The Booky Man: A Love Story Endures

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Where do I begin? First with a confession. I fall in love. Often. Often badly. I admit it. Do we all? I fall for a pair of eyes in a passing car. A pretty girl walking her ugly pug. A five-story-high set of lips and lashes on a silver screen.

I fight it, and you do too. We swim upstream against desire’s rushing waters, though it’s a force more powerful than gravity or the desire to sleep when Harry Reid speaks.

We’re not alone in our confusion. Heed these thoughts on amore from famous folk:

Somerset Maugham Love declared that love is … “only a dirty trick played on us to achieve continuation of the species.”

Actor Laurence Marks in a 1973 episode of M*A*S*H, yelled out “Without love, what are we worth? Eighty-nine cents! Eighty-nine cents worth of chemicals walking around lonely.”

Lord Dewar, he no doubt named by besotted parents for a famous brand of Scotch whiskey, exclaimed that “Love is an ocean of emotions entirely surrounded by expenses.”

“Love is an exploding cigar we willingly smoke.” That’s Lynda Barry.

And the French poet—and you KNOW a French poet knows a thing or two about love—Paul Valery, said this: “Love is being stupid together.”

None of these quotes, nor any of Shakespeare’s or Byron’s or Mae West’s, will likely ever be known to so many people on planet earth as the following, from a little book published in 1970 by a Harvard professor.

“Love means you never have to say you’re sorry.”

Oh, now I’M sorry. I’ve upset you, Booky Man reader. So many of you have now stopped reading to dab tears from your eyes with those small folded cotton squares called handkerchiefs. (The devices can also handily store mucus in a pocket too, if that’s what you like to do with your mucus.)

Others of you may be sobbing into the couch cushions, overcome with bittersweet grief, carried back in time to youthful days, salad days, glory days, when bellbottom pants actually seemed to look kind of good, when leisure suits nearly caused the extinction of that rarest of wild creatures, the polyester.

I’m talking about the ‘70s, radio listener, back in those days when men in frilly sleeves were men and women in tuxes were women. Back in the days when a sappy, saccharine book about a super-rich, super-brainy Harvard hockey jock and his sickly, sexy, madam-librarian lover broke the hearts of American.

Forget the handkerchief. Bring a sheet.

Love Story, the book and movie, seems to me as interesting for its back story as its success. Let me introduce this column by sharing a section from Love Story:

Where do I begin? The beginning, chapter one, the first sentences.

Here’s the novel, already told in the first two paragraphs. We have a privileged young man used to getting what he wants. A love interest from the wrong side of the tracks who keeps cutting him down to human size, teaching him Humility 101. Death snaps jolly fingers like a jazz singer just offstage.

It’s the oldest formula in the book, isn’t it? And when it’s written in short sentences, first person, large type, just 200 pages, and tells a universal sad story … well, it’s guaranteed to jerk the tears out.

Erich Segal, the author of Love Story, died in January of 2010. Here’s what you may not know about a writer who stirred up this potboiler of prose—and singlehandedly sold more Kleenex than the entire swine flu pandemic.

Segal was the son of a rabbi. He graduated from Harvard as the official class poet and Latin salutatorian, this back in 1958 when the Catholic church still held Latin mass and Latin still appeared in places other than before the words “lover” or “America.” He got a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard, and then set out to teach bumfuzzled college kids at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and later jolly old Oxford, how to hic haec huc, hujus hujus hujus, etc. for their Latin finals.

Segal launched into publication too, but not in the way you might think. His first book, in 1968 and the summer of love, was called Roman Laughter: The Comedies of Plautus.

Next up, in 1969, Euripedes: A Collection of Critical Essays. In fact, Segal’s interpretation of Euripedes proved hugely influential among Euripedians, and remains one of the definitive critical texts on the Greek dramatist.

Think of it! Greek criticism. Latin comedy.

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Euripedes.
Euripedes who?
Euripedes, you sew ‘em up yourself.

It may be that Segal grew bored out of his gourd reading dead languages and criticizing defenseless, dead Greeks and Romans. Whatever his reason, he started writing screenplays on the side in the 1960s. One was a romantic comedy about – guess what? – a rich Harvard kid and a brainy Radcliffe student who captures his heart, then – oops! – she dies.

Segal had no luck getting the script sold, but literary agent Lois Wallace at The William Morris Agency urged him to turn it into a novel. The rest, as they say, is his story.

Love Story became the number one NYT best seller in 1970. The movie became the biggest box office attraction of 1970.

Lost in the phenomena was Segal’s other notable accomplishments – the classic treatments of the Classics, the notable work in the classroom. Also, in 1967, Segal wrote the screenplay for a little movie called Yellow Submarine. That’s right – the same man who wrote Love Story wrote the 1968 Beatles movie based on Lee Minoff’s children’s book.

Segal would go on to write a sequel to Love Story, called Oliver’s Story, in 1978, and he later pulled another rabbit out of his seemingly bottomless hat with another NYT best-selling novel, The Class, about his 1958 Harvard graduating class.

Segal battled Parkinson’s Disease for the last 30 years of his life, continuing to write and work courageously in the face of declining physical abilities. His love story, it seems, was with words. He fought long and hard to keep them coming.

Segal’s daughter Francesca gave the eulogy at his funeral, saying this: “That he fought to breathe, fought to live, every second of the last 30 years of illness with such mind-blowing obduracy, is a testament to the core of who he was – a blind obsessionality that saw him pursue his teaching, his writing, his running and my mother, with just the same tenacity. He was the most dogged man any of us will ever know.”

It takes doggedness to write any novel, short or long, romance or realism. And as with any art, the simpler the work seems, the harder the work it took to make it seem that way.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained the use of suspense in his movies. He pointed out that suspense didn’t depend on finding out what happens. Suspense, he said, is knowing what will happen, and then watching it unfold, inevitably.

Just like Greek tragedy.

That’s something of the technique Segal uses to such success in Love Story. We know from the first breath that the beautiful girl breathes her last schmaltzy breath by the book’s end. And most readers know too they’ll be honking into a handkerchief. Or a sheet.

As for Erich Segal … love may mean you never have to say you’re sorry.

But Love Story means you never, ever, have to say you’re forgotten.