Sad news that Erich Segal has died at the age of 72. Segal was, of course, the Yale Classics professor whose bestselling novel “Love Story,” and the subsequent blockbuster movie, gave hope to tweedy leather-elbowed types everywhere.
I remember visiting Yale as a prospective student in the fall of 1970, when the novel was atop the bestseller lists and I guess the movie was about to appear. Segal was one of the school’s two star professors, the other being Charles “The Greening of America” Reich, and it turned out that one of his lectures, I believe for a course in Tragedy, or maybe it was Comedy, coincided with my visit. So I hied myself to the Law School Auditorium and had the pleasurable experience of seeing members of the class put on a performance of excerpts from G.B. Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell,” preceded and followed by witty remarks by Prof. Segal. Pretty cool.
The Times obit said that he remained at Yale till the early 80s, but not only did I never take one of his classes, I wasn’t much aware of him as a presence on campus. I’m not sure why.
Segal surfaced in the news not long ago, after reports had appeared that Al Gore had claimed to be the inspiration for Oliver Barrett in “Love Story.” (As with other such matters, Gore seems not to have actually made the claim.) According to the Times, Segal came forward to sat that Oliver
was mainly a youthful incarnation of the actor Tommy Lee Jones He did say that he had modeled Oliver’s freighted relationship with his father on the Gore family. Mr. Segal had met both Mr. Jones and Mr. Gore in the late 1960s, when they were students [indeed, roommates] at Harvard and he was there on sabbatical.
One influence Segal had on American culture (as my colleague Charles Robinson pointed out to me) was subtle. The character played by Ali MacGraw was named Jenny Cavelleri, and she really struck a nerve–something about the whole beautiful dying maiden thing, I guess. So much so that every year between 1970 and 1984, the most popular girl’s name in the U.S. was “Jennifer.”
Now it’s number 84, clobbered by the likes of Emma, Isabella, and Madison. How quickly they forget.