BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 27, 2010
I met Erich Segal in 1959, in a Harvard University graduate-school dorm. It was in Richards Hall, designed in the early ’50s by Walter Gropius, which Erich said only proved that “great men” could do desultory work. He was doing his graduate work in classics and comparative literature, and I in government. Of course, he knew more, much more, about my field than I did about his. In fact, he was rapacious in his pursuit of knowledge. And cheerfully intent about music and song. He was a man of traditional culture ... but--no, with him, it is “and”--he wrote the screenplay for the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, as well as for several of his own books: Love Story; Man, Woman and Child; Oliver’s Story. No one who has read Love Story will ever forget it; it is more memorable than the film. And, if you are of a certain age, please don’t deny reading it. If you didn’t, you were a cultural freak.
Erich wrote several books of classical scholarship (on Plautus, Roman comedy, Caesar Augustus, Greek tragedy, others) while he was at Yale and, intermittently, at Princeton and Harvard, Oxford and Tel Aviv. I once asked someone I knew (quite well) in his Yale department why Erich had not received tenure. “We were jealous, all of us jealous, including me.” I despised that man for his righteous and unashamed admission of envy. By the way, Erich was a brilliant teacher. I know; I half-audited one of his Harvard classes. And I sat at his dinner table, riveted and pondering.
We were sitting in a London lunch spot, a restaurant Erich had specially chosen--near Brown’s Hotel, as I recall. The menu was mainly sandwiches, a strange choice for Erich, who was rather indulgent with fine food. He was having trouble simply holding his sandwich. Then, still not explaining, we walked across Piccadilly to Turnbull & Asser on Jermyn Street, “by appointment to His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, shirtmakers.” I remember Erich taking out of a briefcase five shirts. “Will you please substitute snaps for buttons? Like before. Thank you, thank you.” And he turned to me, saying, “I’m afraid I have Parkinson’s.”
I thought back to 1959 when, in the early hours, I would see him leave Richards Hall for one of his runs. Not occasional runs. Every morning. Ten miles. He was a small man but a lithe man, with muscled legs. I did not ask about his racing against himself. Maybe I am mixing up time and telling. But I think he told me then that he was coming to Cambridge for his twenty-fifth Harvard reunion, the class of 1958. And that he was nervous. He was working on his sixth novel, The Class, which chronicles the lives of five of his college classmates. Was he nervous about the book? About the judgments it made? Or about his nascent experience with a physically debilitating disease?
When I was in London, I saw him and his wife, Karen, in their gorgeous Hampstead Heath house. He was in decline. But sometimes also up and, sometimes, inevitably down. Trying this experimental drug and then that experimental drug. When I saw Erich at the bat mitzvah of one of his beautiful (and so rewarding) daughters, he could barely drag his legs together. But, when he was called to recite the birkat hatorah (the blessing on the Torah), his voice was strong, both stentorian and sweet. What strength it must have robbed from him.
I did not see him as often as I wanted. I was nervous, afraid, and I am ashamed. We communicated through intermediaries--people closer to him than I, I reassured myself, although I’m not sure this was true (even though it certainly became true).
Erich knew many languages. He had a love affair with Latin and Greek, maybe also with French. He had a historical connection to Hebrew that goes back 3,000 years. It, too, was a love affair. And he had a love affair with his people, the Jewish people, and with their incarnation in modern history, the state of Israel. Through the vapors of pain, he saw clearly the promise and the perils.
And this is what his daughter, Francesca, said at his funeral: “That he fought to breathe, fought to live, every second of the last thirty years of illness with such mind-blowing obduracy is a testament to the core of who he was--a blind obsessionality that saw him pursue his teaching, his writing, his running, and my mother with just the same tenacity. He was the most dogged man any of us will ever know.”
The Z”L after Erich’s name at the top stands for zichrono livracha, “may his memory be a blessing.” It is.