Erich W. Segal
Published On Sunday, June 01, 2008
Before Erich W. Segal ’58 penned the romantic novel “Love Story”—the iconic tale of a Harvard man and Radcliffe woman who fall for each other—he wrote notes for his roommates to express his creativity.
“Gordo,” begins a hurried letter to his freshman year roommate Marvin A. Gordon ’58, “as you know, we are running low on”—and here, he drew a picture of a toilet paper roll—“Unless you’d like to wipe your rectum with dollar bills, you might well let me know when the next 50 cents is coming, or buy the stuff yourself.”
Segal, who graduated from the College as both class poet (an elected Class Day speaker) and Latin salutatorian (a Commencement orator based on class ranking), went on to pursue a career that straddled the line between academia and popular culture.
In addition to writing “Love Story,” Segal is known for his collaboration on the Beatles’ 1968 film “Yellow Submarine.”
But Segal—who has also held various teaching positions at Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Princeton, among other institutions—will be absent from this year’s reunion as he battles illness at his home in London.
“I no longer own the impregnable mind and body that used to overcome adversity in whatever form I had to face it,” Segal wrote in a concise passage in this year’s 50th anniversary report. “I am with you, classmates, and hope we will meet in person again.”
For those who have studied and worked with Segal, it is his imagination that has imbued him with the ability to inhabit the distinct roles of both Classics professor and famous writer.
BECOMING A WRITER
Despite his future prominence as a writer, Segal, who was a classics concentrator, was not particularly active in any literary pursuits while he was an undergraduate. He briefly attempted to gain a spot on The Crimson’s staff in the fall of 1955 but managed to have only two unsigned cartoons published.
In 1958, as a senior completing his studies, Segal wrote his first play, a Hasty Pudding show called “The Big Fizz.”
Although the show received lackluster reviews, when Segal was a graduate student in May 1961, his Homeric spoof “Sing. Muse!” was performed in Leverett House dining hall to considerably more success.
The play, which attracted an off-Broadway producer, became an unlikely hit and served as the springboard for Segal’s playwriting career.
In a 1972 interview with The Crimson, Segal said that the success of the play was unexpected.
“And I must emphasize, it began without my trying, you know. I wasn’t down there making the theatrical scene,” he said. “I was up here getting a Ph.D. And I wrote something for Leverett House ’cause they wanted it for spring weekend, see? But the professionals bought it and put it on. And then by God, I was a professional!”
But before he tried his hand at writing, roommates said Segal was dedicated to his academics and to the track team.
Gordon recalled Segal’s ostensible disappointment after receiving his first-semester grades. He said that Segal looked theatrically at his grades and expressed fear that he would “flunk out.”
Gordon added that he and his two other suitemates made their way to Segal’s academic adviser to express their concern.
“We said, ‘We’re very worried about Erich. Is there anything we can do to help him?’” Gordon said.
But it was all for naught.
Gordon remembered the adviser saying that he could not tell the boys what Segal’s grades were but that he was “at the top of the heap.”
Aside from his academic endeavors, for Segal, running was paramount. As a member of the track team, he ran his first Boston Marathon in 1955, and continued to run the marathon until 1975, according to the Boston Athletic Association.
A DUNSTER STORY
Following graduation, Segal received his masters and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard.
He then went on to teach at several Ivy League colleges and served as a fellow at Wolfson College at Oxford.
The fame that Segal acquired after writing “Sing. Muse!” resulted in his collaboration on the screenplay for the animated Beatles film “Yellow Submarine.” He continued to contribute to other screenplays throughout the 1960s, including “The Games” and “Downhill Racer.”
In the fall of 1968, while on leave from Yale, Segal returned to Harvard, where he wrote the screenplay for “Love Story.”
Written in Dunster J-39, “Love Story” was composed in the same room in which Segal completed half a monograph on Euripides and Meander.
After pitching the screenplay to several movie producers, his literary agent, Lois K. Wallace, who worked at the William Morris Agency at the time and who had first met Segal at Harvard summer school in 1959, suggested that he turn it into a novel.
This is how that “Love Story”—The New York Times number one bestseller and number one box office attraction in 1971—was born.
“I thought it was terrific,” Wallace recently said of the original screenplay. “He was driven, he was amazingly intelligent, and unbelievably energetic.”
INHABITING TWO WORLDS
For friends who knew Segal at Harvard, his spirited personality and propensity to eavesdrop can explain his ability to inhabit both the role of professor and writer.
“One of the reasons that I think he turned out to be prolific and extremely successful...was that he had a great imagination, no problem at all with making the narrative fit the story rather than fit the truth,” Gordon said.
Merging fiction with reality, Segal’s sixth novel, “The Class,” published in 1986, follows five fictitious members of the Harvard class of 1985, culminating in their 25th class reunion.
But according to Gordon, as he and his classmates gather for their 50th reunion, Segal’s inspiration for his most famous novel, “Love Story,” is also evident in their shared Harvard experience.
“If you read ‘Love Story,’” Gordon said, “I could pick out little parts of all kinds of roommates and friends we had that he sort of rolled into one character in the hero of ‘Love Story.’”
—Staff writer Lindsay P. Tanne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.