In major league baseball, hitting a home run the first time at bat is rare, yet common enough to be noted in the record books. Some players who accomplish this feat (like Gary Gaetti, the former Minnesota Twins third baseman) go on to great slugging careers; others (like Hoyt Wilhelm, the former Baltimore knuckle ball pitcher) never hit another homer again.

     In that other great national pastime, and spectator sport--Literature-- an author occasionally hits a proverbial home run the first time up, to the same thrill and amazement as in baseball.

     This feat was accomplished in 1970 by Erich Segal with the publication of his first novel, Love Story, which overnight became a publishing sensation and spent over a year on national best seller lists. The young author was an associate professor of classics at Yale and an honors graduate of Harvard (class of 1958).

Ryan and Ali

     Segal's slender novel was about a love story between an aristocratic Harvard hockey player and a working class Cliffie that ends with her tragic death from a mysterious illness. According to Time magazine (December 21, 1970), Segal was told the story by one of his graduate students. The young classicist knew a nice tragedy when he heard one. In the rewriting, the heroine was changed from a Brooklyn Jewish girl to an Italian American from Rhode Island ("a safe minority," as critic John Simon somewhat tactlessly put it).

     Love Story was favorably reviewed in The New York Times by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, and received a plug from Kurt Vonnegut, then a popular author among the young, who found the book " hard to put down as a chocolate eclair..."

     Not everyone shared this enthusiasm. Writing in Esquire, Nora Ephron thought the book's success "something of a mystery." The reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, Ron Martinetti, wrote: "Although one can easily summarize the gist of Segal's plot, his style presents a more difficult problem. What, for example, can one make of an author who has filled his book with page after page of the most tiresome cliches ("You can dish it out, but you can't take it")?

     The sourpusses, however, were in the distinct minority. Love Story raced up the charts helped by its author's appearances on late night talk shows where he became a popular guest.

     The personable writer amused his audience with comments that might have seemed immodest from others. "I'm kind of a folk hero at Yale. The closest thing to a Beatle," Time's Stefan Kanfer quoted Segal as saying. Regarding the book's sales, Segal noted: "I called my accountant last week to ask him if I was a millionaire, he said yes."

Racing up the chart

     Harper & Row, Segal's publisher, claimed that over 400,000 hardback copies of Love Story had been sold by the end of 1970 and that the first paperback printing was 4,350,000--an impressive statistic, even discounting the figure for standard publishing hyperbole.

     Bob Evans of Paramount bought the film rights for $75,000. The popular picture starred Ali MacGraw, a former New York photographer's assistant, as Jennifer Cavilleri. A svelte Ryan O'Neal played Oliver Barnett IV, Exeter and Harvard. Veteran actor Ray Milland was Oliver's stuffy father (Oliver III). Arthur Hiller directed.

     Segal made the inevitable error of writing a sequel to his novel. One critic dismissed it as "Son of Love Story"-- and the honeymoon was over.

     Over the years, Segal turned out of stream of novels, some of which sold well (The Class, 1985, Prizes, 1995) but none approached the success of his first effort. The writer never mastered the tricky art of dialogue or escaped the cocoon of predictable plots. He also continued to teach, lecturing in classics at universities in the United States and England until his death in January 2010 after a long illness.

     This interview with Mel Zerman, a former Harper & Row executive, appeared on American Legends web site in December 2006. After leaving Harper, Mel founded Limelight Editions in 1984, a publishing house dedicated to the performing arts which were for Mel a life long passion. He died in New York City in April 2010.

AL: Did the sales department at Harper & Row have any indication that Love Story would be such a tremendous success?


MZ: As I recall, the book began life as a movie script. Erich's agent said it would be better if it were done as a book first. She thought it would be a certain best seller. Harper didn't realize exactly what they had. The first printing was going to be comparatively low-- 5,000 copies. Then, at the last minute, it went up to 7,500 copies which in retrospect was laughable.



What caused the book to take off as it did?



The book burst on the scene one morning when Barbara Walters, who was a TV hostess, began her program by saying, "I was up most of the night reading a book I couldn't put down, and when I finished it, I was sobbing. I cried and cried." That's all the women of America had to hear. By the time bookstores were opening all over the United States they were getting calls for a book called Love Story by someone you never heard of named Erich Segal. Harper went crazy. We were out of stock within hours.


AL: What was your reaction to the book?

MZ: Did I like it? No. But I recognized how saleable it was because I cried, too.



Segal was a popular guest on the talk show circuit-- Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett.



It was the easiest book to promote. All over the country interview programs wanted him. There was hardly a major radio show or TV show he wasn't on. Harper sent him on three tours, and he loved it. I have never known an author who got more pleasure out of being on these shows. He was born to do this. He talked a lot. He was interesting. He was funny. The fact that he was a Yale professor and taught classics, not contemporary literature, added to this allure.



Like Alfred Knopf, Harper was known as a literary house. Did any editors resent Love Story?



Editors didn't want to speak against it, but they didn't want to pretend it was literature, or, except for the money it was bringing in, was a book that Harper would be proud to publish. The late Stuart Harris, head of the publicity department, was very serious about literature. He didn't like the book. He didn't like the author. He turned Segal over to his very competent assistant, Lisl Cate. He said, "Here, you do it." He would have been happy to handle Aldous Huxley.


AL: In those days, many of the editors in New York publishing had patrician backgrounds.


I remember one person particularly, Frances Lindley, I admired tremendously. She had a vocabulary that I have never known a person to have and use. When I first got into publishing, I expected everyone to sound like that. Nobody did. She had no use for the book, but since she was in charge of advertising, she spent a lot of money advertising it. Ironically, she later became Segal's editor.


AL: Segal wrote the film script for Love Story which Bob Evans produced at Paramount. Did Segal talk about that experience?



Although he didn't specifically mention Evans, Erich Segal had no use for any of those movie people. He expected to do better than he did in terms of money. On the other hand, he liked Ali MacGraw tremendously. It was as if she brought the character he wrote to life. He thought that any other actor could have done as well as Ryan O'Neal and that there were a few actors who could have done better.



The late Al Aronowitz once said that the only person he knew that money didn't change was George Harrison. Did success affect Erich Segal?



Erich and I became very friendly. Once, at an ABA convention in Los Angeles, he insisted Harper book me in first class, instead of business class, on the flight home. He told the head of the sales department he wasn't leaving without me. Basically, success didn't change him. He knew what he was capable of before he had shown the world. He was happy to be in the limelight. It was what he had always dreamed of.


AL: After Oliver's Story, the sequel to Love Story, Segal left Harper. Were there any hard feelings?



Harper turned down the book he wrote about doctors. Erich knew, and his agent knew, he would have no problem finding a new publisher. Nobody in commercial publishing would say, "I'm happy he's gone." It was all very well to have Aldous Huxley and Thornton Wilder. That was part of the Harper heritage. But there were books that weren't part of that heritage that kept the company going. Today, of course, it's totally different.



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