Erich W. Segal ’58, classics scholar and popular writer of works like “Love Story,” died Sunday from a heart attack at his home in London. Segal, who had been battling Parkinson’s disease for over 20 years, was 72.
Respected in the realms of both academia and popular culture, Segal was a man who worked both inside and outside of the proverbial ivory tower. Having produced several acclaimed scholarly works on Greek and Roman literature over the course of his academic career, Segal also wrote bestselling novels and screenplays for popular films, including the script for the 1968 animated Beatles feature “Yellow Submarine.”
Upon graduating as the class of 1958’s Latin salutatorian and class poet, Segal remained at Harvard to earn both a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. in comparative literature. He later taught classics at several other Ivy League institutions, and, after teaching classics at Yale from the 1960s through the 1980s, became an honorary fellow at Oxford University’s Wolfson College.
But despite the critical acclaim garnered by his scholarly work, such as “The Death of Comedy,” Segal is perhaps best known for his contributions to popular culture—specifically the 1970 romantic drama “Love Story.”
In 1961, Segal wrote a musical called “Sing Muse!”—a spoof of the Iliad that explores, according to a review in The Crimson from May 1961, how “Paris made it with Helen (or vice versa).” The show was originally performed in Leverett House dining hall and was ultimately picked up by an off-Broadway producer.
“I was up here getting a Ph.D. And I wrote something for Leverett House ’cause they wanted it for spring weekend, see?” Segal had told The Crimson in 1972. “But the professionals bought it and put it on. And then by God, I was a professional!”
But Segal reached the height of fame as a professional writer with “Love Story.” Originally conceived as a screenplay, “Love Story” first appeared in novel form and enjoyed a lengthy presence on The New York Times bestseller list, selling millions of copies. The 1970 film version, starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, grossed almost $200 million and has been said to have rescued then-struggling Paramount Pictures from financial collapse.
Written while Segal was on leave from Yale in the late 1960s, the story follows the budding relationship between preppy Harvard student Oliver Barrett IV and working-class Radcliffe student Jennifer Cavilleri, who dies not long after their marriage.
A resident of Dunster House at the time, Segal admitted to using at least two students he had met in the house as models for the story’s protagonist: former Vice President Al Gore ’69 and actor Tommy Lee Jones ’69, roommates who lived near Segal.
Jones—the athlete with the heart of gold—provided a bulk of the inspiration for Oliver’s personality, while Gore’s relationship with his father, Senator Albert Gore, parlayed into Oliver’s difficulties with his own domineering father, according to statements Segal made in the 1990s, when Americans began to wonder whether Oliver Barrett IV was an alter-ego of Gore.
While Segal authored numerous other scholarly and fictional titles, among other accomplishments, the line that concludes “Love Story”—”Love means never having to say you’re sorry”—has decidedly written his name onto the annals of popular culture.
Segal is survived by his wife, Karen James, and his two daughters.
—Staff writer James K. McAuley can be reached at email@example.com.