E. Lynn Harris, a pioneer of gay black fiction and a literary entrepreneur who rose from self-publishing to best-selling status, has died, his publicist said Friday. He was 54.
Publicist Laura Gilmore said Harris died Thursday night after being stricken at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, and a cause of death had not been determined. She said Harris, who lived in Atlanta, fell ill on a train to Los Angeles a few days ago and blacked out for a few minutes, but seemed fine after that.
Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter said only that a man matching Harris' name and date of birth had died Thursday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, which was confirmed by hospital spokeswoman Simi Singer. Gilmore said an autopsy would be performed Monday or Tuesday.
An improbable and inspirational success story, Harris worked for a decade as an IBM executive before taking up writing, selling the novel "Invisible Life" from his car as he visited salons and beauty parlors around Atlanta. He had unprecedented success for an openly gay black author and his strength as a romance writer led some to call him the "male Terry McMillan."
He went on to mainstream success with works such as the novel "Love of My Own" and the memoir "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted."
His writing fell into several genres, including gay and lesbian fiction, African American fiction and urban fiction. But he found success in showing readers a new side of African American life: the secret world of professional, bisexual black men living as heterosexuals.
"He was a pioneering voice within the black LGBT community but also resonated with mainstream communities, regardless of race and sexual orientation," said Herndon Davis, a gay advocate and a diversity media consultant in Los Angeles. "Harris painted with eloquent prose and revealing accuracy the lives of African American men and the many complicated struggles they faced reconciling their sexuality and spirituality while rising above societal taboos within the black community."
Harris published 11 novels, 10 of which were on The New York Times best-seller list. There are over 4 million copies of his books in print, according to his publisher, Doubleday.
"We at Doubleday are deeply shocked and saddened to learn of E. Lynn Harris' death at too young an age," said Doubleday spokeswoman Alison Rich, his longtime publicist. "His pioneering novels and powerful memoir about the black gay experience touched and inspired millions of lives, and he was a gifted storyteller whose books brought delight and encouragement to readers everywhere."
In an interview last year, Harris recalled the first time he realized he was poor, when as a young boy his family was invited to the housewarming of a well-to-do family in his hometown of Fayetteville, Ark. Fresh from an afternoon of playing outside, he tried desperately to tuck his bare, dusty feet underneath the sofa after another guest remarked on his appearance.
"I didn't grow up in the kind of environment that my characters grew up in, or the kind of environment that I live in now," he said. "It was one of the things that I always aspired to."
His 1994 debut, "Invisible Life," was a coming-of-age story that dealt with the then-taboo topic.
"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. "You had girlfriends, you lived a life that your parents had dreamed for you."
Harris was not living as an openly gay man when "Invisible Life" was published, and could not acknowledge the parallels between himself and the book.
"People would often ask, 'Is this book about you?' I didn't want to talk about that," he said. "I wasn't comfortable talking about it. I would say that this is a work of fiction."
Harris said that the courage readers got from the book empowered him to be honest about himself. He continued to tell stories dealing with similar issues, to tell black middle class readers about people they knew, but who were living secret lives.
For years, he was alone in exposing the "down low," but the phenomenon exploded into mainstream culture in 2004, a decade after "Invisible Life." That year, J.L. King's "On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of 'Straight' Black Men Who Sleep With Men" hit bookstores and the author appeared on Oprah Winfrey's TV show.
His 10th novel, "Just Too Good to Be True," focused for the first time on a straight relationship, telling the story of a 21-year-old football star, his mother, and his cheerleader love interest. Harris taught writing classes at his alma mater, the University of Arkansas, and leaned on his students there to gather material for the book.
The last book Harris published, "Basketball Jones," focused on a hidden relationship between a successful business professional in New Orleans and an NBA star.
Janis F. Kearney met Harris when the two were among a handful of black journalism students at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The two became fast friends and their relationship deepened as they both evolved into authors. Kearney, who now lives in Little Rock, Ark., recalled Harris' huge heart.
"I've seen him help so many people," Kearney said. "He was very open, very giving, very caring, someone you felt so fortunate to have in your life. He's just one of those people I'll never stop missing."