- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
“Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.” – Aesop’s Fables
In 1958, Erich Segal graduated from Harvard University as both the class poet and a Latin salutatorian. He earned a doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard and began lecturing at Yale as a classics professor.
He wrote scholarly works on Plato and Plautus, and lecture halls were always packed for his talks. One of his students, future Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, once pronounced Segal’s presentations “electrifying.”
But Segal also nurtured an obvious desire to be considered a hip guy as well as an erudite scholar. Through some contacts on Broadway, he became a co-writer of the animated Beatles feature Yellow Submarine. (And what could be hipper than being involved with the Fab Four?)
Thus, Segal was able to enjoy being both a respected university professor and a pop-culture icon.
“Sometimes I amaze even myself,” he boasted to film critic Roger Ebert. “I blow the minds of these freshmen who come to take a Greek tragedy class, and the professor is the same guy who wrote Yellow Submarine!
Segal then turned to writing screenplays on the side and came up with Love Story, which was released as a bestselling 131-page novella on Valentine’s Day 1970 before it became a box-office smash film at Christmastime.
The primary Love Story characters — two star-crossed lovers — were wealthy pre-law Harvard student Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) and Jenny (Ali MacGraw), a baker’s daughter who studies music at Radcliffe and calls herself “a social zero.”
Eventually they fall in love and marry, only to have Jenny fall ill with leukemia.
There’s a key line in the story that is now iconic in our culture: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
MacGraw later admitted that she didn’t know what that line meant at the time but now has her own definition: “Saying sorry isn’t what it’s about. It’s about really feeling badly for the hurt … and then absolutely trying never to do it again.”
For a while, Erich Segal was riding high.
“I lucked out, that’s what happened,” he explained to Ebert. “My book came out just as the world was turning from cynicism to romance.”
But Segal eventually acknowledged that his incredible, head-spinning success unleashed “egotism bordering on megalomania,” and for that he would pay a hefty price.
Also, despite the overwhelming popularity of Segal’s creation, critics often dismissed Love Story as a sentimental tearjerker — shallow, melodramatic, and ultimately disposable.
He later claimed the book — a phenomenon among the hoi polloi — “totally ruined me.” In 1972, he was denied tenure at Yale, meaning he would not be guaranteed a full-time professorship until retirement.
Segal was devastated at the rejection, although Yale never cited his mainstream popularity as the reason they denied him becoming a permanent campus fixture.
Perhaps Garry Trudeau explained it best: “You can’t dress up in tight leather pants to chat with starlets on Johnny Carson Friday night and expect to be taken seriously in a classroom Monday morning.”
Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.