Erich Segal: Does He Have A Choice?

ERICH SEGAL is a Harvard man. In case you had any doubts, check the recent statement of his Yale chairman explaining why he had been denied tenure. Neither his teaching prowess nor the quality of his publications were questioned. As Professor J.J. Pollitt told The New York Times, "Mr. Segal does other things besides teach classicle literature." Too bad the "other things" had to be so successful. Lucky for Harvard professor and playwright William Alfred he wasn't teaching at Yale when Hogan's Goat became a smash.

Of course, Yale can't totally dispense with Mr. Segal; his lectures are the largest at Yale. With the current budget squeeze the bosses are counting heads. You can't afford to lose a guy who so dramatically increases your department's enrollment. Nec tecum nec sine te, as the man might have said. So, Yale offered Segal three years of something called a senior lectureship.

IRECALL vividly seeing Erich Segal for the first time on a night last December, somewhere in the bowels of Vanserg Hall. He was lecturing to some Humanities 3 students on the drama of Euripides. His style was pure enthusiasm. Eschewing the podium, hopping about like a praying mantis with a bladder problem, he leaned into our faces to make a point or answer a question, suddenly pulling back to continue his remarks. Small and thin, he did not appear especially athletic, though he runs marathons. He was a bit darker than I had expected. Black, thinning curly hair framed a rather youthful face. He appeared rather more Italian than Jewish. (Actually he once played a gondolier in an Italian film.) But Segal held us spellbound. He translated not only the words but the spirit of his subject. That the class was so successful is all the more remarkable since Hum 3 students are not known to be excited by Greek letters. Traditionally, their concern has rarely gone beyond cramming for an alpha.

ONCE WHEN I was in New Haven, I caught Segal alone in his apartment. He was informally (sloppily) attired in mangy T-shirt and dirty corduroy pants. When I promised not to mention Love Story, he agreed to discuss his early life.

Segal was born in Brooklyn in 1937 and came to Harvard in 1954 out of Midwood High School. He majored in Classics, a discipline representing individual preference as well as the influence of his rabbi father. He also ran for the track team, wisely but not too well, though he fondly recalls his tutelage under Bill McCurdy. "McCurdy is one of the glories of Harvard. He is one of the finest teachers you have."


There was also, in the fall of 1955, a brief attempt at a Crimson competition. Publishing only two unsigned cartoons, he was never elected to the staff. By chance the Crimson president at that time was J.J. Iselin who was president of Harper and Row when Love Story was published. "The only good training in prose style I ever got was while comping for the Crimson."

For his graduation in 1958, Segal was chosen both the Class Poet and Latin Salutatorian, the only time a student has received both honors. In his senior vear, Segal attempted his first play. The result was an eminently forgettable Hasty Pudding show called The Big Fizz. "Even then I was a prude. I refused to write those typically gross Pudding jokes. So the guys ad-libbed the most incredible raunch you can imagine."

Three years later in May of 1961 when he was a graduate student. Segal's Homeric spoof Sing. Muse! was performed in the Leverett House dining hall. Even the Crimson liked it. It was so well received that it attracted an off-Broadway producer. Opening that December, Sing. Muse! lasted only 39 performances. But Segal's career as a playwright was launched. "And I must emphasize, if began without my trying, you know. I wasn't down there making the theatrical scene. 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!" No, he hadn't tried. But the exposure left its mark. The grain of interest, shoved by unsought accomplishment, gradually snowballed into ambition.

Segal says, "It was the difference between knowing a Beatle and being one. How would you feel about Ringo teaching Latin 112?"

Graduate school proved to be a strain upon a flagging family budget, so Segal taught, first as a sectionman in Humanities 7 and then in John Finley's Hum 2. "I really found myself, I think, in '59, despite the fact that it was a personal crisis in my own life that made me turn to teaching."

"Qui docet, discit," Segal will say. "He who teaches, learns." Teaching became his vocation no less than his avocation. The zestful, enthusiastic approach I saw last December had germinated in 1959 and was transplanted to the Yale campus in 1964 when Segal accompanied Eric Havelock, then chairman of the Harvard Classics department, who had been lured by Kingman Brewster to the paradise of New Haven. "I'm tremendously chauvinistic about Harvard. The longer I was at Yale, the more I appreciated Harvard." Yet he admits that there are things about Yale that are better. "The sheer educational system; the fact that at Yale you are more likely to get an assistant professor for what you might get a graduate student at Harvard. It bespeaks a kind of respect for the undergraduate which I admire."

BUT SEGAL still maintains that the Harvard experience is a uniquely profitable one. "The education you get is from your fellow classmates. Harvard is an excuse to put together (now I'm being superchauvinistic here) the thousand brightest kids in the nation who for the next four years will educate themselves. It is an experience supplemented by classes."

Some might take issue with Segal's evaluation. It is admittedly, biased and spiced with an implicit egotism. Does Segal deem himself one of those "thousand brightest"? No doubt he does, but his flagrant Harvardism has still another aspect. Segal loves and deeply misses the tolerance of idiosyncracy, of eccentricity, he found in his decade at Harvard. His theatrical endeavors were permitted, even encouraged at Harvard. On the other hand, the Yale community obviously brands such doings as the sign of one who is not "serious" about his academic profession. "I really bristle when I hear that adjective. I resent it. So many things can be done with gusto and commitment and joy that the word 'serious' doesn't seem to have relevance."

Indeed, upon inspecting Segal's Roman Laughter, a study of the Roman Plautus, one finds in the very first paragraph of the Introduction, a brief put-down of all the "serious" scholars who find Plautus insignificant.

The concept of "seriousness" has caused Segal considerable grief in his fight to reconcile academic commitment with theatrical diversion. "Look, some people went back to their rooms on Saturday nights to socialize. I used my leisure time for things that were ultimately on public display. I was just amusing myself."