Before he wrote Love Story in 1968, Professor Erich Segal was a star on Yale’s campus. Not because he taught ancient Greek and Latin literature, but because he co-wrote the screenplay to the Beatles movie, Yellow Submarine. Segal’s celebrity helped fill a 600-seat hall for his lectures on classical civilization.
“I became a figure of awe to the kids here,” he told an interviewer. “On football weekends they’d bring their dates around to Ezra Stiles [house] and reverently point out the window of the study in which I’d written Yellow Submarine.”
But then Harper & Row published Love Story, his 131-page tearjerker about a rich Harvard jock and a poor brainy Cliffie who dies. Critics trashed the book, Yale denied him tenure and students at the Ezra Stiles College, where he lived as a resident scholar, campaigned to eject him.
But Love Story also made him a world-famous millionaire who hobnobbed with celebrities.
Erich Segal, Author of Love Story
He was born June 16, 1937, in Brooklyn, N.Y., one of three boys. Even as a child, Erich Segal wanted to be a writer. His father, an orthodox rabbi, wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. So Erich studied Greek, Latin and Hebrew at Midwood High School. On afternoons he took the subway to the Jewish Theological Seminary, and in summer he took classes in Switzerland. He didn’t have much of a social life.
Segal did win election as class president and the Latin prize, so naturally he went to Harvard. He graduated as class poet and Latin salutatorian in 1958, something only T.S. Eliot had done. Then at Harvard he earned a master’s the next year and a doctorate in comparative literature in 1965.
He had a penchant for pop culture, though. As a senior undergraduate, he wrote a play for the Hasty Pudding theatricals called The Big Fizz, something of a big flop. But then as a graduate student he wrote a spoof on the Iliad called Sing, Muse, performed at Harvard’s Leverett House. A producer saw it, liked it and took it off Broadway, where it ran for 39 shows. Richard Rodgers of Oklahoma! fame noticed it and invited Segal to work with him on a musical. And that’s how he eventually got to collaborate on the animated film, Yellow Submarine, released in 1968.
Back at Harvard
Segal had been teaching classic literature at Yale, but in 1968, he took a sabbatical at Harvard to write a screenplay. He stayed at Dunster House, where he grew friendly with two college roommates who later became famous.
Segal combined the roommates into the character of Oliver Barrett IV, the preppie jock with a poet’s heart. Oliver’s wealthy, powerful father opposes his marriage to Jenny Cavilleri, a baker’s daughter from Cranston, R.I.
In the story, Oliver defies his father and marries Jenny, who gives up a music scholarship to put him through law school. And then, at 25, she dies.
Segal later said he based the character of Jenny on a girl he had dated. And he based Oliver on Tommy Lee Jones, the sensitive jock, and his roommate, Al Gore.
[“Gore] was always under pressure to follow in his father’s footsteps and that was the conflict, to keep up the family tradition,” Segal explained to a New York Times reporter in 1997.
Jenny Cavilleri had nothing to do with Tipper Gore, Segal added.
Love Story came as a shock – not because of sex or nudity, there was none. But as a book, its publisher thought it might sell a few thousand copies. And as a film, its producer thought it might make a small profit.
At first, Segal couldn’t interest anyone in his screenplay. Finally, his agent suggested he turn it into a book. Segal did just that.
And so Harper & Row decided to print 5,000 copies of Love Story in time for Valentine’s Day 1970. At the last minute, plans changed to 7,500 copies.
Then lightning struck. Network TV hostess Barbara Walters mentioned Love Story on air one morning.
[She] “began her program by saying: ‘I was up most of the night reading a book I couldn’t put down, and when I finished it, I was sobbing. I cried and cried’,” recalled Mel Zerman, a former Harper & Row executive, in an interview with the American Legends website.
“That’s all the women of America had to hear,” Zerman said. “By the time bookstores were opening all over the United States they were getting calls for a book called Love Story by someone you never heard of named Erich Segal. Harper went crazy. We were out of stock within hours….”
Love Story rocketed to the top of the New York Times best-seller list and remained there for 41 weeks, ultimately selling 21 million copies.
Love Story, the Movie
As luck would have it, filming ended on Love Story, the movie, three days before Love Story, the book, hit the bookstores. Segal had finally sold his screenplay to Paramount Pictures.
Model-turned-starlet Ali MacGraw had read the script and liked it. She was then married to Robert Evans, the head of Paramount, and persuaded him to produce it. He thought it might make a small profit and gave it a limited budget of $2.2 million. A half-dozen future stars turned down the role of Oliver – including Michael Douglas, Jon Voight and Peter Fonda. Finally Ryan O’Neal took the part. And Tommy Lee Jones made his film debut as Oliver Barrett’s roommate Hank.
Arthur Hiller began directing the film in Massachusetts and New York even before the book came out. Most of the scenes took place in winter, and production at Harvard damaged the campus. Fake snow killed three trees, and the university denied many future requests to film there.
Hiller also shot the movie at the Myopia Hunt Club in Hamilton, Mass., the Boston Public Garden and at the frame house at 119 Oxford St. in Cambridge. There, MacGraw’s character utters the famous words, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The American Film Institute voted the line as the #13 greatest movie quote of all time. MacGraw later called it “a crock” and O’Neal said, “You better say you’re sorry.”
The film debuted on Dec. 16, 1970 and smashed box office records.
From 1955 to 1975, Erich Segal ran the Boston Marathon. After Love Story, a spectator shouted at him, “Hey Segal, You run better than you write.”
“The banality of Love Story makes Peyton Place look like Swann’s Way as it skips from cliche to cliche with an abandon that would chill even the blood of a True Romance editor,” wrote Newsweek.
Love Story was nominated for the National Book Award, but the fiction judges threatened to walk out unless it was withdrawn. It was.
William Styron called it a “banal book which simply doesn’t qualify as literature.”
New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called it ‘almost unreadable.’ He loved the film, though.
“What can you say about a movie about a 25-year-old girl who died?”’ wrote Canby. “That it is beautiful. And romantic…That it looks to be clean and pure and without artifice, even though it is possibly as sophisticated as any commercial American movie ever made.”
John Simon panned Love Story the film in the National Review, and then attacked Segal to his face on the Dick Cavett Show.
Segal had made many media appearances to promote Love Story, including four times in one month on the Tonight Show.
Segal compared himself to the Greek playwright Euripedes, loved by the people but hated by the critics. Simon retorted Segal could choose to be a knave or a fool. “You chose the latter, deluded by your own lack of talent,” Simon said.
Another guest, Little Richard, famously ended the debate by screaming at Simon “Shut up!” (Watch it here.)
Not Scholarly Enough
Unlike Little Richard, Segal could not silence his critics.
For the next decade or so, he continued to seek the limelight. Nothing came close to the success he had with Love Story. He worked as a sportscaster for the 1972 Olympics, wrote more novels, taught at various colleges and edited books about such classic authors as Aristophanes, Menander and Plautus. In a 1970 interview with film critic Roger Ebert he bragged about dating a Playboy model.
Questions arose, though, about the seriousness of his scholarship.
“Suddenly the professor who wrote Love Story found his students and fellow academics questioning his seriousness of purpose,” wrote Linda Pelzner in The Professor Who Wrote Love Story.
“They were hostile, they were deprecating, they were implying–and sometimes saying explicitly–that I had vulgarized myself, or that in fact I was always vulgar,” Segal told Wendy Smith of the Chicago Tribune.
Segal protested he’d always been an academic. “It’s the most important thing I do.”
For a while, he devoted himself exclusively to academics. It didn’t work. He eventually admitted the doubts of others undermined his confidence.
His colleagues suggested he take a leave of absence from his teaching job at Yale. He did. Never again would academics be his full-time profession. He taught as an adjunct or a visitor.
In 1974, Segal met Karen James, a British children’s book editor. They married a year later and had two daughters, Francesca and Miranda. They lived in London.
When he was in his 40s, Erich Segal contracted Parkinson’s disease. He continued to write and teach. On January 17, 2010, he died of a heart attack.
With thanks to Erich Segal: A Critical Companion by Linda Claycomb Pelzer, Linda De Roche.
Images: Erich Segal By Karen Segal – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18038980. Yellow Submarine https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16104951. Dunster House By Margaret Maloney – Mdmalon at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2473300. Love Story By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33459577.