Erich Segal, 72

'Love Story' author Erich Segal dies at 72

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Erich Segal, a onetime classics professor who collaborated with the Beatles on a movie and whose sentimental 1970 screenplay and novel, "Love Story," became a pop-culture phenomenon, died Jan. 17 of a heart attack at his home in London. He was 72 and had battled Parkinson's disease for 25 years.

Mr. Segal, who taught Greek and Roman literature at Yale University, might have been an unlikely author of a heart-tugging tale of doomed romance, but his story captured the spirit of the time, and its signature line became a catch phrase: "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

Mr. Segal dabbled in screenplays for years, and he said his writing credit on the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" in 1968 elicited open-eyed admiration from students and professors alike.

He had originally written "Love Story" as a screenplay about the star-crossed love between a working-class Italian girl from Radcliffe and a Harvard boy from an old family. The 1970 film, which starred Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal and became a huge hit, was in production before Mr. Segal reworked it as a novel. When "Love Story" was released in paperback, it had the largest print order in the publishing history at the time, with 4,325,000 copies.

Although Mr. Segal's work resonated with the public, critics almost uniformly lambasted it. The judges for the National Book Award threatened to resign unless "Love Story" was withdrawn from nomination.

"It is a banal book which simply doesn't qualify as literature," said novelist William Styron, the head judge of the fiction panel. "Simply by being on the list it would have demeaned the other books."

Mr. Segal was thrust from the life of a scholar to that of a jet-setting star. He appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson four times in four weeks, was a judge at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay. He made weekend jaunts to Paris and London, returning to Yale for his classes on classical civilization, which filled a 600-seat auditorium and were among the most popular at the university.

"I'm kind of a folk hero there -- the closest thing they have to a Beatle," he told The Washington Post in 1970.

Mr. Segal also parlayed his love of running and knowledge of ancient Greece into a job as an ABC TV commentator for the Olympic Games.

Yale decided that Mr. Segal's extracurricular assignments were taking too much time away from his academic work and denied him tenure in 1972, a blow that took years to overcome. He continued to lead his intellectual double life as a popular novelist and serious scholar, publishing best-selling novels and works on ancient literature, but he remained puzzled at the mockery and anger of the literary elite.

While jogging in New York's Central Park, Mr. Segal once recalled, he saw novelist Philip Roth and said, "I admire your work."

"And I admire your running," Roth replied.

Mr. Segal said that he got swept up in the glamour and adulation of his "Love Story" fame.

"That kind of early success really turns your head," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. "You think you're invincible, you're infallible and that your star will shine forever, when in fact they'll be looking for somebody else next week."

Erich Wolf Segal was born June 16, 1937, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was the son of a rabbi. He studied Hebrew and other languages from an early age and became fluent in German and French, as well as Latin and Greek.

At Harvard, he received a bachelor's degree in 1958, a master's degree in classics in 1959 and a doctorate in comparative literature in 1965. He published books on the Greek tragedian Euripides and the comic Roman playwright Plautus before writing "Love Story."

Mr. Segal's academic works received better reviews than his fiction, and he continued to write about classical literature for decades. His long-awaited history of comedy from ancient Greece to the modern era, "The Death of Comedy," appeared in 2001. After being denied tenure at Yale, Mr. Segal settled in England, where he became a fellow at Oxford University's Wolfson College.

He began running the Boston Marathon in 1955 and once completed the course in 2 hours, 56 minutes, 30 seconds. He ran 10 miles every day and played piano quite well before he was stricken by Parkinson's disease in the mid-1980s.

Mr. Segal never recaptured the level of success he had with "Love Story," although several of his later novels, including "Oliver's Story" (1977), "Man, Woman, and Child" (1983), "The Class" (1985) and "Doctors" (1987), were bestsellers, and several were made into movies.

In 1997, he disputed a rumor that "Love Story" was based on the college romance between Al and Tipper Gore. He did acknowledge that he had known Al Gore and his Harvard roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones, in 1968 and drew on their lives for the central male character of "Love Story," Oliver Barrett IV.

Survivors include his wife of 34 years, Karen James, and two daughters.

"When I find myself feeling guilty for all that success and thinking 'Love Story' was overrated," Mr. Segal said in 1988, "I pull out my Encyclopedia Britannica and see myself listed as writing in the tradition of the classic sentimental novelists, and then my ego relights.

"It was my little Camelot and it can't be taken away. It was my idyll."

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