THE GREENING OF ERICH SEGAL
Being both a classics professor from Yale and the man responsible for Love Story means never having to say you're sorry
The entertainment industry would have us believe that most people in the United States and Canada feel a nostalgic ache for a prettier, more romantic time. Erich Segal’s Love Story was a runaway publishing success and the movie may very well make more money than any film in history. All this thanks to the millions who wept while Jenny, the Radcliffe musician, expired gently in the arms of Oliver, her Harvard jock and loving husband. Meanwhile Erich Segal has been smiling sincerely all the way to the bank and living his own life about as romantically as a rabbit at a greyhound racetrack.
On the surface, it may not appear that way. He was off recently on a nine-day trip that included a visit to his Parisian girl friend, Françoise Wagener, while I spent a week trying to track him down for an interview. Eventually I nailed him in Los Angeles, where he had rushed off a polar flight to do two days’ editing on his latest film, Jenny On My Mind. Then I waited another 25 minutes on an open lines while Segal talked to New York from his hotel room.
Finally the Associate Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature himself was on, protesting that he was finished with interviews: “I’m retired, I’m a private person now, it doesn’t really have a purpose any more. Love Story was two years ago, for heaven’s sake. One of the things that killed me was the colossal weight of obligations. You reporters simply picked me to pieces.”
Well, yes, I could sympathize, but I had a rush assignment from Maclean’s to do a piece on him, and didn’t the infinite trouble I’d had tracking him down earn me an interview? “I’m on vacation next week, I’m going to sit up in my room correcting papers. It’s all amply documented, there are all sorts of photographs available.”
True, true, but that wasn’t exactly what the magazine had in mind. “I’m flying to Boston in an hour, to speak at a Harvard dinner. They may ask me to stay on at Harvard, teach a class. I may meet a beautiful Radcliffe girl who’ll say, ‘Come away to Vermont.’ Don’t you understand, this is vacation. I don’t want to be obligated to be anywhere.”
We finally agreed that if the beautiful Radcliffe girl did not materialize he would see me on Monday at midday. On Monday morning I drove to New Haven, Connecticut, and found two obliging undergraduates who let me into the locked compound of Yale’s Ezra Stiles College and groaned when they heard whom I
wanted to see. “Sure, who else?” one murmured. “What do you want to talk to that awful man for?”
I was wondering that myself, as I paced Segal’s untidy brown-toned living room while he dictated letters behind a closed door. The tangled wires of stereos and tape recorders coexisted with a jumble of books: everything from The Book Of Spices and Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex to Masterpieces Of World Literature In Digest Form, still plastic wrapped. Under the grand piano an open suitcase spilled dirty clothes, along with Jimmy Breslin’s paperback, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. One shelf of the crammed bookcase was reserved for small athletic trophies topped by sprinting gilt figures: “10th Annual Cherry Tree Marathon, 18th Place, 1969.” A few undistinguished prints shared the walls with framed posters of such earlier Segal efforts as the Beatles’ film Yellow Submarine, which he co-scripted. A blue scarf, hand-knitted by an admirer, trailed from its box, with a scrawled anonymous note: “We like it.” But, except for two fancy goldtooled red leather editions of Love Story sitting on the piano, there was scant other evidence to indicate that the inhabitant of this room had made one out of every five Americans cry over his book, according to a Gallup poll. Not to mention the uncounted millions who emoted through the 17 translation editions.
Suddenly Erich Segal bustled into the room, all distracted energy. “Hello, hello, sorry, but this letter has to get out.” Striding past, he paused and peered intently into my eyes: “Do
“Well, sure. If you’re offering.”
“No, no, I mean you don’t smoke, you won’t smoke, or there can’t be any interview. Everybody’s sick around here, everybody’s got bronchitis.” He whirled once around the room, like a small frizzy-haired cyclone. “Trebbe’s got to type a letter right away, so we’ll go into the office.”
I followed him down the hall. “My assistant is coming, I’ve got about 600 papers to correct. And Trebbe’s sick with bronchitis, she has to go home.”
He alighted briefly behind the littered mound of his desk and looked over at his interrogator. “This is the last time,” Erich Segal declared. “I’ve had it. I mean I’m going to shut off the phone and that’s it. I’m going to do it, absolutely going to do it, and I’m in the process. If I wasn’t so tired when you called I would have said no. After a
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Segal from page 40
while it hurts you to be in the public spotlight — you feel exposed, terribly denuded. It hurts. I feel burned, in the sense of sun. I feel like going indoors and rubbing Solarcaine on myself. I may go indoors forever. Maybe forever.”
He was talking about how Love Story says, in part, the tender things the young generation is saying in their music when the telephone rang. “Excuse me, I can’t shut this off. Who? Oh, John Mack Carter, my goodness. Yes, sir. Hi.” John Mack Carter is the publisher of Ladies’ Home Journal, which gave Love Story its first big boost by running it in the February, 1970, issue, and John Mack Carter was asking Segal, as a favor, to tape an anti-smoking commercial for the Cancer Society. Segal agreed, provided nobody on the set was puffing a butt: “The last time I did one too many people were smoking. I was astonished and shocked.” On the wall his Harvard diploma hung next to the one from Midwood High School.
At 34 Segal is a small squirrel of a man, bright and “almost always in gear.” He sleeps three or four hours a night. “Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll go for days with no sleep at all,” he said. “Before I learned my metabolism was just this way I tried to send myself to sleep with pharmacological means and others.” When he is thinking, his hands constantly rearrange the black steel wool that bushes over his shrinking hairline. It is the gesture of a balding man who is also absentminded.
Although an ancient air conditioner chugged at the office window, the room was insufferably hot and crescents of sweat adorned Segal’s yellow knit shirt, worn with a thin black string of — “You don’t know? Love beads, they’re love beads. I haven’t
taken them off since a young admirer gave them to me a year ago, a good person, someone I respect. And they feel nice.”
Trebbe, the blue-jeaned secretary with flowing red hair, brought in the letters and announced she was going home. “You ain’t gonna go till I sign this, Trebbe, and you get that other stuff,” Segal clarified. “Where the hell’s the goddam stamps? Here! Where’s that other thing that goes in here?” A printed insert for the Academy Awards dinner had managed to get lost between Segal’s desk and Trebbe’s typewriter. Cyclonic searching ensued. “I’m sorry,” Segal said to me, sifting papers on the mounded desk. “I never promised you a rose garden, but this is really important or I wouldn’t interrupt.”
“Look in the wastebasket,” Trebbe ordered, a little savagely.
“Stay with it, stay loose,” Segal urged. “I tell you what, let’s be calm. Why don’t you go out there and then come back and look again?” Trebbe muttered something. “Be careful, we’ll yell at each other.” Segal sat again behind his desk. “It’s no wonder this girl is always suffering from bronchitis,” he said. “We work huge hours at a stretch. She’s great, she’s got a mind. This is typical . . .” He waved his hands at the chaos around him. “Always, always, it’s always been like this. I just do it on a global scale at this point. I haven’t changed an iota.”
We talked a little about the nostalgic mood that seemed to have swept Love Story to its success. “I don’t think there necessarily is a return to romanticism,” said Segal. “I don’t think this could be created by one book. If there is a return to romanticism it’s worldwide, because the book is a huge success all over. But I don’t know what a romantic is — this is a label thrust on me that I don’t accept at all. I lead a very passionate, impassioned life, yes. I have a passion for everything I do. Working to me is a passion, a great pleasure. And I have a very nice social life. You know I’m a bachelor.” Sure, but such a busy bachelor. He must not have much time left for . . . “Oh, I have time for that. I’m very organized. What you see is chaos, but I’m very inwardly organized.”
But the beautiful Radcliffe girl who was going to sweep him off to Vermont had not materialized? He mused. “Well, there was one sitting next to me at the dinner, but you never know. It turns out it’s lucky I came back. I was working all last night. And now Trebbe’s feverish, she’s» got to go home.”
If he had it to do over again, what would he do differently? “I would have gotten a little less famous. Not successful — I don’t mind that. I mind the sheer fame. It makes privacy very difficult to achieve. I know now everything I do is too much. You never know when you’re doing it that it’s too much. It’s not the fault of anyone. Every once in a while they put the best-selling author on the Johnny Carson show, and it turned out to be me four times in a row. Who knew it at the time? There’s nothing I did I didn’t enjoy. Look, I like challenges. It’s just that the sum total was overexposure. You’ll excuse me if I scavenge.” He rooted back into the wastebasket, looking for the missing form.
On the other hand, Erich Segal resents the suggestions in the press that his own promotion of the book was overly zealous. “That has been vastly exaggerated. I don’t like that at all. I didn’t do that much of it ... it was just very visible. I resent when Time magazine said I traveled 100,000 miles. It was more like 3,000. It’s just when you’re on, even in Omaha, it seems like you’re everywhere.” He said it earnestly.
On his living-room end table, beside a framed proclamation that “New American Library and W. F. Hall Printing Company take great pleasure in sharing with Erich Segal a place in Publishing History” with the largest initial paperback printing (4,350,000 copies) ever, there’s a bronze medal from the United Air Lines’ 100,000Mile Club. Last year Segal took a seven-month sabbatical from Yale and spent it hustling his book everywhere from Seattle to Cannes.
He was born and schooled in Brooklyn, the oldest of three sons born to a quiet, bookish rabbi and a doting, possessive, live-wire Jewish mother. “My scholarly gifts come from my father and whatever I display in public, with my lecturing and all, is from my mother,” Segal said. “You can say I’m the sum total of my parents. Instead of half and half I’m all and all.”
He gives credit to his parents “for not redirecting me. I was this way from the age of two — absolutely no different. They had qualms at various periods about this absolute freedom I required. Some kids played baseball; I did what I wanted to do, which was read books, but they never tried to make me follow a prescribed course.”
Now the ex-ballplayers have 15 extra pounds hanging over their belts, while the feisty little Segal still runs in well-publicized marathons. “I’m very fit for 34,” he confessed. “I didn’t in-
dulge in sports until I found one congenial to my personality.” He found it through a canoeing accident at summer camp which nearly cost him his right leg: “Everything was broken, it was awful.” When track was recommended for therapy he found “with running I could get relaxed in a way I never thought possible. I transcend myself when I run.”
He still runs 10 super-publicized miles a day, so “they always put me up in hotels near open spaces.” Even in Omaha? “I think perhaps you misunderstood what I said about Omaha. I haven’t been to any of these places. I mean I appeared there on TV.”
(The fact is, in 1970 Erich Segal made promotional appearances in more than 30 cities, including Boston, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Denver, St. Louis, Kansas City, Richmond, Atlanta, San Francisco, Columbus, New York, Garden City, Hartford, Philadelphia, Detroit, Seattle, Portland, Dayton, Los Angeles, Toronto, London, -Paris and Nashville, and some of these more than once. He did not, however go to Omaha.)
We room, walked past the into piano the where living Segal sometimes unwinds at 2 a.m. by playing medleys of Richard Rodgers and the Beatles, “that sort of stuff. The piano’s out of tune or I’d show you. That’s another thing I have to get done, tune the piano.”
We sat in his brown leather chairs. Trebbe came in with the missing insert, which she’d found in a pile of mail. “Okay, we won’t blame anybody,” Segal said. “How sick are you, Trebbe? Oh my God, what did I do to you? Call the Chamber of Commerce thing, please, and don’t forget to degerm the phone. I never get sick, knock on wood,” he said to me, knocking the frame of his ashless, empty fireplace. “I can’t afford it. A lot of it is psychological attitude, making up your mind to keep healthy.” But the night before he had cooked himself a batch of spaghetti that left him “a little dyspeptic,” he admitted, patting his stomach. He drinks rarely, and then only wine: “American wines. I’m no snob.”
The big money has left no visible mark on his life, except perhaps in the bizarre plumage he picks up when he’s in California: white suits and pleated red shirts. He drives a threeyear-old Mercury Cougar. The bills for most of his traveling over the past year were picked up by Paramount Pictures or such local sponsors as the Cleveland Press. What happens to all the money? Segal shrugged. “I give it away in taxes.
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Segal from page 43
"I am dedicated to the furthering of intellect," says Segal, "the life of the mind”
What they leave me is not that much.” Stuart Harris, Harper and Row’s publicity director and the man who organized the promotion for the book, says Segal has made “several millions, and it’s only just starting.”
One of Segal’s few visible extravagances has been his recent romance with “this girl I date in France,” Françoise Wagener, the literary editor of Le Monde. “You might say it’s impossible to have a relationship with a girl halfway around the world but we’ve been together almost every month. She’s a live wire. I go for active, achieving women — superachievers.
“But it is in here, that’s where I’m happiest,” said Segal, gesturing to his book-lined retreat, “in here in a total self-expression, writing something, grading papers. The point is, I do not have a lust for material possessions or success. I do have an all-consuming passion for self-expression. I’m writing a 400-page history of comedy. I’ve got a learned article in the Journal Of Comparative Literature in this issue. I’m a professor, for God’s sake, I’m not a pop person.
“The immense, staggering popularity of Love Story has thrown my whole real life out of whack. Nobody has ever said anything around Yale, but my own personal equilibrium is out of whack. No kind of mass media is going to take this away from me. I will not be what the facile press would like me to be. I’ll be what I am — a person dedicated to the furthering of young people, to scholarship, intellect — the life of the mind. I haven’t done a single Dolce Vita thing, except visit my French girl friend for the weekend.”
(During one of those weekends in Paris he wrote this letter to Stuart Harris :
“English reviews mostly pretty cynical, but people buy anyway and Love Story is in its third printing, which ain’t bad. France is much warmer critically; may even take off like another Papillon. I mean ... I have a live radio broadcast Monday for 2Vi hours... And believe me I know what to mention (but not too often) ... I am getting more goddam invitations (not just via you) than I ever dreamed of. Sooner or later I will call a halt. Let’s say by November 15. But by then I think we will have been Number One in France. In France!”)
“The whole significance has been blown out of proportion,” Segal said. “I wrote 131 pages of a nice little book, not great and not terrible, and I
never invested it with the super-meaning other people did. It’s a form of worship I don’t go for. I’m very sensitive to what I’m taken for. This ego took pride in being a very good teacher. I overhear them in the Yard — ‘There’s Mr. Segal, he’s the best course I take at Yale.’ That’s important and successful and productive and I exist for that. If I have an ego at all it’s built solidly on that. My ego has nothing to do with writing the Great American Novel.”
When Love Story came out the initial flood of publicity on Professor Segal was kind: “For a year I read nothing but good about me. All right, enough is enough, it should have stopped there. After a while goodness becomes very boring — venality becomes the order of the day.” It didn’t bother him that much when Love Story was dumped from the National Book Awards nominations as unworthy, but he was wounded by a charge in the New York Times “about changes I wrote into the movie at the behest of the money men — a personal attack on my venality. Sure, I don’t like that, to have my character assassinated.”
Now they he write doesn’t about read him, the “really stuff I don’t read it at all. It’s the sheer exposure that bothers you. Expect the worst. I don’t mean to insult you but I find journalists take the easy way out: let’s slam this egomaniac bastard. I’m really neither an egomaniac nor a bastard. I’m a guy who has confidence in himself, I’m not afraid to express my enthusiasm, which some people construe as egomania.
“Toward the end even television reviewers would write nasty things in their columns. They don’t even print now that in the beginning I got 80% good reviews — terrific, fine,” Segal complained. “What they wrote was all superficial things, absolutely accurate, and not interesting to me — a Yale professor who runs 10 miles a day and wrote Yellow Submarine, yes, that’s very interesting. But it’s not interesting to me because I’ve lived with myself for 34 years and that’s old hat. A Yale professor who runs 10 miles a day and wrote Love Story — great, next case, back to the classroom. You know, as I say, I’m retired. I want to correct my papers is what it boils down to. As Candide said, I’ve seen the world and now I want to cultivate my own garden. You didn’t hear me encourage you to come. I’m firmly convinced nobody will write good things about me for a long time.”
Segal’s tweedy teaching assistant, Carroll Moulton, phoned from the locked gate, and Trebbe left to let him in. “This is a very high crime area,” Segal explained. “Very dangerous, knifings and assaults. At least two rapes a week. Rapes in broad daylight, right outside this window.” He pointed out to a tranquil ivorytowered avenue.
In the next room Trebbe answered a phone call, to which Segal listened intently. “Trebbe, fix the phone, I don’t want to get your germs,” he called out. To me he said politely, “How much longer do you want? It’s been two hours already.” En route to the phone, he grabbed three Kleenexes from a box. The conversation was cordial: “Jesus Christ, you Yalie bastard, I have no idea.” They discussed girl friends. Segal said, “I’m glad to hear from you. Stay in touch.”
Carroll escaped to the courtyard for a cigarette, while Segal complained to his secretary, “Trebbe, I think I’m getting your sickness. It only takes a minute to catch a germ.” He discovered his typewriter didn’t work as well as the one Trebbe had at home. “Then let’s get rid of this turkey, Miss Johnson. Why don’t we get a new one and quit screwing around?”
While buttoning my coat, I asked how they go about disinfecting the phone. Wordlessly, Trebbe lifted a quart bottle of Listerine Antiseptic. Segal didn’t like the gesture. Snatching the bottle away and pushing it back into its nest of papers, he muttered, “I’ve already caught it twice and it’s not funny. Listen, it only takes one germ, one germ."
He offered to walk me to the locked gate. As we prepare to leave I am reminded of a description of him given by Stuart Harris, the man responsible for promoting his book. “He is what some people would call a cornball — but very sincere. He should have been living in the Forties, the nice Jewish boy who doesn’t sleep with his girl friend. He’s not a harbinger, he’s a throwback. He doesn’t typify anything.” Outside, the March air was a cool relief. I asked why he kept the apartment so hot. Segal shrugged: “Was it hot? I don’t even notice, you know. I don’t notice things like that. Listen, I hope you’re not going to do another piece of character assassination. It’s not that my soul is damaged — my soul is damaged — but I mean, people are just sick of reading all that stuff.”
I said I hoped it wouldn’t be that either, but a fair reflection of himself. ■