Books come in all forms, from high to low. And few writers were more aware of that high-low divide than Erich Segal, who died Sunday in London at age 72. A classics professor at some of the world’s finest universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford), Segal also happened to produce a number of best-selling pot-boilers.
Most notably, he wrote the 1970 novel Love Story, the sappy and sentimental story of a star-crossed romance between a well-to-do Harvard student and a Radcliffe scholarship student that ends in tragedy shortly after their marriage. (Depending on the account you read, the Oliver Barrett character may have been based in part on former Vice President Al Gore, who was a golden-boy Harvard undergrad when Segal was a visiting professor in the ’60s.)
Love Story‘s phenomenal success was bolstered by an equally maudlin hit movie starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw that was released just 10 months after the book’s Valentine’s Day publication (and based on a script by Segal himself). Likewise, both versions of the story were boosted by a catchphrase — “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” — that became a signature expression of a distinctly ’70s-style approach to romance. The phrase was widely quoted — and perhaps even more widely parodied, in everything from Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film What’s Up, Doc? (when O’Neal himself dismisses the line as “the dumbest thing I ever heard” to costar Barbra Streisand) to The Simpsons to Rugrats to a Cobra Starship song (“Being From Jersey Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry”). The line was also tweaked by John Lennon — “Love means never having to say you’re sorry every 15 minutes” — which is fitting, since Segal also co-wrote the famed 1968 Beatles movie Yellow Submarine.
Still, it is for Love Story that Segal is most likely to be remembered. Segal later wrote a sequel, Oliver’s Story, as well as other melodramatic best-sellers like The Class (about five Harvard classmates from the ’50s) and Doctors (about med school classmates). For a while, Segal established himself as the Nicholas Sparks of his era — all while maintaining his credibility in the academic world and churning out scholarly volumes on Caesar Augustus and the Roman playwright Plautus. (To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Sparks is not moonlighting as an expert in astrophysics.) Like Sparks, et al, Segal’s fiction may not have ranked as great literature, and yet his books were compelling page-turners with the tug of the familiar narrative forms.