject matter had long been ignored or driven underground in African American culture.

"If you were African American and you were gay, you kept your mouth shut and you went on and did what everybody else did," he said last year in an interview with the Associated Press. "You had girlfriends, you lived a life that your parents had dreamed for you."

Everette Lynn Harris was born June 20, 1955, in Flint, Mich., and grew up in Little Rock, Ark. In his 2003 autobiography, "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," he described a childhood shaped by an abusive man he believed was father. He was 12 before he learned that his actual father was someone else.

At the University of Arkansas, Mr. Harris was the school's first black male cheerleader and first black yearbook editor. He dated women in college but had a secret relationship with a male athlete that became the inspiration for "Invisible Life" and subsequent novels, including "Just As I Am" (1994), "And This Too Shall Pass" (1996) and "Abide With Me" (1999).

After graduation, Mr. Harris became a successful computer salesman for IBM, Hewlett-Packard and AT&T and lived, at various times, in Dallas, New York, Washington and Atlanta. At a corporate conference in 1983, he met author Maya Angelou, who encouraged his interest in writing.

"She told me I should write something every day," Mr. Harris said, "even if it was just one word."

He revealed in his autobiography that in 1990, while living in Washington, he had descended into depression and alcoholism and attempted suicide. He quit his job, moved to Atlanta and devoted himself to writing his first novel.

Critics sometimes derided Mr. Harris's fiction as formulaic and simplistic, but his readers remained loyal. He believed part of the appeal of his books was their depiction of an underground world, the "down-low," that many African Americans were reluctant to accept.

"Although I am openly gay," he wrote in Essence magazine in 2004, "I was part of the down-low scene for years, drawn to men who considered themselves neither gay nor bisexual. When I wrote my first novel, 'Invisible Life,' in which a young man is torn between his married male lover and his girlfriend, I was stunned that so many African-American women didn't know that a handsome, masculine-looking Black man might become intimate with another man."

Mr. Harris, who seldom discussed the details of his private life, had lived in recent years in Atlanta, Houston and Fayetteville, Ark., where he taught writing at his alma mater. He also helped coach the cheerleading squad at Arkansas and occasionally judged beauty pageants. In 2001, he appeared on Broadway as narrator of the musical "Dreamgirls," and he established a foundation to benefit young writers.

Survivors include his mother and three sisters.

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