E. Lynn Harris

*Do you remember where you were when you first heard that E. Lynn Harris had died?

As we approach the first year anniversary of the author’s passing and the debut of his final novel, “In My Father’s House,” many will without a doubt recall Thursday, July 23, 2009 as if it were only yesterday.

Born Everette Lynn Harris on June 20, 1955, E. Lynn Harris will be remembered for numerous attributes: A New York Times best selling author, a wonderful son, brother, uncle, great friend and a generous celebrity. However, his legacy will also be heralded as a most courageous champion; someone who opened the door to reveal a way of life that has had an impact on many lives. And while we will never know for sure that the “down-low” would not have eventually revealed itself, it was arguably the authentic storytelling of E. Lynn Harris that made audiences return repeatedly to learn more.  

EUR’s Lee Bailey recently spoke with two of Mr. Harris’ closest friends, who described their relationship with the author and humanitarian; the type of person he was outside of his celebrity; the special name he gave to his “5 best girlfriends,” how he felt about family; his personality and how it affected his writing.

One of these girlfriends is U. S. District Court Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore. No slouch in her own right, Judge Gilmore may be best known for presiding over the Enron Broadband trial in 2005 where, according to Wikipedia, she declared a mistrial after jurors were unable to reach a consensus.

Judge Vanessa Gilmore

“Lynn and I met in 1977 right after we had both graduated from college. I was living in Houston and he was living in Dallas.  I worked with his friend Butch Carroll.  When Lynn and I met, we became fast friends.  He really was my brother from another mother,” says the judge who has also authored a coloring book for children of incarcerated parents. “In those early days, we all had great jobs and loved spending our free time just having fun.  We started a group called FBWTTR – which stood for, For Blacks Who Think They’re Rich.  Our motto was, we’re not, we only think we are.  But we were rich in friends.  Lynn supported me all through law school so when he said he wanted to quit his job to write full time, I did everything I could to be supportive of him.  We sold his first book from the trunk of my car at beauty shops. I never dreamed in those early days that he would become such a successful writer, but I think Lynn always dreamed big.”

Admired for the respect he showed his fans – often remembering birthdays and other important details; his support of upcoming writers and his love for the Arkansas Razorbacks at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he was the first Black, male cheerleader, Harris had a hard time landing a book deal after completing his first novel, “Invisible Life.”

Thank goodness for Martha Levin at Doubleday, who apparently green-lighted the Anchor Books publication!

“Lynn was very disciplined about his writing, continues Judge Gilmore. “As close as we were, there were certain hours of the day that I knew I should not call him unless it was an emergency.  Even then, however, he was always happy to hear from my son and would stop whatever he was doing to spend time with him.  He loved his friends and family but more than anything, he loved the Arkansas Razorbacks.  During football season he would arrange his entire life to make sure that he didn’t miss any games…During the last several years of his life he worked as a volunteer cheer coach while he was working at the University teaching writing.”

Kimberla Lawson Roby

According to Essence Magazine, Harris “single-handedly carved out a space for contemporary African-American male novelists such as Eric Jerome-Dickey, Colin Channer, RM Johnson, Carl Webber…” and others…A member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, at the time of his death, Harris, who was found unconscious in his hotel room, had been in Los Angeles on business trip.

Omar Tyree, a New York Times bestselling author, remembers Harris as one of the most generous authors in the business. He told writer Lynette Holloway, “He would give a review quote and use his popularity to help other writers. It was important to him because when he was starting out no one would give him a review quote…because he wanted to talk about homosexuality in the black community.”

Another New York Times bestselling author and one of the five ‘girlfriends’ Harris famously dubbed “Lynn’s Angels” was Kimberla Lawson Roby. Here, she remembers the day she learned of her dear friends’ death.

“When I learned that E. Lynn had passed, I was working out at my home on our treadmill.  Victoria Christopher Murray (another very close author friend of mine) called, my husband answered the phone, brought it to me, and Victoria asked me if I’d heard anything about E. Lynn passing.  I told her I hadn’t, but at that very moment, I knew in my heart that this wasn’t a rumor and that he was gone.  I immediately felt this strong sense of emptiness in my heart and burst into tears.  It was one of the saddest and most devastating days I have experienced in a long time.”

Harris admitted that it was his fans who had “saved his life” following a suicide attempt in 1990, and often used the painful experiences of his own life as a formerly closeted gay man who was subjected to a painful childhood and abusive relationship with his stepfather, to give authenticity to his stories. When Lee Bailey asks Kimberla L. Roby how the authors’ personality affected his writing?” she responds:

“I think his kind and caring personality affected his writing in a most positive way because his characters were always very real and they always had such a great love for life.”  

Judge Gilmore, another one of Harris’ “Angels” chimes in:

“Interestingly, even though Lynn wrote often about men on the “down low”, that was not who he was.  He was honest about his life as a gay man and in many ways I think he wrote because he hoped that all gay men would feel the freedom to live an honest and open life being who they were.  Lynn enjoyed living a fabulous life and I think some of that was reflected in his writing as well.”

Judge Gilmore reveals where she was upon hearing of Harris’ death”

“I was at home in Houston in the early morning hours following Lynn’s passing.  My mother had worked as Lynn’s assistant for many years and she was one of the first persons to receive word of his death.  It was not unusual for my mother to call me early in the morning, but on this day, she called before 6:00 a.m.  When she first uttered the words, “E. Lynn is dead”, I wasn’t quite sure that I had heard her correctly.  I asked her to repeat what she had said, and she hesitated before repeating her last words.  I just fell on the floor crying.  I remember being glad that my son, who was Lynn’s godson, was away at a sleepover with one of his friends so he wouldn’t have to see me so distraught.  My immediate thought was that I was going to have to be the one to call the four other women in his life besides me that he had dubbed “Lynn’s Angels” and break the news to them.  I hung up with my mother and started making my calls.”

Publicist Laura Gilmore said Harris had fallen ill on a train to Los Angeles a few days prior to his death, but seemed fine after that. Following his passing, a number of Harris’ celebrity friends joined together to promote the book he was touting at the time.

In an interview with Gay Life, the former IBM executive-turned-prolific writer told Ramon Johnson the feelings surrounding his decision to come out of the closet.

“I didn’t want to talk about my sexuality after I wrote ‘In The Life’ in 1992,” admitted E. Lynn Harris. “When people would ask I would say it wasn’t about me. I really didn’t want to talk about my personal life; and then I realized how important it was to…young people…When I saw how it could benefit other people I decided that it was something that I was called upon to do.”

In his final work, “In My Father’s House,” (which is being released today, 06-22-10, from St. Martin’s Press) the author takes readers to Miami’s South Beach, where character Bentley Dean owns the hottest modeling agency in town. The novel, which has been acclaimed by the likes of author Terry McMillan and Publisher’s Weekly, is about love, family and the lengths we will go to in order to protect those we hold dear.

EUR readers have been given an opportunity to win this novel, which is sure to join his other books on the New York Times Bestsellers List. For your opportunity to learn more about this titillating story and to WIN YOUR COPY of “In My Father’s House,” CLICK HERE.

“His death has affected the entire black literary world as a whole,” says Kimberla L. Roby. “…E. Lynn was such a major icon and one of the most successful black writers in history.  We have all suffered a major loss, and I still think about him all the time.  He’s been gone a year now, but I still find myself saying to my husband, “Wow, can you believe E. Lynn is really gone?”  So needless to say, I still miss him so, so much and still find myself shedding tears… [He] was an extremely successful author and an even better person.  He had a truly big heart and was a great example and role model for thousands.”

Lynn and three of the angels in Atlanta, January 2009 (Pam Frazier, Vanessa Gilmore, Cindy Barnes) Scroll down for more photos

“Lynn had a big heart and did a lot to take care of other people – my son, his family and his friends,” Judge Gilmore adds. “In the end, however, he did not do enough to take care of himself.  Like so many African American men, although he exercised frequently, he didn’t do enough to follow up on issues related to his heart. Lynn had so much more to give as a writer, a friend, a son, an uncle and godfather, but heart disease took him away from us far too soon.  Last Sunday, the 20th of June was his birthday, the judge concludes; and the Angels celebrated his life and the spirit that he left with each of us.”

Rest in sweet peace, Mr. Harris.

DeBorah B. Pryor is a freelance journalist and consultant to ‘everyday people’ that aim to become better public speakers in daily life situations. Her CD, “Public Speaking for the Private Person” can be purchased via her website at www.dpryorpresents.com.

Lynn and his godson, Sean Harrison Gilmore

Lynn's Angels at a celebration after his funeral service in July 2009 ( Vanessa, Cindy, Lencola, Pam, Robin)