Erich Segal, 72; authored hugely popular ‘Love Story’

Erich Segal was nominated for an Oscar for his “Love Story’’ screenplay. Erich Segal was nominated for an Oscar for his “Love Story’’ screenplay. (Associated Press/File 1980)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post / January 20, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Erich Segal, a onetime classics professor who collaborated with the Beatles on a movie and whose sentimental 1970 screenplay and novel, “Love Story,’’ became a pop-culture phenomenon, died Jan. 17 of a heart attack at his home in London. He was 72 and had battled Parkinson’s disease for 25 years.

Dr. Segal, who taught Greek and Roman literature at Yale, might have been an unlikely author of a heart-tugging tale of doomed romance, but his story captured the spirit of the time, and its signature line became a catch phrase: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’’

Dr. Segal dabbled in screenplays for years, and he said his writing credit on the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine’’ in 1968 elicited open-eyed admiration from students and professors alike.

He had originally written “Love Story’’ as a screenplay about the star-crossed love between a working-class Italian girl from Radcliffe and a Harvard boy from an old family. The 1970 film, which starred Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal and became a huge hit, was in production before Dr. Segal reworked it as a novel. When “Love Story’’ was released in paperback, it had the largest print order in publishing history at the time, with 4,325,000 copies.

Although Dr. Segal’s work resonated with the public, critics almost uniformly lambasted it. The judges for the National Book Award threatened to resign unless “Love Story’’ was withdrawn from nomination.

“It is a banal book which simply doesn’t qualify as literature,’’ said novelist William Styron, the head judge of the fiction panel.

But thrust into the limelight, Dr. Segal made weekend jaunts to Paris and London, returning to Yale for his classes on classical civilization. Dr. Segal also parlayed his love of running and knowledge of ancient Greece into a job as an ABC TV commentator for the Olympic Games.

Yale decided that Dr. Segal’s extracurricular assignments were taking too much time away from his academic work and denied him tenure in 1972. Erich Wolf Segal was born June 16, 1937, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was the son of a rabbi. He studied Hebrew and other languages from an early age and became fluent in German and French, as well as Latin and Greek.

At Harvard, he received a bachelor’s degree in 1958, a master’s degree in classics in 1959, and a doctorate in comparative literature in 1965. He published books on the Greek tragedian Euripides and the comic Roman playwright Plautus before writing “Love Story.’’

After being denied tenure at Yale, Dr. Segal settled in England, becoming a fellow at Oxford University’s Wolfson College.

In 1997, he disputed a rumor that “Love Story’’ was based on the college romance between Al and Tipper Gore. He leaves his wife of 34 years, Karen James, and two daughters.