"Now," says Erich Seagal without a shade of triumph, "now I am free. I am free of the curse. It's just the biggest curse in the world - the cruse of success."
He doesn't mean to be histrionic. Refracted from his large brown eyes are equal portions of pleasure and pain! And pology - there is that, too. Because after 40 years of living, Erich Segal has undergone a deliberate, a highly apologetic metamorphosis, all hollow cheeks and self-deprecation, mingled with defiance.
"For a guy who once wrote, 'BLANK - '" his lids flutter over the four-letter ommission "'BLANK MEANS NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU'RE SORRY,' I certainly said I was sorry enough time."
At the start, of course, he was anything but sorry. He was, in fact, quite cocky, as best-selling writers tend to be. " . . . Little did I know that I was creating a whole style that was perfect for the '70s," he informed an Esquire writer in '71. But "Love Story" turned out to be a pretty brutal experience for its author. Maybe worse, even, than for Oliver Barrett IV who lost his true love, Jenny, to some rare blood disease.
"Like a hole in the head, I needed Jenny," the creator says, ungratefull. For, like Oliver, Erich Segal had to survive Jenny's death and in so doing lost his privacy. His peace of mind. Even his self-esteem, when he read the critics who tended to share his ungallant sentiments about the defunct Jenny.
"It's been a long time between drinks of water." He shakes his head dolefull, "I had this fear of never writing again."
Friends, it didn't happen.
Erich Segal is back.
Oliver is bacK.
Erich Segal gave Oliver a best-selling vehicle, appropriately entitled "Oliver's Story" - this despite the protestations of Karen, his English wife of two years, who said, "Erich. Who the hell cares what happened to Mr. Karenina?" And her words should have carried some weight, too, because she is an editor now "looking for a job."
Now patting her husband's hand, consolingly, as he protests. "Nonetheless, I wanted to break the curse . . . The most accesible thing I had five years after ("Love Story") is what I had left of Oliver."
You may not believe this, but it's true; Karen Segal hadn't the smallest idea who Erich Segal was when she first met him in England.
"In England it was possible not to know," she explains succinctly. When she did find out, she was stunned by the tortured earnestness of him. "Erich," she objected, "You didn't REALLY cry when you were finishing 'Love Story.'"
"Yes I did," he insisted.
"But I didn't know him then," she says now. "Now, i believe him." She lights up a cigarette over he hushand's paining expression, then explains in impeccable Anglican. "He's taken me so far to five meshuggench doctors to stop smoking. Acupuncturists, faith-healers, schmaith-healers and an Indian doctor who spoke Hebrew."
Her husband regards her gravely; then returns to the old pain. "I like the fact that I moved out of the freak status," he says. "Freak status means people think - 'Oh he doesn't know what he's doing. He writes down something of no value.' A Happening, if you will. Like Chubby Checker."
"Oh Erich," his wife protests.
"What's the matter? You like Chubby Checker? All right, then - like the hoola hoop . . . Now admittedly, I had a whole life ot teaching college which I never left. I didn't think of myself as a freak. But then when I read what people wrote . . ."
He shudders delicately. A gentle, pained smile moves his lips. "Success is harder to deal with than failure. Failure at least makes you go out and want to do it again . . . I don't mean I'm Heinrich Heine sensitive. $1% - " here he uses a Yiddishism it would be best not to translate" - can be sensitive too.
"But I'm fragile. Now that's not literary, that's not pretentious. I can say fragile."
He grimaces. "Some of my best light bulbs are fragile."
Oh it's so sad, in a way, that Erich Segal has become a cautious man. Solicitous - fearful even, of the aesthtic sensibilities of others. "I'm the guy who smokes a non-existent pipe at faculty meetings," he says. "I'm the guy who never cracks jokes. Because I have something to live down."
But he is not quite as careful as his wife who warns. "I don't believe Erich, that anyone will bleed for success."
"That's not ture," His tone is sharp as he addresses her. "Allow me to say what I feel is true. Not what you feel is true."
Erich Segal things "Love Story" is like chocolate chip cookies.
"I'm serious, Kurt Vonnegut who is the only responsible critic - well, the only one without a bias - he said, 'Love Story' was like a chocolate eclair. I was there when he he said it."
And it's not as if he minded that his writing was being compared to a highly caloric dessert. Actually, he seems amused by that. What disturbed him was that "people said I wasn't serious."
There he was, a classics professor at Yale, just about the most serious person you could find. A guy who invested $5,000 of his newly earned money in 70 volumes of a German classical dictionary called Pauly-Wissowa Real Encyclopaedic der Classischen Wissenschaft.
You simply cannot get more serious than that.
But after "Love Story," his classes at Yale turned into "a tourist spectacale. It was a circus that never ended. I felt constantly on display. And I did everything I could - including protesting too much."
Abruptly he say, "Look. You know that I'm a runner."
"Then you know that I am a terrible runner."
"It is a fact that I finished last in the Boston Marathon. Now imagine for a second that I had finished with a novel. In other words, nowheresville. Or imagine that I had WON the Boston Marathon.
"I swear to you, people would have thought I was cute. I would have been fine because I was not competing intellectually - and academics all love jocks, anyway.
"But now - simply because I have written something popular - they think I'm a traitor to verbality!"
He looks up, perplexed. "Is there such a word? All right then - a traitor to rhetoric, let's say."
Success, as it happens, took its own sweet time coming to Erich Segal.
"Oh I had some real winners." The tone is pure undiluted sareasm. "One night on Broadway with a play I wrote. Thirty-nine nights off-Broadway with another, I had other junk."
A pause. A hint of a smile. "Maybe I can do some expiation here. In December of '74 a play of mine. 'Odyssey,' opened here . . . Ten minutes passed before I saw something in it that looked like what I had written.
"When the show ended, I ran like hell out of the theater!
"And so did this senator who was sitting in front of me. He turned to his wife, and he said, "That was the biggest piece of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] I ever saw in my life.
"Well I wanted to turn around and say - You know. You're right!"
Karen Segal says, "It was the worst. But I don't know why you have to apologize for it."
Her husband says, "And that's why I retreated to my typewriter, I said to myself, 'If I'm going to be killed, at least it should be for what I did."
Thus was Oliver reborn.
Oh, but he was happy before Jenny and Oliver fell in love . . .
"There was a period in my life," he says nostalgically, "when I balanced public obscurity with university respectability. Every summer I'd go to Hollywood to write - something. Some turkey. The only thing I ever wrote that they saw in New Haven was 'Yellow Submarine.' And they thought that was cute at Yale.
"And I'd have a wild time. I never believed for a minute I was a denizen of Hollywood, because I always came back to Yale after the summer. Anyways, I was happy because I was living in a world that was financially rewarding and not aesthetically demanding.
"Name me three famous screen writers," he commands. Then, without, William Goldman and William Goldman. Screenwriters are anonymous but very happy.
So I ask you. What did I need" What more did I need? How many bottles of Chateau Margqux can you drink" I don't drive a Lamborghini, whatever that is, I don't own a fancy house.
"So who needed it?"#TWhat a question. Obviously, the world needed it, Clearly.
The lady from Newsweek who knocked on his door at 11 p.m. to check on his dining habits needed it. And perhaps - just perhaps - even Erich Segal needed it.
"Instead of acting maturely, or at least just acting," he recalls, "I got all enthusiastic about it.
"But you always get enthusiastic over everything," his wife reminds him.
"Yeah," he acknowledges. "But now always in the privacy of my own home. I was construed as cocky because people had never seen a 31-year-old acting like a 14-year-old. Look - I'm crazy. But so is Chagall. That's what he said, that he was a little meshuggench."
He chuckles reflectively. "I wrote a short story, which Playboy was kind enough to buy. It's a myth about a guy who sells his soul to the devil to win the Boston Marathon. Yeah, you figure out who it is. And it's called, 'Dr. Fastest.'
"Now I have to tell you it is nothing. On a literary scale of one-to-10 it is point-five. But I love it. Goethe I am not. But I nonetheless wrote my Faust."
His wife says, "But you wrote it at 4 a.m. Such Mishiegoss."
"Yeah," he grins. "I said, 'Karen.' The devil has just gone to get him in a black Adidas sweatsuit.' The sweat was dripping from my forehead. A black sweatsuit - that really turned me on."
His wife says, "Yes, but you didn't sleep all night."
"You see," he says triumphantly, "I'm crazy . . . "
More than anything, what Erich Segal wants now is legitimacy.That is not the way he puts it, but that is what his remarks add up to. For all his protestations that he is not Heine or Goethe; for all his talk of his tenure at Dartmouth, which is where he is now, or the semester he has just spent teaching at the University of Tel Sviv; or the time he was in Munich teaching philology "because that was a professionaljustification if you see what I mean" - for all that, he craves recognition.
Very simply, what Erich Segal wants, after all the money, all the fame, is to be take seriously. At long last.
"'Oliver's Stort' - it's crafty, if not artsy," he says now. "I wanted it to show I was a working writer. A working writer is a guy who sits down and tells a story."
What he says next comes out very softly. "I wanted my card, I wanted my card that sya, 'This will affirm that he's in the club.'"
And then he says, and there is special yearning in his voice, "In any case I'd like to be a writer, I have an idea for another novel.
"You know everyone who doesn't say, 'Screw you.' says, 'All the people you write about are nice people.' And that's kind of nice. Sort of like the cartoon before the Bergman film.
"Well, now I want to write the Bergman film."
He stops, considers his words, and - for once - fails to apologize for them. "I'm glad I though of that," he chuckles, "Bergman film . . .
"And I want to write it not only to show that I have Weltschmertz, But because I, too, have something to say . . ."
The smile grows dreamy now with remembered pleasure. "I read this book by Norman Mailer called 'The Fight.' In it, Mailer was running with Muhammad Ali. And he was reflecting on what a silly thing it is - to run.
"And he wrote, 'The only writer I know who runs is Erich Segal.' Mailer said that!"
And did it make Erich Segal feel good?
"Oh yes. That he knows I exist. Look.I don't need a pat on the head. But Mailer - he says I'm a writer!"